Failing to Learn from Experience

The past and futureCriminal thinkers do not learn from the past and operate without regard for the future.  They are often described as failing to learn from experience and tend to see behavior and events as isolated incidents. You might be thinking to yourself, “this sounds like my teenager!” If it does sound like your teenager, or even your spouse, don’t be alarmed. We all have errors in thinking and our teens often have many of them at the same time. The difference is that thinking errors in criminals continue to expand into almost all areas of their lives and they regularly fail to deter their distorted thinking which results in regular violence and harm of others.

Failing to learn from experience is one of they key components of the thinking error, lack of time perspective. If we repeatedly fail to learn from experience we will continually spend our time in ‘quadrant one’ of Stephen Covey’s time management matrix. [See previous post “Important but not Urgent”] Quadrant one is comprised of actions in our life that have become urgent and important. It is filled with things that we can no longer ignore because they are now looking us in the face. Continually ignoring our bills will eventually result in actions that are now important and urgent. The debt collectors have handed over our bills to collection agents and the pressure to pay has increased.  Similarly for the ex-offender, putting off meeting with a probation or parole agent will make the next meeting “urgent and important” since it could affect our freedom.  The more we ignore our responsibilities and keep putting things off to tomorrow, the more time we will spend in a state of urgency, and even panic, addressing the things that have gotten out of control in our lives.

For the ex-offender it is critical that they develop a clear sense of time perspective so they don’t repeat the same pattern of thinking and behavior that contributed to their incarceration and victimization of others. Identifying the amount of time we are spending in the Quadrant One area of our lives will be a good indication of trouble we are having with the lack of time perspective thinking error.

A natural deterrent to lack of time perspective is goal orientation. Developing goals in  various areas of our lives will help us combat lack of time perspective.  In fact, just developing a goal in a single area will often help turn the tide and create a ripple effect of other positive actions.  For example, instead of setting a goal of getting a job, staying sober and paying off all fines, it would be better to set smaller step objectives to achieve those goals.  For the job goal, identify smaller steps that will help result in getting a job. For example:

  1. Meet with a career counselor, probation agent and/or mentor to identify strengths, weaknesses, potential contacts, job goals, references, etc.
  2. Create a resume
  3. Identify 5 primary sources for locating jobs
  4. Send out 5 resumes and/or make 5 inquiries a week
  5. Find out about 2 volunteer opportunities that would help me in my chosen field
  6. Ask a friend for an introduction to someone who can tell me about jobs in a given field.

In the field of Quality Improvement, smart goals are defined with an acronym:

S – specific
M- measurable
A – action-oriented
R – realistic
T – time-bound

In the job goal example above, making the smaller steps to the goal ‘smart’ would involve adding the final “T” or time-bound element to each one, e.g. I will identify 5 primary sources for locating jobs by next Thursday.

When an offender is released from prison they often have an astounding set of goals and hopes for the future.  However, when the first sign of adversity comes their way they give up and claim the victim role, blaming society for not giving them a job, their probation agent for setting unrealistic expectations, their family for being too controlling, their girlfriend for not being sympathetic, etc, etc. Setting smart goals and holding oneself accountable to them is the best deterrent.

Criminal Thinking Factoid: The number of arrests or convictions a person has are not a good indicator of how distorted their thinking has become.  Personal conviction and/or arrest numbers are more a result of the increased presence of police in a particular community and/or the ineptness of the particular offender.

Criminal Thinking Worksheet: Access the free “Lack of Time Perspective” worksheet on

Important but not Urgent

The four quadrantsIn Stephen Covey’s book, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a persons actions and activities are divided into a matrix of four quadrants. The first quadrant is comprised of things that are important and urgent in our daily living such as emergencies, crises, deadlines that are fast approaching, etc. The second quadrant includes things that are important but not urgent. In recovery this might include reading a relapse prevention book, making amends with a person or making retribution.  The third quadrant is urgent, but unimportant activities like interruptions from a child, needing to have a cigarette, etc. The fourth quadrant is neither urgent nor important.  This would include time wasting activities like playing  solitaire on the computer, random web surfing and video games.

A very useful exercise for someone attempting to make meaningful changes in their thinking and their lives is to fill up these four quadrants with the activities of ones day and estimate the percentage of time that was spent in each quadrant.  A person who is crisis oriented will spend most of their time in quadrants one and three.  A person not actively pursuing goals or changing distorted thinking patterns can spend a significant amount of time in quadrant four doing many mindless things.  A person actively attempting to change the bad habits and errors in their thinking will purposely make time for activities that are very important, but not necessarily urgent. Quadrant two is the heart of recovery and thinking change!

The next blog will discuss the thinking errors that keep us rooted in quadrants one, three and four and the corrections to those errors that will lead us to increase the time spent in quadrant two.

"An approach to the treatment of offenders which emphasizes the role of altering thinking patterns in bringing about change in an offender's life."