Why Worry Doesn’t Work | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Why Worry Doesn’t Work


Do you think you need anxiety to get motivated at work?  Several people I talked to recently told me as much.  If they didn’t worry about finishing their project on time, what others might say about their work, and so on, they think they’d never get anything done.  They’d just kick back on the couch, grab the remote and a bag of chips, and never get up again except to replenish their chip supply.

But is this true?  After all, surely we do many things that we don’t need anxiety to finish.  We don’t need to worry, for instance, to motivate ourselves to go see a movie.  We don’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, fretting “oh, no, what if I never watch that movie?  I’ll be a failure!”  Yet, for some reason, we think this kind of thing is necessary in our work.

Anxiety Causes Procrastination

Oh, but that’s different, some might say, because watching a movie is fun and work isn’t.  But does work have to be a drag?  Or does it only seem that way because we worry so much when we’re doing it?  Could work be more enjoyable — and could we actually be more productive — if we let go of the anxiety we tend to associate with it?

Many psychologists suggest the answer is yes — that worrying actually creates more procrastination than motivation.  For instance, Dr. Joseph Ferrari studied how anxiety affected the test-taking habits of college students, and concluded that “students who have extreme anxiety are most likely to procrastinate, because it is more reinforcing to avoid the anxiety associated with studying than it is to study.”

Similarly, in The Now Habit, Dr. Neil Fiore writes that “procrastination is a habit you develop to cope with anxiety about starting or completing a task.”  And in The Tomorrow Trap, Dr. Karen Peterson says that anxiety causes procrastination because, when you’re worrying, “so much energy is needed to control your anxiety that other thoughts cannot receive your full attention.”

Watching Your Worry

It seems worrying isn’t the motivational wonder drug we tend to see it as, and that it would actually help our productivity to stop doing it.  But of course, it’s not enough for me to just say “don’t worry, be happy,” because our anxiety often seems beyond our conscious control.  So, here are a few ideas for gaining more control over work-related anxiety:

1.  Notice how you identify with your results. If we aren’t careful, we can fall into the trap of believing we’re “only as good as our next project” — that our value as people depends on our performance in the task we’re doing at work.  If we’re thinking this way, it’s no wonder we’re worried, because we believe a mistake or setback would make us worthless.  Becoming aware of this pattern of thinking is often enough to help us let go of it.

2.  Notice how you make a virtue out of worrying. Many of us, consciously or not, associate worrying with being diligent and caring about our work.  If we aren’t worrying, we think, we must be bad or lazy.  Of course, this isn’t true — freaking out doesn’t get your project done better or faster.  Remembering this helps keep the compulsion to worry in check.

3.  Notice how you’re breathing. Just as obsessing over possible problems can have us breathe shallowly, breathing in rapid gasps can contribute to anxiety.  When you find yourself worrying, see if you can slow down and deepen your breathing, and notice how that benefits your mental state.

22 thoughts on
Why Worry Doesn’t Work

  1. Wilma Ham

    Hi Chris.
    I love your point about worrying is a virtue. As shared in another comment my sister thinks like that. She thinks people who do not worry are not responsible.

    It is amazing how we have been set up to behave in such a way which is so unhealthy to us.
    However people who lived differently were judged as the people who were judging did so from lack of knowledge.

    I am personally extremely happy that there is more and more information available, as you share here, that shows how we can live differently and still be ‘responsible’ citizens and earn our own living.

    There is another way to live and we can get there voluntarily without being forced by health or economic crisis.
    I personally rather choose than being forced, however it does take a while and a lot of practice and determination to become the change I want to see.

  2. Evelyn Lim

    Fear used to be my primary motivator in pushing me to do well. More recently, I realized that it was not a great way to live! As long as I could recall, worry was my constant state. Then, I decided to try the alternative approach of using love for motivation. Since my experiment, I have been so much happier, fulfilled and peaceful!

    You are right to point out that we can’t simply say stop worrying! We need to really ask ourselves what the underlying fear is about. We also need to realize that fear does not help us to live freely and fully, prior to understanding its illusory nature.

  3. Cath Lawson

    Hi Chris – I can identify with the feeling of only being as good as your next project. And quite often – it freezes me. Even when I’m blogging, I often worry about my next post, as though it was going to be the end of the world if folk hated it. And I wind up with heaps of work that stays in drafts.

  4. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now

    Breathing is so important to our health. There are so many days I’m breathing shallow and I wonder why I feel bad. :)

    Awareness is a huge part of accomplishing great work and being able to enjoy it. We might do great things, but if we feel terrible doing it then something is wrong.

    As always, great post!

  5. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Wilma — thanks, I felt inspired by your comment and I appreciate that you see the larger context of what I’m talking about. One thing that inspired this post was the books I have been reading recently that are critical of personal development — in preparation for something I’m writing — and they all say the idea that worry doesn’t help us is ridiculous or socially irresponsible. So I think it bears repeating that worry, or outrage like I talked about in my last post, doesn’t actually help anybody or make us money, because it seems to be such an article of faith of our collective way of thinking.

