Help me be more anal.
November 12, 2008 5:35 PM   Subscribe

I need to be MORE anal and ocd about my work, in a productive way.

I have been having problems lately turning in work with typos, sloppy, etc. I look it over but DON"T notice it. It's embarrassing, I look bad, people feel like I wasted their time, etc, etc, etc. Things like rows not lining up in Excel, and today I took two different versions of a document to a meeting thinking they were the same. Not fixing dates. Missing little things. My boss notices everything, and I'm embarrassed. What happens is I start holding onto work for a long time trying to make sure it is perfect, which obviously just compounds the problem because then it looks like I'm not working AND doing sloppy work. The thing is, I do light user acceptance type QA and always catch things others miss, I'm very smart and capable, learn quickly, always have had excellent grammar and editing skills, etc. What habits can I learn to fix this? Or is this a mental block of some kind? I will walk into a meeting thinking everything's ship shape, and something is cut off in my document or I forgot to reorder something in my notes. HELP. I am very organized otherwise--everything in folders, etc.
posted by sweetkid to Work & Money (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

"I look it over but DON"T notice it."

For the obvious office communication stuff, there's spelling and grammar check. For the feeling that you're becoming absentminded, I suppose it's good to ask:
Are you physically healthy? Do you get enough sleep? Do you abuse mind-altering substances (including alcohol) in a way that might impact your performance on the job? Do you have anything else going in in your life that might be distracting you?
posted by mullingitover at 5:53 PM on November 12, 2008

typos, sloppy, etc. I look it over but DON"T notice it.
Was that deliberate? If so, heh.
I've had this experience as well. When I was out of high school I once worked in a company that did stocktakes, and we counted things, hour after hour. It was as boring and concentration-dependent as you can imagine.
When there was lots of pressure on, everybody miscounted, when we were able to slow the pace down, or when the boss left the room, everybody got the counts right. The critical clause in your question is where you say "My boss notices everything": you need to stop doing work for your boss. Imagine yourself carrying out your tasks for another person—one of your coworkers, for instance.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:54 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's kind of easy to get wrapped up in your own head while you're writing something and to assume that you've addressed things that you haven't. As you've found, you don't have any access to these preconceived notions when you're reviewing someone else's work.

Take advantage of this fact and find a fastidious friend to trade your work with before submitting it.

In a pinch, reading your writing slowly and clearly works pretty well too.
posted by svolix at 5:54 PM on November 12, 2008

I didn't look over this post. This post is not an example. Also, it's not spelling and grammar.
posted by sweetkid at 5:55 PM on November 12, 2008

I find that it helps to take a break, empty my brain of the stuff I've been looking at for an hour, and then trying to take a fresh look for anything out of order. My experience in turning in stuff with typos or other sloppy qualities has been that it's related to having looked at the damned thing for too long. Additionally, there seems to be some sort of internal blinders to the idea that something could be possible wrong because I just know it's right. I think maybe the mental tendency of the human mind to automatically correct written documents might also contribute to that. Which means you got to break that sort of mental mode.

This is why stepping away (if time permits) can be useful, since it allows you to be a bit more objective. Barring that, I would recommend getting someone else to look at your stuff. Might not be so useful with spreadsheets, but have someone else check over your written documents. A totally different brain looking for sloppiness is more likely figure out, "hey, looks like this paragraph isn't in the right place!" But if you can't go to someone else, I'd try to emulate a fresh brain/mind looking for errors.

On preview, what svolix says more succinctly. I second the reading your writing slowly and clearly.
posted by Mister Cheese at 5:56 PM on November 12, 2008

I need to be MORE anal and ocd about my work, in a productive way.

You don't need to be more anal and OCD. One is a character flaw, the other is a clinical disorder. What you need is to work on your attention to detail.

I look it over but DON"T notice it.

I hope that's a joke.

What habits can I learn to fix this?

Attention to detail is a skill anyone can learn. That said, self-editing is hard. I've found it's best to write, save, and close the document so you can take your eyeballs off of it for a few hours - a day or more if possible. When you come back to it, reading it won't be as automatic, and you'll catch little typos that your brain is skipping over when it's in draft mode.

always have had excellent grammar and editing skills, etc.

