Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Break Bad Patterns by Taking Your Errors to Heart

The beginning of a new year is a time for reflecting and making resolutions, right? How about trying something a little different this year: Take note of your 2011 mistakes and take action to avoid repeating them in 2012… and maybe even consider making a mistake or two on purpose.
Reflecting on your mistakes doesn’t mean beating yourself up or wallowing in your imperfections. It means, at a slight distance, sizing up what didn’t go according to plan, figuring out why, and determining what you want to do differently. Remember that everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone makes them worthwhile by using them to get better.
Here’s how you do it. Free up an hour or two. Find a quiet place – I found that walking on the beach, if possible, is a great environment for doing this exercise.  Reflect back on the things this year that didn’t go the way you’d planned. (If you have journaled your year, print out the entries that reflect mistakes or surprises).
See if there are patterns to the mistakes. They will often fall into one of these categories:
  1. Sloppiness or carelessness. None of us likes to think of ourselves as sloppy or careless. Yet we are over-committed, over-scheduled, and managing over-flowing email boxes. This can result in unintentional sloppiness: forgetting a meeting, overlooking an action item, not returning a phone call, etc. It’s easy to forgive ourselves for these types of mistakes – we are so busy, after all. But they look bad to others and demonstrate a lack of commitment to the task at hand.  At worst, sloppy/careless errors can lead to big problems or even disasters.If there’s a pattern of sloppiness in your work, you’ll have to dial back the “overs.” Trying harder won’t do it – that will likely make the problem worse. Find a way to reduce your commitment load. Go to fewer meetings. Filter your email. Push back on your boss when she overcommits you. (It can work – my wife is the best I’ve ever seen at managing her boss this way.) For those commitments you do take on, take them seriously. Use a system like Getting Things Done or the Action Method to make sure you don’t forget anything.
  2. Playing to your weaknesses. We are always told to “play to our strengths,” but the opposite happens, too. There are parts of our jobs that we haven’t mastered yet or just aren’t well-suited for. I was once responsible for sales planning at my company, and found that I was hopelessly over-optimistic in my forecasting, resulting in a series of plans we didn’t meet.In a case like this, there are three options. Management textbooks (and the 4-hour work week guy) would tell us to delegate tasks we’re not good at. Fine advice, but not everyone has a subordinate they can readily delegate to, or the cash to outsource lots of tasks.You can also work to improve the weakness. Training, self-development, and working with a mentor can all help here. But be cautious in trying to improve too many areas at once.A final approach is to compensate for the weakness through collaboration with a teammate. Find someone who is very strong in your weak area and work together to complete the task. For example, the CEO of Mazor Robotics assigned one of his managers to be a “devil’s advocate” to ensure their revenue forecasts had  “humble enough assumptions.”
  3. Making errors under pressure. Many of us don’t work well under pressure; we rush, we try to meet stated and unstated expectations – our company’s, our boss’s and our own. Examine where the pressure is coming from – do you have a crappy boss, or are you putting the pressure on yourself? Are there ways to alleviate the pressure – renegotiating deliverable dates, reducing the scope of the work product, collaborating with a colleague?Essential to this exercise is understanding where the value is in your work. What is directly customer-affecting versus internally focused? If you know what’s most valuable and what isn’t, you will be armed for a discussion with your supervisor to spend more time on the top priorities and less time (or no time) on the others.

Now What?

Look at each of the patterns you find and decide on one specific action that could help address it. Make the action as simple as possible (hint: “always” or “never” actions are easier to implement and stick to than more nuanced ones). Here’s an example:
I had a pattern of responding very quickly to colleagues’ emails. Those responses were often sharply worded and not well thought-through. Needless to say, my responses caused quite a bit of conflict.  To address this, I decided that I would not respond to any email unless at least 30 minutes had passed – which would give me time to calm down (if agitated) and think about how I wanted to respond. This was more actionable for me than, “Try to be more thoughtful and careful when you respond to email.”
When you’ve totaled it all up, you’ll end up with 5-10 things you could do. Now think about how many of these things you can successfully implement. It’s better to make one change that sticks than five changes that don’t. Decide (decide!) on which ones you will do, write them down, and pin them to the wall behind your monitor. Set a reminder in your calendar for every two weeks, to review the list and make sure you are progressing.

Extra Credit

  1. Look for sins of omission. Where did you stop yourself from doing something and thereby missed out on an opportunity? How will you approach these situations differently in 2012?
  2. What deliberate mistakes do you want to make in 2012? Closely examine the way you operate every day. In a world as dynamic as ours has become, operating assumptions go out of date quickly. Pick one or two areas and, in a controlled setting, make deliberate mistakes: intentionally do other than your habit, and see what happens. You may find profitable new ways of doing things.


More insights on: Decision-Making, Failure

John Caddell

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John Caddell is the author of “The Mistake Bank” and contributed to the most recent 99u book. His latest project is 3-Minute Journal. John also organizes the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. You can reach him at or @jmcaddell on Twitter.  
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