It’s hard to give everything our best effort when we have so much to do. So it’s natural that we worry. We worry a lot. And for some strange reason we think that the worrying is doing us good, getting us to do the things that need to get done. It’s an implicit bias that can creep into our thought repertoire without us knowing. As a result, we mistakenly think that worrying is a good thing … It’s not. You should stop worrying.
Worrying is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but you get nowhere.
These are the Myths of Worry. It’s the belief that worrying is beneficial because it:
- Facilitates problem solving
- Enhances motivation
And you probably don’t even know that you are negatively impacted by these beliefs.
In this post we will challenge and debunk these two myths by leveraging insights from empirical research. We’ll uncover the neuroscience of worry to help us understand a key point: worry is actually a huge hindrance to our mental performance. It interferes with psychological functioning by reducing cognitive efficiency.
Most important, we’ll outline a set of reframing tactics to stop worrying and get you on a path of uninterrupted (and worry-free) productivity.
And you can trust us on this. Our team of PhDs in Psychology and Neuroscience have sifted through the scientific literature to ensure that all the information here is evidence-based and empirically valid.
But before getting started, a short lesson is needed on how worry works in the brain.
How does worry impact the brain?
A state of worry is a state of cognitive overload. It has a particular impact on our limbic system.
The limbic system is a network of many structures in the brain that work together to help us perform optimally. This can range from ensuring basic motor functions (literally not falling over when you walk) all the way up to emotional regulation (not throwing your computer out of a window after reading a bad email).
It’s a very complex neural network… as you can see below.
You can think of the limbic system as a wifi signal, broadcasting data out (to other areas of the brain) and taking data in to optimize the most important part of the system: YOU!
Specifically, the limbic system determines whether other areas of the brain are able to function optimally in guiding your thoughts and behaviors.
When we worry, so does the limbic system. It needs to feel connected and calm to let other parts of the brain function effectively. When the limbic system is not relaxed because of increased worry, it creates dysfunction in these other important parts of your brain.
What this tells us, then, is that worry is NOT an emotion or feeling state. It is a biological, neurological response that disrupts high value cognitive processes. And so when you worry, you are actively reducing the computational efficiency of your brain.
In this next section, we will outline the two Myths of Worry and teach you a set of tactics that will:
- Help you reframe your erroneous beliefs about worry
- Get you to stop worrying, and as a result
- Improve your cognitive efficiency
Myth #1: Worry facilitates action-based problem solving
We will first challenge the notion that worrying helps you see problems in a new light. The question is, does worrying help you uncover certain insights? Some might think so, because it introduces you to novel “modes of thinking/doing”.
But more often than not, unplanned worrying is a hindrance to basic cognitive functioning, as it limits the extent to which we are able to properly initiate and carry out those modes of thinking/doing.
That being said, there are times when worry can be good. So we are not saying we need to remove worry entirely. Rather we just need to place some boundaries on it so that you can actually get stuff done in the moments that matter. You need to worry smart.
Reframe conclusion #1: Worry facilitates action, but reduces cognitive efficiency
Unplanned worrying is literally bad for your brain and interferes with our ability to problem-solve throughout the day. So let’s see how we can increase efficiency by doing the following steps.
1. Set up a Postponed Worry Zone (PWZ)
First, identify a time of day when you will set aside to worry (i.e., at the end of the day; on the train ride home from work). Try to make sure that this is after your work day is over. Second, identify the length of time you will allow yourself to worry (i.e., one hour). Block it off in your calendar every day. This is your Postponed Worry Zone or PWZ for short.
2. Delegate worries to your PWZ
You will need to identify and delegate your worries to your PWZ as you encounter them throughout your day. When you start noticing worries arising, use this decision tree to help you delegate worry to your PWZ.
In short, if you can’t do something about it now, immediately move it to your PWZ.
3. Log your PWZ delegated worry to your to-do list
Create a box, or column on your to do list or notebooks for your PWZ items. As you are logging these PWZ items, rank how intense your worry is related to these. You should use the same 1 to 5 rating.
