Over the past couple months I’ve been maintaining two new lists:
- My problems.
- 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?