Worrying about the wrong things

By Andrew on 4th April 2017 — 2 mins read

I’ve been sleeping terribly over the last month or so. Waking up in the middle of the night thinking about ridiculously unimportant things. Right now, these are detailed project related things. Stuff I should really have a note-book for – and leave at work.

In this knowledge economy, we’re paid to have problems mull around in the back of our minds – and have them pop out solved (hopefully) or with some idea of how to move things forwards. This aspect of our jobs doesn’t happen at a desk – it happens while we’re jogging, or on our commutes, or when we should be paying attention to something else.

But it’s really annoying to find ourselves giving significant focus to unimportant things. For me this might be:

  • worrying about some small design detail (e.g. placement of a button) before we’ve yet worked out what the site is for
  • getting distracted by things that are easier or more fun to do – rather than dealing with the big problems first
  • having to jump through administrative / procedural hoops that feel unnecessary and drain resources from the more important questions

I’m constantly worrying about the wrong things. I’ll bet you are too.

It all starts at school?

Worrying about the wrong things starts in our formative years. We waste years and years of our early life being forced to sit still. We’re taught the so-called building blocks of learning: numeracy and literacy. While these are important, they just aren’t as important as learning how to get on with and collaborate with other human beings. The skill of presenting ideas, of negotiation, of managing one’s time and the time of others (…) – these are the skills that schools should be majoring on.

Every time my kids are worried about their spelling test, or memorising times-tables, I do wish they were being stretched in more creative, collaborative ways. At least they’re being prepared for life, you might say. A life where they may be put under similar pressures. Yea – right! A life of worrying about the wrong things.

So – retrain the brain?

If you could spot the things that are worth worrying about – and manage to control the focus of your worry – that would free up a lot of energy and resources. We’d need to put some faith in the brain’s plasticity – and work hard to retrain the brain. Right?

Maybe not.

Actually you could be better off with a simple check-list to help to focus your worries. This is a simple, improvable and reliable tool – and the subject of a great book by Atul Gawande that you should read.

The trick is not to put faith in the brain’s plasticity to change for the better, but instead to forget about trusting in the brain. Accept that it is going to worry about the wrong things and put your faith in the best check-list you can find!

Accept the worries and grab a checklist – does that work? Will I get my sleep back?

Could be that I already know what this should look like:

☑ reduce coffee intake

☑ reduce screen time (especially an hour before bed)

☑ increase exercise

☑ adjust air circulation

☑ adjust bedding

☑ keep a note book by bed to jot down urgent-seeming brain-farts

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