How many mistakes do most people make in a day or week?
July 16, 2013 4:34 PM   Subscribe

I worry that I make an abnormally large amount of mistakes at work. How often is "normal" to make mistakes?

I have ADHD (I am currently medicated, but it does not take away all the symptoms). At work, I often find myself making careless errors. I am in a carer position, and have made two mistakes in the past few weeks that could have potentially endangered my clients, one by forgetting a security measure (but luckily all was well). My day is full of little details like this, and I am usually pretty good at getting most of them, and there are checks and balances in place.

There are less significant mistakes I find myself making more frequently, like messing up a diet plan or mixing something up. Usually these mistakes are caught and fixed, and even if they weren't, in this particular position it would still be considered a minor mistake.

Once I make a mistake, I tend to not make the same mistake again (learn from my mistakes). But that doesn't mean I don't somehow mess something else up.

I am very new in this field in an entry-level position, and I want to continue in this field. I know my coworkers often make similar mistakes to me (messing up a diet or goofing up a security measure), but I feel I do it with more frequency.

In the three months I have had this position, I have made those two big mistakes. Every day I find myself making at least one small mistake, and every so often a medium mistake.

So, is this normal? Do other people make mistakes every day? I'm worried I shouldn't be in this position for the safety and well-being of those I care for, but I want to do this type of work so badly. Is this partially since I am still quite new, and maybe people make a lot of mistakes when they are quite new in a field? My coworkers all seem to really like me, but I worry they see me as less than competent, and this is a field where everyone knows everyone.
posted by tweedle to Work & Money (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I had a great boss once that encouraged people to not be afraid of making mistakes. As long as you told him about it asap, and had a plan for cleaning it up, everything stayed groovy. Lying about them, however, would get you fired.

I might be more careful, but owning up to mistakes and fixing them is the true test of how good an employee you are.
posted by Danf at 4:44 PM on July 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

I recently changed careers. The new career included a significant amount of new and different paperwork and forms, including some terminology and jargon that was new to me as well.

My work is vetted by four different people (as is everyone's work in this field), for the first few months there were a significant number of items returned for correction..

I also wondered if my work was up to par... I solved this problem by asking those that supervise me..the question being "Does it seem to you that I'm taking an abnormal amount of time to get up to speed and produce work of sufficient quality?"... the answer I received was "You're doing fine, you're learning from the mistakes, your work is improving. This is fairly common."

Bottom line, have that conversation with a supervisor and ask, if necessary, for any advice on how to move to a level of competence at a faster rate.

Strangers on the internet can't answer this for you...
posted by HuronBob at 4:47 PM on July 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Making mistakes in a new position is very common though I have no sense for what the expected number would be in your field. However, as someone with similar issues, I can tell you that checklists are great for this type of problem. Maybe you can brainstorm with your coworkers about what should go on a checklist you can follow every day - that way you learn from their expertise and previous mistakes, and you also get to look like the responsible one, not the one with a problem.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:50 PM on July 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

As Alexander Pope said, "To err is human." The name of the game is, as others have said, to have a system for self-checking and, where possible, having others check too.
posted by bearwife at 4:57 PM on July 16, 2013

I had a good boss that believed making a mistake was the way to learn. However, there was a certain class of mistake (revealing one client's data to another client, and losing a document needed for compliance) that was one-warning-and-then-you're fired. She made that clear to us. That level of mistake was only made once by someone the entire time I was there, and even then, while she acknowledged the seriousness, the conversation was about avoiding a repeat. I think if you were doing something unforgivable, then you'd be hearing about it. Anything you're not hearing about, or that you see others do, is part of learning, and this is especially true in an entry-level position.
posted by michaelh at 5:37 PM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sounds totally normal to me, and I'm in a field where small mistakes can cost big money: I still don't expect perfection from people assisting me, or of myself. As long as you aren't making the same mistake twice, and you are motivated to improve, that is better than most of the population.

Really, though, anything that CAN be "automated" (through checklists, etc.) to remove the human capacity for error, should be embraced wtih open arms. Why put your brain through the decision-making process on something unnecessary? Checklists, procedural manuals, doing everything in the same order each time -- you can avoid 99% of mistakes that way, I find.
posted by Pomo at 5:37 PM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I make more mistakes when I am under long term stress or not sleeping well. Are either of those things a current factor for you?
posted by tamitang at 5:46 PM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the past I have dealt with mistake prone co-workers on multiple occasions. What I have observed from these people is they have the same idea - "I don't make the same mistake again" - is true in the most literal sense, but false in the more general sense: they were in fact making the same class of errors over and over, and to excess, and the reason was their inability to understand basic organization.

