What's the Difference between Worrying and Solving a Problem

To develop problem-solving skills, you need to recognise the difference between worrying and problem solving. Doing so is easier said than done, because you can easily assume that worrying helps you solve a problem. It doesn’t. Worrying gives you the illusion of control or the sense that you can anticipate and therefore prepare for difficulties in the future.

Consider something that you worried about in the past. (This shouldn’t be difficult, because everybody worries, and 38 per cent of people worry every day.) Obviously, if you draw up an exhaustive list of everything that can possibly go wrong, the likelihood is that, among the list, you’ll hit on the one thing that will go belly up. The focus of your worries is limited only by your imagination!

On the other hand, a problem is something with a solution – a series of steps that you can take to prevent, resolve or mitigate an unwanted or unwelcome event or outcome. Thus, you can worry, to no good effect, about the possibility of rain ruining your barbecue or picnic, but hiring a marquee (or arranging for your guests to be issued with umbrellas!) directly addresses the problem.

The following table highlights the differences between worrying and problem solving.

Differences between Worrying about a Problem and Solving a Problem
Worrying Problem-solving
Thought Process Repetitive, ruminative. For example: ‘I hate my job; I’m not performing well.’ Defines the problem and identifies steps to take to address it.
Typical Behaviour Passive, restless or avoidant. Active, purposeful and engaging.
Emotional Impact Anxious, restless, pent-up energy. Your energy is channelled into action.
Typical Coping Style Emotion-focused. For example, avoidance or substance use to get rid of negative feelings. Problem-focused. For example, willpower used to implement a plan. This gets to the root cause of the emotion (i.e. the problem), meaning that you may have to tolerate distress initially but the likelihood of recurrence is reduced.
Effect on Willpower and Motivation Depletes willpower and motivation. Utilises willpower (and thus depletes it), but can boost motivation.

Worrying about a problem won’t solve it; in fact, worrying wastes precious mental energy. As Lady Macbeth put it: ‘Things without all remedy should be without regard. What’s done is done.’ This means that we’re better off learning to accept some things, such as ageing, ill-health, disability or the loss of a valued role, even if this is difficult or painful.

You know you’re worrying if you’re having the same thought over and over again (for example, ‘I must change my job because I don’t get on with my boss’). In contrast, problem solving is about planning and doing (for example, thinking, ‘I’ll update my CV and register with an employment agency’). Practising problem solving is the most effective way of spending your willpower.

The key to successful problem solving, and to using your willpower efficiently, is to learn acceptance in the face of the inevitable, but creativity in response to the solvable!

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