I can't do everything ASAP!
November 1, 2011 4:47 PM   Subscribe

Everything at work needs to be done ASAP. How do I deal?

I have been in my current position about a year and a half. I was hired to work on multiple long term projects, but spend most of my time responding to assignments from several different superiors (I don't really have one single supervisor) that need to be done "ASAP." This happens so frequently (several times a week) that not only do I have trouble keeping up with my long-term projects, but I now have trouble keeping up with the urgent short term assignments as well. Compounding the problem is that when I need to involve others in a task that needs to be completed within a certain timeframe, I get either no response or a very delayed response. I don't actually even like the kind of work I am doing (lots of sitting in front of a computer and staring at spreadsheets), but I wouldn't mind it so much if I thought I could actually do a good job. When I first started I was aware of a lot of disorganization in my department, but I thought that I would be able to fix the disorganization, in my area at least, within a years' time. Well, a year has passed and I increasingly feel like I am spinning my wheels, am not able to do quality work, and can't fix problems that seem to be endemic to the leadership. I am getting to the point where I am getting so anxious about work that I get nauseous when I think about it and have trouble getting out of bed. I have a strong sense of needing to be the responsible good worker, so I feel like I do need to try to fix this mess before I move on to (hopefully) greener pastures, but another part of me wants to just quit (ASAP!) and attempt to recover some of my sanity while I try to figure out what kind of job I actually would like to do.

A few other things to consider:
-Even though I don't think I am doing a good job, my superiors seem to think I am doing a great job and have given me very positive evaluations in the past.
-I like most of the people I work with, (mostly) agree with the mission of the organization, but don't actually enjoy the work I actually do there. As I already mentioned, I think could tolerate it if I thought I could produce quality work, but since that's not happening, I now actively dread my job and am so anxious about it that I have trouble focusing on day to day tasks. (and yes, I am seeking professional help for my anxiety...finally made an appointment with an EAP counselor)
-I could easily find work waiting tables to cover any period of unemployment should I decide to quit, but I am terrified of losing my benefits (like the EAP!) and the security of working for a large institution, not to mention letting people down for not succeeding in this field. (and yes, I know that overachieving perfectionism is another source of my anxiety)

I have definitely decided that this particular field is not for me, but can't decide if I should suck it up and stay as long as I need to to fix the mess (i.e., to complete the long term assignments I was hired to do so that the next person in my position doesn't have to deal with this grief), or quit now and save my sanity. So, to make a long question short, should I leave now or later? And if I leave later, how do I deal with all everyday chaos of the job?
posted by smokingloon to Work & Money (18 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
There's a middle-ground between quitting now to save your sanity and trying to fix the mess.

Don't quit, but don't try to fix the mess either. Save your sanity by mentally re-aligning your job description: At work you're now the ASAP-girl/ASAP-guy. If they think you're doing great work then you ARE doing great work. The only two things that matter to working people right now are health benefits and the positive perception of their employer. And you are two for two! That means you're doing great!

Then go home and start researching careers and looking for jobs. Don't quit your job until you find something else.
posted by bleep at 4:55 PM on November 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

You don't have one supervisor, you have many. They don't communicate, so they don't know what you are doing or how much you are doing. Start writing down every task you do, as you do it. At the end of the week, send this list to you your supervisors. Let them know that you will be sending weekly emails outlining what you are currently working on. After a few weeks, ask for a raise.
posted by myselfasme at 4:58 PM on November 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

I had this job. I had your multiple supervisors and emergency fires interfering with long term projects. I had your stress level.

The most useful thing I learned to do was form a list of project priorities with my "primary" supervisor (do you have a primary or someone who could be?), and then at least weekly -- sometimes daily -- tell them what new requests were coming in and how much time they were likely to take. Then I would ask him where they fit into the list of priorities we reviewed every week. Where there were conflicts, my semi-supervisor would negotiate with the "other" supervisors. I also kept a file of work accomplished and its estimated impact on the business.

I managed my work demands and multi-managers successfully this way for over five years. And then I got the hell out. I hope you can do both.
posted by vers at 5:07 PM on November 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

I agree with vers - who keeps track of your big projects, and who reviews your annual progress? Talk to that person about your workload, especially the daily/weekly list of Due Yesterday items.

Compounding the problem is that when I need to involve others in a task that needs to be completed within a certain timeframe, I get either no response or a very delayed response.

