Overwhelmed at Work

How to Use the Control Influence Accept Model

Try this out using our interactive diagram.

Many of us have busy lives and busy minds. We might think that the more we do, the more we'll achieve. But there can come a time when tasks and worries start to pile up, and the burden of things we feel we have to do becomes too heavy.

We start to feel overwhelmed, and this can cause stress. But we can lighten the load by shifting our focus away from the demands that are making us feel anxious, and toward our responses to those demands.

In this article, we explore how to cope with overwhelm using the Control Influence Accept (CIA) model.

See the transcript for this video here.

What Does It Feel Like to Be Overwhelmed?

Many people try to do too much. You might juggle a demanding job with caregiving responsibilities, for example, and find it difficult to say "no," even when you're struggling. Or, you may constantly worry about global issues such as human rights or climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the pressure on us, too, causing many more people to feel stressed and anxious.

All of this can cause us to become overwhelmed. We feel panicky and stretched. We might become irritable, disengaged, and even ill. We might lose our sense of clarity and our ability to make sensible decisions.

The best way to combat overwhelming situations is to step back, consider the situation rationally, and explore your options. In the next section, we’ll look at how you can do this using the Control Influence Accept model.


There are many other tools you can use to combat feelings of stress and anxiety. These include:

If you're struggling to manage your time, we also have a number of resources that can help you to prioritize, schedule and regain focus.


Long-term stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While the advice provided in this article can have a positive effect on reducing stress, it is for guidance only. You should seek the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if you have any concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness.

What Is the Control Influence Accept Model?

The CIA model was first developed by HR specialist Neil Thompson and social-work lecturer Sue Thompson in their 2008 book, "The Critically Reflective Practitioner." It's a versatile time- and stress-management tool that identifies three ways you can respond to challenges:

  1. Control them – identify the elements of the situation that you can control.
  2. Influence them – identify the elements that you can’t control, but that you can influence.
  3. Accept them - identify the elements that you can neither control nor influence, and adapt accordingly.

When you understand these three potential responses, you can put problems into perspective more easily and get a sense of what you can and can't accomplish. This enables you to focus your efforts where they'll have the most impact, and to reduce stress, as self-development expert Roger Seip explains in his article on the CIA Model of Stress Reduction.

Let's take a look at each of the three aspects of the CIA model in more detail:

Reduce Overwhelm by Taking Control

Identify the issues or elements of the situation that you can control. You may be able to allocate resources to solving a problem, for example. Or, if you're juggling several tasks, you could delegate some or seek to extend your deadlines.

Even in situations where circumstances really seem to conspire against you, you can still control your own emotions and behavior. For example, you may not be able to control the global spread of COVID-19, but you may be able to practice social distancing and wash your hands more often to protect yourself.


If you're a manager, you may be expected to assume responsibility and take control of whatever situation arises. But being in charge doesn't mean that you have all the answers, and it's not a sign of weakness or incompetence to admit it.

Use Your Influence to Feel Less Overwhelmed

Even when you can't control your circumstances, you may still be able to influence them. Maybe you have specialized knowledge that can help others to solve a particular problem, for example. Influencing a situation doesn't mean you have to take charge. It can simply mean knowing who to turn to for help or advice.

But be sure to use your influential power positively. Avoid using it to manipulate people or to serve your own needs, as this may damage your reputation and cause mistrust.

Accept or Adapt to the Situation

Sometimes things happen that you really can't control or influence, like rises and falls in the market – or pandemics.

When that happens, saying "I accept this" isn't a sign that you're ineffective, passive or lazy. It's a sign of resilience, maturity and intelligence. It shows that you understand your limitations, and that you can prioritize and make practical decisions.

Many users of the CIA model prefer the term "adapt" instead of "accept." You may not be able to change the situation, but you still have the power to change your response to it. Doing this shows that you are able to move past problems rather than get stuck on them.

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Control Influence Accept Exercise

You can use a diagram like the one in figure 1, below, to help you to apply the Control Influence Accept Model to your own life or to a group problem.

Figure 1 - The Control Influence Accept Model.

The Control Influence Accept Model

The Control Influence Accept Model: from 'The Critically Reflective Practitioner' by Thompson, S. and Thompson, N. (2008) © Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Follow these four steps next time you want to tackle a situation that has become overwhelming:

  1. Describe the situation. What has happened and why has it become difficult? List every aspect of it that makes it overwhelming. An Elephant List exercise might be useful here. This encourages people to be candid about the problems that they're facing – in other words, to name the "elephant in the room."
  2. Sort and place items on the diagram. Once you've completed your list, write each item down on a separate sticky note and place it on the area of the diagram that it belongs in – control, influence, or accept/adapt. You can also use our interactive diagram to do this.
  3. Consider each item in turn. Ask yourself or discuss with your team whether it's something that you could realistically control. Can you solve the problem using existing resources? Or will you need outside help? If you believe you can realistically control even part of the problem, place it in the Control section of the diagram. If you think the situation is beyond your control, consider whether it's something you can influence. Do you, for example, have useful skills or knowledge that you can provide to someone else to solve the problem? If so, add it to the Influence section of the diagram. Place the remaining problems in the Accept/Adapt part of the diagram.
  4. Take action. When you're done sorting through the problems, address each section of your diagram in turn, starting with the things that you can control.

Acting on What You Can Control or Influence

Plan your response to the situation carefully, and keep checking that what you aim to do is realistic. It's worth setting some SMART goals to keep yourself on track if the process will likely be lengthy or difficult.

Remember that your ability to influence the situation will depend on your competence and trustworthiness. So, use your expert and referent power, and show integrity. Don't overestimate the weight that your opinion carries, or people may see you as arrogant and stop listening! However, if you're certain that you're right, and you're confident that your skills and knowledge can help, don't be afraid to be assertive.

Learning to Accept and Adapt

Coming to terms with something that you really can't control or influence can be tough. It may damage your confidence and make you feel incompetent or powerless. Try using positive affirmations to reinforce your sense of self-worth. And remember that it's far healthier and more productive to put your energies into something that you can achieve than to keep plugging away at something you can't.

Even if the situation feels inescapable, try thinking creatively about how you might do things differently in the future. Take the time to reevaluate your priorities and realign your personal goals. Could you perhaps learn a new skill, take on some new responsibilities, or even change your job role?

Key Points

When too many tasks, responsibilities and worries build up it's easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed. We may become anxious, less productive, and less able to make decisions.

One way to reduce overwhelm is to work through the issues you're facing using a tool called the Control Influence Accept/Adapt model. This was first developed by Neil and Sue Thompson in their 2008 book, "The Critically Reflective Practitioner."

They propose that there are three ways you can look at a problem:

  1. Control – you use your skills and knowledge to solve the problem.
  2. Influence – you use your expertise to advise others and influence their decisions to solve the problem.
  3. Accept/Adapt – you accept that you can neither control nor influence the situation, and instead adapt to it accordingly.

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