I need to slow down at work so I don’t make mistakes

A reader writes:

I’ve recently switched jobs, and I’m loving my new job so far, but there’s one thing I am struggling to adapt to in my new workplace: the speed at which I work. My previous 3 years were spent in a job where the workload was impossibly high and I would be interrupted every 5 minutes by demanding clients. In order to get everything done before deadlines, I would often have to work through lunch breaks and stay late in the office to get time to concentrate. Even with this extra time, I would need to work at a very fast pace to get tasks done, which led to mistakes being made and details not paid attention to. This wasn’t just an issue for me alone – it was an organization-wide problem and common to all staff in the same role.

My new job is very different. The workload is more than manageable, and largely free of interruptions. I have enough time to complete my work within office hours, and I can take a full hour for lunch without even looking at my inbox. There is no pressure to complete my tasks as quickly as possible (as long as I meet deadlines), but I am still racing to get my work done as if I were at my old job.  As a result, I am finishing my work much faster than expected. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I am aware that I lose accuracy at such a speed.

Can I train myself to slow down?  I’m not aware of any large mistakes having been made due to my speed, but I know I’ve slipped once or twice on small details and I don’t want to get a reputation for not paying attention.

I do think you can train yourself to slow down – and that you need to, in order to be successful in this different environment.

I would try two things: First, look at your total workload in an average week, and figure out roughly how much time you can allot to each task. Then, when you’re beginning a new task, remind yourself of that timeframe – for instance, “I have 90 minutes to work on this.” Restating it to yourself at the start of a project might help reframe the way you’re approaching it – hopefully slowing you down a bit when you realize you don’t have to race through it.

Second, for each type of project that you do regularly, make yourself a checklist of possible errors and things you should double-check. For instance, your checklist might include proofreading, double-checking any numbers or math you used, logging it in the team’s project tracker, and even setting it aside for 10 minutes while you do something else and then reading it over with fresher eyes. Then, whenever you’re working on a project, pull out the associated checklist and make yourself use it. That alone can force you to slow down and be more deliberate about spotting common errors.

After you’ve used both of these tactics for a while, I think you’ll find that your work rhythms naturally start to readjust, and a less harried pace will become more natural.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. EngineerGirl*

    I do think one thing does need to be addressed. If something was turned in with mistakes and later needed rework then it was never “complete” on the first iteration. What you turned in the first time was a “first draft” even though it was marked as “final”. In short- the time to complete a product is the time from beginning to final-touched-no-more.

    You now have extra time. So create your first draft like you normally do. Then use the extra time to create/use checklists that will mistake-proof your product. Create a Pareto of your most common mistakes and include them in the checklist. Use the extra time to create a high quality product the first time. Work at eliminating rework.

    It may take you longer to complete the initial parts, but you will get all of it back (and then some) at the end. And your reputation will soar.

    1. AB*

      Great points; I wrote my comment on the go and at the same time as yours, or I’d just have replied to agree :-).

  2. AB*

    Looks like Alison was the only one to suggest my favorite solution for this type of problem: checklists. Never underestimate the power of a good checklist. After you catch some mistakes using your checklist at the end of a task, you’ll learn to naturally slow down next time to avoid making them in the first place.

    1. Another Emily*

      I love checklists and I use them constantly. I now have my favourite checklist memorized and go through it mentally each time I do that task. That final review is a great way to catch stuff I missed. (I usually miss something that I catch with the checklist, because this particular task is fairly complicated.)

  3. Cnic*

    I agree with EngineerGirl. You need to self review your work and get it error free before you deliver it to someone else. Pretend it is the first time you see it and review it as if someone else did it. Double check everything you did, or sources you used, cross check sums if you are dealing with numbers, print documents to read on the paper before you send (this will take some extra trees but it does make a difference). Try to identify if you have a particular type of error you are prone to, or create a list of common errors, so that you can always double check these points. And compare to previous similar work so that you can more easily see any mistakes.

  4. happycat*

    I am glad someone asked this question!
    I am in the same boat, going from a very fast paced heavy workload to a much slower pace. While I do well in the fast, multi tasked world, the slower world has been a struggle. The work is somewhat the same, but not exactly.
    I love the idea of a checklist, yet I do find that slowing my brain down is very hard. And making my brain see the little things that are not so little when they go wrong!

    1. Another Emily*

      A checklist will get you working methodically. Put the list in the order in which it makes the most sense to do the tasks. I find methodical work mentally calming.

      Also consider, are you getting more time on projects because they want a higher quality? I have worked on “quick and dirty” projects and on “make it all excellent” type projects. If our clients want it done quickly and cheaply, we can do it as long as they understand some mistakes will get through.

