Stress and Uncertainty

A few weeks ago we finally got around to putting in a yard for our house. I say finally because we bought the house over a year ago and up until a couple of weekends ago, our yard was just a bunch of dirt, rocks, and weeds.

Putting in a yard from scratch isn’t exactly a quick and easy project. You have to kill and pull all the gigantic weeds, get rid of all the rocks and concrete bits from construction, dig trenches and install a sprinkler system, grade the yard for proper draining, and smooth out the dirt so it’s level. You have to place curbing, weed barrier, and mulch or landscaping rocks around the house. Then you prepare the soil so you can lay sod. You also need to buy a lawn mower, an edger, a leaf blower, etc. for ongoing maintenance.

I didn’t know how to go about doing any of that stuff—not to mention there’s an ongoing drought in Utah so there’s no guarantee that the lawn won’t just die from lack of water immediately after we put in it.

We procrastinated for so long because it was a daunting task that seemed too big to fit in amongst everything else going on in our lives.

However, the act of putting it off caused me a lot of stress. Because I knew we had to get to it eventually, it was a nagging worry that would always pop up in my mind. For over a year, the anticipation of this big, scary undertaking was the source of quite a bit of anxiety.

Then, once we finally got sick of looking out our windows and seeing dirt and weeds, we decided to hunker down and get it done. With a large amount of help from family and friends, it only took about two weeks to put in the yard.

The funny thing is, the moment we decided to do it and actually started working on it, my stress levels decreased. While it took two weeks of working almost every evening in the hot sun to put in the yard, the anticipatory stress and anxiety over the past year was far worse than the project itself. The uncertainty of how or when we’d put in the yard was more agonizing than physically laying the sod.

Studies have actually been conducted to show that uncertainty causes more stress than inevitable pain.

One study had participants play a computer game that required them to turn over rocks that could have a snake under them. The goal was to guess which rocks didn’t have a snake hidden underneath and if they did flip over a rock with a snake under it, the computer would deliver a mild electric shock.

The game was rigged so that players could start to guess or even know for sure which rocks had snakes under them, but the probability rules could be reshuffled periodically to make things totally mysterious again.

They found that the participants who knew they were going to flip over a rock with a snake and get shocked exhibited lower levels of stress compared to those who were unsure if they were going to get shocked or not. Worrying you might get hurt is worse than knowing you will.

“When applying for a job, you’ll probably feel more relaxed if you think it’s a long shot or if you’re confident that it’s in the bag,” said Dr. Robb Rutledge, a researcher at University College London. “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”

This same principle applies to personal finance. Money is the top cause of stress in the U.S. Around 77% of study participants report feeling considerable anxiety about finances.

From my experience in talking with people who are stressed about their finances, I would say the main cause of that stress comes from not knowing where they stand. It’s the uncertainty about their own situation that causes worry.

If this describes you, maybe my experience with putting in a yard will stir you to action. The first step in finding some peace surrounding your finances is getting organized. Sitting down and figuring out where you stand financially, even if what you find isn’t awesome, will alleviate stress and help you know what you need to do next.

Thanks for reading!