As cold, wet weather and grey skies descend on the British Isles, out come the scowls. A particularly cheeky response to encountering a dour-faced stranger is the peculiarly British quip, “Cheer up, it might never happen.” Obviously, there are situations where this can backfire – such as in a funeral cortege – but often it can catch the hearer off guard with the appearance of psychic powers. That is, the quipper knows that you were worrying about a future event over which you do not have control.

Sometimes awareness alone can be (at least momentarily) curative. The phrase often provokes a smile of shared recognition. But I wonder: is it really possible to just “cheer up”? For me, it often takes a bit more than a good joke. It appears I’m not alone. In the previous tax year, the UK Health and Safety Executive estimates that 11.7 million days were lost due to work-related stress, anxiety, and depression. While each of these conditions are complex psychological disorders, it is generally agreed that worrying is one major common component of them all.

For me, one of the most effective ways I have found to get my worry-wort mind to leave me alone is to make full use of the Getting Things Done® (GTD® ) methodology to externalise my concerns. It has helped me in particular with obsessing over endless possibilities. If your own mind has ever sent you round-and-round in loops thinking about what might happen, you might want to read on.

You see, whenever I give my mind a clear outcome, it helpfully starts thinking about the steps from here to there. However, when I present it with an uncertain outcome, especially one where I have a strong interest in it going a particular way, it then starts spilling out endless emotionally-charged ‘what-ifs’. It is these ‘what-ifs’ that keep me from being present with ‘what is’. And so, I start burning up large amounts of mental energy trying to suss out every eventuality. Meanwhile, to those around me I appear distracted, spacey – and am probably wearing a scowl.

Coming back to the principles of the GTD methodology, there are three places that the results of my former worries, once clarified, end up. First, I identify my own desired outcome (even if it’s not 100% in my control), and get this recorded as a project. Next, I identify the very next step, and ‘bookmark’ that as well in my system as a next action. Finally, with all the ‘what-ifs’ at play, I record these in the ‘project support’ area of my system. Getting these possibilities out of my head lets me then evaluate which ones are likely, and what I might do if each one happens – in a rational, rather than reactive manner.

For example, with a job interview, I can set my sights high with the project definition of ‘Secure ideal job’. Immediately, my focus becomes not just about this one interview, but about landing the right job for me. I can then look at contingency options in case I don’t do well in this one interview, and record those thoughts as project support. My next action may be to prepare for this one job interview, but my goal – and my possible steps in relation to that goal – are now more about opportunity and options than potential disappointment and despair.

It is when I am trying to track all the ‘what-ifs’ in my head that I create needless stress – both the fear of not achieving my outcome, and the fear of missing something along the way. The mind is a terrible secretary, but it seems to get especially flakey when the topic it is trying to track is emotionally charged.

It might not happen. Or it may. But in my experience, opportunity knocks far more often than once – especially for those who have a clear outcome defined, and see options instead of problems along the way. Get these outcomes and options externalised into a trusted system, so that your brain can ‘stand down’ from the constant ‘what-if’ duty that we call worrying.

It is easy to be positive when only positive things happen. Being able to find genuine good cheer in the midst of uncertainty takes a clear focus on a positive direction, the resilience to roll with the punches, and a trusted system to keep you present and well-orientated all along the way.

At ease, brain.

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