I have an awesome job - but I'm too afraid to actually work?
July 30, 2009 9:14 AM   Subscribe

I have an awesome job - but I'm too afraid to actually work?

Three weeks ago I started an awesome internship that I really looked forward to. I am assigned to develop a consulting product on my own in a specific area of expertise. I am to look at structures/build the first presentations and check if this endeavour is worthwhile for the organization. Awesome.

As I'm sitting here - three weeks after the internship started I have worked on pretty much nothing. I am not only lacking meaningful results, but have spent scarce time on actually working on anything. A six page presentation on the topic my supervisor wanted to see is all I have gotten done up to now.

I sit down at the computer, get up again after five minutes and start watching DVDs for whole working days. On some days I don't even launch Powerpoint. When setting up meetings with associates of the company I skip the appointments using lames excuses because I didn't properly prepare the meetings (although I had both the time and expertise to do so). Stress used to be my best motivator in getting stuff done on time (during my studies) - and appointments usually got done on time. But stress doesn't do it anymore. It seems like my expectation of stress leads me into a circle that ends in me shutting down completely - essentially doing nothing (causing even more stress).

Every day I try to get up at 8 and there have been multiple times of me sleeping in until 11/12 (even though I went to bed at around midnight) - sounds like total avoidance to me.

As the company office is a little further away from my home we have an agreement that I can decide on my own when I want to come in to do interviews and such which lead to me spending about half my time at home and half my time at the work place. Unfortunately it does not make a difference whether I am at work or at home to get my job done.

I read through many of the earlier threads on procrastination and found some valuable advice there. I read "The Now Habit" and a few other books and I think I know most of the theory behind my problem. I know that I should break my work into smaller parts and tackle them in single steps, break out of patterns immediately, get started early, define free time slots, turn off the internet. Still - my (self-destructive) behaviour is something I can't get a handle on.

As I have four weeks left (and the deadline approaching) I am thinking about getting an external writing coach to give me some structure and guide my thoughts/working behavior - I don't think I can approach anybody within the company as they're all pretty stressed out themselves - willing to help with my work (doing interviews and such) but certainly not willing to administer my break-out of procrastination.

E-Mail contact via: asdadqdasd@yahoo.com
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should consider quitting and finding a job which is not so self-directed. I happen to need both in my working life, projects which are self-directed bookended by projects where I'm working on a team, producing every day and getting feedback and direction. Too much of my own fuel and I end up kind of puttering around not accomplishing much; too much team time and I start feeling penned in and antsy to just work on stuff and not have so much interaction. I like and need both. You may find that you simply can't do self-direction. It's not clear where you are in life re: career and maturity but it may be bad timing for this kind of job.

Also, talk to your doctor, they may have something to recommend.
posted by amanda at 9:26 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure "afraid" has anything to do with your problem. You need a work ethic. The only way to develop one if it's not been engrained in you is to force yourself to work. You'll get used to it.
posted by nosila at 9:26 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

This seems like a lot of self-sabotage to me, as you pointed out. You say it's an awesome internship, but maybe you should really examine your enthusiasm for this work. Is this just something you feel like you should enjoy?
posted by Ladybug Parade at 9:34 AM on July 30, 2009

I'm a screenwriter, and procrastination is always a danger. (Look at me now!) What works for me is breaking the problem into small chunks that are less daunting.

So, try to sketch out exactly the things that you need to, on the broadest level. Then break down the first step into smaller steps.

You don't climb a mountain all at once. You climb a mountain step by step.
posted by musofire at 9:35 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

This sounds almost exactly like my "work" habits when I was clinically depressed. Procrastinating to the point of doing nothing at all, check. Coming in at odd hours to avoid people, check. Sleeping late to avoid going to work, check. Not preparing for and skipping meetings, check.

Of course, we can't say for sure whether you're depressed from what you've written here, but it's something to consider as a possibility. Take this depression self-assessment from the Mayo Clinic, and if you get a score which suggests you may be depressed, see a doctor.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:45 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Working alone is hard; every creative person I know has similar problems. (No need to jump straight to the diagnosis of clinical depression.)

I started an awesome internship ... I am assigned to develop a consulting product on my own

You need a mentor. A good internship should provide someone to help you structure your work. Working alone is very difficult, ask for help with the people who are working with.
posted by Nelson at 10:03 AM on July 30, 2009

I agree with your self-diagnosed take (unlike nosila, who is too nice to say it but thinks you're lazy -- this theory doesn't explain how you were able to work as a student). As to what to do, I find that this kind of avoidance is less of a problem when a task is broken into definite chunks. The important thing is not the size of the chunks so much as that they are clearly bounded, that in concept you know exactly what to do. (This is the main argument behind David Allen's Getting Things Done, a book you may want to look at.)

