When worry hits us and we begin to feel the familiar creep of overwhelming anxiety, it is often useful to break up our worry into bite-sized chunks. As Dale Carnegie explains, it is not always wise to maintain a mental hold on everything.
In the spring of 1871, a young man picked up a book and read twenty-one words that had a profound effect on his future. A medical student at the Montreal General Hospital, he was worried about passing the final examination, worried about what to do, where to go, how to build up a practice, how to make a living.
The twenty-one words that this young medical student read in 1871 helped him to become the most famous physician of his generation. He organized the world-famous Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He became Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford—the highest honor that can be bestowed upon any medical man in the British Empire. He was knighted by the King of England. When he died, two huge volumes containing 1466 pages were required to tell the story of his life.
His name was Sir William Osler. Here are the twenty-one words that he read in the spring of 1871—twenty-one words from Thomas Carlyle that helped him lead a life free from worry: “Our main business is not to see what lies firmly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”1
Sir Osler did not attribute his success to exceptional brainpower or talent. Instead he gave credit to his practice of separating the day.
…What, then, was the secret of his success? He stated that it was owing to what he called living in “day-tight compartments.” What did he mean by that? …Sir William Osler had [once] crossed the Atlantic on a great ocean liner where the captain, standing on the bridge, could press a button and—presto!—there was a clanging of machinery and various parts of the ship were immediately shut off from one another—shut off into watertight compartments.2
Given that a human being is a far more complex creation than a grand ocean liner, he saw the potential to apply this lesson to daily life
“…What I urge is that you so learn to control [your]\ machinery as to live with ‘day-tight compartments’ as the most certain way to ensure safety on the voyage. Get on the bridge, and see that at least the great bulkheads are in working order. Touch a button and hear, at every level of your life, the iron doors shutting out the Past—the dead yesterdays. Touch another and shut off, with a metal curtain, the Future—the unborn tomorrows. Then you are safe—safe for today!…Shut off the past! Let the dead past bury its dead….Shut out the yesterdays which have lighted fools the way to dusty death….The load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest falter. Shut off the future as tightly as the past. … The future is today…. There is no tomorrow. The day of man’s salvation is now. Waste of energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the steps of a man who is anxious about the future…. Shut close, then, the great fore and aft bulkheads, and prepare cultivate the habit of a life of ‘day-tight compartments.’”3
Does this mean we shouldn’t consider tomorrow? No, we just shouldn’t be anxious about it. The failure to separate worrying about tomorrow from thinking about tomorrow is far from uncommon. It’s hard to think when we are overwhelmed by by worry.
Another way to move from worry to thought is by considering an hourglass. Carnegie provides some advice given by an Army doctor to a soldier at his breaking during World War II:
“I want you to think of your life as an hourglass. You know there are thousands of grains of sand in the top of the hourglass; and they all pass slowly and evenly through the narrow neck in the middle. Nothing you or I could do would make more than one grain of sand pass through this narrow neck without impairing the hour glass. You and I and everyone else are like this hour glass. When we start in the morning, there are hundreds of tasks which we feel that we must accomplish that day, but if we do not take them one at a time and let them pass through the day slowly and evenly, as do the grains of sand passing through the narrow neck of the hourglass, then we are bound to break our own physical or mental structure”4
No amount of worry can speed the sand from the top of the glass to the bottom, and worry certainly does not make it any easier to face our day’s tasks. As we are continually drawn to multitasking, it is useful to instead seek the clarity found in tackling a single task. And then tackling another single task.