J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Problem List and 30-Day No Worrying Experiment

No worries.

Over the past couple months I’ve been maintaining two new lists:

  1. My problems.
  2. Things I’m looking forward to.

I update both on a weekly basis, along with progress towards my current goals. The point of the new lists is to get better in touch with aspects of my life that are effecting my emotional state. And to find ways to deal with the former, and enhance/magnify the latter.

Everybody has problems …

For the problem list, I started with whatever was bothering me most. I tried to take a subjective approach as much as possible. In other words I only wrote down things that I felt were problematic in my life, not what other people might think were my problems.

My list includes minor health issues, things that need fixing around my house, the Trump administration, concerns about friends and family members, professional goals I’m impatient to reach, the possibility of a catastrophic climate tipping point, and so forth. Probably not that different than your own list would be, at least in terms of topic headings.

I’ve had times in my life with both less serious problems and more serious problems, but I’ll always have some problems as long as I’m alive. It comes with the territory.

The main effects of maintaining this list is a significant reduction in anxiety. Acknowledging something as a problem gets me to the next step: what am I going to do about it? What’s the current action plan? (That’s column 2 in the list.)

Acknowledging a concern as a problem takes it out of my head as an amorphous worry and makes it concrete. Yes, this thing is bothering me enough to label it a problem, and I’m going to do something about it.

Or not. Sometimes during my weekly review I decide that something isn’t really bothering me anymore, and I’m not going to do anything about it. Problem gone.

Problems are personal. What I think you should be worried about and doing something about probably doesn’t correspond with what you think is problematic (and vice versa). We can try to persuade each other, but ultimately we each decide how to allocate our own mental and material resources.

Of course collective problem solving exists too, in the form of coalitions, nonprofits, government, and many other forms. The radical dysfunction of the current U.S. government could be described as the problem-solving efforts of an elite minority (primarily rich conservative elderly male white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) trying to solve their highest priority problems (1. they have to pay taxes, 2. women are getting too powerful, 3. the U.S. is becoming too brown and un-Christian).

But that’s a whole ‘nuther thing …

Anticipation, planning, and values

The other list, Things I’m Looking Forward To, has two columns: a description of what I’m looking forward to, and what I can do to enhance or magnify that experience.

Maintaining that list has a few effects:

  • If the list is too short, I know I need to plan more fun, exciting things in my life.
  • What I add or don’t add to this list helps me understand how my values and priorities might be shifting.
  • This list helps me remember what’s most important in my life (time enjoyed with family and friends, creative work, games and play).

It takes about ten minutes each week to update both lists, and while I can’t quantify the reduction in anxiety or other mental benefits, they feel significant.

A Less Successful Experiment: 30 Days of No Worrying

In mid-May I started a 30-Day Experiment: I decided I would try to go a month without worrying. Except that instead of a Bobby McFerrin type approach (“Don’t worry, be happy”), I decided to go with more of a Jocko Willink approach (“Discipline equals freedom”). The idea being that solving problems is more effective and pleasurable than worrying, and to replace the latter with the former as much as possible.

My results were mixed.

I wasn’t always able to catch myself worrying, or to distinguish that mental state from trying to solve a particular problem. Over time I began to identify the following behaviors as worrying and ineffectual:

  • mental loops
  • excessive information gathering
  • excessive focus on possible negative outcomes
  • haphazard attempts at “quick fixes”

And the following behaviors as problem solving:

  • defining/diagnosing the issue empirically
  • considering action possibilities, weighing pros and cons
  • committing to a course of action long enough to see if it helps or makes things worse

The “no worrying allowed” self-discipline did prevent some anxiety spirals, but it didn’t significantly reduce anxiety. Anxiety is a physiological state, not necessarily directly related to the state of one’s life. I know, more or less, how to reduce my own anxiety levels. The additional mental discipline of not worrying only had a small effect; it wasn’t a panacea for anxiety.

Around here we say “a worrier looking for a worry.” Meaning high internal anxiety, looking for something to obsess about. On those days that the experiment succeeded, I was able to replace worrying behaviors (mental loops, excessive information gathering, piecemeal tactics) with more constructive, rational behaviors (get high quality information from reliable sources, make a sensible plan, stick to it long enough to see if it works).

In summary, it took me almost the whole month to figure out what worrying actually means. Not worrying doesn’t mean ignoring your problems and hoping they’ll go away (though sometimes that works pretty well). Not worrying also doesn’t mean obsessing about your problems, trying to solve everything immediately, acting ceaselessly so that you never know what is working and what isn’t.

I guess for me, reducing worry is a combination of self-discipline and patience.

What approach do you take to understanding, managing, and solving your problems?

What works for you in terms of reducing anxiety and worry?