And, if you have a way of getting psychiatric help, well, why not, right?
posted by grobstein at 10:15 AM on July 30, 2009

Is this an unpaid or for credit internship? I think you really need to work on your "having a real job" skills before you go into this undirected sort of thing. You definitely need a mentor.

I know the idea of "quitting" is bad but this seems sort of like a nonsense internship. I get the sense if they really cared what you were doing, they would check in on you and give you a supervisor.

I think you should quit and work at a grocery store or drugstore or something, where you're actually needed to do work. Your current internship might look like a resume booster, but missing skills in the workplace when you get a real job may actually get you fired. Better to bow out of an internship now.

But I'm also thinking that you must not really need money if you're able to actually hire a writing coach to help you with an internship. In that case, and especially if it is for credit at school, you should hire the writing coach and get what needs to be done done. But I would think really carefully about your work habits and what kind of job you think you'll be suited for in the future (post-internship).
posted by anniecat at 10:30 AM on July 30, 2009

You need more structure. Maybe that's in the form of better to-do lists, more communication & accountability with your bosses, or even in a new job (or role) altogether.

To salvage the current project, I'd start breaking the project down into more easily digestable chunks and break them down into individual tasks. Assign yourself milestones from now to the end of the project; from weekly, daily, down to hourly goals. The smaller the tasks become, the easier it is to tackle them and then I find that I am able to continue once the ball is rolling.

As for my personal experience, I worked a few creative/web jobs in my early 20's. I did well in what I did but through circumstance I found myself in the retail world in my mid 20's. My roles were so well defined and so structured that I had no choice but to focus on exactly what needed to get done. On an hourly, daily, weekly basis I was always aware of the tasks that needed to get done. After several years in the industry, I find myself back in a creative role that allows me more open-ended time. However, through the discipline that I learned I am able to focus more on the tasks and I think I am now hitting my creative & professional stride.
posted by tommccabe at 10:30 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Set up your own consequences. For example:
  • Tell the people to whom you report what is going to be delivered every week for the next four weeks, and make iron-clad appointments with those people you're going to interview for every day of those next four weeks.
  • Tell every interviewee that you're going to send them written notes of the interviews by end-of-day the next business day to assure that you have their information correct.
  • Set up in-person review sessions with your supervisor(s) several times per week to go over the materials you've generated.
  • If possible, find a place to work in the office where you'll be observed by people who are invested in this project. Make sure they can see if you're slacking off.
Some people just aren't very good at being self-regulating when it comes to work. If you think that there's a deeper reason for self-sabotage, seek professional help, but if it's more a matter of being lazy because you can be lazy, make laziness as uncomfortable for yourself as possible.
posted by xingcat at 10:39 AM on July 30, 2009

I have a feeling that you would accomplish more if you worked at the office, rather than from home. There's just no way you could sit around watching DVDs at the office for an entire day without somebody noticing.
posted by pravit at 11:10 AM on July 30, 2009

Set up your own consequences.

Do this. It can be hard to be self-motivated in an unstructured work environment, so make the structure yourself -- and make it visible to those that supervise you.
posted by Lleyam at 11:11 AM on July 30, 2009

I agree with pravit. go to the office, everyday, and start communicating with your supervisors.

don't give up the internship if you think there's still a chance you could succeed, what an opportunity!
posted by Think_Long at 11:39 AM on July 30, 2009

I'm a writer who has experienced this in varying degrees throughout my working career. Recognize that fear, AKA "writer's block," often goes with the territory. The presence of fear does present a problem, but the problem is perhaps not what you think it is: it is *not* about making the fear go away so that you can work. The fear may always be there (it is for me in some degree). The trick is to allow the fear to be there, and paradoxically, even to welcome it -- and work anyway. Our reptilian brains interpret fear as a signal to not go forward into dangerous situations. In this case, that sensor is malfunctioning. Override your reptilian brain, even for a few minutes at a time, and allow yourself to learn and experience that in fact, you are not in danger. Don't focus on fixing the sensor; that is, don't over-focus on making the fear go away as a precondition for working.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:49 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe you have ADD. Seriously, check it out. This sounds exactly like me pre-diagnosis.
posted by kathrineg at 12:13 PM on July 30, 2009

Oh, and I did well in school because it was structured enough and there was enough adrenaline for me to get through it, but once I was out of school... *sad trombone*
posted by kathrineg at 12:14 PM on July 30, 2009

I think I know most of the theory behind my problem. I know that I should break my work into smaller parts and tackle them in single steps, break out of patterns immediately, get started early, define free time slots, turn off the internet. Still - my (self-destructive) behaviour is something I can't get a handle on.

