Lots of us begin the new year with exciting goals. One of my friends is finishing her first book, another is taking a licensing exam, and a third is interviewing for her dream job. But then the worries set in. As a friend told me over coffee, “I only worry about things I really care about.”
A little worry is natural, but unproductive worry can sabotage us. Years ago, when cognitive psychologist Tracey Kahan was a ski instructor in New Mexico, she would tell her students, “don’t concentrate on what you want to avoid.” If you stare at the sharp rocks at the bottom of the hill, that’s where you’ll end up (in Dreher, 1998, p. 143). Focusing on obstacles, ruminating and obsessing about them, is unproductive worry.
Productive worry—what psychologist James Prochaska and his colleagues call “countering” and “environmental control” (1994, p. 176, 186) —means anticipating obstacles, asking, “What could get in the way?”, then taking strategic action to deal with them. If you’re beginning a new diet, this might mean getting rid of candy or junk food in the house so you won’t be tempted. This strategy is part of psychologist Gabriele Oettingen’s “Mental Contrasting” or WOOP approach to problem solving (Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001) and has helped people achieve their goals in diet, fitness, relationships, and academic performance. My colleague, psychologist Dave Feldman and I use it successfully in our hope interventions, asking participants to set a goal, visualize three steps to get there, followed by three obstacles that could get in the way, then three strategies to overcome them (Feldman & Dreher, 2012).
Productive worry means anticipating obstacles, not getting caught up in endless rumination. As Tracey Kahan recognized, if we focus on where we don’t want to go, we may well end up there. If we obsess about what can go wrong, we can become caught up in fear and feelings of helplessness, reinforcing ourselves for failure.
So the next time you start to worry when approaching an important goal, turn worry into strategic action. Ask yourself, “What can I do about it?”
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.