Have you ever heard the parable about the Chinese farmer? My favorite version is told by Alan Watts and can be found here. In the story, a farmer experiences a series of both fortunate and unfortunate events that are outside of his control. Each time, his neighbors exclaim in disbelief at either his remarkable good fortune or terrible bad luck. How does the farmer respond? With a simple one-word statement: “Maybe.” This short sentence illustrates the incredible power of staying focused on those things we can control and letting go of those we cannot.

Our financial services colleague, Carl Richards has a fantastic drawing that sums the concept of focusing on what we can control.

Focus - Carl Richards

Is that something you struggle with? If so, you’re not alone. It seems not a day goes by without us learning about a scary new event happening in the world. Inflation, markets down, wars…the list goes on. It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by so many seemingly insurmountable challenges. It can feel as if we’ll never get through it. However, giving ourselves permission to let go of the things we can’t influence is exactly what can help us regain a sense of control in our lives. 

“You only have control over three things in your life – the thoughts you think, the images you visualize, and the actions you take.” – Jack Canfield

Good and bad things will happen, most of which are outside of our control. All we can do is try to focus on the things both important to us and within our control, and on being deliberate in how we react to those things outside of our control. The economy will do what it does. World leaders will do what they do. Things can seem really good and really bad at times, but they’re not always what we think and they’re usually not as good or as bad as we think in the moment.

So, what are some practical things you can focus on to both improve your financial situation and regain a sense of control?  

1. Being mindful of how you react to events around you.

As Peter Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Our mindset, actions, and beliefs are things we can study, work on, and strengthen, like working out a muscle in the gym. By doing so, you will start to notice patterns. The awareness of those patterns is what allows you to be more deliberate in your reactions in the future. 

Try this simple exercise. If you notice yourself worrying about something, big or small, take a moment to observe how you’re feeling. Jot down a few notes about your emotions and thoughts. After doing so, note whether the thing you’re worrying about is something you have control over. If it’s not, does realizing that change how you feel about it? 

2. Uncovering your core values and goals.

Your core values are a major driver of your actions and impact every facet of your life. You will be more effective at achieving your goals if they align with your core values. 

Here’s an exercise to help you start to recognize your core values and goals. Imagine you could flip a switch and your life becomes perfect. All your dreams come true and your problems go away. What does that world look like to you? Who is there with you? How do you spend your time? I recommend you spend a couple minutes writing down whatever comes up. There are no right or wrong answers here. I’m always amazed at how effective this exercise can be in helping people discover what’s most important to them. 

3. Control your cash flow.

How much you save and spendautomatically contributing to bank accounts, retirement plans, and investments. Designing a spending plan and sticking to it. These are concepts that we know are important but often struggle with in practice. Being clear on your core values and goals will help you here. 

Another simple exercise to help you stay on track with your saving and spending. Focus on what you gain in the future by doing so—a comfortable retirement, enjoyment with family and friends, the ability to contribute to those causes most important to you—rather than what you lose today. The things we lose today tend to feel small in comparison to what we gain in the future. This perspective shift makes it easier to make sound and consistent financial decisions on a day-to-day basis. These small daily decisions compound over time and help us gain momentum towards our goals. 

There’s many more, and we spend a lot of our time helping clients work through them so that they can live fulfilling, impactful, and successful lives, however they may define that. 

I challenge you to give it a go. Try focusing on those things both important to you and that you have control over. Do your best to let go of all the rest. I bet you’ll find life a bit less stressful, and a bit more fun. 

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