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I am 25 yrs old, a team manager with staff and also with ownership of individual contribution work mainly involving original research and analysis. My work is generally 70% managing and 30% own research/analysis; I do the first area bit quite well, but I found it challenging from the start to constantly switch and re-immerse myself into details of the second area.

I understand quite well what I need to do, and I do a good job in terms of the idea and execution... but... my direct boss always spots "distraction mistakes", mostly embarrassing errors such as a wrong plus/minus sign, a calculation typo on Excel, an extra digit "0". I am somehow unable (or too distracted) to spot them myself. When I do the work, it all seems fine and I just submit it. On one occasion, my boss didn't spot my mistake (a really bad one) and it was the clients who found it. My boss didn't comment on the mishap, but it was definitely very embarrassing.

I like my job (overall) and I love learning new things every day, but I feel like I can't help doing this kind of clumsy mistakes - especially because I am not aware of them, and the fact that it is original work (I am the "pioneer", i.e. I have no guidelines to follow in this work; I create them).

I am now seriously worried about my job performance and don't know how to address it / if I should tell my boss.

I don't know what the cause may be, maybe bad work-life balance or stress... but I am not sure.

QUESTION (In response to Joe Strazzere) - well my question is what can I do to keep my job / not get fired and/or also: what can I do to not be clumsy?

closed as unclear what you're asking by jcmeloni, Joe Strazzere, Jim G., Garrison Neely, jmac Jul 17 '14 at 12:02

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • I am now seriously worried about my job performance and don't know how to address it / if I should tell my boss. Sounds like your boss already knows at least some of it if he's noticing your errors. – starsplusplus Jul 15 '14 at 13:06
  • Are you getting enough (quality) sleep? – GrandmasterB Jul 15 '14 at 15:58
  • Hey ChocolateWayne, and welcome to The Workplace! As-is, your question is a bit unclear. We know you are making the mistakes, but it isn't clear what you want to do to stop making the mistakes, or how you expect us to help you with it. If you could focus your question a bit with an edit after reading our help center, it may help. Thanks in advance! – jmac Jul 17 '14 at 12:04
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There are a few obvious things which could help:

Self-checking your work at submission time

This is a very important practice in so many disciplines, and a skill you can develop.

It can be tempting to think "I'll just check what I'm doing as I go along" but that technique isn't enough on its own. A distinct step of self-checking your work before you submit is important.

I work as a software engineer. Before committing (submitting) code changes, I self-check my code, then another person reviews the code, and only then can it be submitted.

Automatic sanity checking of your work

If you've produced a spreadsheet, for example, you might have a macro in it that makes sure all the numbers makes sense - e.g. "numbers in column F can't total more than 10,000". Or a script that checks the numbers.

Improve your technique and get tips by using the buddy system

If there's a colleague who does the same thing as you, doing a pair session can be useful. This is where you sit together, you do the usual thing with your spreadsheet, and the other person watches. This can generate useful feedback from them about how you perform your task. For example, they might say "I notice you're typing that equation directly into the cell. But if you enter it via this other flooble widget, it validates the equation for you and makes it harder to make a mistake there". Pairing can feel funny first few times you do it, but can be really beneficial if you approach it with an receptive mind.

Use the right tools for the job

Finally, it's worth asking yourself "Are we using exactly the right tool for the job?" and "Can I automate any of this"? Maybe there's a better tool for this than a spreadsheet, which will reduce the chance of making errors. Or perhaps some of the details you're entering can be automatically derived from somewhere.

Developing self-awareness of the kinds of mistakes you're making

When you make a mistake, record somewhere the nature of the mistake. Then over time you can see what sort of mistakes you make, and maybe spot any patterns. This self-awareness can help you avoid mistakes in future.

This technique can cover all sorts of 'mistakes' - they don't have to be glaring ones that make your boss mad. For example, if I find that I've effectively wasted 30 mins on a 'problem' that wasn't actually really a problem, and was just an oversight on my behalf, I record the nature of my 'mistake'. It keeps me mindful in future of that nature of mistake.

