Our discussion of worry thus far has set the stage for the remaining discussion, but we don’t yet have a generalized checklist.


Then what is the answer? The answer is that we must equip ourselves to deal with different kinds of worries by learning the three basic steps of problem analysis. The three steps are:

  1. Get the facts. 

  2. Analyze the facts. 

  3. Arrive at a decision—and then act on that decision. 

Obvious stuff? Yes, Aristotle taught it—and used it. And you and I must use it too if we are going to solve the problems that are harassing us and turning our days and nights into veritable hells.

Let’s take the first mle: Get the facts. Why is it so important to get the facts? Because unless we have the facts we can’t possibly even attempt to solve our problem intelligently. 1

Carnegie attributes much of worry to confusion, and I think he’s right. I would also add that this is quite often the root of procrastination, too, which is the handmaiden of worry. As an addendum, he points out sometimes our confusion is due to trying to make a decision before all the facts are in. If you’re worried about a problem that can’t be solved until Tuesday, save the decision until Tuesday too. Actively staying in fact-gathering mode will prevent the worry from creeping in on the intervening days.2

Because we must fight our natural instinct to avoid thought, while also facing roiling emotions, it is useful to have a fact-gathering frame to apply. Carnegie uses a courtroom metaphor:

  1. When trying to get the facts, I pretend that I am collecting this information not for myself, but for some other person. This helps me to take a cold, impartial view of the evidence. This helps me eliminate my emotions.

  2. While trying to collect the facts about the problem that is worrying ine, I sometimes pretend that I am a lawyer preparing to argue the other side of the issue. In other words, I try to get all the facts against myself— all the facts that are damaging to my wishes, all the facts I don’t like to face.

Then I write down both my side of the case and the other side of the case—and I generally find that the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremities. 3

This all helps us gather the facts, but we must also analyze them. On to step 2.

I have found from costly experience that it is much easier to analyze the facts after writing them down. In fact, merely writing the facts on a piece of paper and stating our problem clearly goes a long way toward helping us reach a sensible decision. As Charles Kettering puts it: “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”4

Many good lesson are best taught with a story:

Let me show you all this as it works out in practice. Since the Chinese say one picture is worth ten thousand words, suppose I show you a picture of how one man put exactly what we are talking about mto concrete action.

Let’s take the case of Galen Litchfield—a man I have known for several years; one of the most successful American businessmen in the Far East. Mr. Litchfield was in China in 1942, when the Japanese invaded Shanghai. And here is his story as he told it to me while a guest in my

“Shorty after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” Galen Litchfield began, “they came swarming into Shanghai. I was the manager of the Asia Life Insurance Company in Shanghai. They sent us an ‘army liquidator’—he was really an admiral—and gave me orders to assist this man in liquidating our assets. I didn’t have any choice in the matter. I could co-operate—or else. And the ‘or else’ was certain death.

“I went through the motions of doing what I was told, because I had no alternative. But there was one block of securities, worth $750,000, which I left off the list I gave to the admiral. I left that block of securities off the list because they belonged to our Hong Kong organization and had nothing to do with the Shanghai assets. All the same, I feared I might be in hot water if the Japanese found out what I had done. And they soon found out.

“I wasn’t in the office when the discovery was made, but my head accountant was there. He told me that the Japanese admiral flew into a rage, and stamped and swore, and called me a thief and a traitor! I had defied the Japanese army! I knew what that meant. I would be thrown into the Bridgehouse!

“The Bridgehouse! The torture chamber of the Japanese Gestapo! I had had personal friends who had killed themselves rather than be taken to that prison. I had had other friends who had died in that place after ten days of questioning and torture. Now I was slated for the Bridgehouse myself!

“What did I do? I heard the news on Sunday afternoon. I suppose I should have been terrified. And I would have been terrified if I hadn’t had a definite technique for solving my problems. For years, whenever I was worried I had always gone to my typewriter and written down two questions—and the answers to these questions:

“1. What am I worrying about? 

“2. What can I do about it? 

“I used to try to answer those questions without writing them down. But I stopped that years ago. I found that writing down both the questions and the answers clarifies my thinking. So, that Sunday afternoon, I went directly to my room at the Shanghai YMCA, and got out my typewriter. 5

I think this is vital. The act of committing words to a page opens the mind and crystalizes half-thoughts. Continuing:

“I wrote:

“1. What am I worrying about?

“I am afraid I will be thrown into the Bridgehouse tomorrow morning.

“Then I typed out the second question:

“2. What can I do about it?

“l spent hours thinking out and writing down the four courses of action I could take—and what the probable consequence of each action would be.

  1. I can try to explain to the Japanese admiral. But he doesn’t speak English.

If I try to explain to him through an interpreter, I may stir him up again. That might mean death, for he is cruel, would rather dump me in the Bridgehouse than bother talking about it.

  1. I can try to escape. Impossible. They keep track of me all the time. I have to check in and out of my room at the YMCA. If I try to escape, I’ll probably be captured and shot.

  2. I can stay here in my room and not go near the office again. If I do, the Japanese admiral will be suspicious, will probably send soldiers to get me and throw me into the Bridgehouse without giving me a chance to say a word.

  3. I can go down to the office as usual on Monday morning. If I do, there is a chance that the Japanese admiral may be so busy that he will not think of what I did. Even if he does think of it, he may have cooled off and may not bother me. If this happens, I am all right. Even if he does bother me, I’ll still have a chance to try to explain to him. So, going down to the office as usual on Monday morning, and acting as if nothing had gone wrong, gives me two chances to escape the Bridgehouse.

“As soon as I thought it all out and decided to accept the fourth plan to go down to the office as usual on Monday morning—I felt immensely relieved. 6

Very often, making a decision has the same emotional effect as if the whole matter is decided. The relief that sets in further strengthens the resolve to follow through.

“When I entered the office the next morning, the Japanese admiral sat there with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He glared at me as he always did; and said nothing. Six weeks later—thank God—he went back to Tokyo and my worries were ended.

As I have already said, I probably saved my life by sitting down that Sunday afternoon and writing out all the various steps I could take and then writing down the probable consequence of each step and calmly coming to a decision. If I hadn’t done that, I might have floundered and hesitated and done the wrong thing on the spur of the moment. If I hadn’t thought out my problem and come to a decision, I would have been frantic with worry all Sunday afternoon. I wouldn’t have slept that night. I would have gone down to the office Monday morning with a harassed and worried look; and that alone might have aroused the suspicion of the Japanese admiral and spurred him to act.7

Most of our worries are not the result of such life-and-death circumstances, but a story such as this can often better cement8 the lesson.

Take time to work the steps, and notice how quickly anxiety leaks away.

This post is one part in a series on worry. Feel free to dip in anywhere or start at the beginning.

  1. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, p. 53. ↩︎

  2. Carnegie, p. 54. ↩︎

  3. Carnegie, p. 55. ↩︎

  4. Carnegie, 56. ↩︎

  5. Carnegie, pp. 55-6. ↩︎

  6. Carnegie, pp. 56-7. ↩︎

  7. Carnegie, p. 57. ↩︎

  8. Part of me wants to say “concrete” here, Dr. Drang↩︎