Outsource your worries to your productivity system

Three techniques to safeguard focus by putting structure around worrying.

Credits Tingey Injury Law Firm

Worries, anxieties, unfinished things, and upcoming commitments take a toll on our mental capacities. They consume precious cognitive bandwidth and hurt our performance. Knowledge work productivity is a game of the mind. Alongside protecting our focus from external distractions and working on our cognitive fitness, we must also fend off internal distractions such as worries.

It would be unrealistic to completely silence our internal worrying voice. The worst thing to tell someone who’s worrying is to stop worrying. There is no switch to flick to turn off the process, but that doesn’t mean we are helpless against it. We might not be able to silence those inner voices, but we can manage them by giving them dedicated spaces to express themselves.

It’s possible to outsource some of our worries and to put structure around others to mitigate their impact. All you need is a calendar, a reliable task-collecting tool, and the diligence to check them regularly. Acknowledging your worries by making them part of your productivity system can free mental bandwidth and help you perform at your best.

Here are three techniques I found helpful to outsource some of my worries and regain focus.

Find confidence through checklists

Whether it is getting ready for a trip, preparing a pitch deck for investors, or reviewing the latest version of your app before sharing it with users, high-stakes situations can lead to compulsive checking and a magnified sense of worry. This gets in the way of clear thinking.

I found that using a detailed checklist helps find confidence in high-stakes situations. For example, I prepared a checklist for an upcoming business trip with everything that needs to be done beforehand. It’s very granular and includes double-check steps. Whenever I start worrying I might have forgotten something, I remind myself of the checklist. I know my past self was competent; if he ticked a step, it must have been done correctly.

To explore the power of checklists and how to deploy them, I recommend The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. Some have criticized the book as a stretched-out blog post, a common issue in non-fiction writing, to be fair, but it is an insightful read nonetheless.

Delegate remembering things to your calendar

Due dates can be cognitive overhead, too. Bills to pay, registrations that open at a certain date and time, and recurring maintenance can grab a hold on the edge of our working memory and never let go. They remain in the periphery of our awareness, ever-present distractions and reminders of the things we have yet to finish. This aligns with the well-documented Zeigarnik effect, the tendency of unfinished tasks to remain in our mental foreground until completed.

When it comes to bills, it might be worth paying them early. You’ll depart from your money sooner than necessary, but in exchange, you’ll get the peace of mind of knowing that the bill has been paid and won’t become overdue. Another option is to set up auto-payments or direct debits.

Some due dates cannot be anticipated or automated away. In those cases, the best thing to do is to track them in your calendar. This might seem like basic advice, but it’s often the simplest things, when applied consistently, that have the biggest impact.

Most digital calendars and task managers allow adding notes or attaching documents. To reduce friction in taking action, you can add the link to the website where to pay or attach a bill PDF to the calendar event.

Once you know that all your due dates are tracked in your calendar and have established a routine of checking your calendar daily, you can rest assured you won’t miss any deadlines.

Schedule time to worry

Worrying can fall in the category of intrusive thoughts, thoughts that pop into our minds uninvited and unannounced. Offloading things to remember to our productivity system and writing a checklist to track completed steps are proactive ways to mitigate worrying. Unfortunately, there are more abstract or complex sources of worry that cannot be tackled like that.

One approach I found helpful is to book an appointment with my worries. An old coach suggested this approach to me, and it comes from the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy toolkit.

Set a time in your calendar when you give yourself permission to worry. During the day, when a worry pops into your mind and threatens to disrupt your focus, remind yourself that you’ll address it in your next worry-time session.

This approach comes to terms with the fact that some worries cannot be silenced or ignored but can be snoozed.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I block 15 minutes in the evening for worry time. Interestingly, I never end up using the whole 15 minutes to worry, and often this explicit focus results in ideas for tackling the source of the worry.

The mind is a complex, interconnected system. There are many factors that affect its performance. Some are external, others internal. Some we can control, others we can only learn to deal with.

Generations of ancient philosophers in Western and Eastern traditions dedicated themselves to finding inner peace. Yet here we are, still worrying. This goes to show that worrying is part of being human. Problems are inevitable.

Tracking deadlines in your calendar, writing checklists for stressful processes, and scheduling time to worry are ways I found helpful to feel more in control and avoid descending into endless rumination. They are not a panacea, but they have been serving me well. They are supports you can lean on and can help you refocus after this type of distraction knocks at your door.