From this lack of / delay in response, could it be that you're treating things as more important than they are? Are your multiple supervisors marking too many things ASAP, watering down the notion until it is meaningless? What happens if they aren't done right away? Or is it that your co-workers are also overwhelmed with daily and long-term goals from multiple managers?
posted by filthy light thief at 5:12 PM on November 1, 2011

As for "fixing the organization," if your managers / supervisors are doling out Last Minute Deadlines, it's above your paygrade to control. Not that you shouldn't try, it's that there's a broader mindset that you'd have to fix.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:14 PM on November 1, 2011

Response by poster: Are your multiple supervisors marking too many things ASAP, watering down the notion until it is meaningless?
Possibly, but I have no real way of knowing. Or rather, I have a general idea when certain things are important and urgent, but I don't always know when they are not. For example, I got an assignment not too long ago that needed to happen "last week." It was a very time-consuming project (mainly because our databases were disorganized and incomplete), so I let my supervisor know it would take a while longer to complete than he hoped. He said that was fine. I dropped everything and got it done in a week, sent him the results. Got absolutely no response. Was it that important that I needed to drop everything else for a week? I have no idea.

What happens if they aren't done right away? Or is it that your co-workers are also overwhelmed with daily and long-term goals from multiple managers?

Yes, everyone is overwhelmed, including our supervisors! I had another project recently that needed to get done (really) like two months ago. We had a plan of action. I had my task to complete; one of my supervisors had his. I did mine; he did not do his. Did not respond to my reminders, did not explain. The job simply did not get done.
posted by smokingloon at 5:40 PM on November 1, 2011

I tend to send the managers after each other.

"Dave, I've got to finish this for Molly, if you can get her to agree to push her task back for this, I can get that in."

"Katie, I'm having a hard time finding the time for long-term goal x, can you help me find a way to carve out time to make some progress on it?"
posted by advicepig at 5:43 PM on November 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

It also sounds like you have a workplace that has a false sense of urgency. If everything is the top priority, nothing is the top priority, especially if nothing happens when things don't get done.

I like to keep these things out in public. Here's what I'm working on, is your thing more or less important than that?
posted by advicepig at 5:46 PM on November 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Do not leave unless you have another job lined up.

My advice is similar to advicepig:

If one managers says X project has to be done before a different manger's project Y, tell manager X that s/he'll have to get the okay from manager Y.

Also, document everything. It doesn't have to be in depth or formal (I used a steno pad), just notes to yourself:

11/11 9am: Joe gave me X project. Needed by 11/15.
11/11 2pm: Jane gave me Y project. Needed by 11/14. Told her about Joe's X and they'll have to work out priorities.
11/12 845 am: Joe says Jane's project cannot be ahead of his. BigBoss agreed in writing/verbally/email/whatever.

And so on.
posted by deborah at 6:14 PM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

What Deborah said.

I worked at a place where the default instruction was (due) 'ASAP' -- for the normal queue. So for me it does not mean "drop everything" but rather due "as soon as possible (indefinite)" - subject to 'first-in-first-out' as well as over-riding specific promises. Promises were like "11/15 CERTAIN" and it was for managers to determine the actual priorities, monitor the ASAP queue and the promised queue, and manage client expectations -- to make (and break) the commitments being handled by staff.

If no one else is managing it, then do it openly on a whiteboard.
posted by lathrop at 7:37 PM on November 1, 2011

Saying that everything is a priority is functionally the same as saying that nothing is a priority. Keeping this in mind will do wonders for your sanity.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:10 PM on November 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

You don't say what you do but being torn between many urgent tasks and long term projects is a classic problem for sysadmins. There is an O'Reilly book called Time Management for System Administrators that's geared towards that job but contains some specific stuff on how to balance multiple short term demands and long term projects.
posted by tallus at 8:53 PM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yep, whiteboard. Big handwriting, your to-do list, with a big fat 1, 2, and 3 circled by your top 3 items. When someone ASAPs you, say enthusiastically you'll do it right away, then look at your white board. The white board is the bad guy, not you. Now you're both a team, disappointed together that the white board says you're going to have to wait.

Also don't forget to put PROJECT A: 10:00 to 11:00 DAILY in big letters on the white board. Same thing for some other projects.
posted by ctmf at 8:57 PM on November 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I decided to live my life within the framework of fiscal year quarters.
As I begin work on new priorities/projects, I create a paper file.
I designate small colored post-its for each quarter, and put a post-it at the top of the folder so I can see it.
yellow - Jul-Aug-Sep
green - Oct-Nov-Dec
blue - Jan-Feb-Mar
pink - Apr-May-Jun

that helps me keep track of [and find] which folders I'm working on this quarter as well as showing my bosses that EVERYTHING can't be finished this quarter.

