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You don't have to be a fan of Star Trek to apply this simple method of nipping small problems before they blow up into calamities.
In the television show, when Captain Kirk barked the words, red alert, my sweat glands always pumped into overdrive. A battle was about to take place, or some other galactic conundrum would ensnare the starship, Enterprise.
Not so sweat-inducing were the yellow alerts. Those were the signs of caution, a possible danger ahead. In Star Trek, the crew would always end their playful banter and focus on the threat with the hope of preventing a red-alert.
In real life, yellow alerts signal the beginnings of a problem that might trouble us in the future. But unlike the crew of the Enterprise, we ignore or reason them away with self-talk.
Many of life calamities start as yellow alerts and later blossom into catastrophes because we ignore the warning signs.
It’s true of relationships, health, job loss, and even broken down cars. That rickety sound you heard a month before your vehicle died was a yellow alert. And how about a job layoff preceded by a change in management and a reduction of responsibilities?
It’s perhaps most prevalent in relationships. You come home to find your partner’s belongings gone. The initial shock subsides, and you think, how did I not see this coming?
The signs were there: conversations that dulled over time, a diminishing sexual desire, and late nights you both spent at work so you wouldn’t have to deal with each other. You ignored those signals. Perhaps you deemed them insignificant or just rationalized them away with excuses.
Yellow alerts demand action, typically the unpleasant kind. We grapple with difficult conversations, an unplanned expense, or the possibility of bad news. And there’s no guarantee we can fix the problem even if we address it. These possibilities lead to fear and discomfort. We deal with that discomfort by ignoring or dismissing the signs.
We lust for inertia
When you see these issues arise with friends and family, you wonder how they could blind themselves to the truth. It baffles us as rational human beings how anyone could ignore or write off an obvious threat to their well-being.
But when these yellow alerts occur in your life, you fall prey to the same lust for inertia. It’s easier to do nothing.
My first sales mentor taught me to always sell someone by solving their pain in the present. People rarely worry about avoiding pain in the future. It’s too hard to conceive. That’s why we ignore yellow alerts. They don’t represent pain in the present. We can’t feel it, and if we can’t feel it, we dismiss it.
It’s one of those quirks of human nature. We know that putting off problems makes them harder to deal with, but we still fail to act in our best interest. We’re lazy creatures. We shun conflict. And we’re pretty adept at persuading ourselves that our problems exist only in our imagination.
Sometimes, we get lucky
The warning signs can turn out to be false signals. But that’s not what usually happens.
The symptoms snowball to the point where we can no longer ignore them. The problem escalates — our ability to avoid an undesirable outcome vanishes.
You’re left to deal with its after-effects. You’re stuck without a job and lacking prospects for a new one. You find divorce papers slipped under your door. Or you sit on the side of the road with a dead car in 90-degree heat wishing you would have serviced it when that engine started rattling.
The path forward
If we were logical creatures, we would approach yellow alerts as warnings of problems that lie ahead. But we’re not rational creatures. As any good salesperson or marketer will tell you, we base decisions on our emotions and justify them with logic after the fact.
Fortunately, there’s a path forward. We can train ourselves to deal with problems in their early stages while they’re still manageable. To do this, we need to overcome our inclination towards inertia. Transform those seemingly distant and minor headwinds from risks that might occur in the future to emotional pain in the present.
You may not be able to save your job if you address the first sign of trouble, but you might accelerate preparations for your next one. You may not rescue that relationship, but you might save yourself six months of misery by acknowledging the truth earlier.
How to nip yellow alerts in their infancy
This is an exercise I do in my journal. It helps bring these warning signs to the forefront of your consciousness. Only then can you position yourself to address them.
Each morning or evening, whenever you journal, answer this question: What are the yellow alerts in your relationships, career, health, and home?
- Jane and I have trouble holding a conversation
- I was taken off a critical project at work for no apparent reason
Once it’s on paper, it entrenches itself into your awareness. That’s a solid first step. Next, you must imagine the ramifications of these scenarios.
For each answer, ask yourself this question: What is the likely progression and outcome of ignoring these warning signs?
Your mind will race towards the worst possible outcome:
- Jane and I will continue to grow apart and eventually divorce.
- I’ll lose my job, forcing me into a desperate search for a new one.
Now we make it emotional. How will it make you feel? What will your life be like once this outcome occurs?
- I’ll have to move into a studio apartment, and I’ll only see my kids on weekends.
- I’ll have to sleep on my parents’ couch until I find a new job.
And finally, write down a plan to deal with the yellow alert.
- Talk with Jane tomorrow and see a therapist.
- Call everyone in my network and update my resume.
Pulling it all together
When you do this in your journal day after day, you’ll find the pain of ignoring these yellow alerts exceeds the pain of acting on them. That’s the key to a happy and productive life. Tackle the small problems before they become big ones. So easy to say but so hard to execute without a system to force you.