How to Be Autonomous and Gain Back Control of Your Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Do Hard Things" by Steve Magness. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Have you lost control of your life? How can you become more autonomous?

According to Do Hard Things by Steve Magness, true toughness means facing the reality of your autonomy. Places such as school and work restrict your autonomy by stripping away your independence, but it’s your responsibility to gain it back to become better.

Keep reading to learn how to be autonomous and fight for what’s yours.

Maintain Your Autonomy

One way old-school toughness affects our ability to navigate adversity is by restricting our autonomy. In schools and workplaces, we’re constantly taught to obey commands and do as we’re told—to fight through the pain or suffer the consequences. But when we’re taught in this disciplinary manner, we lose our autonomy—our ability to choose our own path and make our own decisions—which then leads to listlessness or burnout. In reality, we can choose our own path, and our decisions do matter. You just have to figure out how to be autonomous.

Autonomy is based on our perception of control in a situation. If you have a sense of control—if you feel like you can enact change or fix a problem—you won’t give up so easily. If we feel we’re not in control, however, we’re more easily stressed—our minds are quicker to shift to negative thoughts, and our body’s stress response is more drastic. When we feel we can’t change the outcome of a situation, the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, spike. The combination of negative thoughts and stress hormones makes it difficult to continue when the going gets tough. 

Control and Codependency in the Workplace

If you have a boss who is overly controlling and robs you of your autonomy, it may be that he or she is codependent. A codependent person is someone who obsesses over another and seeks to control their behavior, and codependency in the workplace can be detrimental to all parties involved. A codependent boss or manager may be over-reliant on their employees for validation and self-worth, and codependent employees may seek constant approval from their bosses. Both of these habits can lead to stressful and unproductive work environments. 

Some signs you may have a codependent manager include micromanagement, gossiping about other employees with you, taking credit for your ideas, feeling the need to be involved in every decision, an inability to set or respect boundaries, and a constant need for validation. As an employee, such behaviors from a manager can be stressful and even lead to burnout. It can also cause employees to feel used, decreasing motivation. For a manager, codependency leads to indecisiveness and a fear of criticizing others, both of which affect productivity because a manager must be able to make decisions and provide constructive criticism for a workplace to function properly.

If you feel you have a codependent boss, it can help to try to understand why they’re codependent, as codependent behavior usually comes from past relationships or experiences. If you know why they behave this way, it can make it easier to work with them. Further, try to set boundaries with them. Setting boundaries with a codependent boss can keep you from enabling unhealthy behaviors. Lastly, encourage your boss to seek help from a mental professional, as codependency is a serious issue that often requires therapy to properly deal with.  

Here are some tips from Magness on how to maintain control in your life:

Start small: People often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a challenge. Look to gain a sense of control by breaking down a large task into smaller chunks and tackling the easiest part first. 

(Shortform note: In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor claims that people struggle with big challenges because their emotions take over when they start to feel overwhelmed, reducing their ability to make rational decisions. He provides a four-step process to help break down large tasks: 1) Acknowledge your emotions, 2) identify what you can control, 3) pick one small task out of the things you can control, and 4) pick another small task and repeat until the overall goal is complete.)

Leave yourself options: People can leave themselves with few options without realizing it, limiting their own autonomy in a situation. For example, you might tell yourself you must finish a task by the end of the workday. But in doing so, you stress yourself out because you’ve given yourself no other choice than to stay late and finish. Instead, say to yourself, “I’ll try to finish today, but I can get up early and finish tomorrow if I need to.” Simply providing this choice for yourself makes it more likely you’ll complete the task.

(Shortform note: Charles Duhigg provides another way to use choices to maintain control in Smarter Faster Better. He claims that making a subversive choice—one that breaks a rule or is an act of rebellion in some way—can be especially powerful because it reminds you that you don’t have to always follow the rules or listen to others.)

Establish a routine: Magness explains that establishing and following a routine can provide a small sense of control in your day-to-day life. When you perform a routine, like taking a 10-minute walk at the same time during the workday, this can shift your focus from the things you can’t control to the simple task that you can control. This small shift of focus can be enough to avoid spiraling out of control.

(Shortform note: In Indistractable, Nir Eyal provides two tips to consider when making a daily routine or schedule. The first is to consistently reflect on how the schedule is working and make slight adjustments based on your reflection. Your ideal schedule isn’t likely to perfectly match the reality of how you work, so you need to tweak your schedule accordingly. Second, keep in mind that you can only control what you put in, now what comes out. Don’t be stressed when you don’t get the exact outcomes you expect from your daily schedule. Focus on maintaining a routine and putting in the effort. If you do this, eventually, good things will happen.)

How to Be Autonomous and Gain Back Control of Your Life

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steve Magness's "Do Hard Things" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Do Hard Things summary:

  • Why the "old-school" way we think about toughness is wrong
  • Why machismo ideals are harmful and ineffective
  • How to become resilient and versatile, and how to overcome adversity

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.