Breaking a run of small screwups
June 2, 2011 11:21 PM   Subscribe

If I have made a mistake at work (or in general), I am much, much more likely to make another mistake soon afterwards. How can I get focused and correct a problem without making yet more mistakes?

If I've made a mistake, I'm probably in the kind of mental space where I'm likely to make more mistakes, and all too often this leads to a chain of ever-increasing mini-disasters!
Even if they are small problems, professionally, it makes me look stupid. Making more errors is exactly what I don't need when I'm trying to correct a problem I've caused.

This has happened to me all afternoon - the final straw was when I was so worried about making a typo in the instructions to fix the relatively small problem... I stopped. Yep. Took a break and ate some food. Copied the commands I needed to run into a list in a text file, carefully went over and proofed them, then pasted them in...
and yet still ended up pasting one of the 4 commands in twice, and screwed it up further.

How do you nip a chain of screw-ups in the bud? Especially when you've got to do complicated steps to fix them?
posted by Elysum to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The more you fixate on making sure everything is really okay, the more you get things wrong. The more you fixate on making sure everything is really okay, the less you are able to deal with it when things go wrong.

Release your anxiety by saying to yourself that you're not perfect and you cannot be but you'll endeavor to do the best you can do at this particular moment in time.
posted by mleigh at 11:25 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Taking a break is a good start, if you're feeling that stressed.
Stopping to think is ALWAYS a good idea. "What am I trying to do?" "What will happen when I do x? And then y?" etc.
If you're doing sysadmin work (which it sounds like you might be) pasting the commands into a script/batch file is a better idea than a separate text file, as it removes a layer of possible failure (messing up the final copy/paste operation). Once you've got your script, check it. Double-check it. If you've someone you trust that you work with, get them to proof-read it, and/or proof your thought process (especially "What are you trying to achieve?"). Step away from the keyboard, make a cup of tea, and check it again.

Then run that script. Don't copy the text to a prompt, run the script.

Alternatively, use a text file, but don't copy the commands in. Type them out, directly into the text file. That way you can't accidentally paste it twice. Check the syntax on a 'safe' machine that you can't break, or if it breaks it doesn't matter. When you're copying the commands to run, paste them but don't run them. Check them again, before you press ENTER.

Basically, I drop back to a super-conservative, methodological, deliberate way of working. Better to take more time to do it right. If the fix is long and complicated, I'll often sketch out (on paper) the major things that need to be done, and cross them off as they are. I find, the more control (or illusion of control) I can make myself feel I have over the situation, the less concerned I am about making more errors.
posted by coriolisdave at 11:42 PM on June 2, 2011

Response by poster: An hour later, after spilling my guts to metafilter, and spilling yogurt on the floor (I'm on a roll!), I realise I was saved from my own stupidity on the last task. Whew.

This is useful though. I guess what would also help is, coping with an 'off' day?
The brain fuzz that starts even before I'm tripping, dropping, and typo'ing. Interested in material to read, or suggestions on getting back on track.

Unfortunately, coffee makes me twitch, so that doesn't help.
posted by Elysum at 12:49 AM on June 3, 2011

While there's not one directly applicable to your field, dealing with the problem of cascading screw-ups is a central theme of the ‘inner game of ... ’ books. Highly recommended.
posted by monkey closet at 1:00 AM on June 3, 2011

On the good days, put in checks and balances against yourself. Plan for the off days - build clear and concise tools to do common tasks, particularly ones with repetitive components: you'll both save yourself time when it comes up and shield yourself against doing it wrong on off days.

Bonus points if you can make these scripts (or webapps or whatever you're comfortable with) idempotent.

Of course, that's the 20/20 hindsight reply, and not always possible. On off days, frankly, I do as little as possible: I go for the airy-fairy "strategic planning" tasks, or develop checklists for future problem-solving, or write up documentation from the inevitable backlog, etc.

When you have to suck it up and fix the problem now now NOW on a bad day.. I don't think there's a magical solution, but I'll watch this thread in case I'm just inexperienced!
posted by pahalial at 1:10 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Close eyes and deep breathe, focus on breathing- I suppose it's meditation, but I haven't been "trained" in meditation. This helps me bring on the awake mindfulness (rather than the coffee jitters.)