You're writing style in this question is pretty sloppy. That's okay, because heh, it's an AskMe post, not a cover letter. Still, if your writing at work is anything like this I can see why your boss is often on your case.

For example, in your question you say you need to be more "anal" and "OCD" - yet you don't really want either of these things. I get what you're saying, but let's face it, there are better ways to communicate your needs to us than invoking a body orifice or a crippling disorder. Words, especially those written, have meaning. Further, what if the reader actually has OCD (this is MetaFilter, after all,) how do you think that may make them feel?

The way you write says a lot about your thinking. Clear, concise writing shows a clear, concise mind, and respect toward the reader. Remember that.

Here's an suggestion: stop using "etc." - it's really a horrible word to begin with and then to abbreviate it... ugh. It's as if you're saying, "blah blah blah, and some other things which I could tell you, but I'm not because I'm too lazy, and not only that but I'm actually going to abbreviate the single word which communicates all this..." Either finish your list of items or don't say anything at all, but to employ "excreta" shows disdain for the reader.

You desperately need a copy of Strunk & White. Learn it. Know it. Live it.
posted by wfrgms at 5:57 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I find that it helps to walk away from things for a while (15 minutes, a couple of hours, a day or two) and then take another look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
posted by brandman at 5:59 PM on November 12, 2008

Thanks so far...I don't turn in work like this post, however. I get why you're all getting on me for it, but I'm looking for help in catching small errors and typos because I am stressed and looking at the work too long. Please trust that I understand grammar.
posted by sweetkid at 6:02 PM on November 12, 2008

For text ( and maybe other things), it helps if you read it aloud. It slows you down, and prevents you from skimming.
posted by dhruva at 6:08 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bizarrely, the more stress you're under to check everything, the more you'll miss...

Try taking some time out between completing and checking / submitting work - doing something else, going for lunch, or leaving it until the next day.

Checklists can also be helpful - for instance if you're going to a meeting, a checklist that ensures that you have the latest version of all the materials, that dates are correct, that everything prints out correctly, that you've been through the previous minutes, that you've made enough photocopies etc may help. It takes the pressure off - you're working from a checklist rather than having to remember to check everything just before the meeting.
posted by finding.perdita at 6:11 PM on November 12, 2008

I'll second brandman's advice and I also have two other tricks you could try:

1) Print a copy to proofread. Finding errors on screen is *hard*. It may be environmentally unfriendly to print lots of drafts, but recycling will mitigate this (a bit). The 20 second wait for a print out will give you a mini break and somehow it's much easier to spot the little things when you are looking at hard copy. Your mileage may vary. Give it a try. Buy a pretty coloured pen to mark the errors with - makes it a little bit fun to find one.

2) Read through your document slowly, out loud. (Not possible? Try mouthing the words without saying them). It's easy to read fast and miss errors (especially if your job or hobby involves lots of fast or skim reading). This trick slows down your reading and may help you catch errors. Plus it scares away any boring coworkers who were lurking around your desk :-)
posted by Tapioca at 6:15 PM on November 12, 2008

I think you identified the problem, finding.perdita. I think I get stuck in a loop and stressed, and am so sure I'll miss something that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the moment though, it's so hard for me to break out of it. It's just frustrating because it makes me look bad for no good reason. I have the skills, the drive, everything to succeed. I haven't had this problem in the past, either.
posted by sweetkid at 6:39 PM on November 12, 2008

You're writing style in this question is pretty sloppy.
posted by brandman at 8:59 PM on November 12 [+] [!]

"If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written." - Muphry's Law, aka Skitt's Law

That's all.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:41 PM on November 12, 2008 [11 favorites]

I can totally relate. I've been called the "world's greatest proofreader" (fwTw), and I've turned in graduate term papers that were so mangled by typos (omitted words, entire clauses dropped, misspellings, bizarre punctuation), that they were nearly unintelligible.

For me, stress is a big part of it. When I'm near my limit, I also misplace my keys, forget appointments, and generally lose executive functioning ability. It really sucks. So, make sure you're getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, eating right. If you can, try to organize your schedule so that you're not pulling late nights and so that you can have time to set your work aside and truly proofread it. Reading aloud is a great suggestion.

