It’s first thing in your workday, and you open up your email. There’s a host of messages, old and new, asking for your attention. You also open up other inboxes in social media and the like. You quickly go through them and get a picture of what you need to get done right now.
But where do you start?
You begin one task from an email, but then quickly have the urge to see if there’s something else more important you should be doing. And this problem repeats itself — every time you sit down with one thing, the dozens of others on your mind (and the many potential urgent items that might be coming in as you sit there) are grasping for your attention.
Is there ever any certainty that you’re doing the right thing right now?
Does the worry that you’re doing the wrong thing ever go away?
This is something I’ve grappled with myself for years — I sit down to write (this post, for example), and the nagging feeling from the back of my mind pesters me, asks me to check email or my financial accounts or the calendar or various social media. Quieting this feeling isn’t always easy.
But still I get the important things done (usually). This comes from a small set of steps I take that help keep the forces of worry at bay.
I’ll lay out those steps in a moment — for now, let’s talk about where this worry comes from.
The Source of the Worry
Why does this worry come about in the first place? Why can’t we just be confident that this is the exact thing we need to be doing right now? That would be nice.
When we were kids, most of us had someone to tell us what to do. A parent or a teacher, who would give us a chore or assignment, and we knew this was what we should be doing. Of course, it wasn’t always what we wanted to be doing, so there was that. But there wasn’t doubt about what we should be doing, because it was laid out by an authority.
Then came adulthood, where things became not-so-clear. We became the boss of ourselves — even if theoretically we have a boss, in reality we have the ability to choose between a bunch of tasks and projects and communication tools, not to mention having to do personal stuff like laundry and cooking the healthy meals that we’re all obviously cooking for ourselves and picking up the kids. We are making choices all day long, with no one to tell us that these choices are correct.
We see other people pounding out the productivity, and imagine them to be rock solid in their choices, always sure they are doing the right task.
I’m here to tell you that this is an illusion. No one is sure, no one is free from the worry.
The worry comes because we want to be doing the perfect thing, and we also want not to mess up. This would be nice: no messing up a project, or our jobs, or that pesky little thing called life.
So we have the desire: not-to-mess-up or do-the-perfect-thing, and we have the fear (worry) that it won’t happen. This dynamic is present in every moment, in everything we do, unsaid and unnoticed most of the time, present only as background noise but also by nagging worry and urges to run to something else.
We can beat it by shining the light of our awareness on it, and digging in our heels against it, and being OK with it being there in the first place.
Steps to Deal with the Worry
OK, Leo, you say to your computer as you read this (I imagine you staring at the screen of a Macintosh Performa 5200) … just tell me what to do to defeat the forces of worry!
- Shine the brilliant light of awareness: Notice the worry as you sit down to do a task, or to contemplate what task to do. It’s there in the background. Turn your attention to it, and just notice it. Don’t fear it, don’t hate it, don’t worry about it. Just notice.
- Accept it as a friend: It’s always there, and will always be there with you. This worry will go through life with you, much as your consciousness of your own existence does, for as long as your heart shall beat. Don’t fear it, don’t try to kill it. Instead, give it a hug. Embrace it. Accept it. Get used to it. You’re together for the long haul.
- Welcome it along on an important task: Pick one task to do now. It can be anything, but choose something that feels important to your life and work. Something that you know will help others and yourself. There might be a bunch of them, so just choose quickly on gut instinct. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be the “perfect task”. Notice the worry coming along with you. That’s OK. Put your arm around its shoulder, and go along the path together, happy in your newfound friendship.
- Set an intention to stick with the task: Before you actually start the task, make an agreement with your friend worry. You’re going to stick with this task, at least for 5 minutes, without switching or following the urge to check other things. For these glorious 5 minutes, you will be sure of one thing: you will do this task, no matter if it’s the perfect task or not. Because actually, my friends, the perfect task doesn’t exist, and the search for it is but a grailquest. Instead, focus on this one task, and be sure you’re going to stick with it.
- Stick with the task: You probably saw this coming from the last step. The worry will come up — notice it, smile, embrace it like that friend you have who’s always doing crazy things, and then … stick with the task. You’ll be fine. It’ll be great, in fact. Triumphant and exultant.
And if you do these steps, you’ll get your task done, and then breathe. And smile. Because you came a long way, and you might have a long way to go, but you’re here. You’ve arrived. And it’s a lovely place to be.
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now was originally posted on Zen Habits on 6/10/13.