I can’t pinpoint exactly when this started, but over the course of the past few months, I’ve noticed myself getting more and more fascinated by the way people deal with the unexpected things in life. I suppose there’s a direct connection here with the fact that I’ve also begun to notice that I’m trying, more and more, to start attempting to build redundancy systems into my life in an attempt to mitigate for the fact that when life throws inconveniences your way, it always seems to be at the most inconvenient moments (of course).
It’s at times like this when I always remember the phrase “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”. It seems to be a rather solid philosophy upon which to build one’s life – a sort of practical, realistic optimism. More and more, I’m beginning to feel that the more prepared you are for the multitude of inevitable misfortunes that crop up throughout life, the more the outcome actually begins to get better – just as much, in fact, as directly trying to improve the outcome. It’s very much a reflection of Charlie Munger’s philosophy that doing the smart thing is, in fact, very often actually more a case of avoiding the stupid things. If you try to avoid the stupid things, you manage to guarantee some sort of baseline set of results upon which you can build in your pursuit of getting the eventual smart result.
When I talk about dealing with the unexpected, I’m not necessarily talking about huge problems, either. I really do believe that an accumulation of small irritations can be just as harmful for one’s mental frame of mind as one or two big ones, if not more so. The problem is that the big problems tend to be a lot more obvious, whereas the small annoyances mount up and are hard to place specifically, so they tend to nag at the back of your mind until you’re irritable and grouchy without even knowing why. A squeaky door handle, a slow-draining shower, a hole in one of your socks – none of these is (by itself) enough to really bother you, but five or ten regular occurrences might, and you might not know why you’re annoyed, either.
The concept of redundancy
(NOTE: I am using redundancy here in the engineering sense of the word. Here’s the Google definition.)
“[Redundancy is] the inclusion of extra components which are not strictly necessary to functioning, in case of failure in other components.”
At some point within the last few months, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the concept of beginning to build different redundancy systems into my life “in case of failure in other components”. What I’m trying to get at here is that I don’t want to wait until something actually goes wrong to begin fixing it. I want to put failsafes in place across as many areas of my life so that if things go wrong, I’m not caught short – or, at the very least, I’m somewhat prepared for it. Here are a few ways I’m trying to build redundancy plans into my life, from small to big:
1) Buying replacements before the original runs out
This is probably commonplace for most people, but it just seems to be something that’s never really been done regularly in my household and it bugged me for years without me even realising that I found it annoying. If the toothpaste ran out, we’d always just add it to the list to pick up once it had gone. Since I’ve been working on these ships (mostly DFDS, Newcastle-IJmuiden, but currently P&O, Hull-Rotterdam) I’ve definitely made a point of replacing things before they actually need it, because it’s a lot more difficult to get something at short notice as neither port (Hull or Rotterdam) is close to the city centre, or even any shops. Case in point: as a (mild) asthmatic, I need to keep an inhaler on me just in case of any attack. My current inhaler is nowhere near expiring, but I still have two replacements kept to the side in case of any problems (such as losing my primary inhaler). Things like shampoo or deodorant are less important, but I still have replacements in the back of the cupboard so that when either of them run out, I can just immediately use the new one rather than scramble off the ship in an attempt to find the nearest shop. It buys me time and peace of mind.
(NOTE: Another obvious benefit of this is the financial benefit – if you need something specific in a hurry and you only have time to visit the nearest shop, you might end up paying twice the price for something that you really need at that specific moment in time. In contrast to this, if you spot deals on things when you’re out, you can almost certainly buy it for a cheaper price (or in bulk) and you have the added bonus of having it immediately accessible as soon as you need it.)
2) Back up the backups
This is perhaps getting into excessive paranoia, but I want multiple stages of redundancy because if things go wrong, there’s nothing to stop them going wrong again. The more you can accommodate for this, the more you can relax.
Case in point: my job involves having a fully-functioning guitar ready to go at all times. Therefore, I always keep spare strings at hand, in case one breaks. However: I always make sure that I have at least TWO spare sets of strings with the guitar at all times.
There’s a specific reason for this: if you break a string, you take one of the two packs of strings and you re-string the guitar. Done. Now, however, you only have one spare set left. Here’s the clincher: it’s very possible that you might accidentally break a string whilst re-stringing. If you’ve got that second spare set, you can break it open and take the relevant string and fit it, and hey presto; you can still play the gig.
If, however, you only had the one spare set, congratulations: you now have a semi-functioning guitar until you can find some more strings. If, like me, you’re in the middle of the North Sea stuck on a ferry, good luck getting hold of a spare set. You’re now going to have a hard time manoeuvring on the remaining strings through the gig until you make it back to land and can get your hands on a spare set (at whatever price the local guitar shop charges for strings, which is probably going to be more than if you were buying them in bulk online, for example). Do you see where I’m going with this?
