Will Worrying Make You Better?

Japeth Mast / Unsplash

In fourth grade my teacher referred to me in a report card as a “nutty professor.” The verdict from the elementary academy was clear: Head in the clouds. Needs to slow down a little bit and pay attention to where he is. Smart enough to know better.

Specifically, this had to do with math. We were learning times tables and long division and I was prone to making silly mistakes on tests. I spent a lot of time trying to get that grade up. My dad took particular interest in helping me through my times tables. (A business owner, he’d always struggled with “any number that didn’t have a dollar sign in front of it.”) We drilled endlessly with makeshift flashcards written on the backs of his bright blue business cards.

To shed my nutty professor-ness and improve my math grade, I developed a strategy: worry. If I knew a test was coming up, I would deliberately think about all of the bad things that would happen if I didn’t do well on it. I’d imagine getting the grade, and how my parents would react to it. I’d imagine what it would mean about my future, or what it would mean about the kind of person I was. 

And I’d start to feel afraid. I would feel my heart pumping and my hands getting sweaty. For me, fear meant adrenaline, which I could channel into studying harder for longer. 

Once the test had been taken, I would convince myself that I had failed. I would tell all my friends how badly I’d messed it up. I’d imagine what it would be like to get the test back with an F on it. I’d imagine what that would mean if I did, in fact, fail. And when I got the test back I’d usually be relieved that I didn’t do nearly as bad as I thought. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the story of how worrying helped me become the youngest professor of mathematics in history. I still made stupid mistakes. I just made them less frequently. I began to believe that worry is good—and the more I made myself worry, the better I’d be. 

I made myself worry so much that it ceased to become deliberate. After a while, I just automatically worried about tests, homework assignments, and big projects. And even though it was painful, it served the purpose I’d set out for.

And it seems to do the same for others. Here’s Bill Walsh, 3x Super Bowl-winning coach of the 49ers on what it takes to be the best in football: 

“How do you know if you’re doing the job? If you’re up at 3am talking into a tape recorder and writing notes on paper, have a knot in your stomach, rash on your skin, losing sleep and losing touch with your wife and kids, have no appetite or sense of humor and feel everything might turn out wrong, you’re probably doing the job.”

The message is pretty clear: if you’re not doing well, maybe you’re not worried enough. And maybe if you worry more, you’ll do better.

But will you? Is it possible—and wise—to worry well?

What is worrying?

Here’s my operational definition of worrying:

Worrying is the process, both voluntary and involuntary, of imagining a negative potential future in order to—in one way or another—avoid it. 

Worry is connected to stress but is not the same thing as stress. Stress is your body’s physical response to something bad: heart pounding, sweating, etc. Worry can create stress (when you think of something bad happening) or it can be caused by stress (you notice your heart pounding and your mind start spinning.) When both of these processes happen chronically, or are so strong they are overwhelming, they turn into anxiety. 

Now, worry isn’t a monolith. It happens in a lot of different situations, for a lot of different reasons. But I want to talk specifically about worrying as it relates to performance and productivity.

In worrying for performance you’re attempting to motivate action, find the right action, or preemptively inoculate yourself against disappointment.

For example, if you’re taking a test you could worry by imagining failing, in order to motivate yourself to study. Or you could worry by repeating the formulas you need to know in your head to make sure you remember them. Or you could worry by imagining telling your parents about failing, to lower your own expectations.

Crucially, it’s obsessive. You do it a lot—either voluntarily or involuntarily—because you believe that the more you do it the more likely it is to succeed in preventing the undesirable future from occurring.

Worrying your way to success

There are at least two versions of performance-based worrying, what I’ll call pneumatic worrying and manufactured worrying.

Something is pneumatic when it uses pressurized gas to do work like an air brake, or a pipe organ. Pneumatic worrying is when you think about worry like a pressurized gas in your brain: it’s potential energy that’s always going to be there and you may as well direct that worried energy toward things that will make you successful in your work. You’ve got gas coming through the pipe, and you can choose to direct it to spin an engine or into your own eye. Pneumatic worriers have beliefs about the uncontrollability of worry, and often have adopted it as part of their identity.  

This story Ezra Klein told on his podcast recently illustrates pneumatic worrying perfectly:

“I was a pretty bad hypochondriac when I was younger. And I told [my wife] that I was glad she didn’t meet me then, because I was just always worrying. And who’d like that guy? And she said to me, ‘Oh, you haven’t changed at all. You just hadn’t found work yet. And now you just put all that worry and energy there.’”

Manufactured worrying is different. Rather than taking your worry and directing it toward work, as in pneumatic worrying, in manufactured worrying you force yourself to worry when you might not otherwise. You deliberately worry about a specific task, scenario, or event because you believe that harnessing the energy, focus, and raised alert level produced by worry will help you perform better. Manufactured worrying isn’t about lack of control—it’s a deliberate exercise of control to produce the worry. It’s exactly what I was doing as a kid to get myself to do better on tests.

There are overlaps and interrelationships between both styles of worry—my experience is that manufactured worrying leads to pneumatic worrying. But I want to focus specifically on manufactured worrying, because it’s theoretically something you can choose to do or not do. Many of us are currently choosing to do it. Should we?

(Side Note: I’m not a doctor and this stuff is complicated. The lines between manufactured worrying and full blown anxiety are blurry, and if you need help with the latter I highly recommend you to seek it with a professional.)

The Case for Manufacturing Worry

Manufacturing worry creates stress, and as I’ve written about in the past, stress is an important tool. It increases focus, it increases short-term memory, it increases blood flow to your largest muscles. It gets you ready to face the thing that’s stressing you out. In small to medium doses over short time periods, it can absolutely make you more productive. 

So when might activating your stress response by manufacturing worry be a good idea?

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