Skip to main content
Habits and StrategiesHappiness

How to Worry Effectively

By March 13, 2024No Comments


Worry is a troublesome activity. And we can find ourselves practicing this ancient ritual at the least opportune times: getting ready for an important presentation, anticipating the response of other people to something we want or need, hoping for a positive outcome in a complex situation… and all too often at two or three in the morning.

We tend to worry about the things we can’t control. Money is often at the top of the list. We can’t control how our investments will do. We also can’t control politics, the weather, or future events.

We can’t control the response to our presentation, the receptiveness of others to what we want or need, or the outcomes of many situations… and we certainly can’t control much of anything in the middle of the night, when we should be sleeping soundly.

When we’re dealing with things we can control, we don’t usually worry about them, we just do them. We prepare diligently for our presentation, we ask for what we want as clearly and respectfully as possible, and we bring our very best to what we do, giving us the best chance at a positive outcome – but the outcome itself is often not in our hands.

Ideally, like the stoics recommended thousands of years ago, we would spend all our time focusing on only those things that we can control, and none of our time worrying about the things we can’t control. But anyone with ambitions, dreams for the future, or children knows that’s just not possible.

So let’s look instead at how we can worry more effectively:

First of all, we do tend to have what we can and can’t control mixed together in our minds. It can help to separate them out.

A simple but effective way to do this is to write them down. Take a big pad of paper, draw a vertical line down the middle of the page, making two columns. Choose an issue or a facet of your life that is troubling you.

In one column, write down all the things regarding that issue that you can’t control. In the other column write down the things regarding that issue that you can control.

Then, take a good look at the column of things you can’t control, and acknowledge that, by definition, there’s really nothing you can do here. Accept the truth of that as deeply as you can, and bring most, if not all, of your attention to the other column.

From the column of things you can control, glean from that list tangible actions you can take that will help your situation. Be as specific as possible, identifying as many actions as you can. Make sure that each of them is doable – preferably in small enough chunks that you can imagine yourself doing and finishing each one in a sitting.

Next, each day, take from that list one or a few things you can do the following day.

Now you have the beginning of positive momentum toward genuinely tackling whatever it is that’s been troubling you.

The beauty of this is that now, when you find yourself worrying about this – especially when you wake up in the middle of the night, thoughts racing – you can stop, and remind yourself that you already have this sorted out. You’ve written down what you need to do, you’ll look at it in the morning, and you’re taking those actions deliberately and reliably.

Now, here’s the truly essential part: Make sure that you’re taking those actions.

If you’re not taking the actions, and you try and relax – or sleep well – it’ll be like having one foot on the brake and the other foot on the gas at the same time. You have your foot on the brake trying to relax or sleep; but meanwhile, your system’s revved up, because you know there are things you need to be doing, and you’re not doing them!

This is a sure recipe for feeling stressed out – and getting rotten sleep as well.

This is why it’s so important to clearly define the actions you can take to move yourself in the right direction. Make sure they’re tangible, doable steps – steps you know you can achieve yourself. Then there’s no mystery to it, no amazing luck to hope for; you just do what you know you need to do, with the things you have control over.

So now you’ve sorted out the part you can take charge of and move forward on.

And yet…

Let’s be honest; we’re still going to worry. It’s a human thing. We can minimize it considerably with the above practice, among other things; but we will never completely let go of some of what we can’t control.

What can we do about that? How can we avoid waking up at three in the morning ruminating over those things?

We can train ourselves to worry on purpose, at a more functional time, as recommended by sleep expert Dr. Aric Prather, in his book The Sleep Prescription: Seven Days to Unlocking Your Best Rest.

Very specifically, set aside time each day to worry deliberately. Choose a time later in the day, but not just before bedtime, to worry on purpose, for 10-15 minutes. When those 10-15 minutes are up, you move on to something else. Your worrying time is done for the day.

Practice this diligently. Over time, this will train your system to worry at the time you choose, instead of in the middle of the night.

If worrying is interfering with your sleep, make this a regular practice. It takes a month or two, in general, to establish a new habit, so stay with it for at least 5-6 weeks, and see if it makes a difference for you. If it does, then keep doing it. At some point you may find you don’t need 10-15 minutes at all, but just acknowledging your worries at that “worry time” takes care of it – but you’ll need to establish the solid practice over time first.

For most of us, worry is like a feral animal, coming and going as it will. Practicing the things I’ve talked about here can help you tame your worry, so you can have more serenity, less stress, and more effectiveness.

PS: I currently have a few more openings available for life coaching. Go to my website to sign up for a free 30-minute initial conversation.