The Dichotomy of Control — A Simple Heuristic for Peace of Mind

Senote Keriakes
3 min readJun 30, 2022
Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

A heuristic (you/ris/tick) is a ‘mental shortcut’ used subconsciously in order to solve problems in a quick and efficient manner. An example of a heuristic is ‘trial and error’ where, when faced with a difficult situation in daily life, we try different methods of overcoming the situation until a succesful medium is found.

The dichotomy of control is a simple stoic heuristic which can be used to separate things which are in one’s control from those which are outside of one’s control. Once that distinction is made, navigating daily tasks and duties becomes clearer and more intentional.

The practical application of the dichotomy of control is summed up perfectly through the ‘serenity prayer’, a short passage recited at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings which reads “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference”.

Developing the power of differentiation between the things worth worrying about and those not worth worrying about is the first step to being able to navigate life’s daily obstacles in a calm, stoic manner.

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” — Epictetus

With regards to self-improvement, isolating the character-traits which we are capable of changing can alleviate a great deal of anxiety and shift our focus away from the characteristics we aren’t capable of changing.

For example, I have no control over my height, the colour of my eyes, or the fact that I have a perfect beard. However, it is well within my capacity to change the fact that I am impatient when waiting at traffic lights and gossip when I am around certain friends. Harnessing your mental energy to change things that are truly changeable creates a sense of fulfilment and gratification capable of usurping the insecurity and anxiety felt towards things which are not changeable.

Furthermore, separating that which is in our control from that which isn’t may allow us to narrow our focus on the things which truly matter for our success and wellbeing. When we identify the things which are within our control, our work becomes more focused and free from timeless distraction and ruminating endlessly on extraneous matters.

In essence, it’s quite easy to blame things out of our control for distracting us from our work. Yet, this can never actually push us to improve, it often just diverts our attention from the things that are well within our capacity to alter.

The dichotomy of control is a simple, yet powerful heuristic which can be used to vacate the mind of useless and insalubrious thoughts, freeing up mental real estate for constructive contemplation!

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” — Epictetus



Senote Keriakes

Notes on philosophy, history and religion. I write to share my point of view and reinforce the concepts that I learn, enjoy:)