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The Counterintuitive Lesson I Learned From Scheduling “Worry Time”

A sleep expert told me I should dedicate “worry time” in order to sleep better at night. I ended up learning a surprising lesson about worrying instead.

The Counterintuitive Lesson I Learned From Scheduling “Worry Time”
[Photo: Ben Blennerhassett/Unsplash]

One of my mottos in life is to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” On the whole, it has served me pretty well. It pushed me through big life changes, and it has helped me calm my nerves with daily stresses.

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But even with experience of “confronting” fear, I still worry. A lot. Sometimes that’s a good thing–worrying can drive me to work harder, be better prepared, and focus on what I can control. But when I ruminate over things that I don’t have control over, all it does is send me into a tailspin, and makes it difficult for me to sleep soundly at night.

Earlier this year, I noticed that stress and anxiety compromised my sleep to the point where it was impacting concentration at work. I’d followed all the standard sleep advice  like avoiding screens and late-night snacks, was eating healthy and exercising regularly. I even experimented with audio hypnosis. But nothing seemed to be working–so I sought the opinion of an expert. Gary Zammit, founder and executive director of the Sleep Disorders Institute in New York, told me this: “If the anxiety is producing worry, the best thing to do is to try to put that worry into a daytime situation or into an awake situation.”

Zammit said that he’d ask patients how long they lay awake at night worrying, and would instruct them to schedule in a “worry time” for that long, where they can “sit in a quiet chair” and think about all the things they usually worry about. Some patients would realize that it’s not worth stressing about–and others would just sleep better because they’ve literally moved that activity into the day. Although this made sense to me, I was pretty skeptical that it would work. But I was also desperate to get a good night’s sleep for the sake of my productivity, so I decided to try it.


Related: 4 Sleep Myths That You Need To Stop Believing 


Worrying At Different Times Of The Day

First, I had to figure out how much I worry. I realized that this varied from day to day, but at a minimum, I probably spend at least 15 minutes in total. On days where I’m really stressed, it can be an hour or two.

I decided to try out 15 minutes. On Saturday and Sunday,  I decided to wait until my brain would start ruminating on something, and just stop and let myself worry. That time never came on Saturday. On Sunday, it came when I was doing my weekly meal prep. I remembered briefly talking about it with my husband, but I don’t think my worrying lasted 15 minutes. After all, there were onions to chop and chicken breast to grill!

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When I Scheduled It Concurrently With An Activity, I Forgot About It

On Monday and Tuesday, I experimented with scheduling my worry time at 6:45 a.m.–my daily workout time. For me, exercise is as much problem-solving time as it is sweating-time, and the self-improvement fanatic in me wanted to see whether I can turn those “worries about things I have no control over” into “something I can control about the situation that I haven’t thought of.”

Clearly, that turned out to be wishful thinking. Not only was I (once again) forced to face the harsh truth that many things in life are absolutely out of my control, but “worry time” became nonexistent when the physical pain of a hill sprint or bench press took over. Those worries ended up paying me a visit throughout the workday (on both days), and I silently sighed in frustration at having my focus disrupted.

Ironically, this ended up being good for my sleep. I felt like I was exerting more energy by forcing myself to focus, so I was exhausted by the end of the workday. I fell asleep within 5 to 10 minutes as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Worry Time Made Me Resist Worrying

On Wednesday and Thursday, I decided to move my “worry” time to my commute home. It’s already pretty long and unpleasant, so I figured that I didn’t have a lot to lose by adding “worrying” into the mix. I was wrong. Worrying prevented me from decompressing, when all I wanted was not to think about anything. So instead of continuing with my worry, I popped on a podcast I could listen to mindlessly. It was a much nicer way to spend a 45-minute train ride.

Again, setting aside “worry time” didn’t stop my worries from popping up during the day. But I did notice that when I set it for later in the evening, it went away faster because in the back of my head, I thought I’d have more time to dedicate to this when the day is over. I didn’t have trouble sleeping that night, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure if the “worry time” had anything to do with it. Both were busy days at work, and I’d upped my exercise intensity–making me more tired than usual.

It Didn’t Stop Negative Thoughts, But It Did Make Me Learn To Accept Them

By Friday, I was ready to give up on the experiment. It’s a lot of work to worry for 15 minutes every day!

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I’m not sure how much the experiment helped me sleep better (for me, it seems like physical exhaustion is the key to a good night’s sleep). It certainly didn’t stop me from worrying throughout the day. After all, my work involves being surrounded by the news–much of which are negative, and well, worrying. What it did teach me, though, is that it’s okay to worry. The moment I accepted that fact, I was able to let my worries pass rather than fight to stop them from dominating my head.

After all, worrying can be productive, and while I’ve yet to master predicting when it would appear, I can choose what to do when it does arrive in my head. For me, that’s not resisting it, and letting it pass until it goes away on its own.

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About the author

Anisa is the Editorial Assistant for Fast Company's Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work.

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