Productive Worrying

Category: People Published on May 31 2016

Last week one of my clients (let’s call him Sam) had the unfortunate task of firing an employee. Sam shared with me afterwards that he was worried that the employee would now sue his company.


My advice to Sam was to “Let it go! Stop thinking about it because it’s totally out of your control. You did what needed to be done and you did it the right way. If she does bring charges against your company the half inch of written warnings in her personnel file will be a good resource. And it’s quite possible that she will do nothing but file for unemployment.”


This vignette is an example of unproductive worrying. Whether or not the ex-employee brings charges of any sort against the company is totally out of Sam’s control. And if she does, the actual experience will most likely not be as bad as what Sam’s imagination and worry would turn it into. Regardless, there is nothing Sam can do about it until and unless it happens.

Years ago, when I was Assistant Controller for a not-for-profit agency, I was responsible for supervising both staff and accounting software installations. Invariably, something unexpected would happen at least once during implementation. So, I used my drive to work to worry about all the things that could possibly go wrong.


For each item, I would evaluate both the likely impact and the likelihood of it happening. For those that had the greatest impact or were most likely, I would imagine possible courses of action that I could follow in the event I was unlucky enough to encounter that situation. The outcome of my worrying was that when some of these things actually occurred and staff came to me to find out what to do next, I didn’t need to think about it. I had the answer ready. And I looked like superwoman.


The second story is an example of productive worrying. Productive worrying differs from unproductive worrying in two distinct ways.

  1. In productive worrying you have the experience to be able to
    1. Predict with some accuracy the possible things that could go wrong and
    2. Objectively evaluate their impact and likelihood of occurrence.
  2. You have the ability to influence the situation either by
    1. Doing something now to make it less likely to occur, or
    2. Being prepared with an alternative course of action if it happens.


In other words, unproductive worrying keeps you up at night tossing and turning and provides absolutely no value. Things are out of your control. And you are unable to predict with any amount of accuracy likely sequences of events that you could prepare for. Therefore, unproductive worrying is a waste of time and energy.


Alternatively, in productive worrying you visualize possible future events so you can prevent or prepare for them. There are things that you have control or influence over that can make a difference in the final outcome. The end result of productive worrying is you are more prepared and are able to react instantaneously to rapidly changing circumstances.


However, once you’ve finished your productive worrying session, I give the same advice: “Let it go! Stop worrying. What will happen, will happen whether you’ve spent your time and energy worrying about it or not. Why not use that time and energy to do something productive, or even better, to get a good night’s sleep?”


What are you worrying about right now? Can you turn it into a productive worrying session and then let it go?