The Negative Domino Effect (or How to Handle Murphy’s Law)

Earlier this week, I had a really difficult spell of writer’s block. I spent far too long writing a paragraph or two, being dissatisfied with it, deleting it, and trying again. Even when I was happy with something, I’d find myself in that same loop again and again.

I simply wasn’t very productive at work, and given that my posting schedule basically requires that I finish a post pretty much every day, having a day where I don’t really complete any work isn’t a good result.

I have a flexible schedule, though. I can just write in the evening, right?

Well, it turns out that the evening was already full of scheduled activities that, if I backed out of them, I’d be letting other people down. So, I took care of those things, but I was a little stressed out about the work issues. I always do. I wonder if my ability to write fairly good content quickly is fading away and my stress starts to tick upward.

I didn’t sleep particularly well.

The next morning, the internet went out (it was fixed quickly). Then the air conditioning failed (this wasn’t – see below).

Ordinarily, again, those things wouldn’t be a problem, but after a day of no real writing and a night of poor sleep and deadlines facing me down, I was pretty stressed out and frustrated.

Later that day, my daughter decided to go to the park behind her piano teacher’s house to play instead of walking straight home, meaning that in the middle of supper prep I had to go figure out where she went.

I was stressed from all of the other things. I didn’t handle it well. I burnt supper to a crisp. I wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t stressed out from all of the other things.

So, we tossed supper in the trash (a waste of money) and grabbed Subway sandwiches on the way to another appointment (again, more money thrown at the problem in a pinch).

The next day, the air conditioning repairman was supposed to show up, but instead of doing so, he called and said he was sick and gave me a list of about five things I could do myself to try to fix it. I was already dealing with being far behind schedule with work, so I tried doing some of those things as quickly as I could (when I was already stressed) and nothing worked. So, after even more time wasted, I ended up instead going with an expensive but reliable air conditioning repair company, who had someone at my house quickly but charged me almost twice as much as the other company would have cost. Again, more money, down the tubes.

All of these things spiraled out from one single negative event – an unproductive day at work in the face of a deadline. That single event added stress to my life, which led to poor handling of later events, which eventually led to a number of costly decisions.

The moral of the story? Sometimes, negative events have a domino effect. One negative event can change your day onto a more negative path, which can have progressively larger impacts, particularly when you face more personal challenges. Your stress level escalates, you’re less equipped to handle those challenges as they come, and things spiral downward.

Unfortunately, that negative domino effect often becomes expensive. You end up trying to put an end to the biggest challenges and regain control over the situation and that usually means tossing money at the problem in order to have someone step in and solve a problem for you. Maybe you pick up food instead of preparing a much less expensive at home. Maybe you call a repairperson or take your car to a shop… and maybe it’s a shop you’re not familiar with. Maybe you buy an airline ticket at the last second, or you rent a car at the last second.

This “negative domino effect” happens to all of us at some time or another. When it happens, it’s difficult. It feels like everything’s going wrong at once. Plans evaporate. Money evaporates. Time evaporates. You’re stressed out.

What can you do?

My solutions for these problems boil down to two categories – things to do in the moment, and things to do afterwards before another negative domino effect happens.

During the “Negative Domino Effect”

If you find yourself in a period where negative events seem to be compounding on each other, there are a few things you can do to cut down on the negative impact without just throwing money at the problem. Here are four tactics that I always use.

Ask your social network for help. Whenever I find myself struggling with a series of unfortunate events, I turn to my social network. I’ll ask our friends across the street if they can watch our children for a few hours. I’ll ask other friends if they can take care of a pet for a day or two. I’ll ask friends for recommendations, or whether they can stop and pick something up for me.

The friends that matter – the ones you can really rely on – are the ones that will mostly step up when you’re in a pinch. They’ll help. They’ll watch your kids. They’ll watch your pets. They’ll loan you a car.

Just ask. The worst that can happen is that you invest thirty seconds in a request just to hear them say “no,” which just puts you back where you started. On the other hand, if you hear a “yes,” then you’ve suddenly taken a concern off your plate, which makes you more ready to handle the other challenges in a mini-crisis.

Don’t be afraid to drop less important commitments during challenging circumstances. It really is okay if you can’t get your child to soccer practice once. It really is okay if you miss the first thirty minutes of a community meeting. It really is okay if you have to skip out on a dinner party.

Look at the commitments you’re facing, choose the one or two that are least important, and simply step back from them. It’s okay – it’s not going to be the end of things if you don’t get your child over to the school in time to fill balloons for the penny carnival. It’s going to be all right if you don’t have time to fix a perfect gourmet dinner one night.

Take those things completely off your plate and you’ll find that it’s suddenly much easier to handle the remaining items.

Eat healthy foods when possible; if you’re picking up food, pick the healthiest options possible. One of the biggest components of a negative domino effect situation is stress. As the events collapse onto each other, you begin to really feel the effects of stress on your body and mind. Those effects open you to things like poor decisions, poor emotional response, and potential illness.

Obviously, in a stressful situation, you can’t just wish the stress away, but you can make your body better at handling that stress by feeding it good material to work with. Eat healthy foods during a crisis situation so that you’ll maintain as much energy as possible and a clear head.

Sometimes, good food isn’t convenient, though. If you’re forced to get food fast, stop by your local store’s produce section for healthy finger foods rather than heading to a fast food drive-thru, for example. Drink water rather than soda.

Do your best to get adequate sleep. This goes right along with the advice to eat healthy food – the goal here is to ensure that you’re physically and mentally prepared to handle bursts of stress without making poor decisions and without illness or physical breakdown.

It is very, very tempting to “borrow” against sleep time during a stressful period, staying up late to take care of tasks so that you don’t feel so behind. The drawback is that in the next few days, you’ll be so much less productive when tired that you’ll lose any advantage you gained.

