Advertising
Advertising

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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    • 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.”

    Advertising

    “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?

    Advertising

    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

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby)

    Trending in Featured

    1 The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) 2 How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life 3 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

    Advertising

    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

    Advertising

    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

    Advertising

    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

    Advertising

    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

    Read Next