I know I should be able to do this, but I constantly feel like I can't
March 19, 2009 7:24 AM   Subscribe

How can I get through this job stress without driving myself insane?

A few months ago I started a new job. Just on for a project. It's a very small office, so I'm really the only one responsible for this project at this point, aside from my boss. Project should be wrapping up in a month or so.

This is exactly the work I want to be doing, although it's a severe step up in difficulty and responsibility from what I've done in the past. Long hours and weekend work are expected. I have to admit I'm a little overwhelmed.

Realistically, I know I can do this. But I don't feel it. At all. I have to give myself mental pep talks several times a day. I'm constantly stressed. I don't eat enough, I smoke too much. I've lost a not insignificant amount of weight because of this. Not complaining about that, but it shows the effect this is having on me. I wake up in a panic and usually throw up first thing in the morning.

I feel like I've bitten off more than I can chew. Logically I'm doing a decent job, but in my head I'm floundering. My boss is very driven, and expects the same from me. I'm doing my best, but I know he feels that it is going much slower than he'd like. I am committed to the project, think it's good work and will be an important step in my career. But like I said, it's way more than I've done before. I'm normally pretty chill and a bit lazy, and the stress is really getting to me.

If it wouldn't totally screw the project and my future reference and work, I probably would have told them to find someone else a while ago. That is not an option, and really I don't want it to be.

How have you dealt with this kind of situation? How can I get through the next couple of weeks, do my best, and not lose my mind?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Take each moment as it comes, and do NOT allow yourself to think of the totallity of the task.

(this got me thru some insane overtime hours at my job during a particular season-not only a lot of hours but intense stress and busyness for each of those hours. )

And remind yourself that there is an END to this.

And practically speaking, get thee some really good B vitamins and a really big bag of trail mix to grab a bite from periodically. Your physical body needs tending to during all this and it WILL help.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:34 AM on March 19, 2009

I know he feels that it is going much slower than he'd like

How do you know this, did he tell you directly? If he didn't, rethink this assumption. Quite often on a new job, people will overestimate what they should be accomplishing and overestimate their boss's expectations. Ask your boss for specific performance feedback, see how he thinks you are doing and what you need to improve. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Sounds like you need to take a weekend off, rest a bit, and make a plan for doing the right things for your health (eating, exercising) for the duration of this project. Although counter-intuitive, the time you spend on your health will probably pay off in terms of improved job performance. Tell your boss you have a commitment for this weekend and spend some time pre-cooking healthy meals, reconnecting with your loved ones, and engaging your support system for the rest of the month.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:35 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's probably a 5-syllable psychological term for my coping mechanism, but what I do is 'watch my movie'. Meaning, during times of stress, I kind of have one foot in reality, and the other in my fantasy world, where I am the hero of my own movie and everything that happens just 'figures'. I imagine that all of this is one long boring film that I am stuck watching. For some reason that becomes more interesting than actually experiencing it fully. The annoying song that plays, the ironic thing that happens, the what next, the hours of meaningless footage, it all 'just figures'. Sometimes its all so great that you'd rather be in it than watch it. Other times, well, watching it is about as far away as you can get. That at least helps me laugh a little bit during the really crappy parts.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:36 AM on March 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

All I can say is "I've been there." The thing is: we can make ourselves do anything for a limited, measurable amount of time.

I love the idea of keeping trail mix with you at work, really any healthyish snack will do. And don't forget water!

I would find a couple of things that you can do for yourself each day and make these tasks just a required and necessary as the tasks you must complete for work.
When I get over loaded with work, as you are now, I like to assign myself personal time in 30 minute increments, two or three times a day. For instance, 30 minutes walking around the nearest independent bookstore in the afternoon and 30 minutes in a bubble bath in the evening. I tell myself that these times are my rewards for working so hard all day.

It also sounds like you are operating under some faulty beliefs, such as your boss expects more or quicker outcomes than you are putting out. Ask him about this. I'm sure you'll find that he's pleased with your work and just as stressed about his own performance on the project.

Above all, take care of yourself physically. If you don't have the time or the appetite for regular meals, keep snacks and water with you at all times. Take at least one afternoon off a weekend. You'll be surprised how much more productive you actually are after taking a little time to do something enjoyable. Take vitamins and get enough sleep. You're not worth anything to the project if you get sick before it's finished.

Good luck and hang in there. You're hard work will pay off. You'll make it through fine and the project will come together just when you think it's hopeless. That's how it always works.
posted by dchrssyr at 7:53 AM on March 19, 2009

When I'm feeling overwhelmed by work, I watch this totally awesome video montage and remember that I'm the best around, and that nothing's ever gonna keep me down.

This may not work for everyone, but corny encouragement really helps me get reinvigorated.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:55 AM on March 19, 2009

I could have written this post in the fall. I got through those stressful weeks, but at great emotional cost. Even when the stress was off it was like my body was conditioned to a really high level of anxiety. I would go to a therapist if I were you (for even one or two sessions only) to find out why you're panicking so much about this. Throwing up every morning means your stress level is too high. You need to build the skills to deal confidently with this kind of stress.
posted by sweetkid at 9:50 AM on March 19, 2009

Hey anonymous, sounds like you could be someone I know. Or you could be me from ten years ago. In either case, you'd be in the business of writing software, and if my experience is any guide this problem is something you'll have to deal with through your entire career. At least if you are doing the kind of work that I find interesting, there will always be far more work to be done than you have time to actually do. And projects will very often take more time than planned for them, causing tension. It is too easy to let it eat up your whole life (especially if you are working from home.) So you've got to put some effort into finding a balance.