I was able to get them to list out annual initiatives, however, now I have trouble getting them to admit that new "tasks" have risen to the level of initiatives and should be on the list. It is an ongoing battle, but having a long-term list shows them that I am trying to give true priority and planning time to what THEY have designated as important.

I also started using big post-its [6" x 8"] on the wall to designate what projects I am focusing on now. A white board is too easily erased and became a place for the emergency stuff rather than the planned projects.

Finally, I am trying to keep one notebook at my desk to record the phone calls and quick tasks that I am asked to do during the day. That helps me keep all of that daily input in one place--which allows me to finish what I am doing at that second before jumping to the next task.
posted by calgirl at 10:31 PM on November 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Short answer: leave later. But right now you should update your resume and LinkedIn and start chatting with contacts in other companies / industries, so by the time you do leave in the distant future, it's natural to reach out to people and you have a good resume ready to go. And in the meantime, consider aligning yourself with the company's misguided "everything's a crisis" mentality.

I had a similar job. I'm also a rehabbing perfectionist. In my company, part of the strategy was to abuse the misguided employees who were dedicated enough to stick around. There was no incentive to fix the system because enough things were completed, and from that perspective the system was working. Bear in mind that controlled chaos may be their strategy, no matter how misguided.

I did a few things. First, I did the best that I could, and focused on making a difference. That made me happy and I produced some things I was really proud of, but unfortunately resulted in my first poor performance review because I was seen as accomplishing little. Interestingly, as I focused on doing the "best I could," I stopped doing half-assed work on ASAP tasks, and I found out later that doing half-assed work on many ASAP tasks was valued more highly than doing very good work on a few tasks. (3 years, 2 jobs, and one huge pay raise later, I'm in the same industry and people still send me some really valuable materials that I created, but that were not valued by my company) So you have a decision to make: you can either do work your way, create something really valuable, and potentially suffer the consequences and be undervalued; or you can realize that this company has hired you to do things their way and they prefer that you churn out half-finished tasks that they throw at you. Frankly, I'm not sure which way I would go - while I'm proud that I created some really long-lived stuff, I also realize that I passed up some advancement opportunities by bucking the trend and I kind of wish I'd gotten on board faster.

Second, after 2.5 years I realized that I couldn't do this forever. Not only had the advancement opportunities dried up, but I knew I wouldn't do as well as I could, go as far as I could, or be as happy as I could in that job where quality wasn't valued and everything was a crisis. So I kept my resume up-to-date, kept in touch with people outside the company, and eventually got another job before leaving. My current employer likes it when I get things right, and when they come to me with a new task and I'm booked up they understand when I ask them which task to deprioritize for the new effort. So I suggest that you should not quit outright, but you should definitely keep up your ties to people in other companies and keep your resume and LinkedIn up-to-date. Don't think of it as "I'm dropping this place right now," think of it as "I have this under control, but this won't last another 3 years - and I'm going to leave on my own terms (with a new job)." By the time you need connections or a resume for a new job, it's too late to update them.
posted by Tehhund at 5:34 AM on November 2, 2011

I used to work at a place as the one-man art department. All jobs flowed down to me from teh CEO via my two managers. The CEO's usual method was that whatever he was requesting at the moment was top priority. So, I would get assignment A on Monday. Tuesday would come, and assignment B would be dropped on me with the note that it was now my priority. Wednesday would come and, in addition to assignment C being dropped on me (and it was now my top priority), the CEO would inquire as to where we were with assignment A.

And, it would continue like that all week, and over and over.

Eventually, I threw it back at my managers. I simply drew-up my assignment list and told them to prioritize them. then, when they came and threw the inevitable assignment G at me, I had them re-prioritize the entire list.

As far as I'm concerned, a management team that can't properly manage projects deserves a large share of the pain.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:40 AM on November 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

In most instances, work tasks only absolutely, positively have to be done by a certain time until someone categorically states that they cannot be done by that time. Priorities are then reassessed and the deadline is changed. Life goes on and it's not a big deal.

Your opportunity to state that something cannot be done by a certain time should occur when your supervisors ask you if you are able to do the task and, if so, when by. If you are not being given this opportunity then that is a failure on the part of your supervisors. And not being presented with the opportunity should in no way stop you from being honest and stating that something cannot be done within the originally envisaged timeframe.
posted by MUD at 9:47 AM on November 2, 2011

One step beyond the personal whiteboard: if you're really focused on fixing things, get people to collaborate and make Gannt charts for projects, and identify who has to do what. This way, everyone can see the steps required, the people involved, and who has to wait for someone else before their step can get done.

There are Gannt chart generating programs, or you can use something with cells, like Excel, and do it yourself.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:23 PM on November 2, 2011

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