Harry Smith

The Trichotomy of Control

A thinking tool that instantly reduces worry, stress and anxiety and a simple exercise to win the day.

Can simple tools reduce worry, anxiety and stress while allowing you to be more effective?


The Trichotomy of Control is one such tool. It is the most important idea from the excellent A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

All ‘things’ fall into one of three categories:

  1. Things that we can not control
  2. Things that we can control completely
  3. Things that we have some, but not complete control over.

You can triage everything in life into one of these categories. Here’s how.

Things we can not control

Waste no time or energy over things you can’t control. It will happen (or not) regardless. The result may be important, but until it comes to pass we can’t do anything about it. Respond to events when they occour. All external factors are beyond our control. Politics, pandemics, terrorists, gamma ray bursts.

Things that we can control completely

Deal with things that you have full control over as soon as possible. As all elements are within our control, they need little time or energy. Close attention will guarantee a positive outcome. Your emotions, what you say, what you eat, what exercise you do and who you spend your time with are all good examples.

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

Most things fall in this category. Focus on the part you can control, and create a clear distinction of what that is. Define your goals based on the factors you control, not by the result you wish to receive.

Consider the following examples.

Job Interviews

You may perform a perfect interview and still not get the job. A better candidate, politics, a tired interviewer could all sabotage you. We can not control the outcome. But we can control our preperation and performance. How we dress, how we speak, what research we do. Focus on being a quality candidate and a good job will be a byproduct.

Football Match

You might not find yourself in a football match very often, but you do find yourself in teams. A footballer can only control their own performance. But they depend on the performance of their team. If his team mates let him down, it can lead to anger, frustration and anxiety.

We can not control our underperforming team mates. But we can control our response to them. By refusing negative emotions. Looking for proactive solutions. Working together to resolve differences and blockers. A team member gets the best out of his team mates.


Can we control the interests and desires of our object of attention? No. Any attempt too is crude and comes across as creepy. Placing our focus on them places our focus on factors outside our control. The result? Anxiety, worry and stress. No wonder they don’t like you.

Bring the focus back to yourself. What version of you would someone want to date? Interesting, charming, engaged, relaxed, entertaining, happy. You don’t get these from chasing love. You get them from engaging with your self. You find love along the way.

Everyone can sniff out a try hard.

Put it to the Test

To test the power of The Trichotomy of Control you’ll need 5-10 minutes, a pen and a stack of post it notes (any paper will do though).

Take five minutes to empty your worries and anxietes onto individual post it notes. One worry per note. Don’t self censor, get it all out in front of you.

Sort your worries into three piles, one for each area of The Trichotomy of Control.

Everything in your ‘Things I have no control over’ pile you can screw up and toss it in the bin. This feels amazing.

Take each note from your ‘Things I have complete control over’ pile. Write on each note the next concrete action you can take to resolve this.

Repeat the above step for your ‘Things that I have some, but not complete control over’. But before you write your next action, list the elements you control and those that you don’t. Your next action must only invole elements within your control.

Take your pile of notes and execute those next actions.

Now reflect on the sense of calm and clarity you have. That is the power of The Trichotomy of Control.

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