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"Oops, I Made a Mistake, That’s All"

Effective problem-solving can follow recognition of responsibility.

Key points

  • A simple sequence of steps can help you repair a problem you created.
  • The first steps are defining the problem and recognizing motivation for the mistake.
  • Responsibility for addressing a challenge then usually becomes obvious.
Source: geralt/pixabay

Sesame Street characters gave us the tune and words: “Oops, I made a mistake, that’s all—and making mistakes is never fun.” Not only did my children and their children learn to sing the song as toddlers, but today the words reverberate in languages across the globe. They are sung by folks of all ages.

The song replayed in my head after I realized that the ink cartridge I had just purchased at Staples had not been removed from its burglary-proof plastic case. Unfortunately, I did not grasp the reality until I emptied my bag of Staples goodies and discovered that the HP62XL was inaccessible. The store was a half-hour drive from home and it was getting late.

How could this have happened? I charged the merchandise; my credit card verified the purchase. When exiting the store with the man who was escorting me and a case of water to the trunk of my car, an alarm had gone off. He assured me that I should ignore it, no problem. I never thought to check the bag just like I had never thought to monitor the cashier as she filled it.

Identifying the problem was simple: I had an unusable (although paid for) color ink cartridge that needed to go back to Staples. That meant at least another hour of driving plus whatever time traffic or store checkout congestion might add. Thanksgiving was a week away and my agenda was crowded. But first things first: The cartridge was unusable; returning to the store was essential to changing that; and I was the responsible party. What motivated me to do something so thoughtless? Examining motivation, I was so busy asking for help with the water and declining the cashier’s urging me to download a smartphone app that I stopped paying careful attention to the checkout process. Then I chose to trust the nice man who was carrying a case of water bottles to my car rather than investigate the reason for the alarm as we passed through the noisy exit.

The bigger problem was me. With accepting responsibility for the situation—and, therefore, the need to repair it—I felt ashamed of acting so mindlessly. I knew Ellen Langer’s research on mindfulness from the 1970s, when she was collecting her dissertation data. The clutter in my brain had rendered me mindless. And then there was the guilt. I was furious with myself for acting stupidly and creating a problem that never had to happen.

I recognized the biggest source of distress as now having a new and unwanted task on my plate demanding attention. The Zeigarnik Effect experiments on the power of unfinished business have documented how an unaddressed item on a to-do list holds a major position among topics occupying our consciousness.

That’s when I began singing: “Oops, you made a mistake, that’s all!” Could I let anger and guilt go, tap into my adult brain, and think through a strategy?

Golden Violinist/Pixabay
Source: Golden Violinist/Pixabay

I was halfway there: problem defined, responsibility accepted. “Writing it off” was a poor solution, an unnecessary (and unreasonable) expense. I needed to return to Staples, explain what had happened, and ask that the cartridge be removed from its tamper-proof case. Not happy about the whole thing, I brought in my go-to steps for problem-solving.

  1. Declutter. Unfinished business is often the biggest contextual problem. With many tasks on my agenda, I had little space for a 90-plus-minute correction. What could be removed entirely or at least simplified? Thinking in terms of tasks that require nickels, dimes, quarters, or dollars of time, were there time slots I could uncover or move around to squeeze in a potentially two-hour disruption? What were the real costs of the rescue plan in time, money, and energy? Who or what might be hurt by the changes? Could I wait until next week—and would waiting impact the willingness of the cashier to believe my story?
  2. Prioritize. Not only were home, work, social, and holiday tasks on my calendar, but a memorial service for a longtime friend and a birthday celebration for a daughter-in-law had been added. My granddaughter was flying in from Montana and I wanted to shop with her for her birthday present. And, of course, cooking. It was my favorite holiday, the one tradition I still claimed as sacred, and I did not want to surrender the meaningful nuances that made it uniquely ours. Short of a medical emergency or personal illness, could I shuffle things around and see if a reconfigured puzzle would yield an extra chunk of time?
  3. Match tasks to times available. Capitalize on the estimates of time it takes to do things, from dealing with daily email to making dinner. Including transportation, what did my commitments really require?
  4. Use sequences or order to your advantage. Sometimes identifying a string of tasks that easily piggyback onto one another, perhaps because of location, perhaps because of necessary sequence (you need to pick up clothes at the cleaners before you can wear them to an event) can reveal ways to redirect or slip in some of your less demanding activities.
  5. Reflect. Examine what you need and want in your life at the current moment. What work/life balance do you need? What kinds of self-care do you require? What social contact? Read some thoughts about distinguishing between wants and needs here and here. Decide, act, and then let go and smile.

So what did I do? Set the alarm earlier the next morning, trimmed breakfast time, went straight to the task, laughed at the long checkout line, explained my problem to the cashier, and thanked her after she liberated my cartridge. I asked Google for the best route to my 10:30 appointment and made it with relief, pride, and time to spare. Being an adult and keeping it simple have rewards: A completed task can be "forgotten."

Copyright 2023 Roni Beth Tower.


Langer, E. (1989 ). Mindfulness. Addison Wesley Longman.

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