One morning during my college years, I dragged myself into my parents’ house at 7 a.m. or so after a night on the town—the next town, actually. My mother was at the door, frantic. As she probed the unprobable fathoms of the teenage male mind to no avail, my father lay snoring upstairs.
“Which of these approaches,” I thought, “do I want to emulate?”
I picked my father’s. Actually, it was his family’s. My mother’s side of the family was full of worriers. My father’s wasn’t. They were pragmatic Germans who didn’t see the sense in it, and I liked that.
Worry is often involuntary over-concern about something that may or may not happen that has potentially dire consequences. It burns time as surely as gambling burns money. I have never put much stock in it. As my mother got older and feebler, she would say, “Robbie, I’m so sorry you have to worry about me.”
“Mom,” I told her, “I will do everything I can for you. If you call, I’ll come. If you have a problem, I’ll do what I can to help you. But when I walk out the door again and go on about my day, or drive back to Nashville, I don’t worry.” And I don’t. Normally. But every now and then something will break, or attempt to break, through my defenses and I have to return to the trick that helped me overcome it in the first place.
Yes, I’m here to tell you there is a trick, a secret. And it is this: like any worthwhile endeavor, overcoming worry takes practice and a game plan.
Here is mine. The minute I realize I’m beginning to worry, I break down the cause. What exactly do I fear will happen? I write that down. Then I break that into components, making two lists. One is of the things that are outside my control. For example, the stock market finish on January 1st of next year, the weather on the day of an important event, and the outcome of the 2016 presidential race, are all out of my control.
Then I make a list of what is under my control. What I invest in, what I do or don’t bet on, whether I schedule an event with an indoor back-up just in case, and how I vote are all under my control.
I look at the second list first. I ask myself, “What can I do to take care of those things I can control right now?” If there is something I can do now, I do it. I make the call, make the decision, move the car, stop watching the news, whatever it is. There are things I can’t do at the moment. It may have to wait until the bank opens or the sun rises or election day rolls around. If that’s the case, I plan as best as I can right now for what I’ll do when I can do something. So I have a plan of action. And then I place the thing I’m going to do in the other list, with the things I cannot control.
Then I move to the next step. I return to the list of things I can’t control. I tell myself again, “I can’t control these things.” And I set them aside for 30 seconds. “I am not going to worry about these things for the next 30 seconds,” I tell myself. I do something else, distracting myself for that amount of time. And then I check to see whether the roof has caved in or whether the universe still appears to be running fairly smoothly. If it is, I give it another 30 seconds, or maybe 60 seconds this time. I keep increasing that amount of time until eventually I am going days, weeks and months without worrying unnecessarily.
Got it? You too can do this. Done often enough, it will work. You will reduce drastically the amount of time you spend worrying. You will push back the threshold of what is important enough to worry about. And you will realize that worry does nothing. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t make anything better. There is only action and distraction. Chances are, the event won’t happen. If it does, you have made at least a tentative plan, and you can re-evaluate and recalibrate when it does.
But be forewarned: Just as going from out-of-shape person to in-shape person takes a long time, so does mastering, or at least tamping down, worry.
Is it a worthwhile endeavor? You bet. I wish you could ask my mom and my dad.
I make a deal with close friends, and I’ll offer it to you, whether or not we are currently close friends. I’ll do your worrying. Tell me what you’re worrying about and promise me you’ll turn it over to me until the time when you’ll know whether the thing you’d be worrying about came to pass or not. I promise I will give it all the worry it needs while you go on about your life.