      We’ve also had projects with the budget to make everything basically perfect. In this case, I take more time on each step on my checklist, plus I take more time to do a final check through. You will find yourself settling in to a “slow and steady” mindset, I think.

  5. Ask a Reader*

    I’m not sure I’d ever go back to that web site, Alison, if I didn’t go there through your links. I’m gobsmacked that one suggestion was to sandbag at work and hide your proficiency from your manager!

    1. Another Emily*

      This could backfire if your manager ever caught on. You’d end up like Chief O’Brien on Deep Space 9 (he always sandbagged).
      O’Brien: I can repair the sensor array in thirty hours.
      Captain Sisco: You have fourteen.

      Not to mention it’s unethical.

      1. anon*

        Why is it unethical? She would still be getting all her work done. Taking time to network and develop yourself professionally is a smart way to take care of big picture goals instead of staying uber-focused on smaller, more menial tasks. It’s not like she’s secretly watching netflix at work. She would still be doing tasks that are relevant and important — like researching the industry, etc. I think you are misconstruing this advice.

      2. Another Emily*

        I meant sandbagging is unethical anon. Alison’s advice is spot on.

        The reason I feel sandbagging is unethical is it feels like lying to me.

  6. Kimberlee, Esq.*

    I actually disagree with Alison’s and others’ approaches. Well, I mean, I’m sure that would work, but as someone who often rushes through work and finds mistakes, I would advocate a different approach than these checklists:

    1. Complete the work on the timeline that you would normally do it, making sure you have a couple days before the timeline.

    2. Abandon it for a few days in favor of other projects.

    3. A day or two later, just go back over everything you produced and look for mistakes. Taking a day away is amazing. You see everything with a new clarity.

    Do all the tasks quickly, like you’re used to, and sit on them for a day to review them with fresh eyes. In my experience, that is the best way to find errors anyway. If you have the “luxury” of a reasonable amount of time to do this stuff, just build in a day of review.

    1. AB*

      “3. A day or two later, just go back over everything you produced and look for mistakes. Taking a day away is amazing. You see everything with a new clarity.”

      Hmm.. Checklists are perfect for this step.

    2. EngineerGirl*

      This approach may work when first establishing checklists. Write down every mistake you made and add it to the checklist. But it’s a horrible method for normal operations. It’s far too ad-hoc. Fight with manager? Concentration goes down and so does the review. Tired? Same thing.

      Procedures and checklists are really the only way to get a consistently high product.

      1. Cat*

        It depends on what you’re doing and what the problem is. If you’re, say, consistently missing page numbers in citations then you want an item on a checklist that says “check page numbers in citations” and you want to do that specifically. If, on the other hand, the problem is that you’re drafting something and the language doesn’t quite sing or the organization doesn’t quite track, an item on a checklist that says “check organization” or “check language for fluency and persuasiveness” isn’t going to help you. In that case, looking at it two days later will give you an entirely different perspective. (And yeah, you might have fought with your manager two days later, but that’s life; you aren’t always going to have perfect working conditions.)

        1. AB*

          “If, on the other hand, the problem is that you’re drafting something and the language doesn’t quite sing or the organization doesn’t quite track, an item on a checklist that says “check organization” or “check language for fluency and persuasiveness” isn’t going to help you.”

          I agree, but I’ve been highly successful getting analysts to write with better language using checklists — you just need to be more specific than “check language”.

          For example, instead of the checklist saying, “check if you are not using vague terms”, be specific: “check if you are not using one of the following terms, which are too vague: [ list of vague terms that are often used, followed by examples of better word choices ].

          If you wait two days AND use a good checklist, you should see drastic improvements in quality of work products.

          1. EngineerGirl*

            Agree with this. Specificity and non-ambiguous are key to the very best checklists.
            And yes, getting away from the product a bit eliminates tunnel vision.

      2. anon*

        Maybe in engineering checklists are the only way to be accurate. But I follow this method all the time — finish a project, let it sit, go do something else, and return to it later for revision/proofreading. If you are experienced and familiar with the requirements, you don’t need to go through a checklist every time, although it is nice to have something to refer to if you need to look something up (in the editing world, it’s called a “style guide”).

      3. Kimberlee, Esq.*

        Ugh. Checklists just take so much time. I don’t use them unless I have to, if there are tasks that are common that are all the same (for many tasks, a checklist is useless, if it’s a single project that is not substantially similar to other ones you’ve done). And there are very few times I need them; the time away and the second check is sufficient. A checklist could just be extra work.

