Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why You Make Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

How many stupid mistakes have you made in the past month? Have you ever made the same mistake more than once? Join the crowd! Here are some insights into human error plus some strategies to avoid them that were inspired by a fascinating book called Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan:
  • Terrible typos: We've all made them, kicked ourselves, and attributed them to simple carelessness. But it turns out the explanation is way more complex. We don't actually read every word in every sentence; we skim using our long-honed familiarity with patterns and cues. Ergo - overlooked mistakes and typos are incredibly commonplace.
  • Hasty emails: Have you ever pressed "send" and immediately regretted doing so? Our work world has become busier and more complicated by the minute, with tremendous pressure for increased productivity and instant communication.
  • Multi-tasking failures: Multi-tasking is a word taken from the computer world, describing the way computers can divide up work into numerous processes. But our brains just don't work that way. Turns out we really cannot divide our attention between two conscious activities, or make two decisions at the same time. In fact, when we are switching attention back and forth, we often forget what we were doing. A study of Microsoft workers showed that it took at least 15 minutes to re-focus on the work at hand after checking emails.
  • Forgetting names: You may be relieved to know that forgetting names is not necessarily a function of the aging process. Everyone forgets or confuses names because names per se don't hold much meaning. People are more likely to remember someone's job than their name.
Here are some strategies to help you minimize mistakes:
  • Make a checklist: Don't expect to remember everything. Take time to make detailed checklists - and use them! Airline pilots and doctors have used this simple tool with great success.
  • Slow down: It's not easy to do in our modern world, but try to resist the urge to go at break-neck speed - and the myth that you can effectively do more than one job well at one time.
  • Ask for help: Have one - or two - other people proofread important documents, letters, and emails. All of you will miss some errors, but hopefully not the same ones.
  • Watch your language: Emails can be treacherous, because the only thing you are using to convey your message is the naked word. Be mindful of this.
  • Get a good night's sleep: It sounds obvious, but studies show that well-rested people make fewer mistakes.
  • Be happy: Studies also show that happy people make fewer mistakes.
This was one of my father's favorite sayings: Experience is when you make a mistake the second time and you recognize it. Even with the best of intentions and all these tools, and no matter hard you try, you will still make mistakes. Learn to laugh about it, move on, and go back to work.