If coffee is too much caffeine, how about a nice cup of tea, or a square of chocolate?
posted by titanium_geek at 4:41 AM on June 3, 2011

A mistake only becomes a failure when you don't learn from it!

The lesson is automation, and redundant data. In more common terms, we call it scripting and backups+testing. Instead of copy pasting commands from textfiles, just learn PowerShell or Bash or whatever abomination you have available. Then the whole double pasting issue becomes impossible. UNIX even comes with a tool called "script" to dump your shell history to a file. I also set my bash history size to crazy huge, which helps me make fewer mistakes over time. Also turn on bash autocomplete, which reduces errors further (though typically few such typos are catastrophic).

On the redundant data side, there's lots of safety nets you can establish. The obvious one is nightly backups. But maybe you can't lose today's data. VMware can make live snapshots, so if you make one before changes, losses are minimized. There's also configuration management tools like puppet and Group Policy Objects that can restore original configurations for you. If you've got all this in place, there's far less stress and emotion from screwups in the first place.

As for coping with 'off' days, I'm not sure there's a difference anywhere but in your head. Research shows that it's basically perception; when bad things happen to optimistic people they say to themselves "That bad thing happened, but it's okay because I'm having a great day otherwise." So my suggestion is to try to get someone else's perspective and help on recovering from a mistake. They don't have the adrenaline rush that causes your reasoning to fail.
posted by pwnguin at 8:04 AM on June 3, 2011

Best answer: I would say take a 5 minute walk around the parking lot or what have you.
When you come back, try to fix your error, but don't finalize it. When you think you've finished, walk away again. When you come back proofread it. Decide if it's what you want to submit in whatever way you would submit it.

And the mindset that mistakes are lessons. The best people in their fields have spent a long time figuring out how to do things just right, which means they spent a long time not doing things just right.

As Michael Jordan says:
“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Another thing, if I mess up at work and it affects others, I 'fess up. I say, "I made X mistake, and I'm doing Y to fix it."
posted by jander03 at 8:17 AM on June 3, 2011

The sports analogies are good ones, even if you're not into sports. Watch a few tennis matches -- sometimes a player will make a lot of mistakes and lose a game, and it will derail them into throwing a complete set. Sometimes the player will make the mistakes, lose the game, brush it off and rally to win the sets and the match. The latter is what the best players do. Since televised tennis is such a focused thing on one person on one side of the net, you can literally *see* the difference in the mood and demeanor of people who are able to brush off the mistakes and start clean, and the ones who dwell, smash rackets, yell at the umpire, get sullen, and stomp on their own success.

The tennis scoring structure of game>set>match (the win) is important to keep in mind for following my comment above.
posted by sweetkid at 10:05 AM on June 3, 2011

Best answer: I think you need a way to slow down and step out of your work.
I can tell you about mine. Its structure might be useful to you even if the specifics don't apply.

I've got a column of post-it notes for the mistakes I've made in the past.
Some of those are: spelling (names); translation; figures; terminology.
If haven't made a mistake in a while, I remove it from the column.
I screen for types of mistakes. For example, checking figures by themselves, then the spelling, then the terminology.
Might not be relevant to you but I print the final draft of what I've written in a monotype font. It helps spot mistakes as does reading aloud.
posted by mkdirusername at 1:09 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think it's helpful to have a friend or co-worker who can help you break out of that "I'm screwing things up" funk.

I used to be a shift manager at a pizza place, and there was a 16-y/o that was on my team. Whenever we got really busy and he'd make a mistake, he'd get frustrated and make another, then another. Other managers would yell at him, which made it worse. I'd pull him aside, look him in the eye and say, "It doesn't matter that you messed up. Take a deep breath, I know you can do this." He'd go back to work and have no problems the rest of the night.

If you want to try it alone, I'd say go look in the mirror and say the same things to yourself. Humor is also a good way to break out of that mindset. Just spilled yogurt on the floor? Make up a "spilled yogurt on the floor dance". It's so ridiculous it will make you smile, and the improved mood will help you get back in focus.
posted by uniq at 1:38 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

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