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?

When there’s a right answer

In some rare, beautiful moments in life on this planet, there is a right answer. Take chess—for any given move by your opponent, there is a “best” move to make in response. And there’s only one good way to figure out what that response is: play out many different variations over and over until you find the one that seems to work best. 

Sometimes you do this by just playing the game, but chess players also constantly do it in their heads. The best ones play out games over and over again to find weaknesses and learn the best moves to use in similar situations in the future. 

It’s a cognitive activity that looks remarkably like worrying. This kind of worrying can be extremely productive because even though it’s obsessive, it lets you explore a branching problem domain in extreme detail by trying as many different combinations as possible until you find the right one. In this case, worrying might actually be creative rather than destructive. And crucially, it doesn’t go overboard because you can find a best move. 

Which brings us to the second scenario where worrying might be helpful:

When there’s an end  

For worrying to stay productive and not morph into harm, it needs to have something that will trigger its end. Worrying about problems with a right answer, as above, creates one kind of natural stopping point. 

Another stopping point might be worry that is centered around a particular event like a speech, test, or big game. Once the game is over, the worry stops and so does the stress response. 

Having a point at which the worry ends stops the stress from becoming chronic, and gives your mind and body a chance to recover. This point is crucial because it’s here that a lot of worry processes go wrong. They morph from prospective worry about something in the future, to retrospective worry about something that already happened. The problem is that you can’t do anything about something that’s already happened. Which brings us to our last point.

When you have control over the situation

When there is a clear, causal connection between worrying about something and improving the outcome, then it might be worth doing. To keep going with the chess example, worrying about which moves to make in an upcoming match might be good because the more you study the more you’ll learn and the better prepared you’ll be. The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to win. 

This future-focused worry is in contrast to the style of worry that’s retrospective (the event is already in the past and cannot be changed), or worry about something that is entirely outside of your control. In both of these cases, there’s no end date or release from the worry so it’s more likely to become overwhelming and harmful.

The Case Against Worrying

When these circumstances that might allow for manufactured worrying aren’t met, the stress created by worry can quickly go from useful to harmful. Chronic worrying leads to chronic stress, which can bring a whole host of issues that interfere with your performance.

Here are places where it’s a bad idea to manufacture worry.

When it is intended to create absolute certainty

Most of the answers we seek in life can’t be measured by a Scantron. Questions about relationships, or how to act with others, almost never have 100% right answers. Most of the time, there is no absolute way to avoid mistakes or danger. 

Performance-related worrying, for example, usually comes from or manifests in being hyperconscious of what other people think about you. Usually, when we’re in this state we force ourselves to continually monitor situations to ensure that we haven’t said something stupid or wrong and to ensure that the people around us think that we are good. 

For example, if you’re manufacturing worry about an upcoming presentation by forcing yourself to repeat your presentation over and over again in case you forget what you’re going to say, you’re probably not actually helping yourself. You’re guarding against a very unlikely scenario (completely forgetting what you’ll say) and creating a stress response that might paradoxically make it more likely for that scenario to happen. 

So if you’re manufacturing worry about situations in order to protect yourself from unlikely outcomes, it might be harming rather than helping your performance.

When it becomes overwhelming

If you’re manufacturing so much worry it’s taking over your life, it’s probably not helping. This idea might be less obvious than it seems, especially in a performance setting. 

We’re surrounded by stories of entrepreneurs who single-mindedly willed their companies into existence, slept on the floor of their factories, and refused to listen to naysayers or give in to doubt. It’s tempting to emulate this attitude by forcing ourselves to worry constantly about every aspect of our business or job. This worry looks like the kind of obsessive focus that breeds success. And if you’re not worrying, how will people know you care? 

But obsessive worry creates a stress response, and if you go overboard with it you’re going to feel overwhelmed. When you’re overwhelmed with stress you won’t think straight, your memory will suffer, your sleep will suffer, your relationships will suffer, and you’ll eventually get so exhausted that you’ll burn out. 

Creating an anxious state that overwhelms you isn’t likely to get you closer to your goals. Which leads us to our next point.

When it doesn’t create progress

If you’re going to manufacture worry, it’s important to pay attention to whether or not it’s creative, destructive, or neutral. For example, if you’re worrying about something you have no control over, and your worries aren’t helping you to solve the problem you’ve encountered, then it’s probably a bad idea to keep at it.

A good example is my style of worrying about math tests in middle school and high school. One part of my coping strategy was to deliberately worry about the test after I had taken it. It felt like a good strategy because it would lower my expectations and therefore my disappointment about a bad grade. But there was also a superstitious aspect to it. In the past I had worried about tests after I had taken them and done well on them, and so I continued to do it. It was almost as if worrying had become a lucky talisman. If I took it off, my streak of good test scores could end.

Even if there was no causality between worry and a positive outcome, I conditioned myself to believe that there was. So I forced myself to worry.

If you do this, your worrying becomes disconnected from the actual results. Good results are presumed to be caused by worrying, and bad results are presumed to be caused by too little worrying. That’s a bad place to be. 

When worry is the tool you instinctively grab for every situation, you’ll use it even when it might not be effective. Continually drawing your attention to whether the worrying is helping you to make progress is a good way to identify situations where manufactured worrying might not be helpful.

What’s really going on here

There’s something lurking in all my discourse about manufactured worry. 

Even though my childhood is over, and there are no tests to take, no Scantrons to fill in, I still manufacture worry. I do it because I have certain subconscious beliefs about the value of doing it. These are called metacognitions: thoughts and beliefs about your thoughts and beliefs. 

In the case of manufactured worrying, the metacognition is: “Worrying about this is going to help me perform better.” Or, “I didn’t do well because I wasn’t worried enough, next time I should worry more.”

Your metacognitions can be like unconscious rules that you follow, meaning they’re often very resistant to evidence about whether they’re “correct” or not.

You have lots of thoughts and beliefs about your thoughts and beliefs in all aspects of your life. When you have the thought, “I am drawn to this person,” how do you treat it? Do you treat it with suspicion because you’ve been burned by someone else who drew you to them in the past? Or do you conclude that it means you are in love with the person? 

I’ve noticed that the way I react to my thoughts is driven, at least in part, by my metacognitions. And paying attention to those metacognitions can help me interact with my thoughts differently. 

Sometimes my thoughts are identified explicitly with my self. When they arise, I buy into them immediately. I also buy into what they might say about me—good, bad, or otherwise.

But when I adopt a metacognitive perspective, my thoughts become more like objects in the world. I identify with them less—they're separate from me—and I can choose to attend to them or ignore them. I get to decide whichever is more useful.

It's not perfect, of course. It's really hard to consistently adopt this perspective. But when I can, it creates the power to interact with my own internal reality differently and more intentionally.

So, bottom line, should I worry?

It’s a trick question. Some amount of worrying is mandatory, and your brain has been wired to do it because it does help you avoid some danger.

But when it comes to manufacturing worry in order to increase your performance, it’s probably a bad idea. Approaching your work from a place of fear is going to narrow your behavioral repertoire. You’re less likely to take risks, and you’ll probably be worse at solving problems. 

Instead of approaching your work by trying to avoid something you fear, it’s better to approach it by moving towards what you value. Instead of, “How can I avoid screwing this up?” ask yourself, “How can I make this work?”

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