The Paradox of Control

“It’s all under control”

“I’m on top of things”

“We are in control of the situation”

We tell ourselves this all the time, right?

We pretend that we’ve prepared for any eventuality, even the ones we haven’t even imagined. We think we’ve accounted for all the variables. Even more laughable, we presume to have accounted for choice, human nature, and reaction.

How often do we acknowledge that we are deluding ourselves?

Man plans, God laughs

The problem with being “in control” is that it works just often enough for you to become complacent.

I myself am a planner: I love plotting variables, figuring out contingencies. In the best of all possible worlds, this mental legwork frees me to be much more spontaneous: I am comfortable with making choices on the fly because I feel that I’ve rehearsed sufficiently… I’m ready to wing it in live theatre. I’m on top of things, in other words.

I also like to make myself a clearinghouse for information and planning. Objectively, I know that this is short-sighted of me, because it effectively centralizes higher-level thinking in my family. But it allows me to feel in control, and things run smoothly…until they don’t.

The Dark Side of the Control Delusion

When I am not on top of things, I get anxious. As the tension level ratchets higher, I start to throw my weight around, demand that people work through contingencies, even though the best thing would probably be to stay loose. I learned about the concept of Commanders Intent, which is in the very thought-provoking book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

Commander’s Intent means that everyone in the group has an idea about what the ideal outcome is, but also what are the first, second, and third tier goals, so that when the shit hits the fan, they know where to focus their efforts. Commander’s Intent helps me focus on what’s crucial in a given situation, not fretting about tying up loose ends.

I am actively taking steps to decentralize control…but things have been done ad hoc for so long I’m struggling to set up procedures for things I’ve always done without much thought. What procedures I have set up have been enthusiastically implemented, to my astonishment and gratification. Often, I am the one who drops the ball these days.

When Control, Isn’t

Around the last week in December, I toyed with the idea about what my life would look like if I let go of the concept of control. It has now been a month, and I am no closer to imagining it.

I am a GTD junkie, and I’m highly motivated by the concept of having a mind like water: This is a higher level of control: That of quicksilver adaptation to changing conditions. However, it requires Jedi-like control of your thoughts (swiftly lassoing and corralling stray ideas as they occur) and up-to-the-minute inventories of absolutely everything you need to do or be involved in.

It doesn’t prepare for contingencies so much as integrate at a very high level everything you could be doing with your priorities. Because this takes 5-8 hours a week, I would still call this a form of control.

But maybe that’s my own paradigm, that releasing control should be effortless? Perhaps it does take concerted effort. And perhaps I am constrained by the same limitations I described on Friday: I have to have control before I can release it.

As I mentioned, control is only a fleeting thing, and I am somewhat prone to losing it when things shift too unexpectedly. Perhaps if I did have a mind like water, the next step would then show itself.

What do you think? If it looks like control but manifests as presence, which is it? Is it the destination, or a stopping point on the path?


5 thoughts on “The Paradox of Control”

  1. Hey, there!
    Yaknow, before I can even pretend to say something intelligent towards this, I gotta ask ~ What is GTD? And what does it mean to you?

    ;0 K

  2. I’m …. speechless. You guys never heard of Getting things Done, the seminal organizational system? Guess I’ll go insert a link.

    1. Thanks! Checked the link – Truly never heard of it 🙂

      I think I’ve been doing something similar with my own systems which spring from trial and error. I don’t have the fancy terminology though 🙂

      My system still has quite a bit of slip and error so maybe I’ll look into what I can crib from GTD.

      1. It’s Awesome! It’s pretty time consuming to set up, but well worth it. Like financial records, which is what I’m doing today, checking my deductions and making sure I’m not missing any paperwork.

        If you want to email me I can tell you more about my GTD system. It takes 5-8 hours a week to stay on top of, which most people feel is wasted time, but seriously? That’s like saying personal hygeine is unproductive and you should give it up.

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