Yep - you've got the theory. Maybe you don't know how to do some of those things and could use a bit of practical help with the "chunking", but you know what you should be doing.

You gotta face up to the fact that you don't want to do this.

You think you want to do it, and you want to want to do it, but... you don't want to do it. I mean, you really don't want to do it. And asking a bunch of strangers on the internet about it, investing time and effort in putting together a concise but detailed analysis of all the peripherals around your predicament, is a good way of avoiding the key issue that... you don't want to do it.

Why not? I'd guess the project feels mindblowingly, overwhelmingly, vastly beyond your abilities. You're scared shitless by it.

You're scared to death of being seen to fail. Not delivering at all has felt, for the last three weeks, a better option than giving it your best shot and having people reject or even pour scorn on your work. Hell, you'd be able to rationalise non-delivery away, given your creative abilities, wouldn't you? But how would you rationalise away being told that what you had done was no good?

Well, only you know ultimately if you're capable of doing this project or not, and I don't know you so I'm not going to tell you you are. But I worked for several years as a freelance consultant and know this feeling well. And guess what... so do a million others. Let's have wander around Platitude Plaza and seek advice from the numerous purveyors of pearls of wisdom on this subject.

"The perfect is the enemy of the good."

I don't know who said that but it's the truest of truths. You'll be sitting there wanting every word you craft to thrill and enthrall, to encapsulate the quintessence of the needs of your audience and blah blah blah... Forget it. Just start wherever you decide to start and produce something that's OK. Not great, just OK. Then move on. It will be OK - maybe even good. And if the worst come to the worst and its rubbish, at least it will be completedrubbish. You can come back to it later if there's time, but keep going: persist. Read and reread Coolidge on "persistence".

"If you think you can, or if you think you can’t – you’re right"

(Henry Ford, I think.) After a few days of persistence, turning out OK stuff, not brilliant, but OK, maybe you'll start getting into it a bit. Maybe you'll start visualising the reactions at that final presentation: "Hmmm, not bad. Not great, but not bad." Somewhere, you'll have produced a sentence or a slide that you're really quite proud of, and you'll be able to imagine and even anticipate a really positive reaction to it.

You'll start believing in yourself, just a bit. You have no self belief at the moment, but after a day or two it will start coming. Then it will start getting easier to get down to work. You may even start looking forward to it.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Yes, you are. No trace of it in your post, but you're aware of it. Get rid of that self indulgence now. It just gets in the way. Read Lawrence on "Self Pity". You got yourself into this. The energy you're wasting on this pointless self-absorption now would be better directed at getting yourself through it and out the other side successfully. You may want to come back later and give yourself a good kicking for wasting the last three weeks, but that's going to have to wait for now because you've got a project to get done. Put it in your diary and in the meantime direct your anger at getting the fucking job done.

It was never going to be easy.

Shit, I am glad I'm not in your shoes at the moment. I've been there many times and I hate it, hate it, hate it. You probably thought it was going to be easy - I usually do - and then reality struck, and you've frozen. It's never easy. So here's a final quote from The Road Less Travelled by M Scott Peck that works for me. Perhaps I lost you back at the top of the page, but if i didn't, maybe it will work for you too.

I'm going to leave him to play us out, so let me just say: good luck.

"Life is difficult.

"This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult--once we truly understand and accept it--then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters."
posted by genesta at 12:43 PM on July 30, 2009 [6 favorites]

I used to be the world's worst procrastinator and none of the usual advice worked for me.

Here's what does work for me:

Make yourself a deal. For the next few hours, you WILL NOT do any work on the project itself. You're just going to look over the material you're working with, whatever it is, and make sure all the parts are in place. You just want to make sure everything's set up so you can get going once motivation strikes.

1) In other words, take an inventory of what you've got. If there's something missing, this will reveal what it is.

(Whenever I've run into some serious, troubling procrastination, it's almost always because I'm uneasy about the project. Often I'm missing some essential piece of information, but because I haven't reckoned with it explicitly, my confusion feels exactly like some kind of inexplicable internal resistance.)

2) Later, after a break or a meal, find someone to talk to. Doesn't have to be anyone you work with; a tolerant friend will do. Explain the scope of the project to this person: here's what I've got, here's what I'm trying to do with it.

