Two men standing by a river notice a child struggling to stay afloat, so they dive in to save him. Then they see a second child in the river and a third. One of the men continues saving children, but the other rushes to shore and runs up the bank. When asked where he’s going, he responds that he’s headed upstream to stop the guy who is throwing kids into the river. 

This parable is used in public health circles to raise an important point—we often become so focused on coping with the problems in front of us that we fail to consider whether we need to look “upstream” and prevent those problems before they occur. That’s why some people seek medical care only when they feel horrible rather than focusing on preventive measures that could have kept them healthy. It’s also why many homeowners don’t install a security system until after they’ve been robbed. 

Here are four strategies to shift from reacting to problems after they occur to avoiding them before they occur…

Stop allowing a minor irritation to repeatedly fly under the radar. People often just endure seemingly trivial ­annoyances—it doesn’t seem worth devoting the time, attention and/or money that would be required to solve them. But that little thing you chronically bicker about with a friend or family member could expand into a major relationship rift. That odd sound your car is making could lead to a breakdown that leaves you stranded and with a costly repair bill. That mild recurring ache could develop into a major medical problem. 

Even if a minor problem never escalates, the drip-drip-drip of mild irritation the problem causes over time often means that it would have been wise for you to solve it rather than let it continue. 

What to do: The third time you notice a problem, take it as a sign that it isn’t going to go away on its own. Consider what’s at the root of the problem, and brainstorm potential permanent solutions—even if this approach takes significantly more time than the temporary fix you have been using. ­Example: A husband’s habit of leaving the hall light on was a recurring source of mild friction with his wife. When he finally took a moment to think about this problem, he realized that he could install a timer switch on the light, permanently removing this irritation. 

Focus on the problems that almost emerged, not just those that did. When a major mishap occurs, most people try to figure out what went wrong and how they can prevent it from happening again. But when people have a near miss with a major mishap, they often think, Well, that was a close one, count themselves fortunate and get on with their day. But today’s miss could foreshadow tomorrow’s disaster—luck might not be on your side next time. 

What to do: Take the time to carefully review your near misses, not just your mishaps. Some savvy hospitals have made this a standard practice, holding daily “safety huddles” during which staffers discuss errors almost made in addition to errors actually made. If you don’t have a group with which you can discuss your near misses, take a quiet walk and think through whatever nearly went wrong while it’s still fresh in your mind. Try to develop a plan to reduce the odds that a near miss actually could come to pass. 

Example: If you nearly have an auto accident at a dangerous intersection that you regularly cross, you might want to take a different route to avoid this intersection in the future…or always wait an extra moment at this intersection to confirm that drivers coming the other way see that they have a stop sign. 

Recognize the power of social norms to spur yourself to take preventive measures. Most people are terrible at finding time for preventive measures. They know there are things they should be doing to reduce the odds of future problems, but they’re so busy dealing
with more pressing tasks that these future-focused actions never reach the top of their to-do lists. 

Example: Many homeowners chronically fail to apply a pre-emergent crabgrass preventer and fertilizer to their lawns as growing season begins each year, even though doing so could significantly reduce the problems the lawn faces later in the season. 

There is a glaring exception to this tendency to neglect the prevention of future problems—dental care. Most Americans brush once or twice almost every day to prevent future dental problems, even on days when they’re busy or tired.  

Why are people so much more responsible with problem prevention in this area than in most other facets of life? Of course, one of the reasons is that it is drilled into our consciousness that not doing this can be very harmful. 

But another key factor is that it has become the social norm to take this preventive step. You wouldn’t want to admit to anyone that you don’t brush every day—it would make you feel weird and would seem inappropriate to others.  

What to do: You can increase the odds that you will take preventive measures in other areas as well—if you can convince yourself that just about everyone else is already doing these things and that it would be embarrassing and inappropriate not to. 

For your grass, if you focus on the difference between your lawn and your more diligent neighbor’s lawn, you will be more likely to find the time to take preventive measures that produce a more attractive lawn.

Assign responsibility for preventing a potential future problem. It’s often obvious whose job it is to fix a problem that has already materialized but much less clear whose job it is to prevent that same problem from happening down the road. Example: It’s the responsibility of the police to catch criminals…but who has the primary responsibility for taking steps that could reduce future crime rates? Is it the police? Politicians? Social workers? Schools? Parents? 

What to do: If you have the power to fix a problem, assign yourself responsibility for it. If you are unable to prevent a future problem on your own, try to determine who has the influence and/or skills to do so, then assign yourself responsibility for convincing that person or those people to take on this role. 

Example: In 1975, a pair of researchers calculated just how massive of a problem car safety had become for kids—in America, car accidents were the leading cause of death for young children. These researchers lacked the power to fix this problem, but they thought they knew who could—pediatricians. Pediatricians had the ear of parents and were respected by politicians. The researchers published their findings in the journal Pediatrics, where pediatricians would see it, and the use of child car-safety seats increased dramatically. Within
10 years, all 50 states had child-
seat laws, and death rates dropped dramatically.

Helpful: Not certain to whom you should assign responsibility for preventing a future problem? Sometimes the best answer is the people who are causing the problem. Example: A mother and father were frustrated with the nightly battles required to get their kids to bed, so they sat down with those kids and explained why the entire family would benefit if this ongoing issue were resolved. They asked the kids to contribute ideas for preventing future bedtime problems. Their kids helped create a new bedtime system that featured penalties for failing to get to bed on time and rewards for going to bed on time and argument-free. The kids largely adhered to this new system, in part because they had played a role in creating it.