Humans are forgetful creatures, but not by nature. It’s something we’ve adapted into being, thanks to overworked brains and stressed schedules.
Fortunately, after centuries of human forgetfulness, our species is finally willing to admit a helpful maxim: we’re all forgetful sometimes. And because of that, we can take action to catch unintended mistakes before they strike. That’s why pilots always work in pairs. Cars won’t start unless they’re in park. Publishers have rigorous proofreading regimens (and you have autocorrect).
The idea that most mistakes can be caught before they do harm is called poka-yoke, a Japanese phrase roughly meaning “error-proofing.”
Popularized by Toyota engineer Shigeo Shingo in the 1960s, poka-yoke was originally implemented to make sure assembly line workers didn’t inadvertently skip steps of the process that screwed up production down the line. Today, it guides our professional world in thousands of unseen ways. If you start to look for it, you can see these behavioral safeguards manifested in big ways (like how nuclear missile launches require the simultaneous turning of two keys, prohibiting a single person from launching a strike on his own) as well as small (like how Microsoft Word asks “are you sure you want to quit” when you try to exit a window).
And as long as you’re honest and aware of the mistakes you make, it’s very easy to poka-yoke your own everyday life.
For example: have you been meaning to mail a package at the post office, but keep forgetting it (or just ignoring it) when you head out to your car in the morning? Acknowledge the error and poka-yoke it: place your car keys on top of the package when you get home at night, to make sure you can’t forget it tomorrow.
Do you ever find yourself mid-shower and unable to remember if you already shampooed your hair? Poka-yoke your process: Turn the container upside-down after you use it to tell yourself the job is done (and at the start of your next shower, turn it right-side-up again).
Prone to sending emails you quickly regret? Go to your Gmail preferences and click “enable undo send” to give yourself up to 30 seconds to cancel any sent message before it hits inbox doomsday.
We could go on and on with examples in your life and the wider world, but the main key to poka-yoke is just being conscious of your own mistakes. This takes a measure of emotional intelligence, so be honest with yourself, and be forgiving. And if that proves too hard, at least be thankful you aren’t the guy who engraved a typo on the Lincoln Memorial. There’s a guy who could’ve used a spellchecker.