Mistakes. We’ve written about them over and over again here at CC. We’ve made them over and over again, too.
We think about them, talk about them, obsess about them. They’re what make us human and help us grow, but they can also be devastatingly embarrassing, shameful, and costly to our companies and our egos.
It’s impossible to eradicate mistakes from our lives completely. In fact, humans are really only capable of remembering more than five unrelated pieces of information at once, as Joseph T. Hallinan writes in his book, Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average. You’re only human, in other words, and mistakes are part of life and work.
How do I avoid mistakes at work?
It is possible, however, to make a few small adjustments to the way you approach your work in order to mitigate those pesky, embarrassing blunders. Just being willing to believe you might make a mistake puts you ahead of the curve. A series of studies on decision-making found that people who believed that they could be wrong were more likely to learn from and avoid repeating mistakes. On the other hand, those who thought that they were always right, or “experts” were not only more likely to make mistakes, but were also more likely to make them again.
So accept that you will screw up at work sometimes. But once you’ve done that, use these three simple steps to avoid the really, really dumb ones.
1. Do a gut check
When you begin a task at work, you probably have a gut feeling about how important it is. Did your boss assign it to you with casual nonchalance or was she vibrating with stress when she passed it across your desk? Will your work be seen only by you and your department or will hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of eyeballs see it?
When you work in a busy environment, it can be easy to forget that your work doesn’t just disappear into the ether when you submit it, send it, or release it. Internal team members, customers, users, readers, students, or patients might see it and interact with it, and if there’s a mistake, those people will notice.
Even though it might be hard to remember in the moment, take a second when you begin a new task to do a gut check about the weight of what you’re doing. Just visualizing the people on the other end viewing or interacting with your work may be enough to remind you that the project is real and important to them—not just a list of annoying to-dos standing between you and happy hour.
The good news? Most of us are actually really skilled at this part. “Within a tenth of a second or so after looking at a scene, we are usually able to extract its meaning, or gist,” Hallinan writes. But the rest? Not so easy. “The price we pay for this rapid-fire analysis is that we miss a lot of details.”
2. Write a checklist, go through it, then take a break to revisit your work
This part’s super easy — you just need a piece of scrap paper. Once you’ve completed your task, take five minutes to think about everything you need to double-check in order to avoid mistakes. Did you run a spell-check, triple-check measurements, comb your spreadsheet for bugs, re-read that email? Write down everything you need to check before hitting “submit,” then physically check it off. This relieves you and your brain of the responsibility of remembering more than five pieces of information about the project.
Then add another failsafe to your process. Go to the bathroom, come back, and check again before you hit send. Looking at your work with fresh eyes is never a bad thing. Even if you’re on a quick deadline, our guess is that a bathroom trip won’t make or break anything. But it will give you peace of mind.
3. Ask yourself and your organization if you’re working efficiently
If you’re reading this article because you’re a type-A overachiever who’s suddenly making a million mistakes at a new job, consider this: it might not be you. In Hallinan’s book, he talks about how anesthesiologists used to make frequent fatal errors because of inconsistencies in the machinery they were using. Then in the ‘80s, a group of doctors advocated for standardizing the machines to make their process more efficient and now, anesthesiologists rarely make those lethal mistakes.
What does this mean for you? Many organizations hire experts to make their processes and workflow more efficient, but others rely on the employees themselves to speak up when something isn’t working. If you feel comfortable enough to do this in your role, consider talking to your manager about what makes your job tedious, inefficient, and anxiety-provoking—but come prepared with solutions. Don’t forget to thank your manager for taking the time to listen, even if she doesn’t implement the changes right away.
But the problem could also be smaller: Is one of the processes you’re using a little bit broken? Is there an Excel formula or keyboard shortcut that could streamline something time-consuming and monotonous? Consider this as you’re doing your daily tasks, and then Google around or ask friends in similar jobs how they deal with the issue. Sometimes, the solution is something you’ve never considered but is totally easy and doable.