Updated on 02.11.10


Trent Hamm

Right now, there’s a personal matter going on in my life that’s been bothering me – it’s been on my mind heavily all day today. (Don’t worry, there’s nothing directly affecting me, my wife, or children.)

I had to go out and take care of a birthday gift for a friend and a Valentine’s Day item for my wife, and while I was out, I found myself strongly considering two unnecessary impulse buys. My mind and heart weren’t really into it – I was distracted.

I had to fill out some paperwork. As I was filling out the form, I made a significant mistake, one I didn’t notice until I printed it out. I had to print out another copy. I was distracted.

My children were doing Valentine’s card exchanges with their friends. I sent the Valentines for my daughter’s friends with my son and the ones for my son with my daughter. Luckily, I noticed before things were disastrous. I was distracted.

Over and over again, both in the mistakes I make as well as the mistakes I see others make, distractions seem to be the culprit. We make mistakes and bad choices when we’re not completely focused on the task at hand.

Three times today, I was on the verge of making a significant mistake because I was distracted. Three times, a few simple techniques saved me.

First of all, I double-check almost everything I do. Sometimes mistakes still slip through this (yes, even on Simple Dollar posts), but a simple double check before I commit something often saves me quite a bit of cost and trouble.

Take the paperwork, for example. It would have been easy for me to just assume the paperwork was correct once I printed it. Instead, I took a second to look it over and found the mistake then and there instead of having to deal with the ramifications of the mistake later on.

Second, I try to do things as early in advance as I can. Taking care of a lot of the task in advance makes the actual completion of the task go a lot easier.

Take the valentines, for example. Last night, all of the valentines were made out and sorted into separate bags for each child to take with them. Then, this morning, all that had to be done was to give each child their bag. There was only a couple little things for me to mess up at the last minute (and, yes, I managed to mess one of them up).

Third, I take advantage of any pauses to re-evaluate. If I have a moment to stop – waiting in line, for example, or stopping at a stoplight – I’ll take inventory of the situation around me and see if I’ve missed anything.

Take the shopping, for example. Before I went to buy any items, I double-checked what I had chosen to buy and simply asked myself if I actually had a reason for buying the item. On at least two items, I didn’t have a real reason when I thought about it.

Even though I strive to be focused in the moment at all times, real life doesn’t always allow that to happen. In each of these cases, the layer of precautions I had in place kept me from making mistakes because of my distraction.

Those mistakes each had a cost. For the paperwork, it would have cost me the time it took to make several phone calls to have the error fixed when I eventually noticed it. For the valentines, it would have cost my children some anxiety. For the shopping, it would have cost me money on purchases of things I didn’t really need.

Having a simple system in place helps me to overcome the distractions and not make (as many) little mistakes like that. Since these checks are usually instantaneous or take just a few seconds at most, they’re not really inconvenient, either. They just work – and they help me to maximize my time and money.

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  1. Benjamin says:


    I hope that everything resolves itself favorably for you and your family!

    I suffered a similar personal matter last month with the loss of a close family member, and nearly loosing another due to an automobile accident!

    I was a mess at work, and fortunately I was allowed to take a few days off from work to gather my thoughts and support my family!

  2. Melissa says:

    A dumb thing I do to make sure I don’t throw away anything important is that I tear papers in half before tossing them out. Each piece has to be individually looked at and torn – so it makes me more conscious of what I’m doing.

  3. chacha1 says:

    Part of yoga is a practice called “mindfulness.” Simply observing (and accepting) one’s own actions, emotions, and environment can make an enormous difference to the peacefulness and productivity of a given day.

    Being “in the moment” can be very difficult, which is why most people can’t consistently achieve it. Focusing on the task at hand is an essential part of it, but taking a step back to be conscious of the environment in which we are undertaking a task is also important, because our awareness of the physical, mental and emotional state in which we attempt a task is very likely to affect the outcome.

    It’s good that you were able to take that extra moment to observe your task and see the effect of your distraction while there was still an opportunity to easily correct it!

  4. Mrs. Money says:

    I’ll keep you in my thoughts, Trent! I hope the issue resolves itself soon. :)

  5. bobsmith says:

    Don’t worry about your secret medical condition issue. Try Viagra. It helps.

  6. Geoff Hart says:

    Distraction is a definite problem, and double-checking what we do is only part of the solution. The missing part is that you need to allow some time to pass between your first check (as you’re doing the work) and your double-check. The longer and more complicated the work, the more this time delay helps.

    I’ve been working as an editor for more than 20 years, and one truism I find (both in my own work and in the students I teach) is that you need to let an hour or more pass before you do your second check. Doing anything different from what you’ve just been doing clears your brain, at least a bit, and lets you return to the task with a new perspective.

    For my editing work, I try to arrange my schedule so I can do my first edit one day and the final edit the following day. Works brilliantly!

  7. My job is full of distractions and so I often ask for a ‘second set of eyes’ before I send out anything of significant importance. Often the people I work with I will ask them to have a ‘second set of eyes’ look at work they are sending out. In the beginning I’d get, “Oh, its not necessary!”. I’d let their mistakes go out. Than I’d remind them of all the distractions we have and a second set of eyes is fast, easy and priceless!

  8. lvngwell says:

    Yeah – I hear ya. This month – though I planned well ahead as I always do – I put a payment on my online banking one line down by accident and did not notice it until I got an angry letter from the bank. Seems I sent the car payment to the church as a donation! I am on my way to get the money back from the church and give it to the bank ….. with a late fee! Grrrrr. I work too hard!!

  9. Deborah says:

    I totally understand what you are saying about distractions but I had to laugh. My number one distraction right now is working on my blog. I love to do it and then I see other blog links, including yours, and then I have to read them, and… Ok, off to work on the house.

  10. IASSOS says:

    I would be happy to trade some of my compulsive-obsessive behavior for some of your distraction!

  11. SP says:

    I heard something related to this on NPR recently.

    I’d like to it, but links never make it through moderation — so if anyone is interested, google “Radiolab: Why Is It So Hard To Do The Right Thing?”

    The premise is that if the brain was more “busy” with some rational task, people made significantly worse food decisions than those who weren’t distracted.

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