A sense of control means having a feeling of autonomy, of choosing how you spend your time, of doing your own work in your own way.
This is obviously true about major issues, such as whether you can control when you leave work each night or whether you have any leisure time. Lately, though, I’ve noticed how much better I feel even in insignificant situations when I feel like I have some control.
Generally, if the Big Man makes dinner, I clean the kitchen; despite the obvious moral hazard inherent in this system, it works well. The other night, however, as we finished eating, I looked around and noticed that he’d somehow used every pot and chopping board we owned.
“Don’t worry about the kitchen,” the Big Man volunteered, before I said a word. “I’ll clean it up after my conference call.”
I went ahead and cleaned up the mess myself. By telling me that he’d take over the chore even though it was my responsibility, he put me in control. By offering to do the clean-up himself, he removed my sense of resentment, and he also made me feel like I was choosing to give him a treat.
Also, discomfort is easier to bear when you know that you can end it when you choose.
A few months ago, for our trip to India, I got my first prescription for sleep medication. I used to get very worked up when I had trouble sleeping, but now my bouts of insomnia bother me less. I almost never actually take the Ambien, but just knowing that it’s in the medicine cabinet makes me feel in control of my sleep.
So I’ve been looking for ways to make people, particularly the Big Man, feel that they have more control, especially in situations they find unpleasant. I’m trying to say things like…
“Do as much as you can, and I’ll finish up.”
“We’ll leave as soon as you want to leave.”
“Don’t worry about that, this time I’ll take care of it.”
Child-rearing experts advise giving children a sense of control by allowing them to make choices about the little things in their lives—though with kids, it’s better to limit the choices so they don’t feel overwhelmed.
“Would you like to wear your green shirt or your white shirt?”
“Do you feel like having milk or water with dinner?”
“Pick out a book for me to read to you.”
This blog is a great example of how having a sense of control changes perception of a task. If “someone” had assigned me the job of writing a blog entry six days a week, I would have considered it an enormous burden. But because I control the blog, and I can change my mind whenever I like, keeping up with the writing feels like a satisfying exercise of autonomy, rather than an onerous assignment.