If there’s one thing that I’ve noticed from working with thoughtful leaders, it’s that they spend a lot of time in their own heads. For these leaders, worrying about work can involve a lot of mental effort.
Personally, I’ve been a great worrier all my life. I’m not a “happy go lucky” type of person, and I’m cool with that.
It wasn’t always that way. I’d often worry about work and life in general, and beat myself up about it constantly. When you’re fighting a raging battle in your head, it can be exhausting.
There was a time many years ago when this tendency led to a panic attack on a crowded train, and I almost passed out.
After that, I started to seek solutions and learned about the importance of my environment and my own thought processes to reduce my worrying tendencies.
In this post, I’ll outline a few tips and resources that I have found helpful on my worrying journey.
Do I still worry today? Absolutely!
Does it bother me? Not so much.
Note: I am not a therapist or mental health expert and this post is not treatment for mental health conditions. If you feel like you may have a more serious challenge than just common worry, I recommend you seek professional support from appropriate organisations in your area.
What Has This Got to Do With Leadership?
I started this website back in 2015, because I was frustrated by some of the leadership I was seeing in many organisations.
This website is called Thoughtful Leader because I think thoughtful leadership is what we need more of in our workplaces and in the world in general.
The catch is that I’ve found thoughtful leaders to suffer more than most when it comes to overthinking, worry or lacking in confidence.
All of these things can have thoughtful leaders second-guessing themselves and stepping back when we need them to be stepping forward.
Worrying about work can be a significant impediment to enjoying what you do and being your best. And when leaders are struggling, they stop leading effectively.
This post is an attempt to help those worrying leaders be 10% better (or more!) to create better workplaces, full of happier people.
Why Worry Can Be Your Friend
Worries often show up as persistent thoughts in our heads, like a little devil on the shoulder that whispers in your ear.
It can be quite frustrating to listen to persistent worrying thoughts, because it’s hard to feel at ease when your mind tells you that you should be worried about something.
However, worries can be quite constructive and helpful. Worrying about work can:
- Tell you where you should be paying attention
- Alert you to situations where you feel vulnerable; and
- Be a powerful motivating factor to take action.
This is what I call constructive worry.
Constructive Worrying About Work Can Be Helpful
Constructive worry happens when your worries are valid signals of a potential negative outcome, that you can potentially do something about.
In other words, your worries are helping you to take action.
If you have an important presentation and you feel unprepared, then your worries may prompt you to take action. You do the preparation, and your worries tend to reduce in magnitude.
Un-constructive worries are a little different. They happen when there are few appropriate actions you can take, but you go ahead and worry anyway.
When you find yourself worrying at work and you take action as a response, this is a positive thing. That’s why worrying can be your friend.
Learn More: Why Good Mental Health is a Leader’s Best Friend.
Worry Tips For the Thoughtful Leader
Over the years, I’ve come across a bunch of different ideas to help with worrying about work.
Some of these are simple ideas to reframe your thoughts about worry, or to process them more constructively.
I thought it may be helpful to pass on some of these ideas along with some resources that I found useful along the way.
As with most good things in life, it takes time and consistent effort to make an improvement. You’ve probably built up a solid worrying habit over the years, so this will take time to unwind.
We will never remove all of our worries – but we can take steps to be less impacted by them, and even to regard them as a natural part of life.
Idea 1: Getting on the Balcony
I first learned about the idea of “getting on the balcony” during my coaching training. It refers to the idea that we have two modes of operating – the balcony and the dance floor.
When you’re on the dance floor, you are preoccupied with getting the dancing right. You’re in the moment, trying to make sure you make the right moves and not step on anyone else’s toes.
You’re focusing on the details, and on your dance partner and trying to move in time with them.
By contrast, when you’re on the balcony, you are able to see things from higher up. You’re looking down on the dance floor, and you can see the movement of the different dancers.
You can see which ones are in sync, and which ones are struggling. You can observe which ones look experienced and confident, compared to those that are bumping into others and getting the timing slightly wrong.
In other words, you can observe the scene as a whole, rather than being involved in the details of the dance itself.
Dance Floor vs. Balcony In a Performance Conversation
If you’re having a performance-related conversation with a team member, you’re speaking, making sure you get the important facts on the table, and you’re listening and responding to what they say.
You’re in the thick of it, on the dance floor, dancing with the team member.
When you get on the balcony, you are instead observing the dynamic between the two of you in a more detached way. You might ask questions like:
- How is the dynamic in this conversation?
- If there’s a performance problem, what’s really going on here?
- How am I being, that is influencing the way this conversation is going?
- What’s the ideal outcome for this interaction?
Getting on the balcony is a way to step back and assess the situation at a higher level – looking at the bigger picture.
The Balcony When It Comes to Worry
When it comes to worrying at work, we might use the balcony to observe our thoughts at a greater distance.
Instead of directly engaging with the worrying thought and feeling the stress and anxiety that it brings, you might try taking a step back:
- How am I thinking at the moment?
- What was the trigger for this worry?
- What’s the message that this worry is sending me?
So rather than engage with the content of the worry (“I’m going to get in trouble because I’m not prepared for this presentation”), you’re looking at the situation surrounding the worry.
