Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Preparedness Procrastination

Preparedness Week: Are you preparing or procrastinating?

Severe weather images
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One of my hobbies is amateur radio. I’m a “ham.” This week in my area of the world, amateur radio enthusiasts and Canadian citizens in general are marking Preparedness Week. Given how often I hear people talk about preparedness while doing not too much of anything, I think it might be better to co-celebrate Preparedness Week with National Procrastination Week. What might account for preparedness procrastination?

As far as I know, every level of government in North America advocates that citizens should be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours in the case of an emergency. Emergencies vary by area including extreme weather events, unexpected power outages, earthquakes, fires, even civil unrest. In fact, one of the first steps in preparedness is to understand what emergencies might occur in your area.

There are numerous websites ranging from local municipalities to federal (http://www.ready.gov, http://www.getprepared.gc.ca/ ) that explain how to get informed, make a plan and build a preparedness kit suited to your own circumstances. These plans and kits range from what you might need at home to “shelter in place” to “everyday carry” (EDC) kits, go-bags and generally how to be safe if the “dung hits the fan” (as they say).  

In addition to official government publications on preparedness, there are many other resources created and distributed by the “prepper” community. Preppers are a diverse bunch. Those who might go by this label range from everyday sorts of folks who do have a 72-hour plan, to a distinct subculture of more radical types who are preparing for an Armageddon-type event of which I find hard to imagine (or would hope not to witness). Preppers, whatever their stripe, seem to do just that, prep. What about the rest of us?

Actually, I’m a self-confessed prepper who sits somewhere along the continuum I’ve sketched above. I’m prepared to shelter in place or “bug out” as need be while staying warm, dry, hydrated, fed and secure. It requires work and the establishment of key habits such as, “store what eat and eat what your store.” That is, store extra food systematically, and rotate those stores by eating them as part of a regular practice. It can also mean storing fuel (stabilized) and using it regularly while replacing it; keeping generators on hand and running them regularly; thinking about safe water sources in the event that what is coming out of your tap (if anything) isn’t safe to drink . . . it’s a long list.

The work involved is part of the issue of course. So is the uncertainty associated with any potential emergency. Risk managers assess what might happen, the probability of it happening and the potential impact if it were to happen. If you rate each of these dimensions on a scale from 0-5 (with 0 meaning “not at all” or “no impact” and 5 meaning “very likely” or “severe impact”), you can see how you might get a pretty good indication of what to prepare for. Again, of course, this is a lot of work in and of itself. Present self would rather have fun now, or at least not be bothered with what may or may not happen in the future. Future self, as you’ve read in this blog, is treated more like a stranger in any case. It’s just how we seem to think.

Yes, the same discrepancy between present and future self that accounts for our more mundane procrastination on any run-of-the-mill aversive task is an issue to consider when it comes to preparedness procrastination. However, uncertainty is another issue that may account for preparedness procrastination.

It’s impossible to predict the future with 100% certainty. Ask any meteorologist what a 7-day forecast really means (they’re guessing after more than about 48 hours). So, uncertainty about future events is real.

Uncertainty is a correlate of procrastination. That’s what my research has shown. When we’re uncertain, we’re more likely to procrastinate.

There are other factors that may affect preparedness procrastination that behavioral economists study in terms of choices made and risk taking. One such factor is risk aversion.  I’ll save you looking up risk aversion on Wikipedia. Here’s what the entry there says, “Risk aversion is the reluctance of a person to accept a bargain with an uncertain payoff rather than another bargain with a more certain, but possibly lower, expected payoff.”

The uncertain payoff in the case of preparedness is whether the time and money spent will pay any dividend at all. If I make the effort to maintain extra water and food, if I spend money on a generator and first-aid kit, if I even spend the time to make a plan, I know that present self will give up resources now (time, effort, money), but will future self benefit? Perhaps not. Uncertainty. Risk aversion. Procrastination.

Really, it’s a wonder that any of us prepare, isn’t it? It takes conscious effort, time and resources to prepare for things that may never happen. In any case, emergencies are the kind of stuff or the kind of thing we see on the news happening somewhere else to someone else, aren't they? It won’t happen to me. Ah . . .  this is another problem with human thinking that feeds preparedness procrastination.  We tend to think it won’t happen to us.

I said at the outset, I’m a prepper of sorts. Why am I ?(I wonder this at times myself.) Perhaps I simply internalized my boy-scout training too deeply. Perhaps I just learned something important back then. In any case, I’m prepared . . . well, at least I try to stay informed, I make plans and I have “a kit.” I explain this to myself (and others who question my diligence/compulsiveness in this part of my life) as being responsible. I have a commitment to self and family that includes being prepared to take care of myself (and others who might need it) if the usual stuff isn’t there due to an emergency, disaster, whatever.

I know from my research on procrastination that if there isn’t already a habit for action, then action has to begin with commitment. You have to have a commitment, then an intention, and a commitment to that intention in order to act. There are strategies you can use to make it more probable you will act, but at its heart, volitional action such as preparedness requires commitment.

If you’re celebrating more of procrastination week than preparedness week, maybe this year it’s a time to re-examine your commitment to yourself, to family and to community. And, that’s enough of my preachy blog post for this week!  I hope it contributed to “being informed.” It is part of preparation, you know :-)

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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