It's interesting that you say "I can't help being clumsy" - I'm pretty sure you can help it, if you focus on it.

  • 5
    Self-checking at submission rather than during the work is really critical. I used to work as a translator many years ago. I found that I could not find my own errors in a text I'd translated until at least a couple of days had passed. I literally did not see them. I solved it by working together with another translator so we could review one another's work. – Jenny D Jul 15 '14 at 9:58
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    The pairing is key. I know a smart person who, given the task of putting the total of 4 numbers into a cell in a spreadsheet, adds them up with a calculator then types in the total. This is error prone and no quicker than putting "=1.2+3.4+4.5+6.7" into the cell in Excel. Who knows what similar things you're doing without realizing it? – Kate Gregory Jul 15 '14 at 19:04
  • @KateGregory Very well put. We have no idea about any quirks of what we're doing till another pair of eyes spots it! – occulus Jul 16 '14 at 8:39
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Your problem is that you haven't worked out an effective way to double check your results.

You should really talk to your boss and pick his brains on how he goes about checking your work without reproducing everything you do. I am pretty sure that your boss worked out a methodology, and you need to make him confess by whatever means necessary and share it with you.

As a trained engineer, I am conditioned to review my work and others' work. I pretty much know the range of the result that I should reasonably expect from experience and judgement, and when I see a result that looks unreasonable, this is my cue to go into forensics mode. Sometimes, the apparently unreasonable result is correct. Much more often, it is not. Unfortunately, experience and judgement are quantities that you can only develop over time. In the meantime, rely on someone else's experience and judgement - someone like your boss and just keep picking their brains on how to think through the way they do.

HOW you get things done can very much have a bearing on the number, kind and scope of the mistakes you make:

  1. For example,cutting and pasting a complex formula is much less error prone and much less time consuming than writing that formula from scratch. Use "tried and true"over "experimental", unless you've tested "experimental" enough that you are confident that "experimental" works and that you're going to save time, energy (and aggravation) by going "experimental".

  2. Don't reinvent the wheel, unless you're convinced that you can come up with a wheel that's better enough to justify the effort.

  3. Always ask yourself while you're doing something whether you can think of a more error-proof method of getting the task done. You have to ask the question, because you can't get answers from questions you don't ask.

  4. Organize your work, so that it's all intermediate results show up AND so that any error is quickly brought to the surface. These intermediate results will be invaluable in helping you trace any mistake in the final result. In other words, organize your work so that it's easy to spot mistakes and do forensics on it. Work that is organized in a way that's easy to understand is usually work that's easily verifiable.

  5. If you can be revolutionary about it, design your approaches so that errors are simply designed out of the system. A calculation that you don't have to make is an error that you can't possibly make.

I recommend that you take the time to read some books and other references on quality in manufacturing. The material is fascinating, a very large amount of it is applicable to your situation e.g. quality is a process not an after-thought, quality is designed into the manufacturing and not a separate procedure, etc. Reading, understanding and applying this material will be beneficial to your career as a whole not just your job or any particular task that you're performing.

Be cognizant of your mental and physical limitations,be respectful and considerate of them and work with them rather than trying to fight and defeat them.

  1. You will be much less likely to make dumb mistakes when you are well rested than when you are on severely sleep deprived, on the outer edges of exhaustion and distracted and your calorie intake is totally inadequate.

  2. There will be times when you will be asking the moon from your body, and you want to make sure that your body is in good enough shape to deliver that moon.

  3. And design your methodology to be error proof, even under these unfavorable conditions. Hint: in terms of methodology design, the key word is "no-brainer"

In the meantime, while you are absorbing your new knowledge from your boss and improving your procedures, as a sanity check, look for anything in your calculational work that looks stupid, If it looks stupid, that's usually because it is stupid.

  • Asking the boss is a great suggestion, because if he's noticed a bunch of mistakes, chances are he already knows something's up. So asking him not only gets his help, it lets him know that employee is both aware of and working on the problem. – starsplusplus Jul 15 '14 at 13:10
  • @sarplusplus To be crass about it,the goal includes good job preservation i.e. the preservation of the job of the most important person in the world - clears throat and coughs, coughs :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Jul 15 '14 at 13:15
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My work is generally 70% managing and 30% own research/analysis; I do the first area bit quite well, but I found it challenging from the start to constantly switch and re-immerse myself into details of the second area.