Your boss might have unrealistic expectations, or you might. It happens sometimes. Yes, you need to work hard; it is a difficult project, and working on a big project for a small company does come with some added stress along with the chance of very satisfying succeess that many years in the future you'll look back on with pride. Ultimately the pressure comes from yourself. At least, that is how it works for me. The situation is what it is, but the difficulty is all about the way you choose to relate to it. The important thing in the long run is to live up to your own realistic expectations of what you can do, nothing more or less. You need to have the confidence that you will do your best, but you do not need to put so much pressure on yourself that you forget to eat or otherwise drive yourself mad.

My own latest project is pretty crazy too. I do a quick aerobic work-out, and a bit of meditation every morning: That is my routine to get relaxed and ready for work when it's going to be challenging; find one of your own. I have survived many similar challenges in the past, you will probably survive many in the future. It does get a bit easier with experience. Try not thinking more than you have to about the difficulty of the project overall, and just doing one thing at a time.

You might simply be working too many hours, in which case it's up to you to consider slowing down a little. You're doing an amazing job; but if it's affecting you so badly, it's not in anyone's real long-term interest to have you try and keep up that pace. This project may be over in a month (or two), but it's probable that in your line of work this kind of situation is not so uncommon, and another one will be along not far behind it, if you're ready for it. It's possible that your employer may not fully appreciate how much pressure you feel, and may just always encourage you to do more. Knowing your limits and not taking things to excess is part of the job, one that takes some time and effort to get right.
posted by sfenders at 10:08 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two tips:
- Tell your boss and coworkers how overwhelmed you are. Don't filter it or hold it inside or try to deal with it alone. "Honestly, I don't know where to start with X, boss." "I listed the work I need to do and the hours each task will take and it's 150 hours / week, which is physically impossible! :) Can you help me prioritize or identify how I could save time?" This probably sounds frightening, but try it -- it will have an amazing effect. It will let out a lot of the pressure building up inside you.

- Come up with some good encouraging mantras that tap into what you believe about yourself. ("You can figure this out" was mine, because while I didn't think I knew the answer, I did think I could figure out the answer.)
posted by salvia at 12:12 PM on March 19, 2009

Salvia has a great third tip implied in the first tip: make a list of the work that you need to do, the estimated hours for each task and the order in which it all needs to get done.

I know this sounds like extra work at a time when you don't really need it but if you can come up with a weekly list, and a daily list, and the order in which you need to do everything (and I mean Everything), you might be very surprised at the amount of stuff you can get through.

I'm not talking about a "to-do list" - those things are useless. I'm talking about a thoroughly structured plan on how to attack everything.

If you go through that exercise, determine when you'll be finished and go to your boss with it and say that you're not going to meet the current deadline, but here's why and how, I'm sure s/he'll be impressed and pleased and supportive.

Secondly, I don't know you or your career so this might not apply but I'm often surprised at how often people who are stressed by deadlines procrastinate by over-analysing etc. I'm a typical guy in that, for example, if I need car wax, and I see car wax, I buy car wax. I don't obsess about which is the best, whether I'm paying 10% more than I'd have to pay if I drove to the discount store down the road etc. I generally apply the same philosophy to my work: if I need to do stupidboringtask x, I do it. End of story. I don't delay by sending an email asking for more details in order to progress the task, I don't draw up a plan to do the task in 5 stages or make a map of where I'll be getting my input from. I just get on with it. If you're not approaching things like this, you should.

Good luck,
posted by gwpcasey at 1:01 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are so many alarm bells going off here: You're puking every morning, you're losing weight, and you're not making the progress you need to. But you haven't reported this to your boss. You don't seem to have a feasible plan for getting out of it; you even are fantasizing about getting someone else to do the job.

Face it: you need help. Ask for it. Worrying about a ruined reputation may be your biggest stressor right now, but it is not what you need to do. Sooner or later the real situation will make itself known to everyone around you. It is WAY better to have that happen because you initiated it, rather than have a panic or collapse closer to the project deadline.

It's possible for this help to come from inside you to activate you into the mode that you want to find. That seems to be the dream you're clinging to. This approach should be evaluated with a look into your history - has this situation ever occurred for you before, and did that mazing turnaround really happen? If not, there is a low probability that it will happen now, particularly given the physical decline you are experiencing. Is it realistic to expect yourself to get stronger, when the evidence is that you're getting run down and anxious, and less clear mentally?

If you believe that you can do this on your own, I recommend this method to assess the reality of your belief: set a deadline in the next few days for some subset of the project. e.g., by Tuesday EOD, I will have X and Y done. If you do make it, you may gain strength from this partial success, then move to the next. But if you don't make that deadline, bite the bullet and ask for help. Denying the situation doesn't make it go away - it does make it worse for the project outcome and much worse for you in the long run, regardless of how much it hurts now.

You are not alone in this. I have hope for you to assess this situation honestly and deal with the truth of the matter, better sooner than later. It sucks, I know (really, I know!), but the truth will come to light regardless. And think about it: it seems likely that your boss wants you to success as much as you do, right? Getting you help when you ask for it may piss him off, but it makes sense for him to do it, preventing an outcome that may be much worse for both of you.
posted by buzzv at 1:31 PM on March 19, 2009

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