Think first, then do

“Plan ahead” is advice you occasionally hear from friends or see on posters. It’s not easy to get a tautology into a two-word sentence, but this is one of them. If you don’t do your thinking ahead of time, you’re improvising, not planning. I prefer the expression, “Think first, then do.” One of my professors used to add that one shouldn’t think and do at the same time.

Whether you’re performing a site investigation, writing a report, or going to the grocery store, you need to think first about what you want to accomplish and how to go about it. Failure to plan can result in incomplete data, a poorly organized report, or a return trip to get the milk. In the case of emergency preparedness, the consequences can be much more serious.

Fire drills

tall Starbucks coffee cup on counter in Osaka, Japan
The nearest Starbucks may be the de facto assembly point after a fire drill. Shutterstock image.

If you need to evacuate a high-rise building when there’s a fire, you don’t want people to have to think about what to do. There simply isn’t time. They need to leave everything behind and walk down the stairs as quickly as possible. A fire drill is a good way to get them to think first, then do. Ideally, the office safety team will have already instructed everyone about what to do, which exit to take, and where to assemble afterwards.

Rule 5. The assembly area is not so much a designated spot as a place of people’s choosing within a ten-minute walk of your building. Your employer might have specified a place for employees to gather. They may have given it militaristic names like the “primary muster point” or the “tertiary evacuation zone”. No one else will have the faintest idea where it is. A clump of people will mill about as close to the site of the notional blaze as possible. Another group will scatter in various directions in search of a coffee or an early lunch. If they walk purposefully enough, other people will assume they know where the assembly area is and follow them. As a result most of the office may accidentally end up at Starbucks.—”The six rules of fire drills,” The Economist, 4 April 2024

My father, a retired Naval officer, told me that in the military the whole point of emergency drills is to avoid the need for thinking during a crisis. To that end, the crew drills repeatedly until the correct actions become automatic. That way they don’t waste precious time, and they don’t panic. They just do what they’ve trained to do.