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Every day I’d listen to police reports of fatal road traffic collisions in Chester and the surrounding areas. There were a lot more of them than I’d imagined. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, during more than two years in that job, I never reported on a plane crash affecting Chester residents.

Why? Because as James Ball observed in the Guardian, travelling in a car or truck is about 100 times more deadly than flying.

In recent years, I’ve been thinking more about risk, how we perceive it, and why it matters. To give one small example, I’d realised that ever since acquiring my first iPhone in 2010, I had almost certainly been spending more time staring at a small screen than reading books (despite the fact that books have been bringing me happiness ever since I had the upper body strength to hold the things, while spending too long scrolling through my ‘phone in a single sitting doesn’t, and trust me, I say this as a woman who’s checked. More than once!)

Image courtesy of Instant Shift.

So why choose a habit that doesn’t serve me over one that always has? Because in the moment, picking up my ‘phone always felt easier than almost any other alternative, easier, even, than just sitting quietly for a moment and daydreaming.

Also, spending a little time noodling on my ‘phone at the end of a long day felt like just about the least risky way to spend an evening imaginable. Until I decided to install the Moment app to track my ‘phone usage and realised that I was spending around four hours a day essentially staring at a ‘phone screen. That’s almost a third of my waking hours that were not being spent talking to the people I love, or reading the books I claimed I was too busy to get through, or switching off after a long day on the yoga mat, or cooking something from scratch (I don’t have time for that, you see).

Essentially, my seemingly risk-free addiction was eating a much larger chunk of my life than I’d ever intended it to. As Jim Phelps writes: “Research by psychologists shows that we pay most attention to the risks that are right in front of us. Risks that won’t appear until later, even if they are huge, just don’t get to us the way a risk we face right now does.”

These days, I’m trying to remember that although picking up my ‘phone doesn’t appear to have any short-term cost in terms of finances or effort, when I lose track of the time spent scrolling, what I’m trading is happiness for a lack of effort, and I’m not sure that’s the best trade to be making for a chunk of my days.

Speaking of which, years ago, I fell in love with this quote from Homer Simpson: “Marge, TV gives so much and asks so little.  It’s a boy’s best friend.” Today, I think this quotes works even better for ‘phones than it did for TVs.

Fear of the Unknown

As Maia Szalavitz wrote: “We fear spectacular, unlikely events… Because fear strengthens memory, catastrophes such as earthquakes, plane crashes, and terrorist incidents completely capture our attention. As a result, we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary events are.

“The drama and excitement of improbable events make them appear to be more common. The effect is amplified by the fact that media tend to cover what’s dramatic and exciting… The more we see something, the more common we think it is, even if we are watching the same footage over and over.

“After 9/11, 1.4 million people changed their holiday travel plans to avoid flying. The vast majority chose to drive instead. But driving is far more dangerous than flying, and the decision to switch caused roughly 1,000 additional auto fatalities, according to two separate analyses comparing traffic patterns in late 2001 to those the year before. In other words, 1,000 people who chose to drive wouldn’t have died had they flown instead.”

Hidden Risks

This seems as good a time as any to confess that I’ve spent some time contemplating what I might do if attacked by a bear, or a shark, or indeed a crocodile (all pretty unlikely occurrences when living in Liverpool!) Possibly more time than I’ve spent contemplating pensions. This may not count as an effective allocation of worry.

I’ve also spent time worrying about how everyone else was building a business empire, time which would’ve been far better spent working on this blog. And on a related note, I’ve wasted far too much time wanting other people to call / email / like me, rather than working harder on being the kind of person, you’d want to call, email, or indeed like. Erm, apologies for that.

It’s still incredibly tempting for me to focus on the stuff I can’t control, like whether it’s really wise for Trump to be left alone in charge of a smartphone, rather than on whether I’m sufficiently grown-up to handle my own ‘phone sensibly yet. But I’m trying to do better at focusing on the those tiny everyday risks – the ones that get hidden so well in your daily habits that they become invisible. They really don’t capture the imagination the way sharks and crocodiles and bears do, but it seems that there’s a whole world of risk and reward hidden in plain sight in our everyday routines. Here’s to untapping the secret power of tiny changes and leaving the giant freak occurrences to film directors and those reporters ‘on the ground’ who you suspect must’ve angered their boss or the news gods.

I’ll be back soon (same place, similar time) to practice this writing lark. In the meantime, may all your rewards be as satisfying as you’d initially imagined them to be and may all your risks be calculated ones!

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