  6. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Evelyn — yes, I think the fact that love or a desire to serve can motivate us is something we often miss when we’re thinking about our businesses, or political issues, and so on. And I think connecting us with that desire, which comes from an understanding of what we are in our essence, is ultimately what personal growth work is about.

  7. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Cath — isn’t that funny, that the conventional wisdom seems to have it that we’ll do better the more afraid we are, but the reality seems to be the opposite? Understanding that sometimes you get identified with the results in your work sounds like some powerful awareness to me.

  8. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Karl — yes, I have the same experience when I get anxious about my work — it’s always amazing to me that we usually assume the way we feel is all about what’s happening out there and what others are doing, and in fact so much of it relates to how we’re treating our own bodies.

  9. Davina

    Hi Chris. I too like how you’ve noted how we make a virtue out of worrying. It’s almost like it’s a speed bump that slows us down. It can be useful to help us plan the “best” route as long as we don’t dwell in it.

  10. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Davina — that’s interesting, I’ve been wondering for a while whether long-term planning is possible without any anxiety involved. If there are all these things we don’t want to happen, does worrying help us avoid them? The jury is out for me on that, I guess.

  11. Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord

    My best motivator has always been loving what I’m involved in. If I’m excited to do something – whether it’s a work-related project or exercise, I dive in wholeheartedly.
    I understand why anxiety can cause action, too, but gosh it doesn’t feel nearly as good. I like what you suggested as far as understanding how we identify with the results. Sometimes I’ve been able to lessen my worry when I’ve recognized that the thing I’ve gotten so worked up over isn’t a matter of life or death. I’ve attached some huge significance to it that is all in my head. Then again, everything’s in our head…
    I think your tips are all good ones, though; the next time I’m in an anxious situation, I’ll refer to them.
    Thanks, Chris!

  12. Mark

    Great article. Worry is usually not a motivator, it is more of an obstacle as you suggest. Often times the worry becomes so great that a person becomes overwhelmed and ends up in a stall, seemingly unable to take action that they are worried about. “There is much to think about and nothing to worry about” Matt Kopke

  13. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Megan — that sounds inspiring, to be motivated from a place of loving what you’re doing. I get the sense that so many of us, at least in the workplace, are missing that experience because we’re coming from a place of survival fear or wanting to beat someone else. We aren’t always aware that just really being into what we’re doing can work as a source of motivation, and I’m glad you’re spreading the word that it’s possible through your example.

  14. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Mark — that’s a good point, that what we often think of as “analysis paralysis” comes from an underlying, often overblown worry about the consequences of making the “wrong choice.” If our whole sense of self-worth is on the line, then it’s no surprise that we’ll be in a stall, like you say.

  15. Stacey Shipman

    Worry never motivated me…as you say I got “analysis paralysis” which is easy for my brain – logical and makes decisions based on data.

    But once I learned what worry is – thoughts about the future that aren’t real – I could take steps to settle it down. That’s why these days when I find myself heading into that worry frenzy, I stop and meditate for a few.

    Sometimes I think worry is hard to manage these days – So much of the news has fear built in. Makes worry “ok” and the norm.

    I think it’s also important to recognize that worry has a sidekick, Guilt (the past). And until you can forgive the past, I think worry about the future continues.

  16. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Stacey — yes, that’s a good point, that we often worry because we don’t want to repeat a specific past event that seemed unsafe to us. Letting go of the pain of that event can help us let go of the fear of repeating it as well.

  17. Deb

    I love this because worry has been like “breathing” for me as one author put it. I have learned to worry less and stop myself or give myself a time frame to worry then I to stop.
    It takes practice but I have come to realize it is the small changes that add up to bigger ones and I actually see results!
    Thanks for the confirmation!

  18. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Deb — I like how you put it, that worry was like breathing for you for a while — I suspect that a lot of us can relate to the feeling that, if we aren’t constantly worrying, we either won’t survive or we won’t get anything done, and so worry appears to many of us to be just as critical as breathing. The idea of saying “okay, you have exactly 1 minute to worry about this, and then you’re done” also sounds helpful.

  19. Jennifer

    Wonderful points about worry. One of my teachers pointed out to me that worrying is not thinking, it’s fantasizing. It is a fantasy of the future, that we can know the outcomes of our actions. If I find myself worrying, I find it much more helpful to begin thinking, rationally about the possible outcomes that I am fearful of. Really enjoy your blog. Bravo!

  20. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Jennifer — that’s a good observation, I think, that worrying is really just fantasizing about an imaginary future — which is one of the reasons why, just as in meditation, I try to simply bring my attention back to the object I’m focusing on whenever I find my mind drifting off into the future, rather than trying to imagine a more positive future or play some other mental game.

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