I feel like some of the posters are giving you a bit of a hard time, but I do think that that kind of tough talk can be helpful. If you can learn to think of writing as action, as something moral and ethical dimensions, as social interaction between you and someone you respect, it may help you to be more mindful.

I know from experience that it's crushing when you're trying your best but just can't seem to get it together, but try to understand that even if you do have some sort of cognitive issue, there's no quick fix or excuse. A friend who has rather severe ADD explained to me once that knowing he has ADD just means that he has to be that much more mindful. Can you develop systems using post-it notes or highlighters or note cards to help you? That's what he did. In fact, a book of strategies for adults with ADD might be useful.

(Oh, and yeah... I kinda proofread this, but please don't hate, ya'll, if I missed a typo here or there.)
posted by lalalana at 7:00 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

but I'm looking for help in catching small errors and typos because I am stressed and looking at the work too long.

You're missing the errors because you are stressed and looking at the work too long. Does it help when someone else says it? :)

I agree with the suggestion above that you make a first pass at the work, save and close it, and then look at it later. You'd be amazed what you can miss in a stress-induced haze. I've been in your shoes, and the more you dread messing up, the more it's likely to be guaranteed.

Do you have anyone at work that you can use as a second pair of eyes? If so, ask them to take a look at your work - everyone is familiar with the "I've looked at it too long and now I can't see it" syndrome.

Other than that, try and get enough sleep, lay off the caffeine and try to do the picky stuff at whatever time of day is your peak time.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:06 PM on November 12, 2008

I can't have anyone else look at my work, unfortunately. I am feeling a little relieved that this is more common than I thought, and will check out the ADD-related resources. I feel like I have stress induced ADD. I really panic and can't focus on the task at hand, and it becomes a cycle.
posted by sweetkid at 7:11 PM on November 12, 2008

sweetkid, years ago when I was working in a clinical audits department as an admin, one of the BEST. EVER. pieces of editorial advice I got from a manager was to proofread stuff from the bottom up. It forces you to read slowly and makes your mind quit focussing on useless information, similar to the old artist's hack my mom taught me of turning something upside down to draw it correctly.

seriously, try it. It works. Fifteen years ago I used this trick to proof 15-20 page clinical audit reports successfully. These days I use it to proofread mind-numbing shedloads of legal contracts related to (another) pharmaceutical job. And I'm Little Miss ADD to boot, so if I can manage this, it probably works.

also: try my Slacker's Guide to Doing Phenomenal Work; i.e. give yourself a goddamn break once in awhile. Focus on doing one task/document, completely done. Finish it, then go get coffee / screw off on the web / answer your email / make a phonecall / chat with a colleague for five minutes. Now come back and proof your document with the "bottom-up" method.

I guarantee you'll see improvement if you do this. Your brain simply needs a chance to both process and depressurise.
posted by lonefrontranger at 8:39 PM on November 12, 2008 [9 favorites]

one of the BEST. EVER. pieces of editorial advice I got from a manager was to proofread stuff from the bottom up.

Great advice! I intend to use it!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:24 PM on November 12, 2008

I had (and still have) the same problem that you outlined above. Ultimately, it was a question of time management - did I leave myself enough time to check a document correctly? The more rushed I got, the more stress I developed, and more errors slipped through, the more my supervisor got irate, until finally he said he would not accept work that was not ready to ship out. Surprisingly, that helped out a lot. I wonder if your boss has drawn a line in the sand and set a clear boundary about what is acceptable and what is not.

I also like to fart around on the web, and it can really cut into my productivity. However, I've noticed that when I listen to music it allows me to concentrate more on my work, and less on Metafilter.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:53 PM on November 12, 2008

IAmBroom...I see what you did there. Even though that was not part of my comment (but rather the one above mine), you cleverly attributed it to prove...your own point! A-ha!

(You know what the sad part is...I actually wondered whether I actually typed that and had to go re-read my original post to be sure I hadn't.)
posted by brandman at 5:40 AM on November 13, 2008

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