Managing Anxiety When There’s No Room for Error

Managing Anxiety When There’s No Room for Error

By Matt Dallisson, 27/07/2023

In some arenas, mistakes are par for the course and not very costly. It doesn’t really matter if a designer starts over several times before producing a beautiful cover image, an inventor tries a hundred prototypes before finding the one that works, or an entrepreneur pivots from one idea to another based on customer feedback. In these roles, failures are part of the path to success. In others, the stakes might be limited by one’s lower level of responsibility.

But what about roles in which perfection is expected? No one wants their neurosurgeon to make a mistake or their criminal defense lawyer to have an off day. Accountants can’t file flawed financial statements with the IRS, SEC, or any other regulator. Some security roles are focused on surveilling for potential threats, and success means not missing any, ever. Your job may be in this category. Or maybe the consequences for getting something wrong at work aren’t so dramatic, but you feel they are because of a mean boss, looming layoffs, or deep-seated anxiety.

How do you cope with the feeling that you simply can’t screw up? My recommendation is to use strategies that reduce your chance of making a critical mistake while simultaneously reducing your worry about doing so.

The basics of anxiety

Let’s start with some basic background on how anxiety works. First, overthinking is not problem-solving. It paralyzes us more than it mobilizes us. Second, people often obsess about one particular type of mistake or threat while ignoring others because fear narrows our attention. Finally, action is an antidote to anxiety.

Jobs in which mistakes are costly or dangerous (like medicine, accounting, engineering, or security) sometimes attract people who are naturally conscientious, diligent, and good at getting things right. But the additional focus on being careful at all times can be hard for someone who already has that personality type. It’s a bit like how a parent’s admonition to “be careful” can make an already cautious or anxious child even more nervous. If your training or institution is focused on eliminating mistakes, that might intensify your perfectionism and anxiety.

Here’s what you can do to lower the tension.

Distinguish between big and small mistakes

If you think about every mistake you could possibly make, it will distract you from the ones you should most fear. You’ll lighten your mental load if you regularly take actions that lessen the risk of making the worst mistakes. To figure out which to prioritize, consider ones that easily come to mind as well as those that are often overlooked, such as opportunity costs.

There are several other, somewhat related categories of major risks people fail to see. One is what former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”: risks from situations that are so unexpected they would not be considered. Another is “you don’t know what you don’t know,” which refers to blindspots you’re not aware of having, or when you think you understand something fully but you don’t.

Put mechanisms in place to mitigate these risks. For example, schedule a monthly meeting with a colleague to discuss how you are approaching difficult cases as a way of uncovering any potential risks you’re missing. Putting a recurring meeting on your calendar with the expectation you will discuss complex decision-making will ensure this gets done. Consider some examples and ask what similar situations you might face in your own role: Maybe you don’t know that a student may interpret an instruction differently than you’d intended, resulting in a dangerous situation in your lab. You don’t know that a traveling nurse in your operating room will use a procedure they’re familiar with rather than the one you routinely use, resulting in confusion or an important step being missed. You don’t know that a software provider will roll out a buggy update the day before an important deadline and break systems you rely on. What could you do now to ensure those mistakes aren’t made?

Cautious people can retrain themselves to look for and ward off the most critical risks. But this requires a mental capacity to see beyond what others typically do and to tolerate uncertainty.

Adopt risk-reducing systems and habits

Instead of thinking about reducing mistakes through willpower and by never having a bad day, create systems that don’t rely on that type of unrealistic, robotic perfection.

There’s evidence that basic strategies like checklists, for example, can reduce mistakes but are underutilized in particular fields. If you’re looking for inspiration, consider how you adapt actions taken in other industries or roles. For example, medical devices such as heart monitors and ventilators often incorporate redundant sensors and alarms to detect malfunctions and provide timely alerts. How could people in your role get earlier or duplicate warning signals automatically? Industries like aviation have strict reporting requirements for near-misses. Should you do the same if an article nearly goes to print with a significant factual mistake or a project barely meets its deadline and only after staff pulls an all-nighter? What would be most useful and genuinely focused on learning rather than blaming? Educate yourself on the science of how to build diverse teams that share opposing views, courageously speak up about concerns, and engage in healthy debate. Create a culture that rewards people for soliciting and positively reinforcing uncommon views. When someone points out something you didn’t know you didn’t know, take special care to encourage them to continue to do this in the future.

