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What is the Trichotomy of Control?

If you’re looking for how to worry less, the trichotomy of control may be exactly what you need in your personal and professional life.

By Kate Dagher  •   August 4, 2022  •   7 min read

Worry, stress, and anxiety are emotions that many of us are familiar with and feelings that arise quite regularly, whether they’re related to work or more personal. As much as we may try to control our emotions and ground ourselves in the present moment, this is much easier said than done. Since the beginning of time, philosophers and Stoics have been pondering how to bring more tranquillity and less worry into our lives so we can live happier and feel more effective. The trichotomy of control is a tool that may just be able to help us do so. 

The idea comes from William B. Irvine’s book, Guide to the Good Life. The trichotomy of control presents three categories: things we cannot control, things we can control, and things we have some, but not complete, control over. This article will delve into this concept of trichotomy of control and highlight how you can apply it to everyday life to feel more fulfilled and less worried.

What is the trichotomy of control? 

As previously mentioned, the trichotomy of control presents three categories: things we cannot control, things we can control, and things we have some, but not complete, control over. Let’s clearly define each category:

1Things we cannot control

There are certain things in our lives over which we have absolutely no control. The tricky part is accepting this truth. When it comes to these things that we can’t control, there’s no point in wasting valuable time or energy on them because whatever it is will happen (or not) regardless of our worrying. Even in instances where the outcome is important, we truly cannot do anything about the result until it has passed. We can only actually respond to events after they have taken place. Any external factors are outside of our control, whether these are factors like pandemics, wars, or foreign elections, for example. 

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2Things we can control 

The good news is there are in fact certain things that we can control—and this is where we can truly take charge and take responsibility for the most desirable outcome. It’s best to deal with things over which we have full control as soon as we are able to. When we pay close attention to our thoughts and our feelings, this awareness helps guarantee a more positive outcome; it extends to your life choices, including what you eat, how much you exercise, how much you socialize, who you socialize with, and where you direct your energy. With time, elements that we identify as in our control only require little time and energy. 

3Things we have some, but not complete, control over

Most things in our daily lives fall into this category. While we may have a significant influence on the outcome of a situation, we can’t always dictate or guarantee it. The best thing that you can do for anything that falls into this category is to focus on the part that you can control and create a clear identification of what it is that you can control and what you cannot. It’s a good idea to define your goals based on factors over which you do have control and not necessarily the desired result (over which you don’t have full control). 

Trichotomy of control vs. dichotomy of control 

A dichotomy of control is an option that has a duality. In other words, it is black and white: either you worry about something that is within your control, or you don’t worry at all. This is a theme that was often explored by the Greek and the Roman Stoics who advocated for the use of critical thinking to maintain a state of calm over thoughts and feelings that naturally arise as we face difficult or stressful situations. The belief then was that there are two ways of categorizing your issues. Whether or not you worry, there are things you can control and things you cannot. 

In William B. Irvine’s analysis of the Stoics, he posits that the assumption that there is only a simple dichotomy of control over our worries is lacking an important dimension. He argues that choices are not always binary and that there is a third dimension. Sometimes, we do have some degree of control but not complete control over situations. This is what Irvine calls the trichotomy of control. 

How to apply the trichotomy of control 

To actually test the trichotomy of control, set aside a few minutes and grab a pen and a piece of paper. In these few minutes, write down all of your worries or sources of anxiety on either sticky notes (one worry per paper) or on any other piece of paper. Next, organize your worries into three categories (or piles if you’re using sticky notes). These categories are for the trichotomy of control: the things you can control, the things you can’t control, and the things over which you have some, but not complete, control. Throw out or cross out everything in the category of things you can’t control. It feels pretty good to tangibly let go of these worries! Then, look at the things in the category of things you can control. Write one concrete action for each item that you can take to work towards a resolution. Repeat this step for the things over which you have some, but not complete, control. List the parts of these items that you can control and those that you can’t. Next, write an action for the elements that are in your control. Reflect on the activity and notice if you feel a little bit more at ease. 

Examples of the trichotomy of control 

1Things we cannot control

  1. Influence over the upcoming Chilean election as a Canadian citizen: As much as I care about international politics, I can and do realize that I have absolutely no control over the upcoming Chilean election in October of this year. The news can often be a source of stress and anxiety, as there are always upsetting or disturbing stories being presented. That said, it’s important to recognize that often we do not hold any control over events such as elections, wars, or natural disasters. 
  1. The weather: Many brides and grooms stress over the weather on their special day. In fact, many of us worry about the weather holding up for important events in our lives. The worrying in these situations though, cannot and does not change the outcome. We simply do not have superpowers to control the forecast and must live with whatever mother nature provides. 

2Things we can control 

  1. Our thoughts: Often when we’re feeling stressed out or worried, our thoughts begin to race and sometimes, we can spiral into a negative space. When we take the time to notice what our thoughts consist of, we can then take some breaths, slow down, and realign ourselves with healthier thoughts. No one else can control our thoughts. Of course, our thoughts are influenced by external factors, but only we can control what we actually think. 
  1. Our actions: While other people or situations can influence our actions or the way we behave, ultimately, the decisions we make are ours and ours exclusively. It’s important to remember that we cannot be forced into anything. We can’t control what others do, but we do in fact have complete control over our own actions. 

3Things that we have some, but not complete, control over

  1. Getting an A in Science: We have some control over our grades in school. We can control how much we study, how much we pay attention, and how hard we work. That said, we don’t have any control over the actual grade that is allocated to our work or the difficulty of an exam. The marking is subjective and would differ (even if it’s slightly) from teacher to teacher, as would the difficulty of a test. 
  1. Winning a tennis match: Like our grades, we do have some control over winning a sports match. You could train as hard as possible and ensure you’re stretching well, sleeping adequately, and eating well. That said, you cannot control the way your opponent is going to perform the day of the match. You can control preparing yourself as much as possible and playing to your greatest ability (a good example of an internal goal), but winning the actual match is outside of your control (external goal). 

Parting advice 

The point of the trichotomy of control is not to eliminate worrying but to choose to worry about the right things. Worrying about things that are outside of your control hinders your productivity and wellbeing. Making the distinction between what you can control, what you can’t control, and what you may have some control over will help you reduce your stress and anxiety and focus on the things that you can actually change. While challenging, it can be extremely liberating to let go of worries about things that are truly outside of our control and to spend our time and energy on the things that matter more. Acceptance is the first step towards taking charge of the parts of your life that you can control. Try testing the trichotomy of control and see how it may be able to support you in aligning with your goals and highest aspirations!

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