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How to take control of your life and find happiness

October 24, 2023 - 19 min read

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What “I've lost control of my life” really means

How to take control of your life: 7 ways

Say “I’m taking my life back” with confidence

Every day, you follow a routine. You wake up at the right time to get to work, take care of at-home responsibilities, and maybe spend time commuting from point A to point B.

Daily routines are necessary parts of life. But when you do the same thing every day or feel stuck completing tasks you don’t love, you might feel like something’s off. You might feel stuck or wonder whether what you have is what you want. 

This moment of introspection is a turning point. You’re aware of your dissatisfaction and ready to make a change. Even if you don’t know what’s making you feel that way, you can take steps to reflect, take back your life, and turn it into a fulfilling, intentional journey. 

You don’t have to overhaul your well-being to make life meaningful again. Start with small but impactful changes that remind you of your worth and agency and learn how to take control of your life.

What “I've lost control of my life” really means

Maybe you’re having a stressful morning. You forgot your coffee on the kitchen counter, the bus was late, and you just remembered you had a post-work yoga class and didn’t pack a change of clothes. This situation might feel out of control, but it’s not necessarily a sign of your life being off track — nor is having a whirlwind day caring for little ones or navigating a challenging meeting at work. 

Losing control of your life is more than a bad day. It’s a feeling that might stem from persistent exhaustion and a lack of purpose in what you do, but it can come from anything that disrupts your life’s usual flow. It might have started when you lost someone you loved or got laid off from your dream job. 

But a lack of control doesn’t have to come from a bit event.  Sometimes it’s just a gradual shift or downward trend, with everyday occurrences stressors adding up. This can feel like being unable to make decisions, fearing the road ahead, and craving connection. You might also start languishing — when you aren’t thriving but you aren’t struggling, either. 

When you feel this way, you might feel stuck and unsure of what to do to make things better. But it’s important to address these emotions and try to find the root of your loss of control to love your life again.

Research shows that having control of your life actually decreases your mortality risk. People who believed they had more control over their day-to-day rated their health more highly and were less likely to form bad habits like smoking. 

There isn’t one ultimate cause for feeling like you’ve lost agency. But feeling like you’ve lost control means it’s time for a change. Feeling dissatisfied with life isn’t something you can fix overnight, but finding happiness is worth putting in the effort, no matter how small the steps you take are. From switching careers to finding a fulfilling hobby, it’s possible to regain control of your life.

How to take control of your life: 7 ways

Taking control of your life might feel overwhelming. If you’ve been languishing or feeling a loss of control for a while, you might have no idea where to start or how you can course correct.

Don’t pressure yourself to know how to turn your career, personal life, and self-perception around right away — especially if you’re just recognizing you’re feeling out of control. Instead, the goal is to embark on a journey of self-discovery.

Through smaller steps and better habits, you can revisit the things you love and bring yourself closer to a more meaningful life. These adjustments to your day-to-day can eventually help you adjust your whole life.

Here are seven ways to take small steps toward a life change:

1. Get in touch with your true desires

Dissatisfaction is more common than you might think. According to a survey from The Harris Poll and CNBC, 47% of older millennials (those aged 33–40) say they wish they’d chosen a different career path. And research also shows that many people don’t like where they live.

Not every choice you make in life will be the “right” one, and that’s okay. Those are learning opportunities, revealing how you don’t want to live — and bringing you closer to identifying how you do want to live.

The first step to gaining control over your life is pinpointing what makes you feel that way. Maybe you came from a long line of lawyers and became one, too, but are discovering now that you don’t like practicing law. That’s a life-changing observation that can teach you about yourself. Don’t feel guilty or like you wasted time pursuing a path that’s ultimately not for you. 

If you’re in a position where you can make a change, like switching jobs, moving, or even going back to school, start planning this next stage of life with intention.

Practice self-reflection by journaling about what you want in life to make sure your action plan aligns with your aspirations. You can either brainstorm alone or with the help of a therapist or coach about how to regain control of your life and what your dream life looks like. 

Fostering self-awareness with outside help is especially wise when you feel like your own reflection isn’t getting you anywhere. A wellness coach or life coach can help you identify motivations and areas for change and devise a sound plan forward.

You might come to understand desires and parts of your personality that you might not have been able to alone, putting you on a better path toward control. 


2. Set goals

Goal-setting drives purpose, so it’s an important step in any method you’re trying to use in the process of regaining control. But you do have to set realistic goals to reap the benefits, whether you want to leave your current job for a new one or learn how to play piano in your free time

Use the SMART goal model to outline objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. In this process, you define finite goals within reach, determine a system for monitoring your progress, and set a deadline for meeting the mark. This gives you more control over the process and increases the likelihood of success.

If you determine your dissatisfaction is due to where you live, set a goal to move by a specific date. Then, slate the action items you need to complete to reach the goal, like researching cities and apartments, signing a lease, and packing. Put these activities on a calendar so you can track your progress. 

3. Foster self-discipline with a healthy habit

There’s a chance that now isn’t a good time to consider a significant shift. Maybe you can’t take the financial risk of quitting your job and searching for another opportunity, or you can’t move your family because your partner or children have deep roots where you live now. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t improve your quality of life by exhibiting some self-control and creativity. One small but significant tip for how to take back control of your life is by kicking a bad habit or fostering a healthy one. Set a plan to save more money or plan to redecorate your house to make it a place you love, even if you don't like the neighborhood.

