How Can I Slow Down At Work So I Don’t Make Mistakes?

Written By: Alison Green
November 19, 2013
8 min read

Three of our workplace experts have weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you three points of view. For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

I’ve recently switched jobs, and I’m loving my new job so far, but there’s one thing I am struggling to adapt to in my new workplace: the speed at which I work. My previous 3 years were spent in a job where the workload was impossibly high and I would be interrupted every 5 minutes by demanding clients. In order to get everything done before deadlines, I would often have to work through lunch breaks and stay late in the office to get time to concentrate. Even with this extra time, I would need to work at a very fast pace to get tasks done, which led to mistakes being made and details not paid attention to. This wasn’t just an issue for me alone – it was an organization-wide problem and common to all staff in the same role.

My new job is very different. The workload is more than manageable, and largely free of interruptions. I have enough time to complete my work within office hours, and I can take a full hour for lunch without even looking at my inbox. There is no pressure to complete my tasks as quickly as possible (as long as I meet deadlines), but I am still racing to get my work done as if I were at my old job. As a result, I am finishing my work much faster than expected. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I am aware that I lose accuracy at such a speed.

Can I train myself to slow down? I’m not aware of any large mistakes having been made due to my speed, but I know I’ve slipped once or twice on small details and I don’t want to get a reputation for not paying attention.

Alison Green says:

I do think you can train yourself to slow down – and that you need to, in order to be successful in this different environment.

I would try two things: First, look at your total workload in an average week, and figure out roughly how much time you can allot to each task. Then, when you’re beginning a new task, remind yourself of that timeframe – for instance, “I have 90 minutes to work on this.” Restating it to yourself at the start of a project might help reframe the way you’re approaching it – hopefully slowing you down a bit when you realize you don’t have to race through it.

Second, for each type of project that you do regularly, make yourself a checklist of possible errors and things you should double-check. For instance, your checklist might include proofreading, double-checking any numbers or math you used, logging it in the team’s project tracker, and even setting it aside for 10 minutes while you do something else and then reading it over with fresher eyes. Then, whenever you’re working on a project, pull out the associated checklist and make yourself use it. That alone can force you to slow down and be more deliberate about spotting common errors.

After you’ve used both of these tactics for a while, I think you’ll find that your work rhythms naturally start to readjust, and a less harried pace will become more natural.

Alexandra Levit says:

This is an interesting question, and believe it or not, I once found myself in a similar situation and do have a few suggestions related to how you can encourage yourself to slow down.

First, you might try extending your self-set deadlines for assignments. For instance, if a task would take you an hour at your old job, tell yourself that you will have it done by the end of the day. You might start the assignment in the morning, take a few hours off for internal networking and professional development, and return to it in the afternoon.

Similarly, if you are in the habit of fire-drilling your assignments, complete a first draft, set it aside for a few hours, and then look at it with fresh eyes later on. This will hopefully allow you to catch small mistakes made due to speed. You are absolutely right: you don’t want your attention to detail compromised by your efficiency.

I also recommend sniffing around your new workplace for more challenging responsibilities that you can undertake when your assigned tasks are finished. Taking your job to the next level will prevent you from becoming bored or stagnated before you can really make a terrific impression.

Finally, when you are completing your work well in advance of external deadlines, don’t let your manager catch on. You may submit the assignment half a day early, but do not turn it in a day or more in advance of schedule. The reason for this? You don’t want your manager to develop sky-high expectations that might be difficult to maintain over time. It’s possible that they haven’t piled on the work yet because you’re new, and you don’t want to end up in a pressure-cooker situation like the last one!

Anita Bruzzese says:

I can really identify with this question as I started my career on busy, frantic city desks in newspaper newsrooms. That meant I often had 20 minutes to write a 900-word article on a city council meeting while my city editor screamed at me from across the room to hurry.

I’m now a very fast writer.

The bad thing is that I often don’t know how to slow down and yes, I can make some mistakes. It’s been embarrassing to tell my editors that I have made a mistake, and makes me feel awful. Here’s how I’ve learned to embrace my speed but also become more detail-oriented and reduce mistakes: I become different people.

Sounds weird, but it works. I begin as “Anita the Writer” and write my stories at the speed that feels comfortable to me. Then I take a short break and go get something to drink or even take a short walk. When I return, I am “Anita the Editor.” That’s when I look for details like correct sentence structure, correct punctuation and grammar. Then I take another short break and return as “Anita the Reader.” I read the story out loud if I can, thinking about whether the information is easily understood and the story flows smoothly.

My point is that you can still keep up your speed, but try to hone your focus. If you learn to focus on one thing at a time, you’ll boost your accuracy and improve your ability to think more creatively.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

To deal with a hectic and fast-paced work flow, you learned some behaviors which served you very well. In fact, you did this so well that they became effortless, automatic habits that you’ve carried with you. But now to adapt to your new role, you need to make the shift from efficiency to quality. I have no doubt that eventually you will adopt new behaviors that work well and they, too, will become habits. To expedite the process of unlearning your old system and learning a new way of working, here are some things you can try:

  1. Before sitting down to work, put yourself in a relaxed state.
  2. Listen to slow and calming music while you are working.
  3. Focus on the process of the work—pretend you are showing someone else how to do the task.
  4. When you catch yourself rushing or moving too quickly, stop. Stand up, take a break, re-focus, and start again.
  5. Do not multi-task in any capacity. Give your full attention to just one activity.

From a different perspective, everyone makes mistakes here and there when it comes to details, but some of us are better at catching our own mistakes before anyone else notices them. So another tactic is to proofread, edit, and double-check your work. An incredibly effective way to do this is to do it a couple hours or days after your initial draft. By doing so, you will have fresh eyes on the task and you are more likely to pick up on things you overlooked the first time.

Written By: Alison Green
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.