Experiment 1: Worry Time

I used to be a big worrier. I would worry about big things and I would worry about little things. And most of the time, none of these things never even came to fruition.

During my twenties and thirties, I tried a lot of different strategies to reduce my worrying. I tried meditation. I repeated mantras. I blocked out worrying thoughts when they came to mind. But nothing really worked.

So I continued life as a worrier.

But then a couple of years ago, I was sitting in the kitchen of a close girlfriend’s house while we chatted over a cup of tea. She told me about some stressful events that were going on at her high-pressure corporate job, combined with parenting worries and an overflowing to-do list. I empathised with her, imagining how hard that all must be. And then she said to me, “I wish I could be more like you. You run a business, you’re a mum, you’ve got so many projects on the go. Yet nothing ever seems to phase you. You always seem so calm.”

While I took this as the compliment it was intended to be, it also took me completely by surprise. Being a calm person was not part of my self-identity. I identified with being a worrier, given I had dedicated several decades of my life to doing so.

As I lay in bed that night, I began to reflect on how this friend saw me and I started to realise that something had shifted. I didn’t spend as much time sweating the small stuff. And most of the time, I was able to keep the big stuff in perspective. Somehow, somewhere along the line, I had actually become a calm person. 

Then 2019 happened. The year started uneventfully enough. I was CEO of the innovation consultancy I founded over a decade ago, Inventium, I was married to a man who had been my partner for 13 years, and I was the mother of the most divine (almost) five-year-old girl, Frankie.

By the end of 2019, I had separated from my husband and was a single working mum, and I was about to move to a new home in a new suburb. Prior to the move, my ex-husband and I had decided to “bird’s nest” (where our daughter spent 100% of her time in the family home, and my ex and I subbed in and out) until I found a new home to live in. This resulted in not spending more than four nights in a row in the same bed for five months. By the year’s end, my psychologist kindly described me as having “diminished capacity”. This felt like quite the understatement.

In light of the last six months, and perhaps rather unsurprisingly, my stress levels began to rise again. And so, for the very first experiment of My Year of Better, we are going to focus on reducing stress.

Here is the plan:

  1. Create a new note page on your phone or create a new “list” in your to-do software if you use one. Title this page or list: Worries.

  2. Next, block out up to 30 minutes every single day at the same time and same location and label this block of time “Worry Time”. Make sure your Worry Time is scheduled for at least three hours prior to bedtime. (If you don’t feel like you can dedicate 30 minutes per day to worrying, or simply get bored during this time, feel free to make it shorter. I have suggested 30 minutes to provide a true replication of the research).

  3. For the next week, whenever you find yourself worrying about something, write it on your list or notes page. Tell yourself that you will dedicate time to worrying about it later, during your Worry Time. And then, stop thinking about it.

  4. When your Worry Time comes around, go to your list and start to worry. Really go to town. Catastrophise. Imagine the worst-case scenarios.  And then, you might also want to use this time to problem solve. You can think constructively about how to overcome the stressors that are occupying your mind. And then when your time is up, stop thinking about your worries and get back to whatever you were doing before. 

  5. Repeat daily for the next seven days.

While this strategy may seem counterintuitive, it comes from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The strategy is called Stimulus Control. Research conducted by Sarah Kate McGowan from the University of Illinois and Associate Professor Evelyn Behar found that  30 minutes per day of Stimulus Control (or Worry Time, as I like to call it) reduced stress levels significantly over a two week period (so if you want to replicate this experiment properly, continue scheduling Worry Time for two weeks, not one).

One explanation as to why this technique has been shown to work effectively is due to “increased stimulus specificity”. For worriers who indiscriminately worry about things throughout the day, many things can act as triggers. Certain environments, people, images, words - anything, really - can trigger stressful thoughts. But when we confine our worrying to a specific time of day, location and length of time, we start to narrow our triggers. Essentially, your scheduled Worry Time and location become the stimulus you associate with stress.

Like all good experiments, we need to set a baseline. So if you can take 1 minute to complete this quick survey, I’ll be able to report back on how effective this strategy was. We’ll complete another survey in seven days time.

And if you have any questions or comments, share them below and I’ll respond within 48 hours :)