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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.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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