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The Work of Worry

The Work of Worry

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.

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    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.

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    • 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.”

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    “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?

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

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

    More About Continuous Learning

    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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