A coaching client walked into my office and started down a rabbit hole of worries. He had just been promoted to a vice president role at a large company and was a little, well, freaked out.
“Hang on,” I interrupted, overwhelmed myself by his stress and worry. “You keep a worry list, right?”
He looked at me quizzically.
“You need to write down everything that’s on your mind, always, consistently, so you brain doesn’t have to try to keep track of it all,” I said, referencing productivity expert David Allen’s stress management approach in his 2001 classic, “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”
Allen likens our short-term memory — where we try to keep track of nagging to-do’s — to RAM on a computer. “Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once,” Allen writes.
Most people walk around constantly distracted, with their RAM bursting at the seams, he writes.
I wanted my client to clear out his metaphorical RAM. “For the next 10 minutes, I want you to tell me everything you’re worried about,” I told him. “I’ll take notes. You can take a picture of them later with your phone. Let’s just list out everything that’s bugging you.”
My coaching client described worries about making mistakes, about failures, about his manager and team, about his leadership style, about deadlines and revenue goals. At the end of the 10 minutes, we had a long list of worries in my illegible scrawl.
“Let’s take a look at the first worry,” I suggested and read aloud: “I’m worried one of my teams is feeling neglected and is starting to unravel.”
My client explained that he’d needed to focus on a problem elsewhere in the organization, and that team had been on autopilot for a while.
“What’s one thing you can do to feel like you’re pulling the team together?” I asked him. He identified a couple of specific actions he could take.
“I feel better already,” he said, looking at the worry list. “Lighter and, I don’t know, more energetic and enthused.”
Allen writes about that feeling in “Getting Things Done.” He calls it “relaxed control.”
When you become aware of a worry circling in your thoughts, write it down. Keeping a worry list can be a shortcut toward that feeling of relaxed control.
I read another worry from my client’s worry list: “I’m worried that my manager and his manager don’t understand what I do and that I won’t be able to effectively explain it to them.”
My client explained that they had just been through a reorg and his manager didn’t have any experience in his area.
He already knew what I was going to ask: “What’s one thing you can do about this?” We talked through a communication strategy, upward management tactics and defining a style of self-promotion that felt aligned with his (humble!) personality.
As new worries occur to you, write them down, I suggested. Don’t let them rattle around taking up space and energy in your brain.
“OK, but I’m worried about something,” he said, looking at his worry list.
“I’m worried I won’t be able to read your notes.”