When it Comes to Preparedness, Deadlines Matter

It the last post I began by challenging a popular assumption that those of us in the emergency management profession are exemplars of preparedness.  While our professional responsibilities do generally reflect significant efforts and achievements towards making our departments, agencies or organizations more resilient to disasters, on the personal level, the truth is we’re just as human as the next person.  Preparedness and resilience isn’t something you achieve and then cross off the list, it’s a perpetual state of being – one that requires constant and consistent efforts.  But sometimes life gets in the way.

Detail of a sprinkler.

Image via Wikipedia

For me personally, my biggest challenge has been moving into a new residence three times in as many years.  I think we’re pretty set now where we are (which is a good thing) – but it also means it’s time to invest in long-term resilience tasks I’ve outlined for myself and my family: secure my house to its foundation; mitigate against potential house fires with an indoor fire sprinkler system; create defensible space around the outside of my house against potential wildland fires; and ensure I have adequate supplies of wood for winter heating for when the power goes out (which it frequently does in my neck of the woods during the winter months).  None of these are “small” projects – and while they’re each very important to me in their own way, they’re also subject to the “yeah – I’ll get to that someday” syndrome (aka procrastination), because – well – they’re BIG projects.

On the other hand, there’s a bunch of small “resilience” projects I have on my mental checklist as well:

  • add latches to the kitchen cabinets (so the dishes don’t all spill out onto the floor during an earthquake);
  • put up all our family’s photos and artwork using seismically resistant hangers;
  • place fire escape ladders in every bedroom and practice using them;
  • create bungee-cord retention system for our food pantry shelves;
  • etc., etc., etc.

While these tasks are more on the small to medium end of the project scale, they each still require a certain amount of time, energy and money – all items in short supply these days.

So what’s an emergency manager…er… resilient citizen to do?  According to research conducted by Dan Ariely, if you want to get something done, you have to set a deadline.

Procrastination Meter

Image by Emilie Ogez via Flickr

Now in Dan’s experiment testing this hypothesis using his university students as the subjects (see the previous  post), the most effective deadlines – in terms of the quality of outcome – were those set by someone else (i.e. the teacher), which were spaced out evenly, definitive and non-negotiable.  The second most effective deadlines were those set by the students themselves (also typically spaced out over time), but which once set were equally definitive.  The least effective deadlines – again in terms of the quality of the outcome produced by the students – were when the only deadline was the end of the quarter, which meant that the majority of the students in this last group waited until the last minute to produce what was now a great deal of work.

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news; these results likely resonate with anyone who’s ever had to do a task with a deadline, or in the case of personal preparedness, without one.

Now obviously the first of the three scenarios above isn’t an option.  No one else is going to set a deadline for me.  However, I can certainly set one for myself regarding any particular project or task – just stick it on the calendar, right?

Yeah, okay.  So clearly the question is, without some form of negative consequence or repercussion (absent a disaster in the interim of course), how do I get myself to honor a deadline for a project I know I need to do (perhaps better than most) for my long-term benefit – especially when there are so many other things I want to do right now (i.e. short-term gratification)?

How would you approach this challenge?

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