Many years ago, when our three oldest children were in grade school, we regularly watched a mildly entertaining and unremarkable TV show about a doctors’ office. In one episode, the manager of the office decided to bring in a consultant to improve things in the office.

The main point that the consultant made was the theme of the entire episode. He said, “You should only worry about big things … and there are no big things.” The point being that there really is nothing worth worrying about.

Sadly, worry is the most discouraging, energy-sapping and least valuable activity that any of us does. It accomplishes nothing. It depresses us. And, it often makes us unable to take any action, much less the actions required to deal with the cause of the worry.

Worry, which all of us experience from time to time, is caused by negative imagination. We create worry within our own minds. And this worry – that we create! – is what causes stress and anxiety. Worry is a learned response to situations.

But here’s the important point to remember: Since you have learned to worry, you can also learn not to worry. You can eliminate, or at least minimize, worry in your life.

At its core, worry is a sustained form of fear caused by indecision. The key to dealing with and eliminating worry is simple: Learn to make decisions that lead to the actions needed to counter the causes of the worry.

A study was done to categorize the types of worry that people experience. The results were fascinating:

  • 40% of the things people worried about never happened.
  • 30% of the worries were for things in the past for which nothing could be done.
  • 12% were worries about health issues that were needless.
  • 10% were worries about trivial or unimportant things.
  • Only 8% of worries were about anything substantial. Of that 8%, half of these were worries about things out of their control.

The net message: Over 95% of what people worry about is irrelevant and a total waste of time. Given that, the rest of this article will address ways that we can eliminate, or at least reduce, worry in our lives.

The easiest way to eliminate worry in your life is to take one day at a time. This means that each day you do what you can where you are with what you have. And you do not worry about the rest.

Many times worry comes from feeling overwhelmed. To some extent, we inflict worry on ourselves when we plan to do more in a day or in any timeframe than is reasonably possible. Setting goals is important and a valuable part of leading a fulfilling and successful life. But setting goals that are so large or with timeframes that are unreasonably short will not only discourage you, but will also cause you to be unable to act effectively due to worry.

Be reasonable in the expectations that you set for yourself and other people in your life. It is always better to get to the end of the day with a completed to-do list, and then be able to do something extra, than to be in a total panic halfway through the day when you realize that you can’t get it all done.

Many times worry is based on a lack of information. We tend to worry about what we don’t know or don’t understand. The key to dealing with this kind of worry is to get the facts or the advice that you need to move forward. If we move from the paralysis of worry to taking the actions needed to get the necessary information or advice, the positive actions that we take will soon eliminate the worry.

Positive action is the enemy of worry. Purposeful action is how we attack and defeat worry. When you realize that you are worried about something, immediately stop and think about what you can do to address the cause of the worry.

One of the most effective tools to deal with worry, particularly worry about major events or long term things, is the “worst possible outcome” technique. The first step in this process is to define clearly in writing what you are worried about. For example, let’s assume that you are worried about losing your job. Write it down. “I am afraid that I will lose my job.”

The second step is to define the worst possible outcome. If you are worried about losing your job, the worst possible outcome is that you lose your job.

Once you realize this, the third step is to accept the fact that you might lose your job. Once you accept the possible outcome, begin immediately to take the actions required to improve on the situation. In this case, it makes sense to start looking for a new job. At a minimum, these actions will give you a head start on a new job if, in fact, you do lose your job.

In summary, the steps in the worst possible outcome technique are as follows:

  1. Clearly define in writing what you are worried about.
  2. Identify the worst possible outcome and its implications.
  3. Resolve to accept the worst should it occur.
  4. Immediately begin to take actions that will allow you to improve the situation if the worst were to occur.

Last year I coached a friend through this process after he contacted me to tell me he was worried he would lose his job. We went through this process and he began to look for a job. A few months later he called me to say that he had found a new and much better position. In the course of the phone call, I learned that he had never been laid off. Instead, the concern about losing his job had caused him to take action instead of worrying. The result was that he now had a much better position.

Ultimately, worry is a negative form of goal setting. Instead of focusing on positive goals and results, we allow ourselves to be sucked into dwelling on negative and worrisome outcomes. Without intentional action to counter the slippery slope of worry, we are gradually driven to a point of inaction caused by the worry we created.

The antidote to worry is purposeful action. If you focus actively on alternatives to the negative outcome you are worrying about, your worry will subside. It is difficult to be good at worrying about something if you are working hard to do the things required to take care of it.

Before I close I want to share a few more thoughts that are more strategic with regard to worry.

If you begin to actively focus on dealing with worry on a frequent basis, you will soon learn that there are patterns to the things that you worry about. Look hard at the issues that worry you, and see if you can take actions in the bigger picture to address these things. For example, if you are constantly worried about your children, take some time to think about why this is so. What can you proactively do to take away the major causes that make you worry about your children. If the worry is because you live in a bad neighborhood, for example, then perhaps you need to consider moving to a new area.

Finally, I have learned that much of what people worry about tends to be systematic. That is, most of the worry in their lives is caused by or is worry about the same things over and over again. The key to addressing this kind of worry over the long term is get rid of things today that will cause worry tomorrow. If you are constantly worried about never having enough friends, then take actions to get involved in activities that will allow you to make new friends. If you are frequently worried about losing your job due to a lack of education, then take action and get more education.

The bottom line is that worry is self-inflicted. It is caused by our personal negative imagination. It comes down to a choice. Do we choose to be imprisoned by paralyzing worry? Or do we choose to take the actions necessary to change our situation and eliminate the causes of our worry? Making the decision to act aggressively to counteract what we are worried about is the key to eliminating worry and making our lives much more enjoyable and fulfilling.