Unclutter worries from your mind

Even though I’m a faithful user of David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity system, I still find that I will sometimes worry about one or two of my next actions. I don’t worry about how I will complete the item, rather I worry about ridiculous things I cannot control (like if my cold will be over by the time I need to make a presentation).

Experience has taught me that when my thoughts become cluttered my effectiveness decreases. Then, to add insult to injury, I get even more frustrated when a task I know should only take five minutes takes me half an hour. It’s a downward spiral that is best addressed earlier instead of later.

When I find my thoughts are a mess, I answer the following five questions to unclutter my mind.

1. What is my worry? Many times, simply naming my worry is all that I need to do to quell my racing mind.

2. Is my worry rational, illogical, emotional, something I cannot control, or just noise? Identifying what type of worry I’m having can help me to find a solution to stop the cluttered thoughts. A rational fear might be solved with the creation of an action item. A worry about if it might rain is just noise because there is already an umbrella in my car.

3. Am I afraid of failure? When this worry creeps into my mind I remember a quote I found a year ago by a woman named Martha Mangelsdorf: “What would I do if I were not afraid?” The quote inspires me to imagine how I would behave differently in a given situation if I weren’t afraid of failing. Doing so has never failed to relieve me of this type of fear.

4. What good will come from my worrying? The answer to this question is often “no good.” If this is the answer, then squashing the worry in a swift manner is the only solution to uncluttering my mind.

5. How much additional time should I devote to worrying about this issue? There are times when a fear is rationally grounded and deserves my attention. I will schedule the proper amount of time to devote to the worry (five minutes to five hours) and then address the issue and only that issue during that time. I will sit down with a cup of coffee and a notepad and work out a solution. When my scheduled time is completed, I create action items or I wash my hands of the worry. I try not to be consumed with the worry before the scheduled time, as well as afterward. A focused time to worry keeps the worry from slowing me down during times when my mind needs to be working on something else.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

4 Comments for “Unclutter worries from your mind”

  1. posted by Its more difficult to "will" your feelings...than actions. on

    I agree with #1! (and feel compelled to contribute and expound further.) Is there an emphasis to deal more with how a person is feeling as opposed to getting into and defining the actual problem, which helps me move past the feelings and delving into my mind(which is only for trained professionals.) By defining the problem and trying to foresee all possible outcomes I have been successful not with “taming” but ignoring my racing mind. “If I dont do X(those royal icing flowers for the wedding cake or have enough of them,) the results are Y(I will have to rush to finish them which will make em’ look shabby or I’ll be short because of the ones that break during transport and I will have less time to work on baking the cakes and any potential problem that set of tasks will bring) which is making my stomach turn in knots, so I will make sure to do “X” right now and stop watching TV!

  2. posted by Chazz on

    That’s all well and good, but what can we do about the psychological worries that are inflicted on us from persons or things outside of our control? For example, every month DirectTV, or my cell phone company, or some other disorganized business entity screws up my bill and I am stuck wasting at least an hour of my time on the phone with these jokers trying to fix their mistakes. To compound it, I can only deal with these business at times that are inconvenient to me (i.e. MY normal business hours when I should be working), AND the icing on the cake is that their customer service is often outsourced to [ insert non-English speaking country] and very difficult to understand. This turns what should be a simple 5 minute phone call into a 90 minute ordeal.

    I know the simple solution would be to drop the company and go with a competitor, but, as we all know, most times their competitors do exactly the same things.

    I would love to hear some strategies for dealing with this kind of outsider-inflicted psychological clutter.

  3. posted by Topher on

    I know just what you mean, but you partly answered your question. It’s outside of your control and you have to make peace with that.
    It’s no different than being in a traffic jam. It still impacts you but you can’t do anything to move the traffic any faster.
    What you do have control over is your self and your emotions and perceptions.
    When they screw up your bill (or someone cuts you off or what ever) instead of just letting what ever emotion or thoughts come to your mind, make the decision about how you will feel and think about it.
    “My bill is screwed up again. How MANY TIMES do I have to fix their mistakes??!!”
    “The bill is wrong again. At least I know how to fix it. I should think about what options I haven’t tried to change this.”
    That’s the other side of frustration. Sometimes because we’re so upset we don’t look at or see that there are options ‘outside of the box’ that could solve these issues.

    Good luck
    Signed a fellow worrier.

  4. posted by Trish Dolasinski on

    I can totally appreciate the recommendation of discerning what is “outside of one’s control” and directing thinking and behavior accordingly. I do this and it has been of great help!
    I also am a person of faith. I pray . . . and, it works:-) My two cents . . .

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