With the novel coronavirus COVID-19 disease spreading, we are all faced with the same question: how should we prepare for it?
If you’re like me, watching the spread of the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease feels a little like being the guard who gets steamrolled in the first Austin Powers movie.
Of course, we haven’t just been standing here waiting to get steamrolled. We’ve been living our lives, monitoring the situation, and trying to figure out what we should do. We’ve been doing a lot of reading and learning. We’ve been making (and changing) our plans. And we’ve even been using a couple of the ideas I’ve written about recently.
The Eisenhower Matrix—the topic of my last article—evaluates every issue by its importance and urgency. When something is both urgent and important, you have to act on it now. It may turn out that COVID-19 is no more important than the flu (for us personally). But we can’t rely on that. We’ve decided we need to prioritize it and act now.
But what exactly should we do? How much should we adjust our lives?
We’ve talked a lot about the difference between marginal costs and full costs. We often focus too much on avoiding smaller, marginal costs and fail to consider the real risk of a worst-case scenario. For many people—most notably the very elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions—the COVID-19 disease presents a very real possibility of dying. The costs can’t be any higher.
While my family’s risk appears to be low, it definitely isn’t zero. We’ve decided we need to take it seriously. And that means discussing what we are willing to pay (in both money and inconvenience) to keep that risk as low as possible.
We’ve been doing this since we heard about the outbreak in mid-January. What have we found? It’s really hard to plan for something when the situation keeps changing!
Our plans continue to change, almost daily. The plan we made two weeks ago seems ridiculous today, given how much has changed in the interim, with schools closing, club practices being cancelled, and stores running out of products.
But that’s ok. That’s all part of planning. I’m a big believer in Eisenhower’s famous statement:
“Plans are worthless but planning is everything.”
He was talking about managing a world war, but his statement is true of any dynamic problem you’re trying to solve, from managing a project to planning a vacation, preparing for a race to dealing with a potential pandemic.
The real world is messy and complicated. Variables change. We have less control than we think. There’s no such thing as a perfect plan.
Just as rules are made to be broken, plans are made to be thrown away. It’s the act of planning that matters. And to structure how we think about planning, I follow a matrix of my own. Let’s call it the “What Should We Do? Matrix.” It is how I think about evaluating and planning for new problems.
THE WHAT SHOULD WE DO? MATRIX
(Note: This post will not tell you what you should do to combat coronavirus. Instead, I hope to give you a framework for thinking about it. With that said, I’ve provided a few links to coronavirus resources at the end.)
The What Should We Do? Matrix focuses on two variables: time and risk.
Time refers to when we need to take an action. I keep this simple and group things into two buckets: “Now” and “Later” (with “Later” often meaning “Sooner”!).
Risk is how big a negative effect we can expect this new challenge to have on our lives. Are we talking marginal costs or full costs? How likely is it to happen? Is there a best-case and worst-case scenario?
For each combination, there’s a general action we should be taking.
NOW X LOW RISK = LEARN
What should you do right now if you if you are not at much risk? You should be learning.
Focus on understanding both the problem and your own tendencies. The big question is: how low risk is it, really? What is low risk for most people might not be low risk for you. And vice versa.
When thinking about coronavirus, young people in regions with no known cases would be in this group. This was us for most of January and February. And maybe even now if we believe the statistics about people our age contracting the disease.
While you’re in this stage, there is no need to take dramatic action. You should be learning about what to do, how your community is planning to address the problem, and understanding what supplies you should have available.
Once you have an idea what is required, get started.
LATER X LOW RISK = BUILD GOOD HABITS
If you are sure the problem will stay low risk into the future, then you should build habits to help avoid it. These can include following new rules, creating new routines, or changing old behaviors.
The world is filled with low risk problems we need to avoid. Our lives are built around them, though we don’t typically think about life in these terms. The way we cook, clean, drive, communicate. All are based around good habits that help us minimize risk.
These good habits aren’t always easy to build. But when we do successfully build them, they provide outsized value to our lives. They help ensure a positive outcome with minimal extra effort.
From a coronavirus standpoint, this can mean a number of things: avoiding large crowds, fist bumping or bowing rather than shaking hands, wearing a mask, not touching our faces, and washing our hands frequently.
