More before they are counted

How writing down our worries can help us worry less

Worrying can paralyze us.

It can keep us from getting our marketing work done, from stretching ourselves beyond our current capabilities, and from experimenting with new strategies and techniques.

But usually it’s not the facts of the matter itself, it’s our perception of them, that keeps us from making progress.

An American Civil War general once related a story about his early days in the army, long before the war. On a horseback journey through Texas, he and his sole companion were suddenly confronted with the howls of many wolves.

His calm colleague, who had spent more time in the wilderness than the general, asked him how many wolves he believed they were hearing. The general later said that it sounded like there could have been an “unlimited number of them.”

But, underestimating in a pretence of bravery, he put the number at “about twenty.” The other soldier simply smiled and continued riding.

Soon they approached the wolves in a clearing. To his shock, there were just two wolves making all the noise.

In his memoirs decades later, the general provided the lesson:

“There are always more of them before they are counted.”

Indeed, as psychologist Benjamin Hardy wrote in Willpower Doesn’t Work, “Psychological research has found that the anticipation of an event is almost always a more charged emotional experience than the event itself. Almost always, you imagine it will be far worse than it ever really is.”

This causes us to “extend that pain by procrastinating action.” But, “if you would just act, the pain would be far less severe and over before you know it.”

That requires us, though, to have taken an account of our worries. It requires us understand which concerns or fears or simple recurring thoughts are holding us back.

That’s why we get our clients to create a “Worry List” before embarking on a new marketing strategy, position, or campaign. We ask them to write down in detail what they’re worried about, what they think might go wrong, or what’s keeping them up at night.

These don’t need to be true worries or fears—they can simply be thoughts we can’t shake, or endless mental rehearsals of upcoming events in our lives or work.

But by writing them down we get them out of our head. As productivity expert David Allen said, “your mind is a lousy office.” It is the worst place to store our fears because in order to remember we must obsess.

But if we simply write them down, stare them in the face, and address them one by one, we relieve their weight and pressure. We can see them for what—and how many—they truly are.

Often, in place of worrying, we can find ourselves constantly playing through an idealized vision of the future, where everything goes exactly the way we want it to, and nothing goes wrong.

But this is itself a form of anxiety and avoidance. If we’re actively not thinking about what could go wrong, we are avoiding dealing with the inevitable.

As neuroscientist Tali Sharot noted in The Influential Mind, people who try to avoid anxiety by putting it out of their mind do “not succeed in escaping the anxiety brought about by the anticipated pain.” Instead, “knowing when [pain] was coming and being able to control it was better than remaining ignorant.”

Imagining that nothing will go wrong is both a guarantee that something will and that we will be unprepared when it does.

Because as Josh Kaufman warned in The Personal MBA, “If you become too attached to the visions you have in your head, you'll have a hard time adjusting to the inevitable twists and turns of life.”

Some form of failure is inevitable, and mistakes will get made. What we want to happen will not happen exactly the way we want it to.

So we also need to write down the idealized version of the future we wish for, and prod it for weaknesses. And we need to understand ahead of time how we’ll feel if things fail us, and what we’ll do in response.

Vitally, this is not an exercise to do only in one’s head. It must be written down or it will not help, it will hurt. We’ll only add more to our pile of mental obsessions.

So think about the next major marketing effort you’re planning and write down your idealized scenario. Then ask, “What would need to be true?” for each element of your plan, and notice where you’re relying on others, counting on certain events or circumstances outside of your control, or requiring any degree of luck to get what you want.

Note where things could fail you, where someone could let you down, or where your luck might run out, and think clearly about how that will feel and what you can do in response or preparation.

Amass your list of worries and concerns, but do not leave it there. Give each worry a category, and start grouping them.

What information do we require to feel more confident? Which worries would disappear with additional preparation? Which worries could evaporate with a long-term strategy? How many would go away if we had a better framework for making decisions? And which ones are in reality trivial, but simply felt weightier while we were carrying them in our mind?

With our worries documented, we can start to work through them instead of avoiding them.

We can prepare ourselves for the inevitable mistakes and bumps along the road.

And we can keep making progress toward our goals because we understand the obstacles in our path and what we’ll do when we encounter them.

A perfect vision of the future will not manifest by itself—we must create it by overcoming challenges and adjusting to circumstances.

Worries are not things to be avoided, they are to be confronted.

But this is only possible if we remember that there are always more of them before they are counted.

So count them.

In next week’s newsletter, my partner Leah will expand on this topic and share practical tips for constructing your worry list, maintaining it and control over your worries, and making marketing progress effectively and enthusiastically.


If you liked this post or have questions you’d like answered in an upcoming newsletter, please email me at joel@familyknife.com.