For example, a very close friend who I eventually had to usher into a new job would *routinely* make mistakes with following up on tasks. The solution was completely obvious: don't mark that email as read until you have *dealt* with it. In his mind, he viewed each of these events as it's own thing ("I don't miss messages FROM FRED anymore") instead of a repeated, continuous failing on his part to be even remotely systematic or organized about how he worked. It was a real and ongoing problem.

A friend was like that with invoices; after it happened over and over and she was at her wits end, "I scewed up with FOO's invoice" instead of "I screwed up the basic lifecycle management of another invoice" -- I finally I convinced her to put things into a literal inbox/outbox/file structure and the problem went away.

So ... What I would say is everyone makes mistakes. But if the frequency is high enough to notice, yeah, probably you are doing something wrong.
posted by rr at 6:37 PM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're doing direct patient care, which is rife with details and often somewhat unstructured. After a while, all those details become like second nature, but it takes most people a while to get all the zillions of little details nailed down. Do check in with your supervisor, but realize there is a learning curve to any job, and that it takes anywhere from 6-18 months to feel competent.
posted by jeoc at 7:45 PM on July 16, 2013

Let me give you two examples of people I work with.

Coworker A is a lovely person and a hard worker, but her work is sometimes a bit sloppy. She works really quickly and occasionally misses things that she ought to catch. However, she takes responsibility for her mistakes. She and I work together closely so she is always asking me to review her work and look things over, and she handles constructive criticism well. Finally, she actively seeks out feedback and always takes my suggestions seriously.

Sometimes it's annoying to clean up after coworker A, but she's a good coworker, and she cleans up after me as well. If I were her boss, I'd give her a raise.

Coworker B has a questionable work ethic and I'm not sure how she ever got hired. Her work is incredibly sloppy. She seems incapable of writing complete sentences or using proper grammar, and she can't follow extremely simple instructions. Anything she creates has to be reworked, and here's the kicker: she is blissfully unaware that her work is subpar. Most people would be absolutely mortified if they turned in work as poor as hers (what she writes literally looks like a 5th or 6th grader wrote it), but she doesn't seem to notice or care. Worst of all, if her work is criticized, she takes it personally and will lash out in frustration. It's always someone else's fault (or something else's fault).

If I were her boss, I would fire her tomorrow. The woman is incompetent and completely unaware of it, and she is out of her element.

To sum it up, everyone makes mistakes, and does so often. It's a part of life and work. When it's annoying is when:
  • someone is completely unaware that they are making mistakes.
  • someone never asks anyone to check their work.
  • someone doesn't know how to handle constructive criticism.
Here's a great comment by John Cleese on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The sheer fact that you are worried about whether you are making too many mistakes means you're headed in the right direction!

posted by Old Man McKay at 8:57 PM on July 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

I work in television. When I or my coworkers make mistakes, they are easily seen by a few million people, and these days sometimes blogged on big websites where youtube repeats might get a few million more.

Even in that environment, you'll hear "accidents happen." But we all know that you're allowed one once in a while, if you start repeating mistakes you'd better work on fixing it immediately.

That being said, I have had one mistake aired in 13 or so years.

As far as coworkers mistakes, don't force people to clean up after your errors. If you screw up, do whatever you have to in order to make sure no one else has to go out of their way to rescue you.

When I worked in an office, the times I made errors I marched into my manager's office, told her what happened, told her how I was going to make it right, and told her what I had done to make sure it would never happen again. Even with a few fairly major errors in that environment, that method of getting on top of my mistakes never failed to get an "atta boy" soon after and a visible sense of relief in her.
posted by nevercalm at 1:16 AM on July 17, 2013

I consider myself competent at many things I do. I still make a ton of mistakes, mostly minor. In the early days, I made bigger ones, as my experience was low. Math mistakes, forgetfulness, oversights, misinterpretations, omissions, bad prioritization, bad communication, incorrect analysis, poor workmanship. It's a constant battle when I have to do something well.

A major source of mistakes in dealing with mistakes is the human factors aspect. I've seen a lot of people handle their mistakes in widely different fashion, from hiding them to blaming others, to fixing them at their own expense. If you find yourself in an area where your mistakes can get people hurt, it's best to admit it up front, but other than that caveat, mistakes are just a form of inefficiency and a nuisance. They are common, frequent, usually minor, and sometimes invisible. THey seldom (but occasionally) result in getting fired. You are expected to gain competence over time, but rates vary.

