Worried to Distraction: Habits That Inhibit Performance

Close-up image of young adult with two braids looking out window with worried, thoughtful expressionThis is the first in a series of articles to highlight the fruits of my experimentation with habits of excellence. These performance strategies have served me, the people I work with in therapy, my readers, and viewers of my instructional videos well. Between the publication of this article and my memoir, I hope to extend the reach of my influence on those seeking to push the limits of their capacities to perform meaningful work. I invite you to weigh in on my reflections and share your perspectives on this topic so that together we may stretch our collective understanding of what it takes to express our highest potential.

Human beings are hard-wired to survive. A bias toward real or imagined threats to life, limb, or emotional welfare is a marvel of genetic engineering. We have a finite amount of working memory to task responses to the changing conditions of the present moment and so must rely on learned, automatic, and largely unconscious processes to perform regulatory activities that ensure survival. To thrive, we must keep this bias in perspective. If we become overly anxious about the negative consequences of our experimentation, we may become preoccupied with survival to the point of inhibiting progress toward mastery of life’s dynamic challenges. We run the risk of making our most dire predictions a self-fulfilling prophecy by resisting change in a changing world. This is why we subscribe to the old adage: “We are either moving forward or backward. There is no coasting.”

If our optimal health and welfare depend on a flexible and mobile inclination to take on and master new challenges, then we must have at our disposal conscious-processing resources to manage the dynamic moment. If we are inclined to passively cling to time-honored, often obsolete regulatory habits, our conscious resources tend to have one worried eye trained on what ideally ought to operate outside of conscious control.

Human beings engage in many habits that offer rewards such as tension reduction, distraction from painful feelings, adrenaline rushes, etc. If, however, such habits meanwhile jeopardize our health and welfare, these solutions create new problems. They inhibit creative innovation and more effective mastery of the old and the new.

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Let me give you an example you may be able to relate to. In a world of rampant child abuse, babysitters who will not traumatize our most precious resources are at a premium. We may become dependent on caregivers who we know will not harm our kids but at the same time not provide the structure and guidance to ensure they are doing their homework and learning to care for themselves. If a child’s caregiver leaves the parent with a split mind, worried about what is happening or not happening at home, then the parent is not entirely focused on the work or play that required a helping hand at home in the first place.

Worry is an ineffective defense or compromise solution for our natural human condition of conflict over giving up the old for something new. It is a symptom of not trusting our best regulatory habits to promote our health and welfare while we deal with the dynamic realities of the present moment. I will go one step further with this line of reasoning and propose that worry is likewise a symptom of not trusting ourselves to evaluate and update our applications software, so to speak. We may overly idealize habits of being we learned early in life at the knees of our caregivers, habits that ironically never served them very well, either.

Worry is anathema to conserving the energy, finding the courage, maintaining the focus, and accessing the creative resources of the mind to be with the present moment as a learning opportunity. We who worry are forever riding on wheels whose engineering we don’t trust to carry us through fields of adversity.

Worry is anathema to conserving the energy, finding the courage, maintaining the focus, and accessing the creative resources of the mind to be with the present moment as a learning opportunity. We who worry are forever riding on wheels whose engineering we don’t trust to carry us through fields of adversity. Therefore, our minds remain split between (1) worrying about these wheels going flat or coming off our bus, and (2) mining the present moment for data that promotes the achievement of our most cherished goals.

Our “wheels” are learned survival strategies that are primitive anachronisms with limited utility in a modern world. If we worry about reinventing these wheels but don’t take action, we are at best slowed because of our dependence on them to carry us forward, and at worst spinning them without gaining traction. Such split states of mind interfere with our sensory capture of the information and energies that occupy our environmental field. Such an unfocused, poorly framed snapshot is indicative that our conscious mind is doing double duty and has fewer reserves to capture, analyze, and respond effectively to incoming data in real time.

