Things You Should Stop Worrying About But Can’t

Originally published
Originally published: 9/1/2012

In business and in life, we all spend time conjuring up negative thoughts that are not only unproductive, but also make us crazy.

Do you sometimes second-guess yourself after a meeting with an important client? Maybe it was something that just jumped out of your mouth before you considered the consequences or something as simple as wondering why he looked at you “that way.” It’s even worse sometimes when you’re the CEO or leader, and you browbeat yourself over and over, pondering if you got the intended message out with the right balance of firmness, yet warmth and caring.

It is unrealistic to believe we should think only good thoughts, particularly in business when things move at a lightning pace, and the path to achieving objectives is littered with potholes just waiting to cause a serious blowout. We must always be playing what-if games in our heads to determine a course of action if something isn’t working the way we expected. This means having plan B at the ready or even C and D.

All of this can lead to analysis paralysis and sometimes overwhelmingly questioning your own judgment. The difference, however, between an effective leader and one who is constantly gripped by second thoughts of uncertainty is the ability to compartmentalize negative thinking. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. However, with a little practice, you can turn your focus away from thoughts that are an exercise in futility.

There are numerous techniques to employ to minimize incessant rehashing of our actions or decisions. Too many times, excessive indulgence in drink, food or other dubious activities is used as an antidote to ward off our demons. But at best, these diversions are temporary, extremely unhealthy and, many times, lead to even more serious problems.

Exercise, on the other hand, has been proven to have numerous psychological benefits. In my case, the best way to take my mind off business problems or my errors of omission or commission is to take a vigorous run or do an aggressive workout, and soon, the pain from my aching joints almost magically erases those irrational concerns that crept into my head just a few minutes earlier. It’s sort of like having a stomachache and then someone punches you in the nose, and all of sudden the only thing you can think about is the new pain in your nose.

A more disciplined and less painful approach is to chronicle all of your concerns, putting them in writing on a legal pad or tapping them out on your computer or iPad. If you have multiple negative thoughts, list them starting with those that you perceive as the most serious. Under each concern, try to define the problem in as few words as possible. If you think you spoke out of school and said something you shouldn’t have, jot it down. Finally, go ahead and really beat yourself up by spelling out on your list the worst possible consequences. Once you see them in writing, many of your concerns will suddenly dissipate as you realize your problems or missteps don’t seem all that daunting anymore.

For those remaining concerns that don’t make the “it ain’t worth thinking about” cut, the next step is to focus on what you need to do to mitigate any damage. You might just find that after you crystallize the issues in writing, you will stumble onto heretofore unthought-of remedies to your problems, or your narrative takes on a life of its own and leads you in a new direction to find new answers for which you didn’t even have questions.

This method of mitigating concerns by reducing them to their lowest common denominator won’t cure all your problems, but it just might enable you to put your priorities in order and eliminate time-wasting worrying that leads to nowhere. As the often-recited Serenity Prayer states, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Michael Feuer is co-founder of the mega office products retail chain OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. Michael Feuer appears courtesy of a partnership with Smart Business,, which originally published this column.

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