These are probably easier said than done, though. For example, it is estimated that we touch our faces 90 times per day. If I had to do my own estimate, I’d say I touch my face closer to 900 times per day. (I’m terrible about it.) I know I need to change this habit. I also know that doing so will be really difficult.
But it’s important. When we build good habits it allows us to focus on other, higher risk items where our energy is better spent.
NOW X HIGH RISK = PLAN
If you are dealing with a high risk problem, you need to be constantly planning. Much of what you plan will be discarded, but again, that’s ok. Plans are worthless. It’s the planning that counts.
Imagine different scenarios and consider how likely they are. What are other people doing? What will they do when something changes? Is there a “best practice” that you can follow?
Remember, there’s no such thing as a perfect plan. Not when the situation is constantly changing. When you get evidence that you are wrong or that your plan isn’t good enough, you need to be able to drop it or improve it.
In terms of the coronavirus, this is especially important if you are at high risk and there is an outbreak near you. Make sure you are asking good questions about both how to avoid it and what to do if you catch it. Where should you go? Who should you contact? What supplies should you have? What will you do to get more if you run out? What will the people who live with you do?
Again, circumstances will probably make your plan worthless, but the more questions you’ve asked the better chance you’ll have to act decisively when necessary.
LATER X HIGH RISK = ADOPT BEST PRACTICES
This is probably the category we should all be aiming for. But it’s an expensive place to be, so we may not want to pay the costs to be here unless it’s truly necessary.
If you know a problem is high risk but have time to prepare for it, you need to figure out what the best practices are and adopt them. This could mean spending the necessary money, the necessary time, or the necessary effort to execute them. Or maybe all three.
If you are heading into this situation, you also need to have the mindset to execute perfectly. When one mistake could cost you everything, 99% might not be good enough.
If, for example, you are 80 years old and near an outbreak you will likely have to make some serious sacrifices and upend much of your life. But—and this is the part I fear people aren’t taking seriously—this could eventually apply to any of us. If our hospitals become overcrowded and it becomes difficult to get good healthcare, we could all find ourselves in a high risk situation before we know it.
DON’T JUST LEARN; ACT
Even if you think coronavirus is low risk it doesn’t mean you can just keep learning and not do anything. Once you’ve invested in learning more about the problem, either start building good habits or start planning for when the risk increases.
As unlikely as it might feel that it will go from Low Risk Now to High Risk Later, it can happen. Plan for it.
In our case, we put a lot of energy into reading about the coronavirus and what the various government agencies are recommending. When we started to see supplies of key items like surgical masks disappear, we predicted there would be a run on key supplies and we stocked up. We now have one to two weeks worth of food at the house as well as supplies of alcohol-based cleaners, disposable gloves, and masks. We didn’t bother buying water because we don’t think access to water will be an issue.
We are staying home as much as possible and avoiding crowds. We already emphasized hand-washing, but we’ve stepped it up a level. I am personally trying to stop touching my face so much but it’s going to take some time. I could wear a mask to help me, but our supply is low and I don’t want to use them up sitting at home. We are generally treating it as a low risk problem—emphasizing habits over best practices—but we are constantly planning for if it becomes high risk.
What should you do? Start with learning more. Have a lot of discussions. Try to consider others’ priorities, fears and reactions. Figure out what you have and don’t have (and how you can get what you need).
I fear the story of the coronavirus will be one of people mistakenly assuming that low risk equals no risk, and not having a plan for when the real risk suddenly increases. That’s when things start to break down. Don’t be caught off guard. Start planning now to give yourself the best chance of being prepared.
Planning is everything.
The CDC’s website is a good resource to understand this new coronavirus.
The WHO’s website provides guidance on how to protect yourself.
Worldometers has lots of coronavirus statistics.
I found this post at Slate Star Codex to be comprehensive and thought-provoking.
Bryan Green is the co-founder, Editor, and COO of Go Be More. His plan for dealing with coronavirus is probably worthless, but planning with his wife has been a positive exercise for both of them. You can give him feedback at bryan◎gobemore.co or on our Facebook page.