A few weeks ago, I had a little health scare. I went to see my doctor. She decided, out of an abundance of caution, to order a series of tests. While I waited for the test results, I worried. A lot. I couldn’t sleep. To quote my wife Lisa when she had a health scare of her own, “I lay in bed all night writing my obituary.” As it turned out, my test results came back negative and the symptoms that sent me to the doctor ended up disappearing as quickly as they appeared. So I did a lot of worrying for nothing.
When we experience change, drama and upheaval in our lives, especially when they are a result of circumstances outside our control, our most common default is to catastrophize. Although we all know catastrophizing is unproductive, it’s rare that we seek an alternative and move forward to develop a positive solution.
As leaders moving through tumultuous times, our instinct is to reassure staff who are worried about uncertainty and potential problems that lie ahead. We also want to communicate accurate and timely information that will be useful to them. However, going too far with our reassurances can appear inauthentic and inspire cynicism. Meanwhile, sharing too much or incomplete information without adequate context can cause alarm and make staff feel even more anxious about the future.
Although our intentions are good and our inclination is to help, we often want to come to the rescue. We assume our job is to fix everything. But people usually aren’t looking for a savior, a hero, a fixer or a leadership solution. Most of us just want to be heard. We want our worries and concerns to be validated. And we want the right tools to solve our own problems.
An alternative to being a fixer is to simply help our colleagues explore the problems that worry them. Listen to their concerns. Help them consider and analyze the underlying issues. Then, if they feel it’s appropriate, they can choose to take action.
Whether we’re dealing with our own catastrophizing or anxious worrying of friends, family or colleagues, we can best serve ourselves and them, and put unproductive worrying on pause. We can do this by carefully examining the problem that is causing distress. Here is a simple but useful exercise to do just that:
Exercise - Turning Worry Into Action
Step 1: Identify your worries
Think about changes happening to you that you have limited control over. What are the six biggest worries that you catastrophize about? For example, early in my career, I made a big mistake on an important work product. In the several hours between discovering the mistake and informing my boss, my mind went wild imagining all kinds of terrible scenarios, most of which involved being fired. As it turned out, my boss remained calm and quickly suggested a practical solution to the problem. Obsessing about possible dire consequences of my mistake prevented me from thinking about what I could do to address it.
Step 2: Prioritize your worries
Once you have the list of the six issues, score each one from one to six in descending order of concern. Then rank the items a second time in descending order based on which is most likely to occur. For example, had I written down my worries about the big mistake I made early in my career, I would have given “getting fired” a score of one for degree of worry, but six for likelihood. In other words, although this was the worry that had most preoccupied my thoughts, it was actually the least likely to happen.
Step 3: Add your scores
The next step is to add the two scores together for each item on your list. The total will give you a prioritized list with the lowest score representing the thing that worries us most and is most likely to occur. Circle the top three worries (those with the lowest combined score) and cross out the three other worries. We won’t deal with them now.
Step 4: Determine a solution
Write down three to five actions you can take to address your top three worries, mitigate the negative impact and control the issues related to these challenges. Review your list, rankings and possible actions, and ask yourself what has happened as a result of completing the exercise. One thing that happens when we complete the exercise is we stop worrying for the five minutes it takes to complete it. Instead of letting our worries swirl endlessly around in our heads, we’ve taken action. Just writing down and documenting the issues that worry us is empowering in that, for a moment, the issue isn’t happening to us. We are acting on it.
Writing down the things that are worrying us and asking ourselves how likely they are to occur often leads us to realize that we’ve been catastrophizing about things that are unlikely to occur. In addition, crossing items off our list is empowering because it has the effect of eliminating the issue altogether and turning worry into action. This isn’t denial. It’s just a tool that helps us move past the issues that we really don’t need to worry about right now. We can deal with them later. Another value of the exercise is that we can do it again tomorrow, in a week, or whenever our catastrophizing minds signal that it’s time to pause, acknowledge and process our worries instead of letting them consume us.
I’ve shared this exercise with several people who’ve found it surprisingly useful, empowering and “lightening.” Let me know how it works for you. And please share it with friends and colleagues. Hopefully it will help us all sleep better at night and delay our obituary writing for a later date.
Have a worry-free week.
This blog does not represent official policies of the Corporation for National and Community Service or those of the U.S. Government.
Jeffrey Page is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.