Stress clouds our thinking, and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains an interesting, common sense way to handle stressful situations. Basically, you manage stress before it even happens by performing what his colleague Gary Klein calls a “premortem.”
We all know what a postmortem is, right? In the business world, after a project has failed, you look back to see what went wrong. A premortem turns that idea on its head, challenging you to think of possible failure scenarios before even getting started. It might sound like a gloom-and-doom way to plan, but there are decades of research showing that this technique works. And it turns out that it doesn’t just work for project management. It works in everyday life.
Klein describes the idea of the premortem in a Harvard Business Review article. Research on this technique goes back to 1989, when a research team ”found that prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.” Klein’s team took this technique—called prospective hindsight—even further, encouraging participants to not just imagine that the project was complete but imagine what could go wrong.
Using the Premortem in Everyday Life
The premortem is basically an organizational tool, and you can apply it to so many different situations. We’ve all had busy days where it feels like things just fall apart, or maybe there are certain activities that always feel incredibly hectic. Whether it’s a one-off stressful event or something stressful that happens regularly, a premortem can help lift some of the pressure.
Getting your family out the door in the morning is a good recurring example. Instead of slapping together hasty PB&Js in the morning, you can pack lunches the night before. Maybe you can also lay out your clothes and make sure your keys are in your purse or on a hook by the door. These little preparations in the evening mean less stress in the morning.
You can also do a premortem before a less routine stressful situation, like a big trip. The night before heading to Europe for work, Levitin’s passport went missing. In this fascinating TED Talk, he describes how that mishap and his completely over-the-top reaction—including breaking a window—led him to explore how to apply the premortem to regular life situations, from getting out of the door in the morning to handling stressful medical and financial decisions.