Making Mistakes At Work

Spilled mug on work papers

Let’s be honest: there is a lot of “work” at work. Most of us are so busy trying to complete the day’s tasks and put out fires that we often neglect to consider if we are functioning in an efficient way. Here are a few common mistakes, and some ideas for how to address them:

Failing to Triage Incoming Assignments

Paperwork, mail, e-mail, voicemail, and assignments flood in all day long. Many people put everything in a catch-all “inbox” or pile papers on the corner of a desk. Another tendency is to read emails when the red flag appears, but then simply close them, requiring a second review at a later time. Any action you take which must later be repeated is a waste of time.

It is critical to have a system for quickly reviewing incoming requests and categorizing them to be worked on later.  When a request comes in, sort it by the type of action required (e.g. “To Call,”  “To Read,”  “To Schedule,”  “To Deliver”… or whatever makes sense for your particular situation). Put labeled stacking trays/folders for paperwork on your desk, and similar folders on your computer.  When you are planning out your day or week, schedule time to address each type of action.

a pen and paper

Succumbing to Interruptions 

Whether it is someone knocking on the door or the phone ringing, interruptions draw our attention away from the task at hand. Each one can cost as many as 8 minutes as our brains try to process the intrusion, respond, and then refocus.

While periodic interruptions are inevitable, it is important to aggressively minimize them. Some techniques to try include:

  • Turning off the alert on incoming email or voice mail for a period of time.
  • Designating an hour of the day as your “unavailable” time (e.g. post a “Quiet Hours” sign on your door for 8-9am).
  • Going elsewhere to get things done, such as a library, conference room, or even a nearby café.
  • Limiting your social/pleasure Internet usage (e.g. “I’ll work for 25 minutes, then give myself 5 minutes to check my Facebook/surf the web”). Be sure to break for the full 5 minutes, get up, walk around and refresh.
  • Keeping a notepad on the desk to capture random thoughts that you can return to at the end of a focused session (e.g. “reschedule advertising meeting,” “pick up milk”).

Lacking Consistency in Processing Meeting Information

Do you prepare for a meeting by grabbing the nearest notepad or scribbling notes on the back of a meeting agenda? This frequently results in stacks of half-used notepads and lost notes.

Instead, standardize a system for capturing and organizing meeting information. For example, have a designated composition book for meetings. Or, create an electronic meeting template you can open on your laptop. Begin each meeting by recording the date, time, and meeting attendees (which helps if you need to follow up or clarify decisions, action items, etc.). Consistency will enable you not only to record pertinent material from the current meeting, but also to easily glance back and see what was decided at the previous one. Always end your notes with a clear “to do” summary which you can then schedule into your planner when you get back to your desk. Also, have your calendar at every meeting.

Failing to File

For obvious reasons, filing isn’t typically a favorite task. As a result, we often pile papers up on the desk, on the floor, or in a box. There is no better way to make a piece of paper disappear than by putting it in a stack.

The only way to ensure you can reliably find paperwork is to relentlessly put it in its proper place.  Schedule in 10 minutes at the end of the day to put away any paperwork that has ended up strewn about. “Away” could mean either in an “action” bin (see above) or in a storage location (e.g. a hanging file). This is a gift you give yourself the next time you need to find it.

Relying on Electronic Communication

Email, texts and cloud based/shared documents are wonderful tools. In many situations, they are the most effective way to communicate. Unfortunately, many people rely exclusively on these tools, even when a “live” conversation would be more effective.

While there are no hard and fast rules, a face-to-face meeting (or at least a live phone conversation) is preferable when:

  • Issues are multi-faceted and/or complex
  • Emotions could run high on the subject matter
  • Positions and viewpoints could be misconstrued
  • A variety of unrelated items need to be addressed
  • Tone of voice will impact results
  • Relationship building is part of the assignment
  • Confusion or lack of clarity is present

If you find that you aren’t getting desirable results, or if you are frustrated by unsuccessful attempts to connect digitally, walk down the hall or pick up the phone. Personal interaction is a dying art form, and one that is worth investing in.

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Work is hard enough without fighting ourselves to do it. Sometimes a few small changes can make a world of difference. Are you making any of these mistakes?

