How do we maximize the likelihood of achieving our values and minimize little risks that can become big problems?

In a recent article for the New York Times, anthropologist Jared Diamond points out that, as a 75-year-old man, one of the major risks in his life is falling in the shower or along a sidewalk. Falls cripple or kill many elderly people; the Centers for Disease Control reports that, in 2009, falls killed over 20,000 elderly people, and, in 2010, they injured 2.3 million. Even if his risk of falling in the shower were one in 1,000, Diamond notes, that would be far too high, as he takes some 365 showers per year. So he takes extra precautions to avoid falls.

Diamond describes such strategies as “constructive paranoia,” but that phrase is misleading. To adapt the adage, you’re not paranoid if something is really out to get you. The better way to describe strategies for avoiding or minimizing small but routine risks is the adoption of protocols.

We embrace all sorts of protocols on a daily basis as a matter of habit. In the car we fasten our seatbelts and check our mirrors. On foot we look both ways before we cross the street. In the store we check food ingredients. We adopt protocols regarding our diet, posture, movements, security, and the use of tools of all kinds. Without these protocols—these habits of daily action—the little risks of daily life would soon overcome us.

Whether our protocols concern precautions against potential problems or the pursuit of positive values, they often become a matter of subconscious habit. We develop these habits over time by means of our conscious choices, and we can change them. As with all habits of thought and action, we can alter and adapt our protocols to optimize our lives. If we fail to do that—if we adopt and maintain habits unthinkingly or for bad reasons—we waste our time and energy. Just think of all the habits based on superstitions that millions of people embrace—from refusing to step on cracks while walking to visiting psychics for information about one’s future to attending worship services for nonexistent deities.

Sometimes our habits can become stubbornly ingrained and difficult to alter. However, in order to advance our lives and happiness, we should strive to bring our habits in line with our rational understanding of the world and with our life-serving values.

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Creative Commons Image: Steve Jurvetson

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