I love the sensation that comes when things feel under control. In fact, a sense of control may just be the antidote to fear. It is also one of the reasons dealing with money can be so scary. It often feels like there is very little that we can control.
When we feel like we have lost control, we get sad. That leads to feeling even more out of control, and soon it feels as if everything around us is spiraling out of our control.
There always seems to be plenty of big, bad news about big, bad things that will surely lead to the end of the world. The problem? You and I have really no control over any of it. Many of you have told me that you feel this way right now. With all the international focus on things like bank runs in Cyprus or North Korea “authorizing” a nuclear attack on the United States, it is easy to feel “out of control.”
Then, there is the personal stuff. Maybe the company you work at is laying off people, and you are wondering if you are next. Maybe you own a business, the first quarter was not so great, and you are not sure you will survive a second bad quarter. Maybe you pulled your money out of the stock market in 2008, and now you are wondering whether you will have enough resources to retire.
I remember feeling this way in 2008. I was living in Las Vegas, about to lose my home, and I felt like my business was going to disappear at any moment, too. In fact, I remember having a recurring dream about the business.
I was in a room by myself with an oversized light switch on the wall. It had the name of my business above it and the words “on” and “off.” In the dream, an evil-looking guy in a suit would come in, grab the switch, and while laughing at me like Pitch in “Rise of the Guardians,” he would flip the switch from on to off.
Some nights, I would watch the Tokyo exchange open and then stay up to see how London would open, and I was not even a trader. I just hoped to see some sign of relief. Most nights none came, and I never made it to bed.
Things were out of control, and it did not seem there was anything I could do to change that feeling.
But then change did come. It might sound like something out of a yoga class, but I remembered a friend telling me that when you feel anxious and out of control, it helps to focus on breathing.
So I did. Every time my mind started to spiral around and around these problems, I would focus on my breathing, one breath at a time. There were a few days where it seemed like all I could do was go from one breath to the next, gaining a tiny sense of control.
Nothing else had changed, but that tiny sense of control grew. After a while, I started focusing on other things that I had some control over. They were simple things, and I did not care about size.
What can I do to improve my business? What can I do to fix my finances? What about my day-to-day spending?
Some of this could not be changed right at that moment, but I found myself making plans. By focusing only on what I could control, and letting go of the rest, things changed.
The news was still just as crazy, but I let it go.
The markets were still just as scary, but I let it go.
It just takes a small step, a breath, if you will. And from there, you can increase your control and break that cycle.
Based on my conversations with many of you, I am not alone in my feelings about a lack of control. So what happens if you try shifting your focus, gently, to things you can control? What will happen if you give yourself permission to not lose sleep over the things beyond your control?
Buried in debt? Give yourself permission to focus for just the next hour on what you spend. Then, link it to another hour, a day, week, etc. Over time, you can shift to making bigger changes, but for now, just spend one hour thinking about how you can spend more responsibly.
Worried about the markets? Focus on your exposure to risk. The single biggest driver of your investment experience is how you divide up your investment money between stocks, bonds and cash. And guess what? You have complete control over that.
So take out all your investment statements. Review each investment and make sure it matches the allocation you need to meet your goals. If you need to make changes, make them. Be smart about the tax implications, but don’t let the tax tail wag the investment dog.
Once we focus on the things we have some control over, and let go of those we can’t control, much of the fear, worry and anxiety goes away. So when you find yourself obsessing over the same issues time after time, remind yourself that no matter how bad things seem, there is always something you can control.
This commentary appeared April 8 on The New York Times’ Bucks blog on NYTimes.com.
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