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3 steps to turn worry into action
Harvard Business School
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March 07, 2008

You already have the means to change the pattern of escalating worry by using the power of your mind. The systematic Evaluate-Plan-Remediate approach allows you to examine the process of worry and break it down into smaller, more manageable problem units that can be solved or resolved.

For example, suppose you receive a team e-mail from your supervisor about the agenda for an upcoming budget review meeting. In the past, you've always been asked to present the target revenues for your department, but you have yet to be asked this year.

You feel a twist in your stomach, a sign that worry is creeping in. Your thoughts begin to speed up: "Why haven't I been asked? Did someone else get the assignment? Did I do a poor job last time? I must be an idiot! Am I being demoted or eased out?" Using the Evaluate-Plan-Remediate worry-intervention method, you can stop the worry as soon as you start to feel it taking over.

1. Evaluate: "Yes, I haven't yet been asked to present the projected revenues at the budget review meeting. That's all I know right now."

2. Plan: "I need to get information. I should contact my supervisor and ask her directly if she expects me to present this part of the budget."

3. Remediate: "I'll call my supervisor and make an appointment to see her in person."

This simple sequence can replace that sense of panic with an immediate evaluation of the situation and a plan for necessary action. If you can make this process a habit every time you feel that twist in your stomach or twinge in your head, you'll turn your worry into action.

Step 1: Evaluate

The key to evaluating the cause of the worry is to confront it. Don't ignore those little signals your body is giving you. They won't go away until you face what causes them. Use the following guidelines for this step.

Name the problem: Just giving a name to a problem can help reduce stress because by identifying the specific problem, you've already eliminated all other possibilities. Naming makes things more manageable. Discover the stress-creating pattern that describes your situation.

For example, do you take on too many responsibilities? Find it difficult to balance work and life issues? Work in the wrong job? Have problems with colleagues or supervisors? Procrastinate when a deadline looms?

Think constructively about the problem: this may seem like a difficult step, but all it takes is an honest examination of your own automatic worry process. It requires that you keep back and watch yourself in order to identify how your mind leaps from the bad news or perceived danger that triggers the worry to the "awfulizing" of the initial event. Apply these practices:

Step 2: Plan

Planning ahead can take time and may seem to be a burden, but the value of planning is a more than adequate return on your time investment. Planning can intercept the toxic worry and replace it with effective action. Here are some practices you can apply in advance.

Get the facts: Wise worry confronts real problems. Toxic worry exaggerates and misrepresents reality. Brooding about the "what-if" possibilities passively burns up your energy. So get active! Find out what the truth of the matter is. Go to the sources of information, and don't rely on hearsay, gossip, or your own vivid imagination.

Structure your life

Much worry results from unstructured living and thinking habits. A cluttered desk with files scattered about means wasted time finding the material you need and the risk of losing important information. In the same way, a mind cluttered with "what-if" possibilities can hide the "that-is" reality. Worried people typically spend more time and energy worrying than they do accomplishing productive tasks.

Structuring your life is being kind and considerate to yourself � organizing your desk helps you find things. Structuring your life reduces your risk of losing vital files, information, keys � and also prevents you from losing perspective. Use structure as an anti-anxiety agent: lists, reminders, schedules, rules, and budgets are all methods of structuring your life for your own benefits.

Take the time to structure your space. For example, organize your desk. Use colored file folders with clear labels. Put your keys in the same spot every day. And organize your computer desktop and mailbox. Also structure your time.

Step 3: Remediate

The next step is to find a remedy for toxic worry. Reason, planning, and action are powerful antidotes to the paralysis of stress and worry. Consider these guidelines.

Take direct action: If you've evaluated the problem and planned what you can do about it, then go ahead, take the plunge and just do it! Make the phone call, change your behavior, clean up that desk, connect with a friend, or confront that difficult colleague. Taking action is empowering. Your feeling of vulnerability and your toxic worry will fade.

Let it go: Why let go? No matter how much you may want to effect a change, some problems, can't be solved by any action on your part. You just have to wait and see how things turn out. Worrying about the matter won't help. For example, if your supervisor suddenly announces a major reorganization, you can't do anything about it until the event happens and you have more information about how it will affect you.

You just have to sit tight and wait. Or perhaps you're up for a big promotion, but you won't find out about the decision for a month. You will be better off in every way -- physically, emotionally, and mentally -- if you can let the worry go until later.

What does letting go mean? Letting go means giving up your sense of control, and this can be difficult to do. Often people feel that if they worry enough, they might affect the outcome. But in those cases and times when control doesn't help and worry only hurts, it's worth the effort to give up both worry and control.

How can you let worry go? Different people have different ways. Some find that meditation helps. Some listen to music or sing a song. Trying putting your worry in the palm of your hand and blowing it away. Close your eyes and imagine the worry putting on its coat and hat and walking slowly out of the room. The important thing for you is to say goodbye to useless worry.

5 Tips

Do a reality check: Find out whether your worry has any basis in fact. Toxic worry can distort the real situation. Check to make sure that things are really as bad as they seem. Even when there is an actual problem, it may be easier to solve than you think.

Never worry alone: Invite a friend to help as a listening partner. Sharing your worries with the right person can make you feel better by unloading the weight of worry. Just talking out loud about your concerns helps to sort them out and to clarify where your concerns may be valid and where you may be distorting the problem. The listener, at this point, needs simply to listen, rather than trying to solve your problems. Your goal here is to understand your own worry process and gain the power to find your own solutions.

Get help from the right sources: People who have the information you need. Often you don't have the information or tools necessary to attack a problem. Instead of worrying, take control by getting the help you need. Find out who the authority is and where you should look for answers.

Ask a friend for a hand: If you find the idea of organizing a cause for new worry, ask a friend or colleague -- someone whose desk is neat and who is never late to a meeting -- to give you a hand. Ask for help from more than one person; you may discover ideas and ways to structure your life that are actually easy and fun!

If it's out of your control: If there's nothing you can do about a problem (or nothing more, if you already worked on it) -- if it's simply out of your control -- you have to let the worry go. Blow it away, and start a new project, read a different book, walk another path.

Excerpted from: Managing Stress 

Copyright 2007 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. 

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Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Publishing. 

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