Get support to address your weaknesses

When I was a therapist, my weakest spot was always record keeping. I hated documenting. My mind worked quickly, and it felt like recording kept slowing me down. I preferred to put all my energy into face-to-face interactions with my clients. If I were ever in this role again, I’d stop trying to improve in that area on my own and accept that I needed a support person to keep me on track with documenting.

Similarly, if you’re the only one who knows how to perform critical roles and you’re not good at systematizing your process, you might get help to do that. If you’re not the best communicator but are making a must-win pitch to a client or boss, could you ask a mentor, friend, or even an AI chatbot with more of those skills to help you be more persuasive? Likewise, if conflict management isn’t a strength, but team in-fighting threatens to derail a key project, perhaps you engage a consultant you can call on as needed to give, and maybe even implement, suggestions. Or, if your messy office presents a real risk of losing documentation, have a professional organizer come in and give you a fresh start every few months. Remember that it’s not just your own willpower and diligence that will help you avoid mistakes. You can enlist a village of coworkers — and even friends, family, and technology — to help you.

Play on your strengths

I often argue for using your strengths to mitigate your weaknesses, and this can extend to how you avoid mistakes. For instance, if you’re visually creative you might create visual reminders, or if humor is a strength, then humorous ones. Just Google “funny airline safety video” for examples of how to make people pay attention to serious safety advice. If you’re gregarious and good with people, how might you use that gift to extract information others might usually keep close to the vest, like telling you why you might not want to partner with a particular individual or group? If, by contrast, you’re more introverted, how might you use your natural inclination to listen and observe more than speak to notice looming problems or make it more likely people will trust you enough to disclose concerns or errors without fearing you’ll tell others? Consider how your top strengths can help you solve your particular problems. One question you can ask yourself to identify your uncommon strengths is: What are you willing to do that 95% of other people aren’t?

Address self-sabotaging behaviors

When we’re very anxious about something, we often self-sabotage in ways that increase the chances of the feared thing happening. For example, you know you’ve got a weakness, but you don’t seek mentors or supervisors who could help you address it because you don’t want to draw attention to it. Or you don’t ask for an accommodation for your depression due to embarrassment and stigma or a belief you should tough it out, but that increases the chances of making a mistake on a bad day. Or you hate wasting money, so you don’t try an option that might solve the problem but isn’t guaranteed. Or you’re a perfectionist so you don’t seek to solve a problem where improvements are possible but perfect seems impossible. Get creative about overcoming your self-sabotage, and talk to yourself compassionately about it.

Collaborate with others focused on the same issues

When you think about mistakes, you may mostly do so on a personal or team level. “How can I prevent myself or a colleague from getting this important thing wrong?” But to seek out better solutions — and the camaraderie of a group that shares your fears — consider getting involved in larger efforts to reduce mistakes in your field, like sitting on a committee for complaints and disciplinary actions or one establishing new guidelines for people in your role. Teaching also usually improves our own practice, so consider finding opportunities to teach others about how your work is done in a way that minimizes or eliminates mistakes. Write a talk on this for an industry conference or host a panel.

Reduce small-threat distraction by taking simple actions to mitigate those risks

Though most of your focus should be on the biggest threats, some simple strategies can lessen the risk of small mistakes so they won’t distract you from that focus. You’ll want to take simple actions that help reduce the frequency of minor problems, and then accept that you can’t eliminate all of them. Pick the low-hanging fruit. For example, if a doctor is worried about forgetting names of patients and family members, they might write the names down on the top of each page as they’re taking notes during interactions. Address minor potential mistakes to the extent that they free up your mental capacity to think about and prevent larger ones.

Consider a hobby that allows you to make mistakes

To add some balance to your life, you might want to take up an activity in which mistakes and false starts aren’t at all costly. For example, I’ve recently taken up vegetable gardening, and it’s refreshing to partake in an interest in which a low rate of success is perfectly acceptable. After all, a packet of a hundred seeds costs only a few dollars. A friend of a friend is an avid surfer, content to miss or bail out on dozens of waves to eventually get few good rides, which is a great antidote to his day job as a startup CFO trying to make sure the company doesn’t run out of money.

When perfection is expected and mistakes are costly, it’s easy to become terrified of making one. You might lose sleep over it or avoid leadership and increased responsibility. But there are ways to constructively reduce the risk of potential mistakes and reduce your anxiety.

This content was originally published here.