Don’t blame yourself, change the design of your day
It’s easy to blame yourself. All you have to do is let your brain get a bit tired and it will remind you how everything is wrong.
But as I was reading The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, a foremost design authority, and came to the chapter Human Error? No, bad design, I realized that this self-blame is often undeserved.
Design is about creating tools and processes that serve us in some way (note: my definition). This wording is broad because the field of design is broad. From planes to toothbrushes and everything in between, design encompasses it all. We’ve also added a realm of digital tools, which gave birth to still more subdomains of design like User Interface design (UI). We live surrounded by products of design.
However, the design of modern tools can be complex. The complexity of nuclear plants, computer programs, or washing machine controls means that we have to be more knowledgeable and adept at dealing with them.
To add to the problem, many of the machines and tools we have to operate aren’t designed for people. They’re designed for perfect, ever vigilant, brimming-with-knowledge creatures that the creators of the tools confuse with people.
People aren’t perfect. People drop their guard. People forget.
And because of this, people err. This obvious observation has it’s own official name — human error.
When there is an accident of great proportions like a plane crash or an oil spill, an investigation follows. Often the investigation concludes that the incident happened because of human error. However, as Don Norman says, it should not stop there. It should go deeper to find the reason why the person has made the error, and find a way to change the design of the system in place, so that the error never occurs again.
By careful examination of our erroneous behaviors, we can find out what caused us to make the mistake in the first place, and see how to do it better. The problem is that often we blame ourselves for our failures, and when we do, we don’t want to pry into that. Instead, we might say to ourselves something like:
I should have known better. I should have read it beforehand. I should have paid more attention.
We categorize the failure as temporary and maybe resolve to do better next time.
But it might not be temporary.
If you use the wrong keyboard shortcut or perform the wrong action in a computer program for the tenth time today, it’s a systemic failure.
Let me illustrate this with a household example.
I drink a lot of coffee and so I wanted to balance it out by drinking more water. Yet, when I brought a glass of water alongside coffee, I’d drink it in a flash and then I’d have to go to the kitchen to get more. I didn’t want to do. Even if I did go there, I’d often forget to refill the glass. If I had a plastic bottle by me, I’d finish it and forget to buy a new one. As a result, I drank less than would be ideal.
This small problem went on and on. Until I stopped relying on myself to remember and force myself to drink more and looked at it from a design perspective.
The problem: not drinking enough water when I’m at a computer.
It was an error of my behavior and the environment around me, which wasn’t designed to help me achieve my objective. So, I thought about how I could modify my environment to help me drink more. I could work in the kitchen, only a few steps away from water on tap, I could have a pack of water bottles next to my computer, I could redo the plumbing of the house….
The solution I found was much simpler: I bought a liter carafe. By having a supply of water within my reach that is big enough, and yet easy enough to handle, my water consumption went up. And, incidentally, my soda consumption went down.
The result: I now drink plenty water and I’m healthier for it.
The one small change in the design of my surroundings eliminated my human error and the whole ‘I should drink more water’ conundrum.
With one problem solved, I moved on to the next: eating more healthy. In this case, the change was buying more apples and other healthy food in bulk, so that I’d never be out of stock when I wanted to snack, and wouldn’t have to resort to eating unhealthy food.
When I stopped blaming myself for not doing what I wanted to do, and examined my failures from a design perspective, it allowed me to set aside the negative emotions and simply look into how I could change my behavior.
Now, I would like to point out that it’s crucial to acknowledge that with nearly every mistake, there is something we can do to prevent it. At least part of the responsibility is ours. If I blame someone else for not buying more healthy food for the house, and not see that I can be the one to lead by example, nothing will change.
If we don’t acknowledge our responsibility, then we can easily slip into the it’s all your fault attitude that prevents any kind of improvement to the system in place.
I believe that everyone has activities they’d like to do more of and habits they’d like to change (exercising, getting work done, eating properly,…), but self-blame or relying on self-control aren’t good solutions to the situation. Instead, acknowledging the error of behavior and examining it as a design failure, rather than a personal failure, can make us see how tiny changes in our routines or environment can actually improve our life in a profound way.
We fail every day at something. If we look at it from a design perspective, we have an opportunity to reduce the human error to a minimum and live a better, smoother life.
I’d like to leave you with a reflection exercise I’ve found helpful.
I take a piece of paper or open my editor, and start with a question:
What are you not doing?
It steers me to focus on behaviors I’d like to change.
I brainstorm all the things:
I should be doing
I want to do but haven’t done yet
I could do
Then I look at the list and ask myself: why?
Why haven’t I done this?
Now, in this step I do my best not to blame myself. I imagine as if a good, non-judgmental friend asked me: why didn’t you do this?
I write it down and then go deeper.
I ask why at least three times and try to discover a handful of the possible factors that lead me to not do something. Was it because I was too tired? Was it because I fear failure? Why? Is it because I am not confident in my ability to do something?
What’s the one thing I can do to change this?
Then I try to find a way to change my routine or environment, so that I can really do what I want to. Will buying something help me? Will a conversation or an email solve it? Do I need to change something in my habitat?
This exercise often leaves me with a sense of control and better understanding of myself. And crucially, also with a couple checkboxes with concrete steps that I can do to change my day for the better.
What are you failing at?
What can you change in your day to win instead?