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10 Comments

  1. I have done it and I am in very big financial stress. I did and am continuing 40 days of 108 mantras, very positive and deeply felt and 15 mins. of meditation. My worry & reactivity has shifted and my creativity is flowing: new blog and book soon. Here is a post on meditation I just did. http://www.living-co-creatively.com/meditation

    BTW I also allowed myself to get hooked on Abraham Hicks on You Tube….it requires a stretch but the psychology of absolute love and acceptance is spot on. They also teach no keeping track, really going w the flow.

    Lastly this is phenomenal as I have serious genetic diseases that make me a worrier, the mutations are actually called “worrier snps” so I am a very hard case.

    I am very positive life will work out for me tho I feel a slight twinge as I say this.

  2. R Flint

    “Excessive information gathering” ~ Boy, did that hit home!

    • Totally — I’ve lost more than a few days scouring the internet for more information instead of just implementing the one or two evidence-supported steps I already know about!

  3. I learned something interesting this year working with a coach. I am far more of a visual person than I thought. I used to keep to-do lists on my computer or in list form in a notebook (or both). Both created anxiety, because as soon as I turned off the computer or closed the notebook, I felt that I lost control over the list. I started keeping track of all my to-dos on tiny sticky notes that live on the wall next to my desk. I stick the 5-6 things I’m actively working on to my computer monitor. This method helps me focus, feels fluid, and gives me a quick visual read on what needs attention. It has definitely contributed to lowering my anxiety about managing tasks.

    • Good solution! I just never turn my computer off.

      Only sort of kidding. Todoist syncs with my phone, so I always have the list at hand, even when away from the computer. But my wife is a post-it and back-of-envelope person.

  4. L A

    I try not to worry/ lose sleep over things I cannot control (aka Trump, world events & the mean things my ex does). I still think about them but TRY not to worry about them!

  5. I came for a visit after visiting Micah site and liked your thoughts on worry. Dealing with insomnia leaves tons of room for worry in my life. My husband can go to sleep any time anywhere and sleep 9-10 hours and he does not worry as much as me. No one would call him an anxious man.
    . Yet at 26 he had a massive heart attack, which caused the doctor to ask me, “is he worried about something, how is your marriage, how is his job, the usual thing one worries about.” People could not believe he had a heart attack, this man who seemingly was so calm. Underneath that calm was a raging state of anxiety. We both worry about our children, now grown with their own children. We both worry at times about money. He get anxiety about the political state of our country and deals with it by not watching TV. I can watch it for hours and not be anxious. Worry knows no boundaries, it crosses ocean, countries, clan, culture and all men and women and children. It lives within us and takes discipline and helps to put it to rest. The problems is it will rise again, it’s not a one time issue we deal with. That being said, I can say without a doubt I worry less as I have aged. In those 70 years I have learned the root of worry is not having control. At 35 i became a believer in Jesus Christ dying on the cross for me and so many of my worries fell away. I believe God has a plan for planet earth and He will work His will His way in His time. I can either tune into His will or ignore it. I don’t have to be in control of all. I have never thought about making a list of things that worry me. I make a list to get things done and if they do not all get done I put them at the top of a new list or cross them off. I will admit aging has cause me a few worries especially this last year and half as my health as declined. Despite all the anti-aging cream I put on I still get a day older and with that different health issue crop up related to aging. I have been working on a piece about the “rhythm of life. for a ladies meeting. I met with these ladies about a year ago and I want to ask them, what has changed in the last year for them. The change of rhythm has been out of my control, I will age, life will bring problems that cause us to march to a different rhythm. the only solid thing rhythm in my life has been the Lord, He has not changed. Studying for this has helped me so much. I know the rhythm will change again, again I am not getting younger. I know more than I did at 69, I have more to worry about if I chose to do so. But with the help I gleam from the Word of God and His Spirit residing in me I say most of the time I can give it over to someone bigger than me. Well, I have wrote a book, a short one, thank God for you. sorry if I have bored you. I got in the flow and just keep writing what popped into my mind. By the way, for me that is a mark of a good post.

    • Hi Wise Hearted — I don’t mind long comments at all. Thanks for sharing your experience. While I’m more-or-less an atheist, I do find comfort in prayer. Which may seem illogical … I explain in this post:

      http://www.jdmoyer.com/2011/07/25/why-as-an-atheist-i-pray/

      • Wow…glad I read your post , why as an atheist i pray. I must say I understand better there are variations of atheist. Your take on prayer of course would differ greatly from mine. I don’t pray to my mind but to the creator of the universe and all of mankind. Through the years I have met many from different belief systems that pray.Some pray to mother earth, some to their dead relatives, some to a stone statue, some to the virgin Mary. I read into many of these belief systems but found them wanting. It was not until I bought an NIV bible and started to read it that I realized there was not something that could give me answers but a who, God and His son Jesus and the bible was their story. What a privilege it is to have free choice. I must admit your knowledge is way above me, I have never even heard of these people you quote. I quote the bible mostly or maybe some christian author I have read, but mostly the bible. Once I read it my search for answers such as to why am I here, what is my purpose and where am I going when I die was answered. Thanks for commenting on my comment.

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