  7. Mere*

    I had this EXACT same problem a few years ago. I worked in a position where everyone was working 60+ hours a week at an extremely fast pace where we made errors to to the ridiculous workload (we were project managers). Finally I leave and land a very similar role but with a normal company that has normal hours and a good work/life balance. I found myself dunzo with work at 3PM, which I know wasn’t normal. I feared leaving my desk for lunch, because that was a big no no at the previous job. My crazy job emphasized SPEED and the normal job emphasized ACCURACY. The only way that i was able to slow it down and adapt was to constantly think, how long SHOULD this take? How long will this take to have it done ACCURATELY the first time around? Slow it down. Take a deep breath, and relax. I couldn’t relax, that’s what my problem was. It took me a good 6 months to fully adapt.
    It’s been 6 years since I left the crazy job, and I still get nervous when I leave my desk for lunch. I still also get really nervous if I am 15 minutes late to work or leave work at exactly 5PM. I still haven’t adapted to it’s OK to do these things! I was traumatized by Crazy Job!

  8. Not So NewReader*

    Also consider what you did to pump yourself up for Crazy Job.
    I know I downed WAY too much coffee. Switch some of those out to herbal teas.
    I don’t know if it is possible but maybe you can take a short walk before you get ready for work- just enough to take the edge off that energy rush that comes with knowing you have to go to work.

    Unwittingly, I did other things to pump myself up- I listened to loud, lively music on the way to work. I waited until the last possible minute to prepare to LEAVE for work. This started the pump as I forced myself into a synthetic panic that would last all day.

    Put some extra time into figuring out what your new boss and new coworkers value. Then take the time to do those things. Every work place has its own unique things that everyone places a high value on.

    Definitely, as others have said, track your mistakes. Especially target the recurring mistakes. Do you always for get to put the date on form X? Decide you won’t forget anymore. Are you learning to use a computer program on the fly? Take some time each day to read what is under the “help” button.

    I went from a high energy and fast paced job to a more normal one- I really thought I was not going to be able to do the job. But I found that I can dissipate some of the energy by planning a couple small activities at home before and after work. Nothing big, but stuff I would not have done when I had Killer Job.

  9. greenlily*

    I’m a giant fan of both the checklist method and the spend-10-minutes-on-another-project-and-come-back-to-see-the-new-one-with-fresh-eyes method. Both are coping skills that I was taught as an academically-struggling student back in middle school, and 25 years later they still work.

    I could use some advice, though, on how to handle a manager who doesn’t support those methods. I share an office with my manager, and she walks past my desk all the time in the course of normal business. If she walks past while I’m taking a 10-minute-break from Task X, and she sees me working on something that’s not Task X, she asks why Task X isn’t finished yet. (It’s not like I’m taking 10 minutes to surf the Internet, or even to read professional blogs. I always have Tasks Y and Z open in the background and ready for me to switch to them for a few minutes.)

    Similarly, if I start Task X by setting up a checklist for it (or a spreadsheet to track data) she asks why I’m spending time on that instead of just starting Task X. I’ve explained that these are necessary components of Task X, but she reacts as though I’ve said ‘I’ll start Task X as soon as I finish reading this blog’.

    Even with these methods in place to help, I do still make data errors; I build plenty of time into each task to go back and check my work, but I’m only human and sometimes I don’t catch everything. I mean, I’m grateful to not have been fired yet, but it’s a little frustrating when my manager and I meet every year for my performance review and her comments make it clear that she thinks my errors are due to being ‘distracted’ by my data-checking methods and my fresh-eyes technique.

    Any suggestions? I realize I might just need to suck it up, and find a new job if I don’t like how my manager responds to me, but I kind of like this job. :)

    1. SillyYankee*

      Make your checklist in your notebook, not in excel, so it is not on your screen for your manager to see.
      I have a notebook for my pocketbook, I use it for all my “checklists” – groceries, to do lists, brainstorming, etc.
      Use “split screens” or medium windows, where she can clearly see that her priority is on the screen, even though it is not on top.
      Good luck – nitpickers are the worst! Even when you do it their way, they find an issue with it.

  10. Cassie*

    Agreeing about using checklists – I have to get around to using them regularly (I have a few, but not for most of the work I do). They also help with days where I’m low-energy and procrastinate because I don’t have the energy to figure out what the first step is.

  11. fuse*

    Could anyone recommend a good checklist app that can be accessed on Android and on the web? It doesn’t have to be business-class, although that would be a plus.

  12. Marcia*

    I worked 14 years at an engineering firm where fast-paced, accurate work was expected. I am now working at a very similar workplace doing the same job, but I am still stuck in the fast-paced mindset. It is really hard to slow down. I have weeks to complete a project now, whereas before I had only a few hours or a day or two…it is extremely hard to slow down that much. My new employer focuses on quality…not timing. To train your mind to take an exuberant amount of time to do a task you once did fast-paced is hard. I am working on it, and it will happen…but the change is so drastic, although extremely welcoming.

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