Why you should (sometimes) just forget your mistakes

At some point (possibly immediately preceding a history test covering a long list of boring names and dates from the past) someone probably told you that ‘those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it’. You probably believed them. It sounds like a sensible enough axiom after all, says inc.

And though your history test days may be far behind you, you’ve probably carried this understanding into your business career. When you screw up, it seems advisable — painful as it may be — to take a look at what went wrong and learn to avoid the same error next time around.

If your misstep was the result of an error in analysis or a failure to learn relevant facts, then this is indeed the right course of action. But according to a new study, if the problem was more personal, such as a weakness of character or failure of self-discipline, picking over the bones of the past isn’t going to yield insights. It’s more likely to yield more mistakes instead.

Why you should stop beating yourself up about past mistakes

How could reflecting on your failings possibly be a bad idea? To find out, the research team looked at how remembering past failures impacted decision-making in a variety of scenarios. For example, a subject might be asked to recall a time they splurged on an unnecessary luxury item before being asked about how much they’d be willing to charge on their credit card during a future expedition to the mall. The findings reveal something startling for fans of stringent self-criticism.

“In sum, the findings of all studies reveal that consumers only show better self-control following reflection on their past under very specific conditions – when they recall their past self-control successes easily,” the research release reports. In short, beating yourself up about being bad in the past just made you more likely likely to be bad in the future.

“When we have to think about our failures – that puts us in a negative mood and research has shown that when people are in a negative mood state, they tend to indulge to make themselves feel better,” lead author Hristina Nikolova explained.

Even searching your past for successes is unlikely to boost your future self-control much, especially if you need to look a while to find behavior you’re proud of. “The most surprising result was that searching through the past can negatively affect behavior, even when past examples are positive. People constantly rewrite the stories they tell themselves about themselves, making recall an unreliable tool for improvement,” Kelly Haws, another member of the research team told Fast Company.

The right approach to boosting self-discipline

So what’s the right approach to dealing with failures of self-control? In essence, forget about them and look ahead instead.

Haws offers the example of trying to make better dietary choices as an example. Rather than berate yourself for past cookies gobbled, “think positively about why you don’t want to eat that cookie.” Focusing on the reason for your goals — “Is it because you want to stay slim and healthy, or avoid the sugar energy crash you know is coming? Look forward to the reasons why you’re making tough choices.” — is more likely to motivate you then any sort of digging through the past.