The sooner you get comfortable with being honest about yourself and doing good self-assessments, the better. Slowing down is often good. Planning an attack is often good. Worry is pretty useless. If you are ignorant of a topical area and it is the source of mistakes, get informed over time. If you are not competent in an area of work, find out why and work on the shortcoming. As you gather years, you will fill in all these holes. It wasn't that long ago that we were all toddlers and making mistakes every minute.

Chill. You are human and doing what we do. Have fun trying stuff out and get better.
posted by FauxScot at 1:59 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am an analyst, but I'm a big-picture, trend spotter. My position requires me to micro-check little, tiny details in enormous, manually manipulated spreadsheets. I was praised because the last one I turned in only had 5 mistakes on it! Yay?

I have a folder on my desktop of step-by-step instructions for the monthly/quarterly spreadsheets that I prepare (we're migrating the process to the Cube, but for now, it's me.) If I don't follow them, to the letter every month, mistakes. If I do follow them---fewer mistakes.

I accept that mistakes will happen and that I'm doing better than most people would do in the same slot. There is no better, more perfect person out there.

Now, I do recognize that this isn't the best fit for me, and I am looking to move into some other kind of work. But for now, I accept my level of skill and imperfection.

So make check-lists for the mundane tasks you to do to insure that everything is being done to spec. After that. Shrug it off.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:55 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Because this is something I wonder about endlessly, I vividly remember that this question has been asked directly here and indirectly here. So if nothing else, feel reassured that other people worry about this too!

For what it's worth, I am a mistake-making machine. In some ways, I'm a very capable, high-achieving person - I'm finishing up a PhD program; I think most people who know me would consider me reasonably bright - and yet when placed in any kind of job situation, you can trust that I am going to screw even the most basic things up. Having been out of the workforce for six years now, I'd started to wonder if my memories of how bad I was were inaccurate - if maybe I was just young and insecure and self-conscious about minor failings. Then I got a part-time summer job at the library, and BAM, here I am, dropping the ball on things that my decade-younger coworkers mastered the first day.

What is going ON? I have a few theories. One, possibly some untreated ADD. My attention wanders. I'm easily distractable and very daydreamy. I also have a 'speedy' way about me that is very hard to dial down and makes it difficult for me to focus on details. Worse, the harder I try to focus on details, the more they slip away from me. Two, I worry about my mistakes and this exacerbates them. I'll get tunnel vision with one thing, trying to make it perfect, and then let something big slip by. Or I'll think something's wrong, but I won't be sure, and then I'll end up overthinking it, and instead of doing something the obvious right way, I'll do it the bizarre wrong way because I'll worry about it for so long I lose perspective. Three, I'm insecure about my performance - because I know I make mistakes - so I'll call attention to them early. I ask for help before I need it, or let co-workers do things I consider 'hard', and then I don't get enough practice, because other people don't trust me and I don't trust myself.

All of this is particularly true when I'm doing work for other people - I am perfectly capable of executing large, complicated, somewhat detail-oriented projects on my own, when there is no authority about the "right" way to do things other than me. It's when I'm trying to work according to other people's systems and figure out what someone above me wants that my mistake-making tendencies spiral out of control.

So what is to be done? People above you have offered lots of good advice. Something ridiculous I do which helps a little bit is to visualize myself as someone else - I imagine Kristen Stewart in Adventureland for some reason - a person who is slower, calmer, who doesn't give as much of a fuck. The original mistakes might still get made, but this helps tamp down the insecurity/overthinking-it spiral; when I focus really, really hard on slowing down, I can sometimes catch my own mistakes and move on.

Truthfully, though, what I actually did was to try really hard to change my life so that I wasn't in a position where this mattered as much anymore. I made a decision not to try and make it in industries - publishing, for example - in which an apprenticeship as an admin or personal assistant is usually required. Teaching, on the other hand, is my "job" now - it's how I get paid - and while it certainly requires skill and effort, it doesn't require the same kind of "work" that most office jobs do. The truth is that the more you develop a specialized skill, the more likely it is that there will be people under you dealing with the details. I edited a manuscript for one of my professors last year, and I was astonished at the number of small mistakes littered through the brilliance, and when it came up, he was like, "Yeah, that's what editors are for." My dream is to someday get to a point where I can afford a personal assistant - once that happens, I imagine I'll be able to take over the world in short order.

Anyway, those are my thoughts! If you figure out something that works for you, be sure to share it. Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:40 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

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