For some things, this is overkill. I’m not going to buy five tubes of toothpaste – there’s simply no need. However, I do have two spare inhalers – if I lose my main one, I can use one of the spares, but if I’m exceedingly unfortunate and lose that too, I’ve got one remaining and I don’t need to worry about being able to breathe (something I’m rather fond of, incidentally).
In terms of digital storage, it’s been bugging me lately that I don’t have two full failsafes for my laptop. I have a portable 2GB hard drive which most of my stuff is backed up on, but if that breaks too (and it’s happened to friends of mine very recently) then I still lose all my stuff. I do have a program installed on my hard drive which will back up my documents up to a maximum of 500GB, but I have a 1TB hard drive. I need to address this.
3) Use technology to help you
It’s not perfect, but technology can make your life a lot easier in terms of systematising things. For instance, if you own a smartphone (or even have a Gmail account with a calendar) then you can set reminders to go off at a specific time or date. You might use it to remind yourself to send a birthday card to a friend – if you wanted to build in multiple levels of redundancy, as we spoke about before, you might do it like this:
– Reminder 1, two weeks before the event: This is to remind you that something is coming up. You don’t necessarily need to do anything about it immediately, but for now, just remember that it’s coming up soon.
– Reminder 2, a week before the event: It’s getting closer, and now might be a good time to do something about it. If you need to post something, for example, you might want to look into it sooner rather than later.
– Reminder 3, two days before: It’s probably cutting it quite fine, but you still just about have time to do something about it now.
(optional) Reminder 4, on the day: If it’s somebody’s birthday (for example), this might remind you to call them even though you’ve already sent their card or present.
Using GTD to help
I’m a big fan of setting up automated systems to offset for things that are easily forgotten. This is something I picked up when reading David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, and my understanding and summary of it essentially consists of the following basic points:
– If you’re keeping all the tasks in your head, you actually multiply your workload by two as you have to a) remember them and then b) actually do them. It’s also linear – it has to be in this order because you obviously can’t do a task if you’ve forgotten about it.
– To account for this, take everything that you need to do it and get it out of your head by transferring it into something readable. Paper, document, phone – it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not in your head. (I’m a fan of Todoist, and I’ve also used Wunderlist with great results. Otherwise, pen and paper is pretty effective too, or a simple Word document.)
– Once it’s out of your head, you can see the full list of everything you need to do. Prioritise accordingly – what’s important?
– If you can do it in less then two minutes, just do it there and then on the spot.
– For bigger tasks, you can then organise it and set up systems in place to work for you. For instance, if you need to make one call to your phone service provider in eight months’ time, just set a reminder to do it on your phone and then you can forget about it for the next eight months. Of course, if you were following the “multiple-level systems of redundancy” approach, you might also set it up in your Gmail calendar with an added note for it to email you on the relevant date (and in advance) so that you know instantly that you have to call them, and this way you’ll still be reminded even if you lose your phone. You could even set up specific details in the reminder so that you have any reference numbers etc. immediately to hand.
Learn from your mistakes
I’ve had a lousy few weeks for losing things. In the past month or so, I lost both my Kindle and my wallet, several weeks apart – and was unbelievably lucky because I managed to get both of them back again.
So how does the redundancy principle apply here?
In the case of the Kindle, I was an idiot and absent-mindedly left it somewhere on the DFDS ship. (Luckily, a colleague of mine found it and I eventually got it back).
Because of the inherent technological benefits of the Kindle, it actually wouldn’t have been as devastating as you might think to lose it. Yes, it would have been extremely irritating and moderately pricey to replace. However: all of the data on it was replaceable. Any books on it were either bought from Amazon (meaning that they could be instantly re-downloaded to a replacement Kindle in a matter of seconds) or they were stored on my computer, in which case I could just transfer them from USB and it would all be back to full working order as soon as I got a replacement Kindle. The main issue would have been replacing the physical Kindle and USB, which would have been costly, but you could cynically say that it would have been my “idiot tax” for losing it in the first place. Yes, I would have had to shell out for a new Kindle (and more fool me), but I wouldn’t have lost even a single word of the data that I had on the original, down to the last bookmark or highlight. Redundancy principle in place, and it’s strangely beautiful.
This one was very recent (within the past couple of days) and it would have been far more inconvenient than losing the Kindle. I’m extremely glad I was able to get it back (I won’t go into the specific details right now). Here’s what my wallet was carrying at the time:
- Two debit cards
- A credit card
- Driving licence
- National Insurance Card
- Oyster card
- EHIC (European Health Insurance Card)
- A small amount of cash (around £10 and a 20-euro note, with small amounts of change in both currencies)
So what principles have I already applied here as failsafes, and what have I overlooked?
1) I rarely carry around much cash with me at any given time. I prefer to use card where possible and I don’t like carrying large amounts of cash on me as there’s no way of retrieving it if lost. Had my wallet stayed lost, I would only have lost a small amount in cash, which I was fine with.
2) The Oyster card is digitally linked with my Oyster account, which means I can access the information on it (balance, journeys etc) from anywhere, and I can also link a replacement card with my account in the event of losing the original, which means that I shouldn’t in theory lose anything (except perhaps a small amount of money replacing the card if needed).
