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Don't Worry

I was drifting between wakefulness and fitful sleep as I rolled over in bed, trying to get comfortable, when I suddenly jolted fully awake with a shot of adrenaline. What would happen to our housing costs if we couldn't find a place to live in our price range? We had just sold our house and were renting it from the new owners for a limited time. We needed to find a new place to live soon—in the most competitive real-estate market we'd ever seen!

I know from experience that the best thing to do in this situation is to do some breathing exercises to focus my attention on the present rather than worrying about a future I can't do anything about at 4 in the morning. Having practiced various forms of meditation over the years, I've developed some skill in focusing my attention on the present, which is a wonderful way to cultivate awareness of the only thing we can ever truly experience: the here and now.

But it's easy to fall into the trap of using this technique to avoid any thought of the future—and this can cause problems. If I did this in the cockpit, I could easily run out of fuel before arriving at my destination, encounter weather conditions that are beyond my own or the airplane's capabilities, or run afoul of any number of other hazards that require planning to avoid.

There have been many times in flying when I felt stressed and worried, overloaded with information and needing to make a decision. Pilot training teaches us to cope with this by setting priorities and allocating attention accordingly, with the basic priorities being "aviate," "navigate," and "communicate," in that order. In other words, we shouldn't worry about what to say next on the radio until we have the airplane under control and going where we want it to go.

In fact, one of the things I enjoy most about flying is that it doesn't really give me time to worry—there's too much to do. Last year I wrote a post about hearing General Chuck Yeager speak at a nearby aviation museum. I was struck by the emphasis he places on planning, and his observation that worrying is not only a waste of time, it's a distracting nuisance that can lead us to grief.

While both planning and worry concern themselves with the future, they couldn't be more different. While worry tends to be involuntary, undirected, and obsessive, planning is a consciously chosen activity with a specific purpose. When General Yeager sat in the Bell X1 cockpit and asked himself, "How can this thing kill me?" he wasn't worrying about a future he couldn't control. He was asking the question literally, itemizing all the risks he could think of so that he could prevent them or prepare responses in advance for those risks he couldn't prevent.

And one of the great benefits of planning is that it provides a legitimate reassurance that minimizes the temptation to worry. If I've prepared as much as possible for future eventualities, I don't have to worry about them. I have a plan.

I turned on my green cockpit flashlight and scrawled some questions for our realtor on my bedside notepad, along with some spreadsheet calculations to do in the morning. With that, I rolled over and finally went back to sleep. I could rest easy because I had a plan—to do some planning in the morning.

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