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I come from a family of worriers. We sometimes joke that at the next family reunion we should organise the seating chart according to which anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication each person is currently taking. There would, of course, also be a table for people who are self-medicating with substances not prescribed by a doctor.What are we all worrying about? Perhaps the more accurate question is: What aren’t we worrying about?
We live and work in an age when there is plenty to fret about for professionals in every field and at every level. This worrying becomes a trap, however, when we start seeing doom and gloom everywhere, when it colours our decision-making and behaviours, when it causes us to go into a shell or always respond in the same tried-and-true ways to avoid catalyzing our worst fears. We all worry. But we often worry needlessly, excessively, and counterproductively. While a moderate amount of worry may focus the mind, too much diminishes effectiveness and robs us of our ability to move outside our comfort zone (because there is even more to worry about outside of that zone!).
Someone once said that there are no small worries for people with big ambition, since every obstacle on the road to goals looms large. Driven professionals often struggle to differentiate small worries from big ones, because every problem is given equal, exaggerated weight. Think about what work worries assault you in the middle of the night and prevent you from going back to sleep. There are three things that you can do to keep yourself from falling into the worry trap:
1. Evaluate the relative significance of the things you’re worrying about. Don’t give a disproportionate amount of worry to small problems. “Box up” your small worries so that they don’t spread. Make a conscious effort to confine your fears and anxieties to the subject at hand. Keep reminding yourself that a problem in one area does not necessarily mean that there’s a problem in another area. Stay focused on the specific issue.
2. Make a specific agenda and specific tasks associated with the agenda so that you are less likely to distract yourself with a less critical issue.
3. Address the issue causing the worry quickly and decisively. I know this isn’t always easy, especially for high-need-for-achievement personalities who can analyse an issue to death. Increasingly, professionals in positions of responsibility are facing right-versus-right decisions — there is no perfect answer. Or they’re facing wrong-versus-wrong decisions — either choice is going to have unpleasant repercussions. In these instances, you have to halt your analysis and rely on your instincts; don’t be caught in the indecisive middle.
Fortunately, worry can be managed, and the first step to managing it is awareness. Our professional lives are filled with ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty — but these forces can’t consume us unless we let them.
Thomas J. DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational behaviour area at Harvard Business School and the author of Flying Without a Net. His research focuses on the challenges facing individuals and organisations in the process of change.