Does it point to a lack of planning? Poor time management skills? A lack of confidence in public speaking? Low motivation? Or is it simply a worrying thought with no real basis in reality?
Idea 2: Thoughts Are Not Facts
I think this one came from reading the book “The Happiness Trap” by Dr. Russ Harris. I highly recommend this book, which has a few interesting therapy tools in it.
Thoughts are not facts.
I found this to be an important realisation. Just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.
If you think of a pink elephant coming into your house, it’s probably not true.
But we have a tendency to believe our worries or bad thoughts about ourselves.
Our brains have evolved to focus more on negative outcomes than positive ones. Research suggests that this is because the consequence of bad events is often much greater than positive events.
For example, if you were a cave-person and heard a dangerous-sounding noise outside, you have two choices.
You can stay in the cave, go hungry for the night but live for another day. Or, you can go outside and hunt anyway, but risk death from whatever is out there.
In the situation of death vs. hunger, death comes out on top and we tend to focus on that possibility more. So we’ll go hungry instead.
When you’re worrying, it can be useful to ask yourself “Is it true? Or am I just worrying?”
Idea 3: Noting Is Useful for Worrying About Work
This is another one from the Happiness Trap book that I mentioned earlier.
When you have a negative thought or worry, you can get into the habit of “noting” it. That is, observing the thought and taking note of it.
This is part of being on the balcony.
When you note the worrying thought, try to say to yourself “How interesting!” instead of getting caught in the thought itself.
Focus on how interesting it is that your brain generated that thought, instead of getting sucked into the thought itself.
Idea 4: Write Down Your Worries
Some people benefit greatly from writing down their worries in a journal or notebook.
The trick here is to dedicate a set amount of time to this practice, rather than continuously dwelling on worrying thoughts.
For example, you might sit down for 5 minutes (set a timer) and write down all your worries in one “worrying session”. During this session, you may also write the action you will take in response to each specific worry.
Some worries will have no action, they are just worries!
This practice can have the effect of helping you feel like you have processed your worries. You have got them out of your system and noted any actions you need to take.
Then you can get on and do something else with your mental effort, instead of worrying!
If the worry comes back into your head, you can simply tell yourself “I’ve processed that one already”.
Idea 5: Letting Go of the “Shoulds” to Tackle Worrying at Work
I have found that much of my negative thinking and worry comes about from a bunch of “shoulds” that I have in my head.
I should be speaking up more.
I should be doing more networking.
I should feel more confident tackling that difficult conversation.
I should be able to get all that work done in one day.
When I was a kid, I would vocalise some of these shoulds to my Mum. Then she would say to me “Who says?”.
In other words, who says you should do that stuff?
It is very likely that nobody has ever actually said you should do any of those things you are telling yourself.
We are bombarded every day by rubbish on social media and the news.
Celebrities, influencers, experts – they are all telling us what we should buy, how successful we should be and what new fad we should indulge in. I’m doing it right now too… but I don’t need you to buy anything 😀.
The next time you worry that you should be doing something, ask yourself “Who says?”
Idea 6: You Don’t Choose Your Thoughts
This one comes courtesy of the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris. He has a meditation app called “Waking Up” which I use daily.
Meditation can be a useful practice to get into for increasing awareness of your thoughts, but I won’t dwell on that here.
What Sam speaks about often is that our thoughts almost always automatically pop into our head, without us consciously choosing them.
Yes, we can think of specific topics to think about, and generate thoughts ourselves. But the majority of our thoughts seem to come out of nowhere, almost at random.
If your thoughts are coming at you randomly, how can you possibly use that as an indicator of how you are as a person?
You don’t choose your worries, but they pop into your head. That doesn’t mean they are true, or that you are “broken”.
It’s just the way it is.
Idea 7: You Can’t Fix the Thinking Mind With the Thinking Mind
If your brain is bombarding you with worrying thoughts, it can be difficult to use that same brain to fix the problem. After all… it’s too busy being worried!
That’s why sometimes we can use our physical body to calm our mind.
Many people believe that where the mind goes, the body follows. But there is research that suggests the opposite is true, too.
Dr. Andrew Huberman has a podcast, The Huberman Lab, which aims to dumb down neuroscience research for practical application in real life.
I often use “Box breathing” as a calming technique. This involves breathing in for a count of four, holding for four, breathing out for four and then holding for a count of four, before starting the cycle again.
You can also extend the out breath which sends a greater calming signal to the body.
For example, instead of 4-4-4-4 (breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold) you would try 4-4-6-2.
Breathing out for longer has a calming effect which Andrew Huberman describes in his podcast.
The takeaway is that our body can also calm our mind. So using breathing or other relaxing methods may help to stop that racing brain.
Don’t Ignore Your Worries, Or Let Them Rule You
I think it’s always a good idea to pay attention to your worries.
We can observe them, take note of them and learn lessons about what they might be trying to tell us.
They can be powerful signals of where we are lacking in confidence or need to improve our skills.
On the other hand, we don’t want to be a slave to our worries either. Many of our worries are unfounded and have no basis in reality.
It’s up to us to be perceptive about which ones are which and use them as information, rather than to define us.
How have you dealt with worrying about work? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!