Costly mistakes; everyone makes them

Mistakes - that sick feeling when someone sees your mistake

In 1962, NASA took on the first interplanetary mission with spacecraft Mariner 1. Unfortunately, the mission was cut expensively short after a hyphen spelling error in a punch card, which caused the destination to change. The change in destination sent the spacecraft into a collision path, so 293 seconds into the mission the spacecraft had to be destroyed. This simple error in NASA’s code helped doom the Mariner 1 mission, which cost $18.5 million – remember that this was in 1962, and is equivalent to a lot more today.

The moral of the story is that everybody makes mistakes!

If you don’t believe you make errors or mistakes then you are lying to yourself; even the most skilled people make errors in documents, CV’s, code and more! Sometimes these errors can be brushed aside but at other times, they are critical, costly and can affect your company’s and your reputation.

I’m guilty of it – no matter how many times I proofread and spell check my work there is always that one small error. Unfortunately, you typically don’t see it until after you hit the send button or submit the final copy for distribution, which is then followed by that sickly feeling when the mistake comes to light.

So why do you make mistakes?

The problem arises most often when you are working hard; your brain optimises itself by interpreting words without reading the whole word. This means your brain can focus on difficult tasks such as forming complex ideas. The better you know the content the more efficient your brain is at optimising your reading by skimming over the words (as if you’re on autopilot) and the more likely you are to miss things.

How can you stop making those errors and mistakes?

To look at your work with a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ you need to trick your brain into de-familiarising itself with the material you are working on; below are a few tips to stop you from making any troublesome mistakes.

1. Step away from your work
My first suggestion is to step away from your work and come back to it later. This is not fool proof but using a different part of your brain and focusing on another activity can allow you to come back to your work fresh and ready to proof with a new set of eyes.

2. Change your spelling and grammar settings in word
It surprises me how often people have the advanced spelling settings turned off – this can be really helpful when it comes to proofing. One thing to note is that if you are a Google Docs fan is that Google Docs spelling/grammar settings aren’t as comprehensive – so export it and check outside Google. The same goes for writing emails in Outlook – write your email in Word first then paste it in Outlook.

3. When working online, proof offline
When working on your computer you are guaranteed to make typing errors (amongst others), so make sure you print out your work and proofread the printed version.

4. De-familiarise your brain with your work
The more attached you are to something or the more familiar it is to you, the more likely you will not see your errors so de-familiarise your brain. Do this by changing the colour of the text or background or changing the font type (i.e. switch between two distinctive Serif and Sans fonts). This will help trick your brain into thinking that it is something new that you are reading.

5. Get someone else to check your work
Lastly and where possible, get someone (who hasn’t been involved with your work) to check it, as they will have the best chance of spotting any errors.

Hopefully, you work in an environment where a mistake won’t result in a multi-million dollar spaceship being blown out of the sky, but it does still matter when you do, and doesn’t make you feel great when a mistake is spotted! Make sure you put the checks and processes in place to help minimise those mistakes and spelling errors and ultimately give you some piece of mind.

If you want to read more on why our brains make mistakes, check out Wired’s post with psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos at the University of Sheffield. As always, I welcome your feedback, any funny but less than ideal mistakes you have seen, and suggestions on how you prevent mistakes in your work (and hopefully there aren’t too many in mine above).