It’s a dirty word sometimes – control. “Control-freak” and “controlling” are terms of derision – terms used to describe an abusive partner or someone else using coercion to dominate a relationship. This type of control is really bad and it’s really serious when it is focused on someone else.

The Bible is crystal clear on this: that kind of distortion in any relationship is antithetical to God’s design that we become people of love and self-giving (Ecclesiastes 4:1 condemns oppressing others; while John 13:14 shows “washing one another’s feet” is to serve each other).

But, of course, there is a different type of control that does please God, one that is directed towards ourselves, one that is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:23); and that is self-control. Proverbs 29:11 says “a wise person keeps themselves under control”.

This fifth edition of the Well on the Way series will pick up on this dimension of emotional health. Articles one to three in this series explored self-talk, and articles four to six examined issues around balance in our lifestyles that affect our emotional health, with the previous edition looking at making space for stillness, reflection and prayer.

So, here it is …

Core idea 5: get organised – have a plan

Now I know that we have different personality styles and different ways of dealing with life. Some of us need structure and firm decisions, and others prefer flexibility and openness. Neither is right or wrong. Neither is better than the other. They are just different.

For our emotional health though, I will be trying to persuade you that having some semblance of organisation, and some ability to plan and get things done, is fundamentally helpful, whether we do it in a structured or relaxed kind of way! This applies both to our general sense of managing life, as well as to those growth areas (or besetting sins) that do require a more focused strategy.  Neuroscientists tell us that we in fact get a surge of dopamine in our brains when we tick things off a list and have a plan to tackle a problem. It is satisfying and makes us feel good.

The opposite is obviously chaotic. When we feel overwhelmed, when we feel out of control, we start to feel helpless and powerless, a key ingredient in depression. I am constantly coaching my clients to discern the difference between feeling overwhelmed and powerless (which most of us feel from time to time) and believing that I am powerless (a toxic, debilitating self-belief). The antidote to this is to remind myself that “I have choices” and “I am not powerless”.

Now, again, I don’t want to rub salt into wounds. Most of us have some areas of life in which we lack some control, and for some of us, these are actually in the addiction range, where professional help is warranted. Even in the moderate range, there is much guilt and shame associated with behaviours that we have struggled over decades to contain.

There is any number of areas where we can struggle with poor behaviour. I am a failed Weight Watcher, a failed Jenny Craig customer, and a failed Light and Easy patron! It’s just a reality that it is an ongoing challenge for me to eat wisely and exercise regularly.  No excuses.  Perseverance is needed to change habits, and often a change of tack!

Rather than torment ourselves and hate on God, for our unrelenting vices, everything in psychology and the Bible point towards taking little steps forward. This is the nub of the bestselling book Atomic Habits by James Clear – making incremental changes in behaviour that are easy to adopt and letting these compound into automatic life-changing habits.

Having a plan to make these incremental changes is key, and it always starts with our thinking.

You may have heard this quote: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny”. It’s attributed to Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher, but the sentiment is also found throughout Scripture (“guard your heart” Proverbs 4:23 and “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” Romans 12:2).

By way of example, my current strategy for my “lose 10 kgs” goal is using an app called Noom to slowly develop new habits of thinking and behaving. I quite like this low-cost app that gets me to log what I eat and weigh in daily, based on loads of little applied psychology lessons. Even as a clinical psychologist, I like their helpful reminders about reasons that we eat, and strategies to develop mindful food choices.

And of course, in making any changes in our lives we are not alone but guided by God through prayerful obedience to his word as a solid foundation. It’s the essence of that famous parable of building your house on the rock, not the sand (Matthew 7:24-27). The doing of Jesus words, not just the listening and thinking about!

Practical tip 5: execute the plan – allocate from the to-do list

Most people I know write to-do lists. It’s step one in clearing the mind, anticipating the details and getting organised. For me, it’s often a product of my hour with God, when I can remember the things I’ve thought of, listen to God’s promptings, brainstorm gift ideas for the next birthday, do some planning and keep up to date with life.  As I pray through problems, God often nudges me with a fresh idea or a new angle to try.

My practical tip takes all of this a little bit further in suggesting that we take the to-do list, guestimate the time required for each item, and allocate them into the diary. I can enhance both my efficiency (e.g. grouping emails to get them done together) and the likelihood of making progress towards my goals, as small things actually get done. If I have allocated time to each of my tasks, then I really can relax, knowing that it is more likely to happen.

Please don’t be too ambitious here. We want to set ourselves up for success by not jam-packing every hour and allowing ourselves some buffer time.

This process of planning and allocating time is really good for our emotional health. It helps us problem-solve. It helps us be functional.  It helps us feel in control.

Sue Bartho is a clinical psychologist who runs Well on the Way Psychology in Sydney. To read more articles in this series, click here.

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