Need Some Motivation? Try Tapping Your Locus of Control
Alright, bear with me as I ask a very daunting question: Why are you on the path you’re on? If you’re a student, why are you pursuing your degree or studies? If you’re in the middle of your career, why are you in your specific industry? Why are you doing the work that you do?
To be fair, I don’t expect you to have those answers readily available.
But, if you’re like me, you might find that this question of “why” pops up when you feel things slipping out of your control. I’m talking about the times when tasks are piling up and your effort seems like it just isn’t enough.
When your grip starts to slip, taking time to pause and reevaluate your locus of control can change up your mindset—and help you get back on course to feeling motivated again.
What Is Our Locus of Control?
A person’s locus of control is “the extent in which [the individual] believes they have power over events in their lives,” according to PsychCentral. The concept was coined by psychologist Julian Rotter, and he believed people could have either a stronger internal or external locus of control. According to his theory, people fall somewhere on an external versus internal spectrum, and where they fall generally predicts the way they interact with their environment.
If someone has a strong internal locus of control, they tend to believe that their success or failure is their own doing. They push themselves to achieve big accomplishments and believe that if something goes wrong, it’s due to their own actions. A student with a strong internal locus of control, for example, would believe that how much they study and how much they focus determines their academic success.
Someone with a stronger external locus of control believes that their success and reward comes from influences outside of their control. A student with a stronger external locus of control might believe that getting a good grade depends on a lenient professor or if their work is seen as "good" by others. This student might think success largely depends on luck or chance.
With that said, Rotter has clarified that his concept is commonly misunderstood. He believes that someone who might be more internal can act external in a given situation and vice versa. Nobody is solely an “internal” or an “external”—rather, they exist on a spectrum and act according to their environments.
Deciding Where You Fall and Why it Matters
You might already have a hunch on where you’d fall on the spectrum, but you can use Rotter’s I-E Scale to help you more accurately pinpoint your position. To take the test, go to this link, type your name in, and take the questionnaire. Don’t worry, there are only 13 questions to go through. Your score will be calculated at the bottom of the screen, with lower scores meaning a strong internal locus of control and higher scores suggesting a strong external locus of control.
Now that you know about locus of control, you might be wondering: Which is better, internal or external?
Studies have shown that having a stronger internal locus of control can work in our favor. People with an internal locus of control often have better stress coping skills, more satisfaction with their work, and are more goal-oriented.
But don’t completely fret, externals—it’s healthy to understand that sometimes things truly do exist outside of our control. If someone’s internal locus of control is too strong, they can take on too much personal responsibility and deal with anxiety, among other things. As psychologist James T. Neill warns, “an internal orientation usually needs to be matched by competence, self-efficacy, and opportunity so that the person is able to successfully experience the sense of personal control and responsibility.”
Basically, it's not that internal is good and external is bad—you need to find a balance between the two.
If you’ve already found that healthy balance, that’s great. But if you’re feeling like you’re asking those big “why” questions more often than not, and your sense of purpose is missing, here are a few ways to regain agency and take back control—or let it go, if necessary.
How to Flex Your Locus of Control
1. Remind Yourself of Your Rights
When you feel out of power, it’s helpful to remind yourself of your personal rights. You can write them down or say them out loud in front of a mirror if that helps you. Here are a couple examples from The Wellness Recovery Action Plan, adapted from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Eugene Bourne:
●︎ I have the right to have my needs and wants respected by others
●︎I have the right to feel scared and say “I’m afraid”
●︎ I have the right to follow my own values and standards
●︎ I have the right to change and grow
●︎ I have the right to determine my own priorities
2. Review Consequences and Rewards of Your Past Decisions
Events tend to stem from decisions you’ve made in the past. Reviewing the series of events can help us find small ways to take back control. “This kind of review provides some evidence of your ability to act on your decisions,” Keith Anderson, a staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, explains on the University of Kansas’ wellness blog.
For example: When you decided to play just one more episode on Netflix the night before a big meeting, what happened? Did you wake up late or feel extra tired the next morning? Similarly, if you decided to turn off your laptop at a reasonable time before bed, did you wake up feeling like you got a full night’s rest?
Take stock of how your actions contribute to the outcomes you experience.
3. Focus on What You Can Control
While we can’t control our genetics, other people’s prejudices, the weather, or the circumstances we were born into, focusing on what we can control helps us regain an internal locus of control mindset.
When someone at work isn’t putting in enough effort on a group project, remind yourself that you can still show off your skills and strong work ethic. When you’re stuck in traffic or your bus is delayed, remind yourself that you can call someone to tell them you’re going to be late—but you’re doing the best you can.
Finally, remind yourself that you can control your attitude and mindset about how you approach uncontrollable situations. You have the power to focus on your reaction rather than the stressor.
When you remind yourself of your control, your remind yourself of your power. And it can help you know the right places to put your energy. Whether that’s your career, your family, or a political cause, your sense of purpose begins with knowing that you can make a difference. And maybe, those big “why” questions can start to feel a little less intimidating.