Why I worry about the future

Planning for all possible possibilities

I often find myself thinking about the future. Planning, playing (and replaying) possible scenes in my mind, simulating interactions with people, things that may happen, trying to enumerate all possible outcomes.

If this sounds familiar to you then I’m sure another thing you might recognize is the fact that no matter how much time you spend planning and thinking about what and how it may happen, things absolutely never go as originally imagined. Nevertheless, our brains persists in the effort, spending countless hours worrying about what could happen.

Now, I would say this is normal human behavior and evolutionarily it makes sense. If you think about possible dangers you might find on your way it’s more likely that you’ll actually notice them and react both in time and in an appropriate (preconditioned) manner.

I’m a software developer by trade and throughout the years I’ve trained my brain to be really good at pointing out things that are not correct, finding issues and vulnerabilitiess. I’ve actually become quite adept at this and it’s a skill which has served me very well in my professional life. However, it has an impact on my real life as well, one that I didn’t initially foresee (and it took me awhile to actually see).

In my day to day life I frequently find myself thinking about how something might go wrong, and what I’ll do if each of the possibilities happen, and then there are different ramifications for each, in an ever branching cosmos of possible outcomes. The worst part though is that my mind always explores the worst possible outcome first, and since these are pretty much infinite it means I spend a considerable chunk of my time worrying about bad things that might happen, even if they are very unlikely. I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom this is an everyday occurrence.

And I would say this is not specific to software developers. Many (if not all) of our modern world’s professions require us to think about what possible issues we might encounter down the line and how to avoid them. This is in it’s majority a subconscious process. We’re all training our minds to do this, we’ve sacrificed our natural way of understanding the world for a pat on our back and a promotion.

I’ve been thinking “why does my mind do this?”. In my job I know clearly that my goal is to make more elegant programs that work as expected. If I see an issue I can either go ahead and fix it or make a note for later. However, real life is not a program. It’s not something you’re fabricating and on which you have power. It’s instead something you’re discovering along the way.

This leads me to a hypothesis:

My mind thinks about possible things that lie in the future so that it can prepare for them. The reason why is because I lack confidence in my ability to handle unexpected situations without planning, and thus, I worry about the future to anticipate different scenarios and outcomes.

Bringing back the evolutionary argument, it makes sense that (in nature) a person might want to spend time simulating possible outcomes for something they’re not confident with so that their chances of actually succeeding at this thing are improved. However, the set of things that are natural is much less than the huge space of possibilities we’re faced with in out hectic/modern world1. One could argue that this capability of worrying about the future is what eventually evolved into the ability of humans to plan ahead, which is one of the defining characteristics that sets us apart from other animals. As humans we’ve inherited this great evolutionary advantage, but now we find it’s overwhelmed by our modern lifestyle2.

I realized that my lack of confidence in handling unexpected situations leads me to think about the future to plan for different scenarios, particularly negative outcomes. If I had confidence in my ability to handle anything, I would not need to engage in this process at all. And this is the insight I wanted to share in this post: I believe that if we have confidence to handle anything then there is no need to suffer this process, no need to plan or think about the future at all3.

Now, whenever I find myself playing some fantasy in my mind about something that worries me (e.g. a conversation with someone) I tell myself be confident and stop thinking about it. I’ve been doing this for the past couple of months and I feel the amount of time I spend worrying has decreased considerably (and as a side effect I also feel more confident!). Of course it’s not perfect and I still struggle with it, but it’s getting better. Hopefully this can be helpful for anyone else reading this too.

Be confident!

  1. Even with a reduced search space I really doubt that our ancestors’ worrying helped them to pin down exactly how they had to respond to a situation. But it might have helped them define certain signposts from which their minds could generalize. ↩︎

  2. It’s funny though, because this worrying/planning is one of the main things that brought us (humans) to where we are right now. ↩︎

  3. Unless, of course, it’s something important that you consciously decide to prepare for. The key difference is that this is a directed effort, and not your mind unconsciously sabotaging itself. ↩︎

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