Jessica Schrader is an Online Content Editor for Psychology Today and a freelance journalist. Previously, she was managing editor at Metro Parent Media Group and an editor for Patch.com. She also contributes to Bustle Digital Group, Crain’s Detroit Business, and other publications.
It’s easy to get frustrated and self-critical when you repeat mistakes. You might think you’re the only one who does this, but you’re not. Each person’s specific patterns might differ, but we can all relate to the general concept. The tips in this post apply to a wide range of these types of recurrent mistakes, including:
- Ignoring your instinct to say no or speak up (and then regretting it)
- Prioritizing the wrong things
- Buying things you don’t need, because they’re on sale
- Getting irritated with your kids, because you’re stressed out about work
Note: To identify your self-sabotaging habits, check out this list of 30 types. Once you know what you want to work on, consider these points.
1. Vowing to never make a particular mistake again is the wrong approach.
After you stuff yourself at Thanksgiving, you say “I’m not going to do that again. I feel terrible. It wasn’t worth it.” However, next year rolls around, and when you first notice you’re overeating again, you completely give up and go back for two more slices of pie. Sound familiar?
Paradoxically, to change recurrent patterns, it’s often best to assume you will make the same mistake again. When you do this, you can change your focus to developing practical strategies that will help you make less severe mistakes, less often. This tends to be a more successful approach overall.
2. Develop strategies for prevention.
Lets say you know you end up overeating when you’ve become overly hungry. What strategies do you need to put in place to prevent becoming so ravenous you scarf four bread rolls that are hanging around in your break room at work?
Let’s take a deep dive into how you might solve this problem. Perhaps you know you should stop for lunch at 1 p.m., but you often end up not stopping until 1:30 or even 2 p.m. You recognize that if you start new activities in the 30 minutes before you plan to take your lunch, it increases the chances you’ll get distracted and not go to lunch on time. Therefore, you need to plan activities for the 12:30-1 p.m. period each day that won’t run over time and cause the problem of going to lunch late. If you have some control over your schedule, what would be the types of work that would be predictable, not prone to running over time, and well-suited to your energy levels at that time of the day?
Hopefully you can see from this example how personalized your strategies need to be. You need to take a problem-solving approach that’s tailored to your exact circumstances, one that’s actually doable rather than aspirational. Your strategies should feel like a reflection of yourself and be things you’ll want to do, rather than seeming unappealing.
3. Put aside time and mental energy.
I know the example strategy I’ve given above seems simple, but this is deceptive. Improving your patterns doesn’t just happen. Success requires all of the following: thinking about what strategies you could use, making a decision about what to try, implementing your ideas, and, often, troubleshooting aspects of your strategies that aren’t working.
All of that requires mental energy. It isn’t the type of thing you’ll just do while you’re on the run at work, or you’ll squeeze into your day at 10 p.m. when you’re tired, tapped out, and you’d normally be clicking around the internet.
The reality of life is that we don’t always have the time or mental space available to mindfully address self-sabotaging habits. That’s normal, but until you have that energy available, you probably won’t do anything to turn around your patterns. What times during your day/week do you have enough cognitive energy available for self-strategizing?
4. Develop strategies for harm minimization.
Even the best prevention strategies are likely to fail at least occasionally. Therefore, you need a plan for what’s known as harm minimization. This is the same principle that’s behind the idea that it’s better for drug addicts to use clean needles than dirty ones.
Let’s think back to the problem of binging when overly hungry. Perhaps your strategy for when this happens might be to start your lunch by eating some fruit, salad, or something else where it’s difficult to quickly stuff yourself with a large amount of calories.
Harm minimization is about having a safety net, and who wouldn’t want to arrange that for themselves?
Consider making backup plans for when you’ve forgotten something. For example, I keep $20 in the glove compartment of my car in case I forget my purse or get caught out by a store that’s “cash only.”
5. Understand your “Seemingly Irrelevant Decisions.”
A concept I cover in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, is what’s known as “Seemingly Irrelevant Decisions.” I’ll give a quick overview of this concept here. Seemingly Irrelevant Decisions are decisions that set you down the path towards a self-regulation failure, even though the decisions seem relatively innocuous. For example, you’re currently cutting back on overeating. You plan to host a party, and although you don’t intend to overindulge at your event, you realistically know from past experience that whenever you host a gathering, it always results in overeating leftover food. Or you sign your child up for a class that’s across town on the busiest day of your workweek, knowing that if you have to battle traffic at the end of a long day, you’re likely to be very cranky and irritable. If you make a Seemingly Irrelevant Decision and then later realize it was self-sabotaging, you need to be prepared to walk back that decision or put additional practical strategies in place. Don’t think you can just rely on your willpower to not repeat mistakes.
If you focus on completely eliminating all mistakes from your life, this will feel incredibly overwhelming. If you instead aim to improve, there are lots of practical solutions you can try, and you’ll likely experience much more success. Addressing your patterns can even be enjoyable if you take a non-judgmental, problem-solving approach.
Note that I intend this post to apply to ordinary mistakes, and not things like committing crimes!