- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

How I’m Learning to Stop Worrying

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Serenity Prayer

If you want to save wasted energy, stress and pain, stop worrying about things when you don’t have any power to control them. Ignoring something when you’ve decided not to do anything about it. This can mean completely ignoring something that appears important, but you know is irrelevant, or ignoring something when you choose not to invest energy fixing it.

A Confession

In my life, I constantly fail at applying this idea.  I have a high-energy, focused personality and I’m raised by a family of worriers.  I inherited many great things, but an easy-going perspective wasn’t one of them. If the Serenity Prayer was a report card, I’d score highly on the second verse, moderately on the last and fail completely on the opening line.  I’m great at focusing on goals, but I, like many people, have difficulty doing the opposite.

But, despite my natural weakness with this idea, I’m putting effort into improving at it.  The bias of this website is that I tend to write only where my strengths are.  Some people get the mistaken idea that I must be good at everything.  I assure you (as anyone who knows me in person will agree), that this isn’t the case. 🙂

Forget Trite Advice, Look for Something Practical

So, how can I, someone who is horribly inclined towards needless worry, help kill the habit.  I’ll admit, on the surface, my prospects seem grim.  Personality traits are largely heritable, so even if I practice a discipline of non-attachment, I’ll still be me.  Also, worrying is something difficult to control.  Unlike a behavior, this only exists in my thoughts, so there isn’t the buffer of conscious control to help me stop.

My strategy is based on three principles:

  1. Most problems are of degree, not of kind.  If I can reduce wasted energy from needlessly overthinking issues only by 5%, that’s a victory.  I will never be able to perfectly focus my attention, but I can make small changes and still make improvements.
  2. Your life philosophy affects your thoughts.  My strategy for thought-change has always been to change the explicit philosophy I have.  When I change how I evaluate myself and my behavior, I can steer my thinking.
  3. Your environment affects your behavior. Changing your philosophy is half the battle, the other half is to change the structure of your life to eliminate the forces that encourage the problem.

Changing Your Philosophy

My life philosophy is my articulated views on life.  Either the ideas that I’ve written down, spoken to other people or thought inside my head. I have many beliefs that I never speak, but still believe. However, I wouldn’t consider these part of my philosophy on life.

My theory of self improvement is that if I can change my philosophy towards an issue (that is my explicit beliefs and thoughts), I can control my behavior.  If my philosophy isn’t made explicit, I can’t have conscious control, since, by my definition, philosophy equals consciously held beliefs.  So, in simpler terms, if I can change how I view worrying, I will do it less.

Unnecessary Focus

What, exactly, do I want to stop doing?  I don’t want to stop thinking about my goals.  I’ve already written that I believe some degree of obsession [1] on the things you want helps them be realized. I’m not going to throw in the towel and become indifferent to everything in life.

I really want to stop two things:

  1. Thinking about problems when the timing isn’t right.
  2. Thinking about problems that aren’t worth the effort.

In the last four months, I did a bad job with the first task. I was busy working in a competitive team on an open-ended project to write and pitch a business plan. As a result, I allowed myself to think about it constantly, even when I wasn’t working on it. This meant for every 4 hours of work, I might have been wasting another 8 hours of thinking.

I realized my mistake only a month ago.  By clarifying to myself why my worrying was ridiculous and unnecessary, I could help curb it. Once I define the input I need to make into the project, I resolve to stop thinking about the project when I’m not working. So far this has been helpful, since it has made me more productive with less stress.

One benefit of digging into my unconscious beliefs about the issue (and thus making them part of my philosophy), was that I realized part of my stress was for status.  I was operating in a group project, and I wanted to show my commitment by constantly working. I felt guilty for not stressing, because I felt it sent the message I wasn’t serious about the project.  Although this was a legitimate concern, making it explicit made me realize that it was a destructive strategy.

Changing Your Philosophy Isn’t Enough

Simply clarifying that your current thought patterns are bad, doesn’t necessarily change them. On top of that, it’s good to make some changes to your environment to keep you behaving.  If you have bad habits, it’s probably because the structures of your life encourage (or at least, don’t discourage) the bad habit.  This applies to thought habits like worrying just as much as it does to exercising, studying or procrastinating.

In my case, this meant putting more faith in my weekly/daily goals system [2] as a way to handle all of the tasks associated with the project. Although I have been using the system for years, the competitive pressures of the project had caused me to stop relying on it.  As a result, I was putting pressure on myself to keep working on open loops [3] even after my to-do list was complete.

Will I Be Able to Change?

In the short term, probably not. Generally to make a large change to my disposition in life, I need to go through many different strategies, each of them only partially effective. So I expect I’ll probably fall back into my old patterns of focusing on things when it isn’t timely. However, if I keep digging into my unconscious beliefs and making them part of my philosophy, as well as changing my environment to control my behavior, I think I’ll eventually make some progress.

Everything that is a concrete part of my philosophy on life today (having goals, changing habits, the importance of health and energy, productivity, etc.), first had to go through the bumpy process of being an idea into a reality. I may be pessimistic in the short-term, but I’m incredibly optimistic in the long-term.

I thought I’d share this with you, because I tend to write everything in postmortem.  I write about problems after I’ve solved them. This makes for great articles, but it doesn’t really show much of the process I go through for making a change.

Hopefully in the next few years I’ll be able to have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change to match my courage to change the things I can, and ideally I will find the wisdom to know the difference.