The difference between planning and worrying

Way back in the fall of 1988, the singer Bobby McFerrin released a little ditty called, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which became the first a capella song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, according to Wikipedia. I was 23 years old at the time, and I remember finding the song particularly annoying. It struck me as silly and naïve. I thought, “What a stupid message. Of course I have to worry. Otherwise, I’m likely to get blind-sided by something that I’m totally unprepared for.”

I realize now that, back then, I was making a very common mistake: I was confusing worry for planning. (I still don’t like that song, though.) So what is the difference between those two things? At first glance, they are very similar, but closer inspection reveals a significant difference.

Both worry and planning are similar in that they involve thinking about the future, and possible bad things happening there. The difference is that planning involves coming up with possible solutions to bad outcomes or problems, while worry is simply about getting lost in the fantasy of worst-case scenarios. One is productive, and the other is counter-productive. Here’s an example: let’s say Linda is planning a cross-country road trip in her car in a couple of days. She is lying in bed, thinking about the trip, and all the things that might go wrong, such as flat tires or engine trouble or getting lost, etc. So she thinks to herself, “I had better be prepared for this trip. What do I need to do?” She starts making a list of things to do before she leaves, such as checking to make sure her spare tire has air in it, getting an oil change or maybe a tune-up, buying a map, packing some blankets and a flashlight, and so on. After a while, her list might get long enough that she says to herself, “I’d better write this stuff down.” So she gets out of bed and starts making a to-do list, thinking of various problems that might arise and ways to deal with them. Eventually, she exhausts her imagination, and the only things left are pretty far-fetched problems, like running over a grizzly bear or being chased by yokels for driving a Honda. So Linda says to herself, “That’s all I can realistically plan for, and I’ve got my list of things to take care of, but now it’s midnight and time for sleep.” So she goes to bed without giving her trip another thought, until the time comes to start crossing things off the list.

This is a good example of planning. Linda thought about problems that could arise, and then solved for them, and when she was done, she was done. If Linda had given in to the temptation to worry, however, then she could have kept herself up all night, losing sleep while inventing horrible fantasies of catastrophic events. In fact, she could have easily started out with planning, and then crossed the line into worry without noticing it, because we humans do this all the time. We don’t have a built in warning device that detects this tendency and then makes an annoying dinging sound, like when you don’t put on your seat belt. (If anyone invents such a device, that person will likely be rich in short order.)

And let’s face it: there is something tempting about worry. I’m not sure why, but many of us seem to get some kind of weird pleasure out of inventing horrible fantasies about the future and then getting lost in them. It’s kind of like watching a scary movie, which can be enjoyable. Very often, however, we become so absorbed in the fantasy that we start reacting to imaginary events as if they were real, and the result is anxiety, which is a fancy word for fear. Such fears can prevent us from doing many of the things that we might enjoy, like taking a cross-country road trip. If Linda had spent all night worrying, she might have worked herself into such a state of fear that the only logical thing to do, it would seem, is cancel such a foolhardy trip, and stay home, where it’s safe.

Many of my clients are habitual worriers. And, like all habits, it’s a hard one to break – but it can be broken. It’s very difficult to break any habit, however, if you’re not even aware that you’re doing it, which is the case with a lot of the things that go on in our heads. Even when people become aware of their tendency to worry, there is still a strong tendency to cling to the behavior because of the belief that worrying is somehow productive. This belief can take the form of a superstition, which could be summed up with the statement: “If I worry about this future event, then I will somehow magically ensure that it doesn’t happen.” (Not surprisingly, this is called magical thinking, and it’s quite common.)

I have heard several people make the case that worrying is useful, because it prepares one for bad outcomes, even when there is no solution. It’s summed up like this: “Hey, if I worry about the worst-case scenario happening, and it does happen, then I won’t be surprised, and if it doesn’t happen, then great! By comparison, everything else is pretty good.” Okay, maybe, but I would argue that spending time deliberately creating stories about the future that create fear and stress doesn’t sound like a very fun way to go through life. Plus, as someone once said, if you imagine the worst, and it happens, then you have to go through it twice. Not to mention that many of the world’s philosophical and spiritual beliefs tell us explicitly that worrying is a waste of time, and we ought not to do it.

A good rule of thumb I offer to worriers is this: “What is, not what if.” When you are dealing with what is, then you are dealing with reality. If you are trying to deal with what if, then you are dealing strictly with thoughts in your head. It doesn’t matter how realistic or probable they seem – they are still just thoughts, imagination, fantasy. Back when I was a kid, I remember hearing a radio advertisement for some movie that was supposed to be so scary, the filmmakers advised moviegoers to continually remind themselves, “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.” That’s petty good advice, and it goes for the movie in your head, as well.

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