Mistakes happen. Regardless of who you are you will experience times when you do something that puts you in a bad situation. This is something that can’t be avoided. But what is interesting is that your response after the mistake is up to you.
In The Art of Learning by chess champion Josh Waitzkin the author discusses the downward spiral that occurs when an initial mistake is made and subsequently turns into a series of mistakes.
He says, “With young chess players, the downward spiral dominates competitive lives. In game after game, beginners fall to pieces after making the first mistake. With older, more accomplished players the mistakes are subtler, but the pattern of error begetting error remains true and deadly.”
This downward spiral is strong. It grabs all of us at some point. But we have to make sure we don’t let a single mistake spiral into disaster.
That is one of the benefits to systems and habits work. By focusing on the system we can immediately identify when something goes awry. It might be a missed workout, a late night snack, or sleeping in and making it to work later.
The challenge comes because a mistake could easily steal momentum and pull us in a brand new direction. I talked about this quite a bit in You Can’t Surf from the Shore. That is why Leniency is a key principle of systems and habits.
Leniency allows you to avoid the excess guilt that we tend to form after a mistake. We think the guilt will motivate us to make up for the mistake but it really just gets in the way of getting back on track. Instead of guilting ourselves to death, we should immediately forgive and work on getting back to it the next day.
Another principle that helps here is to set the minimum. If we start to have a few good workouts and then miss a day, the second mistake is feeling as though we have to pick up where we left off. But what is important is that we get back to it, not that the missed day doesn’t slow us down.
But what about times when it isn’t your mistake but an external event that causes a disruption?
External events could have similar consequences. Pressure from your company laying off workers, someone cutting you off in traffic or the bus arriving late to pick you up could all drag you into a similar downward spiral.
When it comes to an external event it can be difficult but you have to focus on maintaining your routines. If you have built positive habits and routines then you have to increase your focus on them. Don’t let the external event pull you away from progress. Progress is the important part.
A few years ago this was exemplified in the Super Bowl. The power went out at the stadium and that seemed to change the momentum in the game. It was an external event that the players didn’t control but this was enough to change the direction the game was going. It seemed that there was a slight momentum shift when the lights went out.
Regardless of whether you make a mistake or an external event causes a distraction you have to keep your focus on progress. If something changed and now you can’t make progress because of it, then look to make a change. But be aware of the emotional charge that comes from a mistake and make sure your decisions reflect rational thought. By doing this you can make sure you don’t let one mistake turn into multiple mistakes.