Forming a habit requires discipline. But in time, these actions become automatic. As you get started, try techniques like habit stacking or using a tracker. You can also read productivity books like Atomic Habits to explore different ways to improve your life in small increments, whether that’s spending less time on social media or listening to a mental health podcast every morning.

4. Review your to-do list

If you have a hundred-item to-do list full of short-term goals like repainting your kitchen and long-term ones like getting a master’s degree, chances are you’re taking on too much at once. Being unable to finish everything you want to do can leave you frustrated and stagnant, which also contributes to a loss of control. 

Start by removing items from your to-do list that are no longer relevant and weeding out goals that don’t excite you anymore. Then, prioritize what’s left on the list and make a calendar to keep track of what steps you need to take to reach your goals. 

If you do have a large goal in mind, try starting with smaller ones as you work your way up to it. Getting a degree may be at the top of your list, but in the time it takes to apply to schools, you can tick off other tasks like repainting or finishing your reading list

You could also keep multiple to-do lists that sort tasks to avoid overwhelming yourself with too many tasks at once. Having one for your apartment to-dos, one for professional, and one for social will help you focus energy in different areas without treating all your aspirations equally.


5. Practice self-care 

When you make time for self-care, you bring attention to the things you can control — like what you do with your time and the way you treat yourself — which can help you remember what you’re worth.

Self-care supports your long-term emotional and physical health. It’s an intentional set of activities you perform to control stress and anxiety, do things you love, and appropriately manage your basic needs for rest and nutrition. Then, you’ll have a baseline of health from which to start making changes.

Practicing self-care isn’t a fix-all if you feel a lack of control. But it can be grounding. Emotional regulation is possible when you’ve taken care of your basic needs and your brain is functioning at its best. Your mind needs proper nutrition to maintain your mental health, and rest helps your brain stay efficient. With a clear head, you can assess what might be wrong in your life and brainstorm a path to control.

Self-care is also an excellent practice if you're hoping to gain control because it centers you in the present moment. Real self-care activities, like getting fresh air, meditating, and eating well, can ground you and help you think while also improving the quality of your day.

And connecting with your community can remind you you’re not alone, so spend time with friends who support and energize you.

If you’re looking for ideas of what to do when you’re feeling particularly out of control and want to take care of yourself, here are a few:

  • Use some journal prompts for mental health to reflect on your feelings 
  • Take an afternoon to yourself to do an activity you love
  • Make a vision board of the ways you want your life to look
  • Have a movie night and watch an inspiring film
  • Meet up with close friends and ask deep questions about your lives


6. Prepare to start saying “no” 

The world around you might have taught you that politeness is the norm, whether that came from parental pressure or cultural context. But saying “Yes” to everyone can go too far, especially in adulthood when you’re making your own decisions. Defaulting to people-pleasing behaviors is understandable if you want to keep everyone around you happy, but it’s time to put yourself first.

Learning how to say “No” gives you your agency back. It shows others that you’re the only person who has control over your life and your actions. Saying “No” isn’t aggressive — it’s how to get control of your life when situations aren’t serving you. Set boundaries, express your needs, and build yourself in a life you want to live. 

When you say “No,” you prevent yourself from taking on work you don’t like or can’t handle. You create space for yourself and the things you enjoy. And you strengthen relationships when you’re honest with loved ones about what you need, helping them get to know you on a deeper level and find solutions that benefit all of you. 

7. Learn something new

The saying “Knowledge is power” is more than an adage. When you feel lost, learning is a gateway to discovering more about yourself and building skills in a meaningful way.

Later-life learning helps you maintain your sense of self, practice integrity, and make better use of your time. It gives you the chance to exercise your creativity and find meaning in the things you do. And if you take a class or find a community in your area, you can even meet new people and make friends who expand your horizons and offer you support.

Enrolling in a course, finding a hobby, or trying self-directed learning all show you that you have control over what you do with your time. This is especially the case when you pursue something you’ve been meaning to learn for a while but haven’t yet found the time or motivation. Exploring a new topic or skill tells you that your interests are worth the effort, and it can even lead to new discoveries about a potential career path

Say “I’m taking my life back” with confidence

One of the most challenging parts of regaining control is overcoming self-doubt. How do you take control of your life when you’re scared to trust your gut?

Don’t let negative self-talk hold you back. You’re capable of taking charge of your life. Start setting life goals, developing positive habits, or learning a new skill to prove to yourself that you have the drive to improve. And if you feel stuck, you can work with a professional, like a coach, to discover your strengths and visualize a realistic route toward a life you enjoy more. 

Transform your life

Make meaningful changes and become the best version of yourself. BetterUp's professional Coaches are here to support your personal growth journey.

Transform your life

Make meaningful changes and become the best version of yourself. BetterUp's professional Coaches are here to support your personal growth journey.

Published October 24, 2023

Elizabeth Perry, ACC

Elizabeth Perry is a Coach Community Manager at BetterUp. She uses strategic engagement strategies to cultivate a learning community across a global network of Coaches through in-person and virtual experiences, technology-enabled platforms, and strategic coaching industry partnerships.

With over 3 years of coaching experience and a certification in transformative leadership and life coaching from Sofia University, Elizabeth leverages transpersonal psychology expertise to help coaches and clients gain awareness of their behavioral and thought patterns, discover their purpose and passions, and elevate their potential. She is a lifelong student of psychology, personal growth, and human potential as well as an ICF-certified ACC transpersonal life and leadership Coach.

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