Avoiding the Four Mental States that Can Lead to Big Mistakes

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Have you ever made a mistake? Maybe it was a little one that no one even noticed, except you. Or maybe it was a big one that caused you not only additional work and frustration, but a fair bit of embarrassment with your boss, peers, or customers.

Mistakes happen to all of us. That’s why it’s vitally important to be aware of the mental states that lead to mistakes, and know how to quickly handle them when they occur so we don’t freeze in place.

There is a popular workplace safety program called SAFESTARTTM (www.Safestart.com) which identifies four states that can cause or contribute to critical errors that increase the risk of injury. These fours states are: rushing, frustration, fatigue, and complacency.

And I can speak from personal experience that these four states can cause some big mistakes if you aren’t paying close attention to each of them. Let me explain.
My $200,000 Error

A couple years ago, I lost my grandfather and newborn niece in the span of seven weeks, and I was in a deep state of grieving. I was staying with my sister to take care of her while she was experiencing some health issues, which meant I was trying to keep my life and business running remotely. There was an immense amount of stress in my life, and I should’ve been extra cautious about making mistakes. But I wasn’t.

At the time, I was working on a large project for a venture capitalist client who was raising money for an investment project. I was the primary liaison between my client and his investor group, so I was responsible for maintaining the transaction records. This included working on a mega-spreadsheet with all of the details of each round of investments in the project. Normally, I would have printed out the spreadsheet to review and proof it. However, I was at my sister’s house, so I didn’t have my regular printer. And I decided to proof the spreadsheet on the computer screen, which was my first error (complacency). The next one was not running the manual total of my numbers on a calculator (rushing). And I should have also factored in how tired and stressed I was at the time (fatigue).

These three errors led to a $200,000 mistake on my spreadsheet.

It was a simple spreadsheet formula error that was easy to fix. But it was a $200,000 cash shortfall that my error created for my client’s investment project that was not nearly so simple to resolve.

You can imagine the horror that encompassed my entire body when I realized what I had done. I had to own up to the error quickly. I was able to figure out what caused it, and identify what I was going to do to make sure that never happened again (have two high-level finance people review my work, take Excel training classes, and find a way to print when I proof). Then we focused on what did we need to do to fix the situation – a $200,000 shortfall due to my error.

I had a longstanding and solid working relationship with my client. And I knew he would respect me more for admitting my mistake quickly and identifying what I was going to do to ensure it never happened again. Then we could get on with trying to figure out how to solve the issue my error had created. I was right. And things worked out for me miraculously from there.

My client would’ve had to take that money out of his own pocket if God hadn’t intervened at that moment. A couple of the other investors in the project contacted us to change their investment amounts at the last minute, so I was able to adjust the spreadsheet to correct the mistake and relieve my client of covering the shortfall.
Mitigating Mistakes

The situation could’ve been a lot worse for my client and I. While I was fortunate in this instance, it did help me realize just how important it is to recognize the four mental states that lead to mistakes. How many mistakes have you made because you were frustrated, tired, or simply not paying attention to things? I’m guessing it’s happened a time or two in your admin career. The good news is you can decrease the number of mistakes you make by applying these five simple strategies.

1. Raise your awareness of the four mental states that cause mistakes: rushing, frustration, fatigue, and complacency. It may take a little practice to catch yourself heading into one of these states. But the more you pay attention to what causes the mistakes you’re making, the quicker you can identify that state when it tries to sabotage you.

2. Analyze each mistake and identify its cause. Ask yourself these questions:
• Was I rushing? Why?
• Was I frustrated? Why?
• Was I tired? Why?
• Was I complacent? Why?
• What can I do to avoid this state in the future and avoid having this happen again?

3. Watch for patterns of behavior in yourself and others that may be increasing your chances of making mistakes.The more you analyze each mistake, the more likely you are to see a pattern of behavior that led to it. Are you not getting enough sleep, which leads to the fatigue that causes the mistake? Are your executives or team members continually throwing last-minute requests at you that cause you to feel rushed or frustrated? Are you not paying as much attention to a task because it’s repetitive?

4. Develop new habits to support a mistake-free work zone.There are several things you can do to support your quest for fewer mistakes, including:

• Set better expectations on the amount of time you need to complete the assigned work or project.

• When you’re given an assignment or project, always ask: When do you want this by? When do you absolutely need this by? Then you know the specific time constraints, instead of assuming, and the requestor is also clear on them, because they set them.

• Find a proofing buddy. A second set of eyes is always valuable in catching mistakes you may overlook because you’ve been working on something so long.

• Always print a paper copy to proof before sending something out electronically. You’ll catch things on paper that you won’t catch on the computer screen.

• Proof your work for specific things one by one instead of trying to catch everything at the same time.Good proofing requires reviewing it several times!

• Create step-by-step procedures and follow them line by line. This can help you with difficult or labor intensive projects and repetitive tasks.

• Use templates and forms to help you catch all of the details for repetitive tasks and assignments.

• Take breaks throughout the day to refresh and stay alert. And never skip lunch!

5. Don’t beat yourself up for a goof up.Figure out how and why it happened, fix it if you can, learn from the experience, and move on. There is no value in beating yourself up or thinking negatively. There is great value in identifying the root cause and committing to following these steps so it doesn’t happen to you again.

We’re all human. We’re all going to make mistakes. But raising your awareness of the four mental states that lead to mistakes, and applying these five simple strategies when you do slip up, will help you avoid embarrassment and improve the quality of your work – which is ultimately what you want to be known for!

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About Author

Julie Perrine

Julie Perrine is an administrative expert, author, speaker, and all-around procedures pro. She is the founder and CEO of All Things Admin, a company dedicated to developing innovative products, training, and resources for administrative professionals worldwide. Learn more about Julie’s latest book, Become A Procedures Pro: The Admin’s Guide to Developing Effective Systems and Procedures and download free templates at ProceduresPro.com and AllThingsAdmin.com.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks to Julie Perrine for this impactful article! I particularly respect Julie for being willing to be transparent about her mathematical error – that’s a big challenge that she was humble enough to share with the world.

    This article is a very timely one for me, as I’m experiencing some health changes that are affecting my ability to be on my usual high-performing A-game (hopefully temporary changes!). Thankfully, I’ve been able to speak with my manager about the changes, so he understands that it’s not a sudden case of ineptitude, and we’ll be moving forward together to the best of our abilities.

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