The Trichotomy Of Control

Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. – Epictetus

I’ve had a great response to my last post, even so far as to gain a focus from Doug McGuff at his Body By Science website. Go take a look if you have a minute.

After I wrote the manifesto, I realized that Dr. Kurt Harris had written a piece about eating and the obsessive-compulsive behavior that comes with it, especially in paleo circles. His point is that you want to get the things that we know contribute to disease, the things that are very recent to our diet and very prominent. After that, let the body do what it can…you can’t micromanage it. You don’t think that including peppers in your diet is really inhibiting your fat loss because it isn’t “paleo” do you? Some people do.

On the other side of the coin, the exercise front has the same type of behavior. That’s what my manifesto was about. I used to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to find the “perfect” workout routine that would skyrocket my gains and let me achieve my genetic potential. Like the “magic additive” that Dr. Harris was talking about, I was looking for something that doesn’t exist. Obsessing about it. Like all that time spent thinking about the perfect workout would actually speed up my gains. This of course was ludicrous.

Let’s call it “physiorexia,”or maybe “fortitudorexia.” Regardless of a clever name, it was a fools errand and a prime example of the triumvirate of control.

In the book “A Guide To The Good Life,” William Irvine takes the stoic teaching of “dichotomy of control,” made famous by Epictetus, and teases it out into a trichotomy of control. The original is summed up in the opening quote of this blog post: you can control some things and you cannot control some things. Epictetus proclaims that you will be “invincible” if you avoid engaging in things that you cannot succeed in performing. Irvine feels this is perhaps inflexible with reality, for there are things that you have some, but not all, control of the outcome. He uses the example of a tennis match: no matter how hard you train and practice, there is always a chance that you’ll play someone better than you, or have a bad day against an equal. So the trichotomy is there to allow you to make choices and invest yourself accordingly in things that you can absolutely control and things that you have some control but not things in which you have no control.

This was my mistake and I suspect where others are falling short of their health goals as well. The focus on things that one cannot control (genetic lot, rate of gain and/or fat loss due to said genetics, magnitude of response from a bout of exercise) leads to frustration and often giving up. Rather, and it seems so obvious now, focus on what you have control of fully and what you have some control over and let the rest fall where it will. Examples of full control include:

  • Intent to focus during workouts.
  • The type of food purchased at the grocery store.
  • Setting a consistent bed time and getting in bed at that time.

Things in which you have some, but not total, control of include:

  • How well the workout actually goes…sometimes a perfect night of sleep accompanied by perfect nutrition leads to a less-than-perfect workout.
  • The type of restaurant you eat at when dining out with friends or what a host will serve when you’re a guest over for dinner.
  • How well you sleep in spite of the consistent bedtime.

One could drag the list out to eternity but the point remains: focus on what you have control of and let go of the things that you do not have control. You can control the inputs but not the outputs; you stand a good chance of heading toward your desired goal with the right input but not always. Focus on the former and get on with things. To paraphrase Dr. Harris, with complete understanding now:

You do have other business than obsessing about every minute detail of your health and wellness program , don’t you?

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8 thoughts on “The Trichotomy Of Control

  1. Skyler,

    Another awesome post. Focusing on what you can control is like setting yourself up to win (and the converse is setting yourself up to lose). Why not make life easy on yourself. When you focus only on what you control, everything seems easier. The number one correlate to high T and good hormonal profile is….winning (duh!). Sorry for the Charlie Sheen joke.

  2. Skyler,

    I am a recent reader of your blog and also read both Keith and Doug’s blogs with interest. Doug’s lecture at 21 Convention, which I watched online, contributed massively to my understanding of basic physiology.

    This post and your last one chime with my own experience, both from an exercise and a more general life perspective. I had the good fortune to be directed to ‘Mastery’ by George Leonard last year and you encapsulate in this post much of his argument: Consistency, loving the process (or the plateau as he describes it), seeing a journey rather than a ‘goal’.

    Keep up the good work.

    Neil

    • Neil, thanks for the kind words. You’re the second to mention “Mastery” so I’ll definitely check it out.

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