A pink elephant in a roomI’ve been a worrier my whole life. After 50 years of practice, I have become an expert on this topic. If you worry even a little, I have good news for you. I’m about to show you how to be more productive and happier simply by becoming a better worrier!

Neither Avoiding a Thought or Affirming a Lie

Stop attempting to expel worry and other less-than-productive thoughts from your head because it doesn’t work. According to ironic processing theory (yes, there really is something called ironic processing theory. Thank you, Daniel Wegner), when an individual deliberately attempts to suppress or avoid certain thoughts (thought suppression) they actually render those thoughts more persistent. In other words, just try not to think about “a pink elephant.”

Lying to yourself doesn’t work either. When you tell yourself “everything is fine” when everything does not feel fine, the BS creates cognitive dissonance. Now you have conflict between what you actually feel and what you’re trying to make yourself believe you’re not feeling. Cognitive dissonance gives you scrambled-egg head and you can’t think clearly when your head is scrambled. I have no empirical evidence to support the scrambled egg assertion, but it is true the stress hormone cortisol can make you stupid. Cortisol will send blood glucose to your run-like-hell muscles leaving less energy for your brain to use, including the part of your brain called the hippocampus. If your hippocampus isn’t happy, you’re not happy. Or smart. Or functional enough to get into the studio or work on your tenure packet.

The good news is there is an alternative that can reduce the flood of stress hormones into your brain, hence making it easier for you to think clearly and have a productive and rewarding day.

The Better Way To Worry

  1. Stop trying to push a worry away and do this instead…
  2. Schedule your worry time. I do it and many of my clients do it too. I’m not kidding. I want you to simply schedule a time to worry, just as you would any other kind of appointment.

If a distracting thought starts to pull you off task, notice it, acknowledge it, and let it know you have some time available today between 3:15 – 3:30 if it would like to schedule an appointment. You will gladly give it your full attention then. Somehow, by simply legitimizing a thought by putting it on your calendar, it often drops away. Ironic, indeed.

How to Use Your Designated Worry Time

At the allotted time, write down any of the thoughts that have actually kept their appointment. Like the landlord sold your building and has given you a month to move out. Oh, and you’re defending your dissertation in three weeks. Or the guy you went out with hasn’t called you again. Simply write down anything and everything that has been worrying you. At this point you can expect to feel a little better already because you have investing the few minutes to off load the tension onto paper. Well done.

With the remaining time look at what you wrote. See if you can identify one action you could take if you decide to deal with the item you are worrying you. Notice I’m not saying identify an action you should or will take. And I’m also not telling you to take any action at this point. Once you have done this second step, you have successfully and productively worried. Good for you. Now, get on with your day.

In my own experience, worry usually comes on when I feel a sense of powerlessness. I’ve learned, as have my clients, power returns by calling out a worry and identifying an action that could be taken.

Optional Action

If you want to, and have the time, you may want to do one of those first actions that you identified during your worry appointment. But you don’t have to.

When you decide to put an action related to a worrisome situation onto your to-do list, plan to do something very small. If something is actually worrying you it probably feels big, scary or unruly. You know you’ve selected an action small enough when taking it feels like no big deal. For example, you may be able to text a girlfriend because you remember her saying something about a woman in her building moving out. Or you decide to spend 10 minutes investigating eHarmony so you don’t invest too much energy thinking about a guy who hasn’t called you back.

This is how we worriers become more productive and happier. Go ahead, notice the pink elephant. Invite the elephant to join you for a cuppa this afternoon. I already set up a 3:15 to see the worries I have about a trip to the dentist and planning a visit my see my father.

Do you have worries you could schedule an appointment with too?