I have found that the mindful development of best practices is an antidote to the worried, split-mind condition that afflicts so many of us. Best practices are learned habits that eventually operate outside awareness and reap us the rewards of safety and security while not opposing and inhibiting meaningful mastery of new challenges. Such habits achieve two objectives: (1) they effectively promote our safety and survival and therefore minimize the worries that interfere with checking our concerns at the door of our mindful laboratory so that we might lose ourselves in innovative enterprises, and (2) in that they are stress modulators, they modulate optimal levels of arousal consistent with creative enterprise.

I would like to thank two authors for inspiring and empowering me to develop these formulations. I highly recommend both books. The first is The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber. Gerber turned the light bulb on for me, inspiring me to find vast riches in performance gains by modeling my life after the most successful franchises. That is, to codify and replicate with great attention to detail those best practices that oil the neural machinery of high achievement. The second book, The Power of Habit: Why Do We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, discusses the process of transforming old, inefficient habits to new more effective ones.

In my next article, I will discuss these daily best practices in action. Stay tuned.

References:

  1. Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why Do We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, NY: Random House.
  2. Gerber, M. E. (2001). The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Fail and What to Do About It. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • zell

    March 16th, 2017 at 7:43 AM

    I was once the person who wold worry herself into panic attacks. I literally couldn’t breathe, couldn’t focus on anything but that one thought and it was making me sick on a daily basis.
    My doctor suggested I go to a counselor ad start learning some methods for better ways for coping and managing and she has been amazing for me. We work on EMDR and breathing exercises, both of which have helped me tremendously.

  • Jacob

    March 16th, 2017 at 12:10 PM

    I would love to hear some thoughts on how I could possibly turn my worries into something a little more productive.
    I feel like I put a lot of time and energy into worrying but I would probably, ok definitely be a lot more successful if I would expend that energy in a different way.
    I want to have a better grasp on how to focus more on that that I CAN control versus that which I can’t.

  • Georgia

    March 17th, 2017 at 8:03 AM

    I soooo need to come up with ways to establish habits of excellence in my own life versus the bad ones that I always seem to hold onto :/

  • Mitchell Milch, LCSW

    March 19th, 2017 at 10:13 AM

    Hi Zell,
    Thank you for taking the time to read my article and respond to it. I’m so glad to hear that in collaboration with your counselor you have been able to modulate your anxieties and turn off the false alarms of dire threats to your health and welfare. What a relief it must be to no longer suffer this way. Bessel van der Kolk, whom I will call the “father of modern day therapeutic approaches to trauma treatment is renowned for the following jewel of wisdom on this subject. He has written that what the mind cannot tolerate the body keeps score of. I get the impression that you are on the road to mastering your worst fears in an adaptive manner that will neutralize an equally universal yet maladaptive compulsion to take charge of making your helplessness a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Mitchell Milch, LCSW

    March 19th, 2017 at 10:33 AM

    Dear Jacob,
    Thank for taking the time to read my article and respond to my post. In reflecting on your request I myself am worried about my own potential to violate my ethical obligation to to “do no harm’ by offering suggestions to someone who has not agreed to enter treatment with me. I have no idea how you will interpret and respond to my suggestions. It’s one of the reasons licensed clinical social workers in NJ tend not to discuss clinical issues with patients via email. As a rule of thumb, you can tame a thought or belief if you name it as such and remind yourself that perhaps, you are confusing a thought with a reality. If you can tolerate a mindful focus on a particular worry you may with patience discover that it is an ineffective and outmoded protective strategy integral to learned expectations of self and the world. If you can’t change the way you relate to these worries and free yourself from their grip, I suggest that you give psychotherapy a try.

  • Mitchell Milch, LCSW

    March 19th, 2017 at 10:44 AM

    Hi Georgia,
    Thanks for reading my article and taking the time to post a response. I have found that although, most of us will never be “outliers,” to quote a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell, we can learn from these highly disciplined, powerful, determined and focus individuals in ways that catapult us to achievements beyond our wildest dreams. You will learn quite a bit about success ethics if you read the following books: “The E-Myth Revisited(referenced in this article), Pillar #1: Training An Elite Mindset, By Brian Cain, and “Do I Still Need My Head Examined Or Just A New Pair Of Running shoes,” by yours truly.

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