The Work of Worry
If worries never break your concentration, congratulations. Most of us get stuck occasionally in a worry loop. For example, you might be trying to work out some budget numbers, when you start worrying about whether they will be acceptable to your boss. Each number triggers a new version of the worry.
When this happens, telling yourself to "stop that" or "focus!" may not help. When it doesn't, I find that doing "the work of worry" [Note 1] helps me clear my head and be productive.
The "work of worry" consists of naming the worries, vetting them, and then addressing them head-on, if needed.
The first step is to take the worry seriously by turning it into words. Write out your concerns in a sentence or a paragraph. For example, maybe the worry is: "These numbers are high. I'm afraid I'll be pressured to reduce them." Or maybe: "Gee, these numbers are wild guesses. The boss is going to think this is a risky plan."
It's important to express the worry as is, without second-guessing it. Worry is a kind of fear, an emotional response to a seeming threat. You need to know what that seeming threat is, and the first step is to express the feeling in words, even if it seems illogical.
The second step is to determine whether the threat is real and important or just a phantasm.
For example, if you feared pressure to change the budget numbers, you might ask yourself: "Has that happened before? Why do I think it will happen now?" You may see the fear is groundless. Perhaps it comes from bad experiences with a previous boss, not this one.
But if you find some basis for your fear, you have a final step to take. You need to figure out how to address the problem or potential problem.
Maybe you should beef up your analysis now so that you can defend the numbers more confidently later. Or maybe you need to discuss with your boss how to build some safeguards into the project to reduce the budget risk.
The "work of worry" is a thinking process that takes some time, but it always pays off if you are bogged down worrying. When the worry is groundless, it will help you break free from an endless worry loop. And when the worry is warranted, it will help you get one step ahead of a brewing problem.
1. I learned about the "work of worry" from Neil Fiore in his book The Now Habit.
This article originally appeared in the Thinking Directions newsletter on 6/17/08.