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May 09, 2019

Why We Keep Making the Same Mistakes + Tips to Break Bad Habits

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

Making mistakes means we are human—we all have our bad moments! But what about making the same mistakes over and over again? Why do we keep slipping up, even though we know what we are doing is wrong?

As I discuss in this week’s podcast, one of the main reasons we keep making the same mistakes over and over again is because we are not intentional about the learning from our mistakes. Our minds are designed to self-regulate our thinking, that is to do our own “mental autopsy” by observing, analyzing and changing what we think about, and thus how we choose to speak and act. If we do not do this, or if we sweep our mistakes under the rug, so to speak, over time we will build this way of reacting into the brain as a habit through our nonconscious mind. Essentially, this mistake, if it is not dealt with, will become an automated behavior over time, and we will keep making the mistake over and over again. This thinking pattern is actually a solid structure in brain, and will take time to break down, just as it took time to build into the brain. 

So, if we just brush mistakes aside, they will grow and affect how we think, speak and act!

These behaviors tend to develop when we are not fully aware of what is going on around us. We constantly need to be intentional about learning what our triggers are (that is the reason we make the same mistakes over and over again), while changing or making a plan to change the way we respond to these triggers. Once we are aware of these triggers and what causes us to keep making the same mistakes, we can be proactive and actually start changing the way we react in certain situations—we can stop making those mistakes over and over again! 

Indubitably, it is easier to just keep reacting the way we usually react. An automated behavior is just that, automatic, and as such requires far less mental energy because it is entrenched in our nonconscious mind, which is very influential in future decision-makingIndeed, it is generally more comfortable to act or speak in ways we are familiar with, even if the results of our mistakes cause us pain or discomfort. 

Change can, of course, also be uncomfortable. To overcome this pain, we have to want to change. This may sound redundant, but when it comes to making the same mistakes, you have to ask yourself if you really, truly want to change, and are willing to work hard and face yourself. Do your reactions, and the impact they have on others, concern you enough to go through the process of change? Are you willing to put in the time and mental effort to change? Are you desperate enough to stop making the same mistakes over and over again? 

If you answered yes to the above, then you are ready to stop making those mistakes! But how do you do this?

1. Recognize that it takes time to change

As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes time to change, so give yourself a break if you do make a mistake or fail! Trying to change yourself too fast can cause unnecessary stress, making you more anxious and setting you up for what I call the “shame spiral” (for more information see my podcast on this) because you feel like you keep failing and are not able to change. But it takes a minimum of 63 days to change an automated habit—when it comes to the mind, there really are no quick fixes and most people give up on day 4, so be patient! For more information on how to cultivate the correct “time mindset” see my book Think, Learn, Succeed.

2. Be intentional about learning from the mistake

Be intentional about learning from your experiences, as opposed to just reacting to them. When you find yourself making a mistake, take a few minutes to think about the situation, asking yourself why it happened like it did, talking about the it with yourself or a loved one, and thinking about how you can improve your reactions to get an outcome you desire. Be intentional about your learning process: make sure you have a plan in place for next time you fail, and how you can avoid making the same mistake in the future. For more information on how to be intentional about learning from failure see my book Think, Learn, Succeed.

3. Become aware of your thoughts, mistakes, triggers and bodily reactions.

Sometimes we may not even be aware we are making the mistake or what triggers us, but our bodies will be aware, especially if our mistakes are causing us toxic stress. So, in order to prevent these automated behaviors from developing, or changing the way we react, we need to become aware of the toxic pattern before it becomes a habit. We need to learn to tune into our bodies, thoughts and reactions all the time. It is also important that you find out what is causing you to make the mistake by analyzing your thinking and emotions so you can deal with the cause. Ask yourself why you react in that way, what is happening in your environment, how can you change the situation and how your mindset is affecting your ability to deal with the situation. 

My new app Switch (coming soon!), which is on pre-sale for less 30% at https://theswitch.app/promo/, is a great tool for helping you through this process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your toxic stress, and help you build a healthy new thinking habit. You can also find out more on toxic thinking and how to change negative habits like overthinking in my book Switch On Your Brain

4. Create a plan of action

If you find yourself making the same mistake over and over again, make a plan of action to change. Choose to spend a specific amount of time thinking deeply about what you said or did, then choose to change this behavior. If we spend too much time ruminating on the mistake we can get caught up in our feelings, which can lead to emotional burnout, mental fatigue, and increased anxiety. When dealing with a situation, or life in general, it is best to spend a limited amount of time of defining what the issue is, and focus more on a plan of action to improve the situation.

5. Keep a thought journal

Writing is a great way to bring clarity to a situation, and help us become aware of our mistakes and how we can change them. For 21 days (roughly the time it takes to start building a new mental habit), take note of when you are triggered, what has caused you to make the mistake, the frequency of the mistakes and how you think you can start to intentionally change the way you react to these triggers. When you write your thoughts down, you are analyzing the pattern of your behavior, which activates the basal ganglia in your brain, along with a rush of dopamine and serotonin, which promotes cognitive fluency and flexibility in your thinking and helps you problem-solve!

6. Be aware of others. 

It is important to understand that how you react is often a response to how other people choose to speak and act. Take the time to observe your environment, and how the people around you react, including their emotions and body language. What are the triggers that may cause you to make the same mistake, and how do people respond to your mistakes? How are you reacting to the people in your life, and how do they react to you? Be intentional about observing how you speak and act within the context of your relationships.

7. Understand why change is important

We will never change unless we understand why it is important that we change. Think about and write down why you think it is important that you change, how the mistake is affecting your relationships and why you want to change the way you are acting. Remind yourself of this when you feel like giving up, or you feel like you cannot change. 

For example, I once worked with a daughter and father who worked together and battled to communicate with each other. Every time they spoke, they ended up reacting in the same toxic way, and would get into heated debates that often ended up hurting the business and causing further damage in their personal relationship. Over several sessions, I helped them develop an awareness of what their triggers where, what was causing them anxiety and stressing them out, how their fights impacted their relationship, the business and the family, why the fights would break out so easily when discussing a topic or business decision, and how frequent these fights were. After writing down their thoughts and reactions, I then asked them a series of why questions to help them analyze what was causing them to make the same mistakes over and over again: what was triggering the reactions? In this case, the father’s harsh delivery often caused the daughter to react in a certain way because she felt defensive, which then spiraled out of control and ended up in a fight. 

Subsequently, once they identified the triggers, I helped them make a plan to avoid, mitigate and manage their responses so they could avoid making the same mistakes in the future by working on how they delivered and reacted to information, and how they could react better in the future. For instance, the father’s plan was to work on stopping, breathing and thinking about his reactions and what statements he should avoid using, while the daughter was deliberate and intentional about how she reacted to her father, even when he made the same mistake again.  Over time, their ability to communicate improved dramatically, and helped rebuild their relationship. 

 

If you would like to learn more about how to avoid making the same mistakes, and manage your mental and physical health, join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summitthis December in Dallas, TX! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click here.

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