Why People Find Change Hard: Locus of Control

In this post, I'd like to talk about the most fundamental concept necessary to optimize certain tough areas of your life. These areas are as follows:

  1. Food/Nutrition/Diet
  2. Fitness/Exercise
  3. Finances
  4. Frugality

I call these the 4 F's and they have been my guiding principles over the last 8 years.

Sometime between the years of 2011-2012, I came to a grand realization. Something that should've been obvious to me from the get go, but no one really called it out as bluntly as I'm about to:


The power of personal change remains squarely in you. Wait for others or the world, and you'll be waiting forever.


Now this sounds awfully obvious when I state it like that, but I didn't fully grasp the idea until I had turned 24. Though simple in concept, it's all that's needed to make or break your personal improvement journey. It was the one realization that entirely shifted the way I saw the world. It was my aha moment! Rather than wait for the world to be good to me and shower me with grace, why not take matters into my own hands? What or who's to stop me? How could someone else possibly be more invested in me, more than myself?

Once I realized that everything about my life and its quality was controlled by me and me only, it was a breath of relief. At least I didn't have to wait around for someone else for me to get started. So I feel like I'm overweight now? Cool, let's hit the gym. No gym around? Okay, let's go for a run outside. No good running shoes? Fine, let's run with street converse shoes! Who cares? I've made up my mind to lose 5 lbs this month, and there's nothing to stop me except my own lame excuses. And no matter what anyone does or says to me, those 5 lbs aren't going to lose themselves.

(I did start my running career with converse shoes. It was a terrible idea, but I wasn't going to wait to get Nike shoes before I could go for a silly 5k run.)

You may say, "Well, all this sounds fine and dandy, except I have this problem, that problem, and this other problem you don't know about. Surely you can't expect me to get better in my current state!" Even when you're dealt a shitty hand at poker, there's a way to play it, and maybe even win it, without folding. If you're reading this post and thinking you're exempt from continuous improvement because you feel like you were dealt a shitty hand in life, I can assure you that's not the case. Proof: If you own an electronic device through which you are reading this very post and have the time to read it right now without needing to work for money or worry about the existence of your next meal, you're already far better off than a very large chunk of people in this world. So if you think you were dealt a shitty hand, then what were they dealt?

External locus of control has a special word in English: excuses

External locus of control has a special word in English: excuses

The exciting part is that in the US & Canada (where I've lived for the last 15 years of my life), it's surprisingly easy to take matters into your own hands. This is one of the most liberal parts of the world that lets you do pretty much whatever you want as long as you don't harm others or the environment in the process. Even the level of judgment from society (if you suddenly went vegan for instance) seems pretty moderate. Mistakes are inexpensive and the infrastructure phenomenal to allow you to focus on making small, incremental improvements to your life everyday without having to worry about 3rd-world problems like gas, electricity, and clean water. Over our lifetime, we Canadians and Americans can easily achieve 10x gains over people in developing nations, simply by focusing on the things that actually matter in the long run. The level of friction-less independence and autonomy that is afforded to us in this part of the world is quite amazing if you think about it for a minute.

There may be many things in your day-to-day life that you just take for granted and feel are out of your control. But are they really? Only if you assume that control lives externally. But if you start with the belief that all control lies internally, there's always ways to change things around you that you may initially feel are outside of your control. Like the amount of rent you pay each month. Or how cold you feel at a certain temperature without a jacket. Or even crazy things like how often you fall sick. These are all real examples of what many people I've talked to feel are often out of their control. But when you rein these guys in, you'd be amazed how much of it you can actually control and influence by virtue of paying attention to them and digging at root causes. Rent (i.e. housing cost in your city), coldness, and sickness are just a few examples in my own life where taking control of the situation and moving the locus from outside to inside has yielded phenomenal gains over the years.

The contrapositive of this conjecture is unfortunately also true (as are all contrapositives). If you feel like you pay too much rent in your city, it's probably your fault, not your environment's. If you feel too cold outside at just 10° celsius (50° F), it's probably also your fault, not your environment's. If you fall sick too often with common ailments like cold, cough, and sore throat, that too is also probably due to your fault. It's all a consequence of something you did or didn't do over the last few week, months, or years. Most likely it was a lack of conscious investment over the months and years that eventually culminated into the problem you're currently seeing with your life.

 

Your life is such a beautiful optimization problem: maximize an objective of things you care about (say, happiness), subject to the constraints surrounding your life. Why not play it like a game? Who else could be better equipped to truly understand the factors that affect your happiness level, and the constraints surrounding you? Only you can remove these constraints efficiently, and doing so will play the greatest role in maximizing your objective(s).

The locus of control of your life is therefore you. You and only you can make the change you want to see in yourself. If something looks amiss or wrong about your life, it's probably your fault, not the world's. You can't change everything about the world, but at least you can change yourself so you're less impacted by the world. No one else can help you except yourself. Not your friends, not your coworkers, not your manager, not your parents, not your siblings, not your spouse, heck not even your present or future children. They're all too busy figuring out their own lives and maybe even trying to get a little better at it to have the energy to help you. The sooner you come to this what-should-be-obvious-to-all-of-us-but-isn't realization, the sooner we can all move on and start investing in ourselves with full force. If you're still waiting for the world to bless you at the right moment sometime in the future, perhaps to give you permission to let you improve your life, grab some popcorn because you're going to be waiting for a while.

To summarize:

Step 1: Realize that no change or no amount of change is beyond you. You get to set your own limits. (Hint: not your neighbors). Wait for others and you'll be waiting forever.

Step 2: Figure out which areas of your life are worth getting better at long term. The 4 F's are a great start. The order of the 4 F's is important because the gains aren't proportional to the effort you put in. Optimizing your relationships with other people before optimizing your own health & fitness can be a bit moot for instance.

Step 3: Actually get better in those 3-4 areas of your life you care about deeply. Continuously optimize those areas everyday, and when you're ready, maybe even get a few life projects going in that direction.

Step 4: Profit. Tada!

 

Do you still think the keys to your life lie outside your control? What changes can you make in order to further your life a little bit everyday?

Mr. Frugal Hacker

San Francisco, CA

Born in India. Grew up in Dubai for 15 years. Studied and lived in Canada for 8 years. Backpacked in Europe for 2 months. Lived in Toronto for 1.5 years. Working in San Francisco for the past 4 years. Runner, cyclist, software engineer.