(NOTE: In writing this article, I just had a classic case of needing to walk the walk whilst talking the talk! Whilst clicking to another tab to check my Oyster card after having written the previous paragraph, I had a heart-stopping moment where I thought I’d closed the tab where I’m writing this – and I thought I’d lost 2200+ words and an hour of writing. I’ve just copied and pasted everything from this article into a Notepad document so that I can copy it right back if anything happens with the browser. Anyone ever lost any significant amount of work due to a technological error…?)
Things learned from losing my wallet
As soon as I realised I’d lost the wallet, I checked everywhere for it – my pockets, my bag, re-traced my steps etc., and made sure that I definitely didn’t have it. I then went into two different banks to cancel my cards (being sure to have the replacements sent to me in Hull rather than the lengthier process of having them sent to Cheltenham and then back to me). This left me with one obvious problem: zero cards (debit or credit) available for current use.
This being Christmas time, this is a bit of a pain in more ways than one – I still had a couple of presents I’d wanted to get for people from Amazon, but had no way of paying for it as Amazon only accept cards (not PayPal or anything like that, which is directly linked to a bank account and not the card). I also looked into immediately replacing things from my wallet such as the Railcard and driving licence, but both of them required a fee to replace, and the only options on the websites were to pay with card. This left me with an obvious problem insomuch as I was unable to replace them until I had access to new cards.
My annoyance here is having limited access to my own money at a time when I need it. The money’s there – I just can’t use it. To prevent this happening again in the event of any future emergency, I’m looking into the following:
– Setting up a basic account with an unrelated bank (not with either of the banks with whom I currently have an account). I don’t need anything fancy – in fact, I want it as simple as possible so that I don’t have to have a minimum monthly in-payment or anything like that. Just a boring, standard basic account for emergency purposes.
– Making sure I have a debit card with the new account.
– Memorise the card details (and potentially keep them somewhere safe digitally, encrypted, in case of forgetting them).
– Leaving the card at home in a secure place, and keep it there – it’s not for travelling with, or for buying things in physical locations.
– Keeping a token amount of money in the account and using the card occasionally to keep it active.
By doing the above, it means that if I’m ever in the position again where I need to cancel cards due to losing my wallet or any similar such emergency, I’m covered. Even if I don’t have the funds that I need, it would simply be a matter of logging into one of my other accounts online and transferring the required amount of money into my “backup” account – and from there, with the card details, I can then pay for whatever I need online without actually requiring the card to physically be there (as long as I know the details).
As a bonus, if I’m at home, I can then retrieve the physical card to use in physical retail stores if I need to, but if I’m away (like now) I can just get cash out temporarily at a bank whilst the new card comes through (as I am indeed doing now), and meanwhile I can still easily buy things online if I need to, even if my other cards have been cancelled. It doesn’t matter that I won’t have access to the physical card if I’m away, because that’s not its purpose.
(Related to this is the concept of the emergency fund – I may well use this backup account to stash away a percentage of everything I earn in the event that the shit hits the fan in future. This way, I’ll have accessible money, should I need it – there’s nothing worse than the feeling of not knowing if you’re going to have enough money to get you through an emergency situation: lost equipment, unexpected car bill, medical expense, etc.)
As far as the other elements of the wallet are concerned, they could have been replaced – some for a fee (railcard, driving licence, buying a new wallet) and some for free (EHIC). The National Insurance card apparently only gets replaced once, for some reason, so I’ll probably leave that at home for the future as I have the details memorised and there’s no need to risk losing it unnecessarily.
Losing my wallet, in short, would have been a pretty infuriating experience had I not got it back, but it wouldn’t have been totally devastating. Having learned my lesson, I’m now taking steps to optimise a few things in the (hopefully unlikely) event that it happens again any time soon.
As a nice little conclusion, this ties in nicely with a little excerpt from an article I read earlier about the Japanese concept of kaizen, which is defined in the article as follows:
“The Japanese concept of kaizen teaches that small incremental improvements can have a profound effect over time.”
I like this idea – it reminds me a little of Albert Einstein’s infamous assertion that “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe”. In isolation, you don’t always notice the small things – whether good or bad. However, as time goes on and they compound, they can make a huge difference. This is not a blog post about toothpaste or spare guitar strings – this is about setting up elegant models in your life that snowball to make a much bigger difference in the eventual quality of your life. You don’t find Zen quotes like “if you throw out a sock with a hole in it, does your life become amazing?” It’s hard to think of something more mundane. Yet I would argue that if you try to catch all the small details, they will compound over time – and that will make you happier.
(NOTE: Part 2 to follow. I wrote an additional 1500 words (in addition to the 3500 from this post) detailing how I feel the redundancy principles should apply to bigger areas of your life, such as careers and income. However, I thought it would take away from the focus of this, so I’ll add it to a “part two”, which should be up soon.)