Go to bed. Seriously. If you are up late reading this while trying to figure out how to handle a negative domino effect in your life, go to bed. Get the best night of rest that you can. Tomorrow, you’ll be far more refreshed and far more able to handle what life throws at you if you go to bed now as opposed to staying up later.

Afterwards – and Before the Next One

Those strategies are useful ones for dealing with a confluence of negative events, of course, but the most valuable steps you can take for dealing with such crises is to prepare for them in advance so that you’re not flooded with problems and stress all at once.

Crisis moments will hit you sometimes. That’s a given. Prepare for them now, when life is calm. Here’s how.

Build up an emergency fund. This is the number one most important thing you can do. You need to have cash stowed away in your savings account for times when everything falls apart. A credit card isn’t good enough – what exactly do you do if your card is stolen or your identity is stolen? Cash is king, and it’s time to prepare.

My preferred way of establishing an emergency fund is to simply instruct my bank to transfer a small amount of money each time there’s a significant deposit into my checking account. So, for example, each time there’s a deposit of $250 or more, put $25 into your savings account. Many banks can do this type of thing (or something similar).

That way, you never have to see that money in your checking account. It’s quietly and efficiently ferried away into savings and you don’t even have to think about it until a crisis – or, worse, a big pile of crises – happens.

Prep some “quick meals” in advance. We have a family of five, so simply “grabbing a quick meal on the run” turns out to be a pretty expensive proposition, one that we prefer to avoid most of the time. However, there are times, particularly when bad events pile up, where we simply need a quick meal, and it’s at those times that just throwing money at the problem becomes very tempting if you don’t have a quick meal already on hand.

That’s why we almost always have several meals in the freezer that require nothing more than heating up and serving. We have freezer bags full of soup that can be quickly thawed and heated in a microwave or on the stovetop, casseroles that simply need baked in the oven, and burritos that just need microwaved. We prepare these in advance on lazy weekends and slowly consume them during the normal course of life, but we really rely on them when things don’t go according to plan.

(Of course, you have to remember that such meals are there. I’ll fully admit that sometimes I’ll forget about freezer meals in the middle of a crisis, but I always feel a sense of relief when I remember them.)

Use your social network to find reliable repairpeople that you can trust in a pinch. My family has a list of repairpeople that we trust – a good local mechanic, a good local heating and cooling business, a good plumber, a good electrician.

We didn’t find these people by calling around in a panic during an emergency. We found them during calmer times, by asking for recommendations from friends after such emergencies. What people do they use in a pinch? Have those people provided good service at a reasonable price?

Just ask around your social network. Post the question on social media to your friends – “Local friends, who do you use for electrical work and are you happy with them?” “Local friends, who do you use for car repairs and maintenance and are you happy with them?” You can add something like “Feel free to message me directly if you don’t want to comment publicly,” as some friends may not want to criticize a service in a public way but may want to directly warn you against using it.

When your friends need help, go out of your way to help them. Friends remember which of their friends steps up when they ask for help. They remember which ones show up to help move furniture. They remember which ones will take their kids in an emergency. They remember which ones bring over food after an emergency. Just like you remember those things.

I know which of my friends will always have their doors open for our children in an emergency. I know which of my friends have come through for us in a pinch before. I know which of my friends showed up to help us move. Honestly, I’m much more likely to help them when push comes to shove.

However, if any of my friends ask me for help, I do my best to help them. If any of my friends seem to even be in need of help, I offer help to them.

I don’t expect help in return – this isn’t a quid pro quo thing. What I do expect, though, is that I’ve built a solid friendship with a lot of people and, thus, when I’m in a difficult situation, many of them will come through and help me. Not all, by any means, but many. If I call many of my friends and ask for their help, most of them will help. That makes a huge difference in a crisis situation.

So, when things are good for me and challenging for a friend, I just reverse that equation. I try to help, just as I would hope a friend would if (and when) I find myself in a challenging situation.

Rethink your commitments and step back from the least important ones. Part of what makes a crisis situation really difficult is that many people, especially families with children, book themselves to the brim with commitments. Then, if anything goes wrong, the house of cards starts to quickly collapse.

If you find yourself in a situation where even a minor unexpected event can send a lot of other things crashing down, you’re in a situation that isn’t sustainable over the long term. You’re going to find yourself regularly skipping commitments and regularly failing to meet expectations with other commitments. In short, you end up looking unreliable while also feeling overburdened and overstressed.

You’re far better off with a smaller set of commitments that you can excel at, ones that are flexible when something goes wrong. If you’re in fewer commitments, a challenge in one area of life doesn’t immediately start disrupting other commitments. It’s much like spacing the dominos further and further and further apart before knocking them over – eventually, they’re spread far enough apart that knocking one over doesn’t cause a cascade.

Simply go through the commitments in your life and identify a few that don’t really produce any value for you. That doesn’t mean that those commitments are bad or valueless, just a recognition that you can’t commit back with your full heart as often as you’d like. If you commit to something and then find you can’t always give it what it deserves, it’s a good time to consider scaling back.

This can be a tough conversation, don’t get me wrong, but it’s one that will put you in a better place, especially when things get challenging.

Final Thoughts

Life gets difficult for all of us at some time or another. An unexpected event happens, and then the consequences from that event cause another unexpected problem, and then something else unexpected happens, and before you know it, your stress level is through the roof and you’re considering just tossing money at the problem to gain at least some semblance of control.

Stop. Breathe. Use some of the techniques earlier in this article to regain some sense of control in the moment, then, when things are better, use the other techniques to ensure that the domino effect doesn’t knock you down the next time it comes around.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.