Paddy asked the question before I even had a chance to hand him his coffee, “Did your executive coaching sessions often deal with worry?”
“Yes,” I assured him, “nearly all the time.”
“So, do you have a formula for avoiding worry?” Paddy asked.
“No,” I replied, “I don’t think there’s any way to be completely worry-free; but I firmly believe that people can learn to manage it. And people should. Our health and well-being depend on being able to manage worry. People’s career advancement will depend in large part on how well they manage it because every moment spent worrying is a moment that’s not contributing to success.”
“Well,” Paddy said, “I’ll just rephrase my question. What’s the formula for managing worry then?”
“If there’s a one-size-fits-all formula for managing worry,” I told him, “I’ve never come across it; people have to experiment with different methods in order to find out what works best for them.”
“What do you do?” Paddy asked.
“Here’s what works for me,” I told him. “Just as it probably is with you and everybody else in the world, worries that creep into my mind are usually things that I can’t do anything about at that time; so, I remind myself that taking time to worry about them is futile.”
“Sure, I can see that,” Paddy said, “but, what do you do?”
“I make an appointment with myself to worry about the problem,” I told him. “I set aside a time in my mind, say fifteen minutes at 3:45 the next afternoon, during which I will worry really effectively. If I catch myself worrying about the subject before the appointed time, I remind myself to put if off until then. What usually happens is that by 3:45 the next afternoon, I’ve either forgotten about the problem or I’ve got something more important on mind.”
“You said just in your mind,” Paddy correctly observed, “so, you don’t actually put the appointment in your diary.”
“Right,” I answered. “Putting it in my diary would be counterproductive. It would just bring it to mind unnecessarily every time I noticed it.
“So, what do you do when 3:45 the next day rolls around and you do remember your so-called appointment?” he asked.
“In the rare instances when I do remember it,” I told him, “I’ll give it some thought as planned. Then one of two things usually happens; either my mind will wander off to something else after a few seconds, or I will actually come up with some ideas about how to deal with the situation.”
“I don’t think that would work for me,” Paddy observed, “I’d just worry about forgetting the damn appointment. What are some other methods?”
“For most people, getting busy is probably the best way to handle worry,” I said. “The most effective method seems to be to do something that requires both physical and mental activity, such as playing a sport. Others hook up their iPod and go for a walk or a run. One friend of mine has a punching bag in his office and another bag in his basement at home. He finds that whenever worry threatens to become a problem, a few minutes pounding the bag and counting the punches works wonders.”
“But surely,” Paddy protested, “there are things that we should be concerned about.”
“But there’s a difference between being concerned about something and worrying about it,” I explained. “Of course there are things about which we should be concerned, but there’s nothing about which we should be continually worried. Someone, maybe Dale Carnegie, said that concern is forethought whereas worry is fear thought. Also, when we refuse to let a concern escalate into a worry, we’re more apt to come up with ways to deal with the problem. Worrying is counter-productive, a waste of time, and harmful to our health. When worry slips in, take time to think but not to tremble.”
“Are there common characteristics of worry?” was Paddy’s next question.
“Two for sure,” I told him. “Worry is often caused by trying to make decisions before having enough information. Instead of just stewing about a problem, take the time to consider what the causes of the problem are, what all the possible solutions are, what the best solution is likely to be, and what action you’re going to take.”
“And the other is,” Paddy prodded.
“The human tendency to read big implications into little facts,” I said, “the proverbial making a mountain out of a mole hill scenario. Usually, what we’re worried about isn’t as serious as it seems. If we’re working on a way to handle a problem, there’s nothing to be gained by worrying about it. When we’re worried about something we’ve probably already thought about the worst that can happen, but instead of stopping there we should think about what the odds actually are that the worst will happen. Then we should think about what can be done to improve on the worst. Look back on your life and you’ll find that most of the things you worried about never happened.”
As Paddy got up to leave he asked, “Any final words of wisdom?”
Yes,” I said, “never spend time worrying about something you can’t do anything about. Always remind yourself that the occasional disappointment is part of life, and then get on with it.”
“I’ll try,” Paddy muttered as he walked away.
“That’s a start,” I said, but I’m not sure he heard me. He was probably worrying about what to do about worrying.