3) Do JUST ONE TINY THING, any one thing, the easiest one you can find.

If getting this far doesn't help jumpstart you, memail me.
posted by tangerine at 2:51 PM on July 30, 2009 [7 favorites]

Seconding the possibility of ADD. I was just reading a book on it called 'Scattered minds : hope and help for adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder' by Lenard Adler, and he talked about how people not yet diagnosed can go through years of working hard at their jobs and having some successes and yet feeling like a failure because their inattentiveness or restlessness has sabotaged some aspects of their work (e.g., presentations or making scheduled meetings.)

This feeling of failure can lead some people to have an inbuilt fear of their work because of the negative associations with the parts of work they didn't do well. The fear leads to avoidance, and.. well, if this sounds familiar then it might be worth taking a quick self-assessment.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 11:29 PM on July 30, 2009

This is in response to a memail asking what I do to treat my ADD.

First: DON'T LOSE HOPE! It will work out and you will find a way.

I don't take any meds. I found a job that played to my strengths after a few really bad work experiences. Ask other people what you're good at. Don't do anything involving filing or organizing or keeping track of things or super attention to detail...basically, don't become a librarian, an office manager or an accountant.

I'm a nanny. I do okay at that, I have the attention span of a 2-year-old which helps me enjoy 2-year-olds. Although I have had a few really bad incidents of forgetting/losing things which is frustrating because it seems like I don't give a shit...which I do, very much.

I am thinking about going to grad school but I would need medication for that to really work. There are stimulant and non-stimulant medications. There is a really wide range of stimulant medications, some wear off in an hour, some work all day, there will probably be one that will work for me. It's trial and error. The non-stimulants are newer so I will try them last.

Try to get a shrink who SPECIALIZES in ADD, a lot of them don't have experience and will ask "oh, you did well in school/you're a woman? you don't have ADD." It's more complicated than that. In fact, there is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist who went through med school with untreated ADD. He wrote a book, Driven to Distraction. It's a good read.

I have a good friend with ADD who takes time-release Adderall and it really works for him. He has done well in his grad program and is starting a successful business. He does well in the work world after having a really difficult time in high school.

posted by kathrineg at 7:19 AM on July 31, 2009

I had this sort of procrastination when I was younger, and it's really, really painful, so I feel for you. What I'd recommend is looking at the anxiety, perfectionism, and fear of failure behind it. You could try to work your way through the Feeling Good Handbook. When you sit down to try to work and got flooded with thoughts that make you stop, I'd write them down ("if I screw this up I'll never get another job in this field" "what would my family think?") and then look at them. Come up with a mantra that helps you get through this ("i just have to finish" or "i can figure this out step by step" or "i've done harder projects"). Do things like yoga or meditation that get you used to focusing in spite of painful distractions. This project is going to be over soon, but you'll be struggling with this for a while, so I'd start developing methods that let you make progress with what's going on inside your head.

For the project itself, create as much outward structure as you can. Try to make this a team project. Realize your weakness in doing those step-by-step things and your need for help. Tell your supervisor that you'd appreciate some help setting up some internal check-in points to help you keep on track. (That's actually what supervisors get paid to do.) Tell them that you're really good at carrying things out, and you have a lot of thoughts about the consulting product, but that since you don't know the organization's situation as well as she does, you'd really like to figure out the best way to use the remainder of the time and the most important intermediate steps to take.

Also, do what tangerine says. My best "procrastination" is to organize my desk and get the papers I need all in one place. You're not trying to work, you're just getting set up so you can work later...

By the way, this assignment sounds super-intimidating. Developing a whole new consulting product on your own? Don't feel bad about asking your supervisor for help with this one. Your best bet is to get all of your best ideas on paper soon and then start getting people to give you feedback on it because your first draft is going to have a lot of holes you can't see. It's really about making your idea work for their situation, so you need to get your idea in front of people and probably detach from it. What's probably going to make it work or not work has nothing to do with you and everything about the market, the politics, the relationships, the resources of their situation. You can't even figure that out on your own -- you just need to put out your idea and let insiders tell you how to make the idea work, and how to make it appeal to the key decision-makers, based on a hundred factors you don't and can't know.

But circling back to my first point -- that sort of thing is going to be hard to do, probably, due to something that's going on inside your head ("she's right, i suck, this idea is terrible") and starting the long process to become aware of, and take the sharp edge off of, thoughts like that will make your whole life better.
posted by salvia at 12:08 PM on August 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

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