Context switching is costly. If you have a schedule that pushes you to switch focus between very different types of work, this can be (at the very least) exhausting; Usually, it is the equivalent of being distracted all the time.

Consider:

  • grouping your tasks by activity types (e.g. managerial tasks in the morning, your own research in the afternoon).

  • grouping meetings to the same day

  • planning your own tasks with time buffers in between (e.g. 20 minutes free before each meeting)

  • recognizing your most productive time and optimizing your schedule for it (e.g. if you are the most productive in the mornings, make time in the mornings for your own work)

[...] but... my direct boss always spots "distraction mistakes", mostly embarrassing errors such as a wrong plus/minus sign, a calculation typo on Excel, an extra digit "0".

I used to make those, both in writing code and in other tasks. You need to pass over your work multiple times; make your own quality control, based on tests that are easy to verify, even if they are difficult to perform. For example, checking that your percentages in an excel file add up to 100% is easy, even though computing them int the first place was difficult).

I like my job (overall) and I love learning new things every day, but I feel like I can't help doing this kind of clumsy mistakes - especially because I am not aware of them, and the fact that it is original work (I am the "pioneer", i.e. I have no guidelines to follow in this work; I create them).

Consider doing something similar to the DoD in Sprint/agile methodology:

  • Create a list of the deliverable of your current task and it's deliverables, and make a list. Write this list down. After you finish your task, go over the list and verify each point in it, by checking directly.

Example, for writing a report for your customers.

"report should be: clear, concise, have no grammar mistakes, less than 5 pages long and contain: progress of the status of the update and the update of the status of the progress and the status of the progress of the update" [paraphrasing Dilbert].

For this, at the end of your task, you check that the report is easily understandable, concise etc.

If you do this, you will get used (in a while) to consider the output of your work as draft-quality only, and the output of your own verification process as "public results".

Remember to asssign extra time for your verification process.

One more thing: you should definitely tell your boss you are doing this (it will notify him you are aware of your problem and working to solve it).

I don't know what the cause may be, maybe bad work-life balance or stress... but I am not sure.

It sounds to me like it's bad work-work balance (bad balance between tasks) and no organized focus on quality. These bring their own stress with them.

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1) Try reorganizing your schedule, dedicating longer periods of time to research. Put a 'Please, don't disturb' sign on your desk when you are going to immerse into your research activities. You might want to discuss this with your team beforehand.

2) Don't submit your work as soon as it is ready. Leave it for a while. Then check it with a fresh eye.

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what can I do to keep my job / not get fired and/or also: what can I do to not be clumsy?

You simply need to find a way to stop making mistakes.

First, make sure you don't have a medical issue on your hands. Lack of sleep (or even sleep apnea), certain chemical imbalances, excessive drug or alcohol use, etc - any of these could contribute to conditions that cause mistakes.

Second, make sure you don't have mental or processing issues. Certain conditions (like ADD, etc) can make concentration difficult.

You haven't indicated if your clumsiness, and inability to pay attention are new issues, or something you have lived with all of your life. The answer to that might be a clue as to the underlying cause.

If either of the above are part of the core problem, then seek help to get those cured.

Perhaps the role is too new, and you just need more time so that the work becomes more routine, and less mistake prone.

Perhaps you need to practice more, gradually building up your speed and reducing your mistakes.

Or perhaps you are simply not a good fit for the role. Not everyone can work mistake-free under pressure. Some people need to find a role where the mistakes aren't as important, or where someone else is available to check your work.

  • An addendum about lack of sleep: In some situations, like sleep apnea, you can be getting inadequate sleep without knowing it; you wake up partially and briefly many times during the night, and you don't remember it at all in the morning, but you're permanently tired. If there's any chance of a problem like that, consult your doctor. There are easy solutions once the problem is detected, but undetected problems don't get solved. – Andreas Blass Jul 31 '14 at 3:09

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