Distractions and slips in everyday tasks | Sunday Observer

Distractions and slips in everyday tasks

In a hotel restaurant. when the credit bill came after dinner, I signed my name on it but couldn’t remember my room. So, I looked at my watch.

This happened a few days ago, and it is a classic example of an absentminded error. They happen to all of us, and have also been termed “action slip”. The term is useful because it points more precisely to the nature of the errors. Slips are amusing and harmless oddities except when they lead to embarrassment.

But, slips that occur in the conduct of certain tasks can be dangerous. For example, an air traffic controller once told a plane to taxi to the left runway when he meant the right. Such a left/right slip is the most common of verbal confusions, but in this case, it could have led to tragedy (fortunately, it didn’t).

Forgetting to turn on headlights when driving a car at night is also common. The slip is usually caught before an accident occurs, but not always. Today, human error is one of the largest causes of accidents.


Most actions, it is said, are carried out by subconscious mechanisms. We initiate an action. The intention, once specified, releases control processes, or ‘schemas,’ that lead to the exquisitely timed, complex motor actions involved in manipulation of mind and body.

When I drive home from work, the appropriate schemas are activated by previous actions. I need not plan the details; I simply decide and act. Do I wish to detour to the fish store? I must have “fish store” actively in mind at the time I pass the critical choice point between work and home. Let it lapse from my memory at that critical junction, and I am apt to find myself at home shortly thereafter, fishless.

Different slips

In day-to-day activities, selection errors are similarly common. For instance: In getting ready for a party, the host carefully prepared a cake and a salad, then put the cake in the refrigerator and the salad in the oven. Such accidental confusion can also lead to eating your friend’s sandwich from a plate that looks like yours. One of my office mates returned to his home after a track workout, pulled off his sweaty T-shirt, and tossed it into the toilet. It was not an aiming error - the laundry basket, his intended target, was in another room.


Once an intention is selected, execution of it can easily misfire. We can, for example, forget the initial intention while some of the schemas it ordered run their course. A few days ago, before starting work at my desk at home, I headed for my bedroom, only to realize after getting there that I had forgotten why I had gone there. l kept going, hoping that something in the bedroom would remind me.

Nothing did. I finally went back to my desk, realized that my spectacles were soiled, and, with a great sense of relief, returned to the bedroom almirah for the tissues I needed to clean them.


Now, let’s look at the characteristics of action slips:

They usually occur during the performance of tasks that are highly practised and largely automatic. They usually occur when we are preoccupied or distracted.

Such slips are more likely to occur when: (1) We’re departing in some way from our usual routine, e.g. you decide to stop adding milk to your tea, then find yourself doing it automatically; (2) The situation has changed, demanding a change in our usual routine, e.g. a much-visited shop moves premises, but you keep going to its old location; (3) The situation shares features with a highly familiar situation, e.g. you try and open a friend’s car with your car key.

There are a few other types of action slips.

Place-losing errors - where you’ve lost your “place” in an action sequence, and so omit or repeat part of the sequence, e.g. you prepare a pasta meal. And, it is a highly-practised recipe, and you add all the ingredients in a fixed order. If something happens to distract you in the course of it, you may be unsure where you are in the sequence, and risk omitting or repeating an ingredient.

Blends - where you get confused between two active tasks. For example, you write an email while thinking about the next email you’re going to write, and address the current email to the correspondent of the second mail.

Reversals - where you get confused between parts of the same task, e.g. you put an empty ice cube tray in the freezer, then turn to the tap to fill it.

Now, it is evident that normal everyday slips occur in the context of action sequences - i.e. sequences of actions that we have practised so often, that they have become automatic.

Dressing, undressing, washing, making coffee or tea, even making complicated recipes - are all common examples of action sequences.

How can you minimize action slips?

The most useful thing is, to be aware of the circumstances that set up such errors. Then, you can either- make an effort to pay attention when it’s important to you (e.g. a friend told me that both he and his wife are careful when they drive and need to depart from familiar routes, to remind them of their destination at key points), or use an object to signal that you have done something, or remind you where you are in a sequence, e.g. while cooking, you could place the used ingredients on one side and the to be used ingredients on another side of the kitchen table.