Here you have mentally (and physically) manipulated your worry. You haven’t erased it. The goal is not to forget your worry, but to come back to it at its designated time. Everything has its time and place, and worry is not welcome in the workday. It is welcome in your PWZ, however.
Once the worry is logged, simply move on with your day. Come back to this step each time a new worry comes up.
4. Enter your PWZ
Now is the time to worry. Review your log. Notice how worried you feel now. Go ahead, worry all you want, because you have nothing else to do except that. Note if your level of worry has changed from Step 3.
Over time you will see that compartmentalizing your worry to a dedicated PWZ will
- Reduce how often you worry AND
- Reduce the intensity of the worry outside the designated PWZ time.
You will be creating a healthy worry habit.
Tip: To habituate the behavior, set your PWZ to the same time and place every day. Include cues in your environment that trigger the release of you entering the PWZ.
How it works
Having a PWZ teaches you to learn not to react to worries throughout the day. When we don’t react, our cognitive bandwidth is freed up to focus on the problem and task at hand.
Our brain’s capacity for problem solving is limited. Think of a car. It can only go so far, depending on the size of its fuel tank. But you can modify the engine to use fuel more efficiently. So no… we can’t directly make your brain’s fuel tank bigger. But we can improve your fuel efficiency to increase your cognitive capacity. Taking the worry out is like improving the ratio of converting fuel to kinetic energy for your car – it’s moving you forward with the same amount of effort.
The aim of setting a worry time and a PWZ is that you are learning not to react to worrying thoughts during the day, relying on the fact that you have a time and place for that.
Myth #2: Worry enhances motivation
In a similar way, some people believe that worrying pulls them out of procrastination mode and kicks their motivation in high gear. The thinking is that worrying gets you motivated to get things done.
But are you getting the right things done? And what about the things you aren’t focusing on – the things that keep getting bumped to the back of your to-do list?
Scientists have shown that we actually use worry as a defense mechanism. It helps us avoid some of the harder things and instills a false sense of hope that the “lighter” loads are being addressed (i.e., thing are getting done). Worrying about relatively easier things feels better than the real dread that comes from thinking of the “heavier” and more significant worries.
But we’re fooling ourselves.
Avoiding these larger negative emotions isn’t a lasting strategy. Your worry is misplacing your motivation. While worry may very well help you complete a task, it does so in an inefficient, unprioritized manner.
Now, let’s look at this worry and motivation concept a little closer.
Reframe conclusion #2: Worry enhances and misplaces motivation
How often have you found yourself organizing your desk when you have a deadline? You generally get things done in time, but you’ve overloaded yourself with extra cognitive load.
Think of high efficiency versus low efficiency cars. Of course you can get to your destination with either car, but you will use less fuel with the first one. Therefore, both cars are effective, but only one is efficient. Your brain works the same way.
Even though you’re putting off certain things because of your worry, you’re still being effective. You are probably able to complete the work (eventually). But you are not being efficient. When you worry, you are wasting a lot of cognitive resources that you certainly don’t have to.
What we want you to learn is how to use your brain more efficiently by putting your motivation in the right place at the right time. It’s not that hard to feel motivated, but it’s harder to be motivated to do the “hard stuff.” We can find ourselves using our motivation – our cognitive resources – on less important tasks as part of this worry-related defense mechanism.
We use our motivation for these less important tasks as a way to avoid the hard work. So if we can train our brains to make use of our motivation in the most optimal way possible, we suddenly increase the efficiency of our cognitive output. You’ve all heard about working smarter, not harder. Well, our brain can also work smarter by reducing cognitive load.
To help make sure your motivation is where it should be and that you’re tackling the big ticket items, you need to reduce cognitive load with restricted work sessions.
This means targeting and focusing your efforts in a systematic way. Follow these steps.
1. Phase I: Planning
Get out your to-do list (we know you have one, and we already know it’s well organized). It isn’t a daily to-do list but something that includes your goals for the medium to long term (3-4 weeks, for example). Pick five items.