23 thoughts on “Making Mistakes At Work”

  1. Seana, sadly I think I have made all of these mistakes from time-to-time in the past. But ask me if I have learned from my mistakes and the answer is a resounding, “Yes”! So, as my mother would say, “Mistakes are bound to be made, but as long as you learn from them and don’t repeat them that is the key.”
    Janine Huldie recently posted…Halloween Witch Cupcakes RecipeMy Profile

    1. I’ve made them all too. I agree with your Mother… everyone makes mistakes. I think it feels empowering to look back on a bad habit or frequent mistake and feel a measure of progress and change. Great results are very motivating:)

  2. This post is brilliant, Seana! It’s all about communication, workflow, and follow through. I especially love your tips on when to pick up the phone. It’s true that so often our go-to method has become electronic. We can potentially miss a lot if we only text or email. There’s nothing quite like adding an actual voice to help us better understand the dynamic of the conversation. And of course, in person is even better, although harder to do.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…5 Organizing Challenges and Proven Ways for How to Overcome ThemMy Profile

    1. It definitely feels like it takes more effort to pick up the phone, especially for those who might feel awkward, intimidated or even simply introverted. At the same time, the connection we make to a face or voice is stronger than the one made via technology. If you really want to bump up the relational payoff, meet with someone over a meal. There is some magic in food! I hope we continue to value personal interaction. A coworker with whom you have a personal connection is more likely to work toward a mutual goal and provide needed support.

    1. If you work from home, you may need to just leave, right? Ran into a friend/entrepreneur at the library recently. One uninterrupted hour can be so productive!

  3. Great tips. And, yes, filing is not my favorite thing to do. So, I added a “to file” magnet bin to the side of the filing cabinet and when the bin is full, I file the papers. It takes about a week or two to fill up and that works for me.

    1. I love that idea! It gives you a spot to put things right away and get them up off the surface of the desk! Plus, a visual reminder when it is time to take action. Perfect solution Sabrina.

  4. Love that you are focusing on what makes productivity so difficult at work! I agree that there is so much coming in and so much to interrupt. I suggest a “power period” each day to get real work done that requires thinking. It’s an undistracted time to be sure you have time to focus. It is critical to have a way to keep what’s coming in under control so you can work through what’s on your plate first. Finally, it’s hard to prioritize. Be sure you are in touch by meeting or phone call to ensure you are working on what’s most critical.

    1. I love the “Power Period” idea. Some people feel that your coworkers (or housemates!) may not respect it, but I believe that if you stick to it, others will eventually fold in. Most people want to be able to have some uninterrupted time, and I think they respect others who find a way to get it!

    1. I am thankful for emojis, because without them, the chances of a miscommunication are high. Still, they aren’t the same as the look on a face or tone of a voice. I believe there is solid evidence to the percent of communication that is nonverbal (or “non-typed”) that is now frequently being overlooked. As I said, if you need to set a date, a Doodle poll may be the way to go. If you want to iron out a touchy issue, face to face is the way to go.

  5. I like your point about lacking consistency in processing meeting info. That one is often overlooked as folks think as long as they’re capturing the info in some way, it’s all good. But like you so aptly pointed out – it’s not! And good tip about always having your calendar at the ready.

    1. Agreed that this one is seldom discussed. However, if you don’t reliably capture meeting information, it will be difficult to go back and access it later. Especially if you find you need it a year after the actual meeting. For example, I take notes on our NAPO-CT agendas. They are dated, I know what was discussed because it is right there in print and I can easily file them chronologically. If I sometimes used my phone or computer but then other times grabbed a scrap of paper, I might not be able to easily go back and find a piece of needed information.

  6. Many of these tips are really useful Seana! Especially, setting up a way to divide up and set aside related tasks, minimizing distractions when you need to focus (signing out of email, silencing phone and messenger apps, closing door), and considering in-person meeting or phone calls instead of emails for more important/complex issues.
    Jessica @ Independent Travel Cats recently posted…Finding Churchill: Visiting the Top Winston Churchill Sites in EnglandMy Profile

    1. The landscape for getting things done is actually more challenging than ever before. Yes, we have a plethora of terrific tools, but we also have more interruptions and new communication challenges. Successful people are always adapting and finding a way to take the best of the new while maintaining the best of the past. Traveling is much the same way, right?

  7. Oh yes. Just running all three things I do is crazy. Two of them, I work for myself and I’m extra hard on myself. And the third? It’s so weird working for and with other people!
    I love this and do this: “Keeping a notepad on the desk to capture random thoughts that you can return to at the end of a focused session (e.g. “reschedule advertising meeting,” “pick up milk”).”

    1. I have to write all those random thoughts down as they come up or I will forget them. I got this tip years ago from a coworker who was having trouble waking up and thinking about things he needed to do the next day. Once he put a notepad next to the bed, he was able to capture his thought and then go back to sleep. Great tip, especially for those managing multiple jobs like you:)

    1. Working from home is especially difficult. Every time I get on a business call, the lawn mowers start or the FedEx guy needs a signature or generator starts charging… it is nice to avoid a commute, but staying on task can require extra effort!

  8. Some days I’m great at ignoring incoming emails for hours. Other days I’m obsessed with keeping my inbox clear. I should notice what is different on those days so I can come up with a better way of dealing with it!

    1. That is such an interesting point, Janet. The cause could be a number of factors, including the work on your plate, how you are feeling physically, external factors drawing your attention, proximity to a vacation, what is going on in the news… wouldn’t it be great if there were a formula where you could enter data and find out how focused you were going to be on a given day?

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