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Handling worries: keep a list, schedule them, and have a worry place

I'm always delighted when multiple inputs in my life converge on a single idea, book, or solution. Yesterday this happened with two books I'm reading, which both talked about the problem of incessant worrying (something I'm susceptible to). The books are The Worrywart's Companion: Twenty-One Ways to Soothe Yourself and Worry Smart and Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. They both recommend managing worry using three ideas:
  • keep a worry list,
  • schedule worry time, and
  • have a worry place
(The last idea comes just from the first book.) Here's how Learned Optimism describes keeping the list:
[...]write the troublesome thoughts down the moment they occur. The combination of jotting them down - which acts to ventilate them and dispose of them - and setting a later time to think about them works well; it takes advantage of the reason ruminations exist - to remind you of themselves - and so undercuts them. If you write them down and set a time to think about them, they no longer have any purpose, and purposelessness lessens their strength.
(Rumination is the process of obsessive analysis - contemplating a problem, mulling it over and over, trying to analyze it, determine its source, etc.) Learned Optimism also describes why a list works, and why it's a good idea to explicitly schedule dealing with the worry:
You can undercut ruminations by taking advantage of their very nature. Their nature is to circle around in your mind, so that you will not forget them, so that you will act on them. When adversity strikes, schedule some time - later - for thinking things over ... say, this evening at six P.M. Now, when something disturbing happens and you find the thoughts hard to stop, you can say to yourself, "Stop. I'll think this over later ... at [such and such a time'."
The final idea of having a special worry place comes from The Worrywart's Companion. Here are the author's points in setting up a time and place to worry:
  • set a time
  • do nothing else
  • reduce disturbance
  • be a little uncomfortable
  • make it accessible
  • always worry when in your worry place
  • keep a worry list
  • go to your worry place when a worry comes on
  • instruct yourself - "This is a nonproductive worry. I'll write this on my list for worry time. Right now I will use my time to get something else done."
  • pat yourself on the back often
  • do something pleasant after worry time

The ideas of keeping a list of worries and dealing with them appropriately tie in nicely to the ideas and mechanics of David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology (the discipline I use to keep my life sane). Here's the summary from Matt Vance's book notes:
  1. keep everything out of your head
  2. decide actions and outcomes when things first emerge on your radar, instead of later
  3. regularly review and update the complete inventory of open loops of your life and work
Specifically, writing down worries as soon as they appear gets them out of my head, and helps keep them from reacquiring my attention until the time/energy/place is more appropriate. Second, Allen's tools help me deal with the worries - asking what each one is (is it valid?), if it's actionable, etc. Finally, I look at managing the worry list as a kind of continuous on-demand mind sweep.

Reader Comments (8)

This is very interesting stuff. I have an add-on to the concept. (This is my wife's idea, so I deserve no credit). Not only worry, but think of all the rational and (most especially) the irrational ways to defeat whatever it is you're worrying about. I find that listing these out in some form or another, and having (however sketchy) a "plan" gives me some comfort from these worries.

November 1, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Thanks for the idea Chris (and spouse) - I like it. Reminds me of something I was going to include in the post then gave up: In the RoadMap seminar David Allen says "Anything that's a 'problem' is a 'project'." This made me think: Is anything that's a worry a 'next action'?

November 1, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


Thanks for bringing these books to the discussion...

I remember reading - when learning about relationships - that one counselor advocates having "argument time" built into the evenings at home.

"What???" I thought, but then, the study goes on to show, when couples sit down at the appointed time, they move into - over time - discussing what's going on BEFORE it becomes an argument.

Your "worry list" ideas seem to be along those lines. Just imagine, write down the worries and decide:


Then, if it's a project:
Next Action
Waiting For

Cool stuff...

November 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Thanks for the analysis, Jason. I love the idea of constructive processing of family issues before they come to a head. It's like many things, including medical care and tantrums with our five year old - prevention is often *much* more pleasant and cheaper than dealing with the problem when it gets big.

November 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
I was also provided with the same method when dealing with grief following a traumatic bereavement years ago. To allow a certain time every day to think about the person I lost. To grieve and feel sad. This allowed me to recover and get on with my life rather than obsessing all day over the loss. Little did I know then that 12 years later I would need the same tool to stop worrying! I really hope it works! :-)
July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah marsh
Thanks so much for sharing your application of the idea, Deborah. I had my mom pass away a few years ago, and this would have come in handy, I think. Good to hear from you.
July 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
This has actually significantly helped me with some bad anxiety I have been experiencing over my relationship. I was going over and over trying to work out if I should end it or not, what if this, what if that - having a worry list - or I've called it a question list to be dealt with at 'question time' has made me feel much more like I am in control of my worries rather than them controlling me. Thank you.
January 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul G
Hey, that's great to hear, Paul. Thanks for sharing.
January 7, 2012 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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