Rank these items from 1 to 5; in the order that you WANT to do them.
- 1= can’t wait to start / I can hammer this out
- 5 = I will do everything today to avoid doing this / I’ll get to it later
All of the tasks ranked 3 or higher are the largest source of worry for you. It’s why you are trying to avoid them and to misplace your motivation on the easier #1s and 2s. This error in thinking is what also makes you believe that the low level worrying you’re doing is helping you to be motivated and finish certain tasks.
You need to shift the focus to the tough stuff, the #4s and 5s. To start on the most worrisome/least desirable tasks, you then enter the Action Phase. Use the pomodoro technique, but like you’ve never used it before – to stop worrying.
2. Phase II: Action
Step 1: Create a restricted work session for one of the worrisome tasks you’ve selected.
Set a timer for 20 minutes. Start your task.
Focus the entire 20 minutes on the task at hand – without any distractions (including, podcasts, emails, alerts, etc.). We are putting blinders on the world and making sure you are actually giving 100% now, for 20 minutes straight.
- once your timer has started, you cannot stop until it’s done
- If you do not start the task immediately, restart the timer
- If you are interrupted, restart the timer
Your goal here is to do a full 20 minutes of uninterrupted work.
TIP: If you need to listen to music while you work, use nonverbal music like instrumental classical or ambient background sound. Verbal music increases cognitive load by way of evoking emotions, memories, etc.
We want to reduce your cognitive load, so get rid of those words!
Step 2. Take a mandatory 3-5 minute break once the 20 minute period has elapsed.
You are not allowed to extend or modify the timelines here.
This is a true break, in that you are not to engage in mentally challenging work. Don’t even think about work. The rigidness is key to this exercise.
Tip: it may be a good idea to jot down some “break time” activities or keep some handy. Here are some ideas
- Box Breathing
- 54321 Grounding
- Think about your next vacation but in an imaginary sort of way (don’t plan it out)
- Crack a joke with a coworker
Tip: when the worry gets too intense, check out our lesson 3 Tactics to defeat imposter syndrome with dialectical thinking
Once you have finished step 1 and step 2 you have completed one restricted work session.
If you can, complete THREE restricted work sessions in total. The most effective use of this technique would include three consecutive RSWs, but you can still get the benefit from doing just one or two.
Step 3. Take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.
Once you have completed three restricted work sessions, reward yourself with a longer break.
Here you can tidy up your desk, answer some emails, grab a coffee, or book your weekly appointments. You can even reflect and process what you have accomplished.
You can still work, but it can’t be work that causes you worry.
Step 4. Re-do this exercise, and complete another restricted work session after this long break. Keep going and watch your “big worry” to-do list disappear. This restricted work session won’t give you space for worry. If it does, refer back to the first set of tactics in Myth #1.
How it works
The implicit decision to focus on easier worries is falsely reinforcing. By virtue of experiencing the reward for completing the low-worry tasks, you are reinforced each time. You build up the false belief that your worry was actually helping. But, as we now know, it doesn’t help for efficient work ethic because you aren’t addressing the real problems that are happening behind the scenes.
By following the above tactic, you exploit this reward system so that it works to your benefit for the most worrisome tasks. Thus, the intermittent and highly structured breaks are key. These reward-based cues co-opt the basic infrastructure of the brain in such a way that the unconquerable worries, the big to-dos, become simple outputs of habit-based rewards.
Recap and wrap up
Worrying can be detrimental to our mental performance. And yet, it’s such a pervasive state of mind.
The purpose of these lessons isn’t to stop worrying altogether (trust us, if we know how to do that we would tell you). Rather, it’s to challenge the way that you worry. Using these reframing tactics will allow you to operate more efficiently and with strategic purpose.
Here we have taught you how to to set up a Postponed Worry Zone and function optimally in a Restricted Work Session.
With these tactics, we are confident that you are providing your brain the tools to work as efficiently as a German car.