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Alfred E. Neuman, the legendary figurehead for Mad Magazine, was best known for his phrase, “What, me worry?” You may want to adopt that motto.

Consultant Kevin Eikenberry argues that worrying is folly. But most of us do, in fact, worry and we often believe it’s helpful. He sets out some of the benefits we perceive: Worrying might prevent negative events from happening, it reduces our guilt because we are doing something, it gets us thinking about the problem, it shows we care, and it can keep us from being surprised should the fear come true. He adds on LinkedIn one reason we might not want to admit: “We worry because we worry, even if we aren’t sure why.”

But how many of those justifications make sense? How many would change the outcome? His review of the research on worry finds, depending on the study, that between 85 and 92 per cent of our worries never come true.

Worrying, he sums up, “makes you feel bad, raises your stress and worsens your mood. This activity rarely can change anything, and 85 per cent of the time or more, the negative outcomes you are thinking about don’t come true. Is this an activity that you would choose?”

He writes that being concerned is different than worrying. It allows you to think and perhaps determine what you can do without entering the negative spiral that worry can prompt. Other strategies he suggests include:

  • Get logical: Worry doesn’t stem from logic. So when you notice yourself worrying, ask yourself the logical question: Will this worry help change the outcome? If not, shift your thinking.
  • Take action: If your worry is pointing to an action that might reduce the likelihood of something negative happening, take that action, ideally now, so you can stop stewing. It might make things better. It will certainly allow you to move on, changing your mindset.
  • Distract yourself: Because our brains can’t think of two things at once, think of something funny, which will break the cycle of worry for at least a short period.
  • Write it down: Set out all the problems and outcomes your worry is identifying. “Having them written will help you look at them differently, perhaps even show you how irrational some might be, and may help you determine what action you might take,” he writes.
  • Manage your triggers: If there are things in your life you know trigger your worry, try to avoid putting yourself in those situations.

Executive educator Marlene Chism notes that anxiety and worry is increasing these days from external factors such as political division, racial tensions, social unrest, inflation and climate change. “Much of our anxiety is due to our unmanaged thoughts about the situation, and not so much the situation itself,” she writes on the SmartBrief blog. “Remind yourself that just because you think something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. When you notice a negative or repetitive thought, say to yourself, ‘Thanks for sharing,’ then decide to shift your attention.”

In that vein, curb ruminating, which is engaging in a repetitive negative thought process that loops continuously in the mind without end or completion. She says this actually is etching harmful neuro-connections that create deep grooves in the brain that accentuate the negativity.

To stop ruminating, she advises you to notice the repetitive nature, and then shift gears, creating a more soothing thought to replace the rumination. She offers as an example: If you are thinking “my business isn’t going to make it,” replace it with “I have always been creative before. I am going to be innovative to figure out a plan.”

Or just think of Alfred E. Neuman.

Quick Hits

  • When speaking up, carefully choose your timing. Four studies by management professors Michael Parke and Subra Tangirala showed employees who withhold issues until the timing is right are seen by managers as speaking up with higher quality input and therefore receive greater recognition and rewards.
  • Avoid the use of slang in an interview, warns executive recruiter Gerald Walsh. He cites phrases you might consider informal and friendly: “You guys,” “dude,” “whatever,” and “my bad.” Also, never swear, even if it’s mild, like “damn” or “crap.”
  • Caffeine improves a range of cognitive abilities but not creativity, University of Arkansas cognitive neuroscience researcher Darya Zabelina and colleagues have found.
  • Public speaking coach Gary Genard says the fewer words on the closing slide of a PowerPoint presentation the better. You are not summarizing all the evidence like a lawyer before a jury, but instead should look for a striking visual image that will imprint itself on the listeners’ minds, accompanied by a story or anecdote. If you wish, you can include a title, but “Where do we go from here?” beats “Conclusion.”

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.