The Work of Worry

I admit, I’m a worrier. Always have been – when I was a teenager, I used to lay awake nights worrying about… well, whatever teenagers worry about. In college, I used to worry about classes, girls, money – and eventually about the fact that I was laying up nights worrying instead of sleeping. Today, I worry about… well, I worry about the same things, I guess, except now I’m on the other side of the classroom lectern.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned, though: it takes about as much work to do or fix the thing we’re worried about as it does to worry about it. Often, it actually takes even less. Consider this admittedly extreme example drawn from Neil Fiore’s Overcoming Procrastination (originally published as The Now Habit):

Carolyn had procrastinated for months over… [buying] her mother some Chinese cooking utensils. A number of small problems would get in her way, making the task seem complicated and hard to deal with – it seemed like a long trip, she didn’t know where to get off the train, it would be embarrassing having to ask strangers for directions, she wasn’t sure of the exact place in Chinatown to shop. One rainy day… she decided to just get on the train and ask someone for her stop and trust that she would find her way. Everything unfolded magically from one step to the next. Upon reaching her destination she checked her watch and discovered that it had taken her nine and one-half minutes. “Nine and a half minutes!” she said to herself. “I’ve been procrastinating for months over something that took me nine and a half minutes!” (Pg. 111-12)

Think of how much work Carolyn invested into avoiding those 9 ½ minutes of activity. How many times she must have remembered (and probably at the most ridiculous times, when it could only distract her from other tasks) that she’d promised her mother to get her those kitchen utensils, how much guilt she must have felt on not delivering on that promise, how many excuses she had to come up with to avoid completing this simple project, how many times she must have had to apologize to her mother for not getting to it yet (and how many new promises to “get to it soon” she must have made, each adding another layer of guilt and worry to her routine) – all over a task that required next to no effort at all.

Now, multiply that times a lifetime of worry. That’s some serious work we’re doing. Work we’re wasting, actually, since it produces nothing except greater anxiety, guilt, and negative feelings about ourselves. And think of how many different ways we create this negative, unproductive work for ourselves.

  • Procrastination: Carolyn’s is a classic case of procrastination, investing our energy in anxious fretting instead of in our ostensibly chosen work. Procrastination has a lot of negative qualities, but here, the important thing is that when we procrastinate work that we’d be a lot better off finishing, we actually create more work for ourselves in the form of worry. The guilt, the self-recriminations, the excuses – these are all work. Stupid, unproductive, useless work.
  • Disorganization: One of the things that struck me most when I interviewed Regina Leeds, author of One Year to an Organized Life, was her insistence that even the worst disorganization is a system – it takes a lot of work and effort to maintain a chaotic life. Part of that effort is just finding everything, but part of it is the worry and fear we feel that we won’t be able to find what we need, that something important will get lost, that others will judge us harshly, that we won’t work quickly or efficiently enough, and do on. Though the start-up costs of a more efficient system can be somewhat steep, the long-term gain in productive non-worrying generally outweighs by far the negative feelings we pay for the privilege of disorganization.
  • Over-organization: By the same token, after a certain point our organization system can become its own source of anxiety, as we spend more time and effort worrying about where things go or about putting things in the wrong place that we stop getting done the things that the organization system was ostensibly supposed to make possible.
  • Unattainable goals: This is a tough one: goals that we’ve set for ourselves that either always were or that we ultimately realize are beyond our ability to achieve. Nothing hangs on us like an unfinished project, and to save ourselves from the stigma and shame of failure, we are often hesitant to let go of tasks we simply cannot complete. This is why it’s important to set attainable goals, and to accept failure and learn from it when we can – the alternative is a lifetime of regret and worry.

I’m sure there are other situations where we work harder at worrying than at the thing we’re worrying about. How about relationships?

Here’s a story: I went to a movie with a woman I really liked, and we got popcorn. “Do you want butter on that?” asked the teenage popcornière behind the counter. I don’t like butter on my popcorn, but ever the gentleman, I turned to my date and asked her if she wanted any. She doesn’t like it either, but ever the lady, she said, “well, light butter is ok.”

“OK, ” I said, turning back to the young popcorn chef.

“Only if you want butter,” she said, stopping me before I could order butter. After an awkward back and forth, it emerged that neither of us likes butter on our popcorn, but both of us were willing to make the sacrifice out of worry of offending the other. Fortunately in this case, we straightened it out before we both had to suffer a greasy bag of disgusting oiled popcorn. But how often do couples, whether on an early date or after decades of marriage, undermine their relationships by worrying instead of acting? And how much better off might they be without all the wasted work of worry?

It’s something to consider. And what about you? What worry do you work hardest at? Let us know in the comments.

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