forgetful in the membrane
September 19, 2010 4:00 PM   Subscribe

How can I be more careful/detail-oriented at work? I don't know how to fix something when I'm already trying my hardest at it.

I recently started a very admin-heavy new office job. Multiple people are asking me to do many random things all day. I mostly love my job, and I enjoy the busy pace, and the ability to be a general point-person for whatever anyone needs help with, and for the most part I have been very successful in handling this. But I have committed a few oversights, errors which are minor in scope but very important in practice, because there is a strong emphasis on perfection. These errors are very stupid things, like somehow not seeing a file in a group, or mixing up print-outs; not really things I can attribute to being new.

I find my deficiency in this realm very distressing, because I am really giving my all to this job. It's not like I'm messing up because I'm too busy checking my cow patties in Farmville, or walking up and down the hall looking for people to chat with. I don't do anything at work except work, I am always pleasant and acquiescing, and agree happily to all tasks that are asked of me, including offering to do more than necessary for a task. I'm already fully focused on my work, so it's frustrating that there's this element of carelessness that feels sort of beyond my control. I don't know how to convince my colleagues/bosses that these things "won't happen again" when I can't even convince myself, because I already work hard to, yet sometimes fail to, prevent them.

I've held lots of jobs before but never one where the little details were this important. Sometimes it feels like I'm missing some sort of gene keeping everyone else's brains on the right track. Just the fact that I even can keep track of all the thing that need to get done-- never mind the outcome-- feels like a major victory to me.

Maybe relevant, but maybe not: I have OCD, which I don't medicate, and have also strongly suspected for a while that I might have ADHD.

Any ideas?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you need to slow down a bit, take a breath, and check your work before moving on to the next task. Excessive multi-tasking can make anyone miss small details. I would talk to your boss about either getting some assistance, or discuss when it's possible to decline a request to take on a new task so you can ensure the ones you are already doing are done with accuracy.

If you can't do the above, see about asking a co-worker you trust to double-check the really important things before you turn them in. Sometimes, just walking through what you've done and explaining it to someone can make mistakes jump out at you.
posted by cecic at 4:06 PM on September 19, 2010

Word-by-word and line-by-line proof reading of everything you produce in hard copy format, using a ruler, is the only thing that works for me. A pain but it does fix this problem. Do sort it out though as a loss of confidence by a manager is contagious and can be career limiting.
posted by dmt at 4:11 PM on September 19, 2010

I find it helps to make a lot of to do lists, especially at the beginning and end of the day. Checklists (in science we call them "protocols" ^_^) for tasks your do less regularly may help as well. Additionally, if you are in the middle of a task and someone interrupts you, make a note of what you were doing. Since the job is new, hopefully these mistakes are something that will go away in time.

In a worse case scenario, ask your boss/superior if they have advice on remembering these things or what you can do to improve. Even if it's something you don't think will work, it can't hurt to try it for a week, right?
posted by maryr at 4:21 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

If your tasks are very complex and you do them repeatedly, a checklist might help. Write one up, print out a bunch, keep one sheet with each project/task, and check the boxes with a pencil as you complete each step. A paper checklist attached to each project is useful, a spreadsheet that lives on your computer is not. Update and refine your checklists until they are optimized for your personal brain - they don't have to make sense to anybody else.

The emphasis on perfection makes me wonder if you work in a heavily regulated area, like a pharmaceutical company or a hospital. In this case, there may already be checklists floating around in the QA department. (Don't gank an official QA document, though - just use it as a model to create your own unofficial version. QA gets really uptight about their controlled documents.)
posted by Quietgal at 4:25 PM on September 19, 2010

ADD-- have you ever been evaluated? If not, go to a neurologist (not a psychologist) and get tested. My life changed when I got the Rx, but I also learned a bunch of coping skills (lists, double checking, etc.) that made office work easier.

Lists are useful tools, but if you get distracted, you're not going to go to the list. If your brain is buzzing with all the tasks at hand, and the future ones, and the ones after that, it's hard to concentrate.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:32 PM on September 19, 2010

In a rush to get the work done efficiently, you can sometimes sacrifice accuracy. Turns out bosses seem to appreciate accuracy way more than efficiency! Therefore, these are a few things I tell myself:

- Every draft is a final draft.
- Use a ruler to check something line-by-line.
- Double-check your work, but for the big important projects take the time to triple-check... then have a co-worker look it over as well.
- Use spell check. It doesn't catch everything, but it will often catch a totally misspelled word that you didn't see while proofing.
- Make simple checklists for tasks you do often, which will seem like overkill but might give you the peace of mind you need and a little structure to keep your mind on track.
- When you finish a task, take a moment to step back and say, "does this look right?"
- Do things in the safest order possible. For example, attach files and do the subject line first in an email, with the last step entering the recipients in the "to" field.
- Listen carefully to anyone assigning you a task or asking you a question.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions, but try to answer the question yourself first.
- "Never assume."
- Remember that humans make mistakes. It's okay sometimes, and you'll usually be remembered more for how you handled things after the fact than for the mistake you actually made.
posted by belau at 4:40 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

When you get any new info, whether it is through conversations, emails or documents at work - think carefully about how it applies to you and your responsibilities, and note down any action items or info that you need from it in a place you look at often (post-it note on bottom on computer monitor is good). We have a new person at work who is struggling with this - for example he needs to make a backup of something at 4pm, but an email was sent out saying the system will be down 3-5pm. He apparently reads the email (or at least says he did), but then still tries to make a backup at 4pm and is all puzzled and upset when he finds that he cannot. It really sucks and I hope he overcomes it.
posted by meepmeow at 5:33 PM on September 19, 2010

ADD-- have you ever been evaluated?

OP wrote: I have OCD, which I don't medicate, and have also strongly suspected for a while that I might have ADHD.

So, yeah, you should start on getting that checked out.

Either way, though, remember that this sort of precision and attention to detail is a skillset that you can develop, not a fixed trait.

(In fact, one of the effects of ADHD is that it makes it harder to develop your organizational skills. When other kids were learning how to double-check their math problems and not lose their homework, us ADHD folks were picking our noses and watching airplanes. Oops. And on the other hand, plenty of non-ADHD folks also missed out on learning how to keep organized — either nobody taught them how, or they had more pressing problems than keeping track of their homework, or whatever. But either way, you can totally learn this stuff as an adult.)

You say the mistakes you're making aren't just attributable to the fact that you're a new hire. Okay. But in all likelihood, they are attributable to the fact that you're new(-ish) at this whole precise-and-careful-and-organized thing. Just keeping that in mind can be helpful.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:44 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have recently started a job that sounds very similar to this. Some of my problems with inaccuracy or incompletion seem to stem from the fact that I am often juggling several projects or tasks at once. I've starting jotting down little notes reminding myself what I need to do, where this goes, when it's due, etc. These notes are kept with whatever project that I'm working on so that if one task is interrupted by something more important, I at least have a small reminder of what I was doing.
posted by gumtree at 5:49 PM on September 19, 2010

I feel your pain. I've been a paralegal for nearly five years now, and every day is a new test of my multitasking & organizational skills. Much of my advice below is catered more to those working in a legal setting, but could probably be tweaked to your particular line of work:
  1. Use color coded Post-it notes + medium fine point Sharpie for writing reminders. Bright colors + bold print help me immensely.
  2. If possible, try to find past examples of projects or documents done by your predecessors. Print them out and place in a folder marked "Samples." When you are asked to reproduce something along a similar line, you will have your roadmap to help get you started more quickly.
  3. If you use Outlook, create a signature for every frequently-used blurb of text. Whenever you need to send an email, just insert that signature, plus your regular signature listing your title/contact information. Do not use this as an excuse to skimp on proof-reading.
  4. Check & triple-check everything. Read not only for typos, but also for content. Beware of skipped letters that can result in a correctly-spelled word being used improperly: He/the, public/pubic (!), you/your etc.
  5. If you deal with specific clients, create a "cheat sheet" for each client with everything you feel is important. Save them as read-only, and grant access to everyone in your office. You will make yourself look good, while helping others.
  6. Every time you accomplish something, (a more efficient workflow, a big project, even a new way of using MS Word/Excel/Powerpoint tailored to your line of work), document it in very specific terms. Come time for your annual review, you will have your ammunition if anyone tries to make a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to your mistakes.
  7. dmt's above comment about using a ruler. I find the plastic color kind (instead of wood) to be easier for me, but YMMV.
  8. Last but not least, everything that belau said above.

posted by invisible ink at 6:19 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. Make a checklist for each type of task you regularly perform. So if, for instance, you print files regularly, make a checklist for the steps involved in verifying the right files are printed, that you have the right number of copies, etc. Make sure you physically (or electronically) check off each task before you consider the task "complete," and eventually you'll train yourself into doing this without the list.

2. For things you're writing or transcribing, find a proofreader with whom you can trade proofing duties. Two sets of eyes is always better than one.

3. Find a way of organizing your day into like tasks. When you're filing, try to find a way to make that period of time only about filing. When you're answering e-mails, concentrate on only e-mails. There's a lot of multitasking involved in any administrative job, but the more you can keep yourself in the mindset of the task-at-hand (rather than hopping from one type of skillset to another), the more you'll find a groove.
posted by xingcat at 7:42 PM on September 19, 2010

I am always pleasant and acquiescing, and agree happily to all tasks that are asked of me, including offering to do more than necessary for a task.

This can be a problem. If you take on too much you can't do it all well. A good manager should know this but the world is sadly lacking in good managers.
posted by fshgrl at 11:24 PM on September 19, 2010

Nthining lists, lists, lists.

I like to use index cards to keep things together, or at least documented.

Learn to say no, which in the corporate environment frequently involves asking your boss to tell them no. (Or, more precisely, that you're too busy to take on the work, and they'll get back to them when there's more bandwidth available.)
posted by Citrus at 1:02 PM on September 20, 2010

You need to institute a quality control checklist. This is a checklist of things that you have done wrong that you have caught yourself (this will be the most important part of your checklist), mistakes others have caught, and other important expectations of your product.

I think the most important part of this "mistakes diary" is the mistakes that you catch yourself. It's easy to say, "Oh, I'll remember that mistake and not do it again." - you won't. Make the list.As you use this, you'll find yourself learning how to check your own work in progress of doing it. Good luck.
posted by Brent Parker at 4:04 PM on September 20, 2010

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