When was "too little stress" ever a problem?!
April 12, 2012 3:29 AM   Subscribe

I need some help with motivation. I work best to set-in-stone deadlines which I will be in trouble if I do not meet. Unfortunately my current job doesn't work that way. I'm finding myself rather unproductive these days and I don't like it.

Hey Mefites, it's me, back with another work question.

I used to have a job which was very deadline-based. It was stressful. I didn't like it, but I was very productive. (I thrive on clarity and black-and-white-ness in most aspects of my life, not just work.) There were no questions about when something was due. It was due at exactly this time on this date, and I found it easy to prioritise because it was clear to me when things were due.

Now I have a job I enjoy much better, with a boss I really like and don't want to disappoint. My responsibilities have become more of a constant stream of things with no particular deadline. I am finding it such a hardship to get down and focus on things when all of my duties are of equal importance and it doesn't really matter when they get done. I feel like I am being less productive in the absence of clear deadlines, although my boss seems happy with me.

I feel like a bit of an asshole for complaining about this when the people I work with are so great and I am so happy now especially in comparison to the kind of work I was doing before, where I was basically ill with stress. But I got shit done then, and I simply do not feel I am being as productive now because there is no urgency. For the past week or so, I have found myself wasting entire afternoons on Facebook because hell, it doesn't matter if X Task doesn't get done today, no one is going to care. I feel so bad even writing that. But I have very little self-control when I don't have external forces putting me under pressure. I simply work better under a bit of stress and with a bit of structure. Now I am deprived of both those things.

So I need some tips about motivation and structure in an unstructured work environment. How do you prioritise when all tasks are of equal importance, and how do you manage your time when it doesn't really matter when things get done?

Thanks as ever for your help.
posted by Ziggy500 to Work & Money (11 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
My work situation is not dissimilar. Sorry, I only have abstract things to say:

A deep-seated reinterpretation of your work is possible, given some time. We can stand on desperation and frustration and kick ourselves off into the next level of maturity. Time and reinterpretation.

The reinterpretation can involve understanding that you are under pressure. Always. The pressure to live according to your true will in your finite lifespan.

Memento mori. It helps.

And – You have an unstructured work environment. You can create the structure. It just takes time to get to know your new work, it's a little more amorphous than what you were doing last time around, you have to get to know it and find all the little solid bits you can use to hang it on to the structure you've created. The big win is that you get to design the structure. It's fun, promise.

Sorry. Wish I had something more concrete.
posted by krilli at 3:59 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sit down with your boss and give yourself firm deadlines that you have to meet, and set up times to go over the work you've done on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Make yourself accountable, track your time, and show your work.
posted by xingcat at 4:10 AM on April 12, 2012

Yeah, the only trick I've discovered in this situation is to create an artificial deadline.

Usually this involves setting up a meeting or call with someone to have them answer a question. I really hate having useless meetings and wasting that persons time, so this creates a deadline for me of being prepared enough with my questions.

Likewise, setting up a review of your work at certain milestones. This can be initiated by you. You don't have to wait for your boss.
posted by vacapinta at 4:17 AM on April 12, 2012

I used to (okay, still do, part time) work in a job heavy on the deadlines, but I'm transitioning into a different sort of environment, not entirely unlike the one you describe. For me, the projects themselves have been the motivation ("I get to repair this newspaper from the 1800s? Awesome! Let's do it!"), but the prioritization can be somewhat arbitrary. If there's no clear deadline (which, occasionally, there still is), I simply make an effort to work on what came in first. So, first in, first out.

Anyway, if your tasks are all of equal importance but are regularly reoccurring, you could set up an arbitrary rotation for working on them. On Mondays, work on X; Tuesdays, Y. (Or, week 1, X; week 2, Y. However it best works out.) Commit yourself to finishing X and Y by these arbitrary deadlines. Of course, this assumes that you already know approximately how much time each thing should be taking you.

If doing that on your own isn't enough, then definitely consider speaking with your boss, as others have suggested. He/she wants you to succeed! (If he/she is a good boss, then for both your sake and the job's.)

Good luck!
posted by divisjm at 4:30 AM on April 12, 2012

Try thinking of it as building an endoskeleton for yourself instead of the exoskeleton you're used to.

1. Divide your work into functional areas.
2. Each day, complete (at least) one task that advances each functional area.
3. Each day, complete one bonus task such as developing a new idea, making a new contact, researching a relevant concept/market/competitor/industry, or prepping materials.
4. End each day with an empty email inbox.
5. Stay off facebook.

I started consulting after several years of working in an incredibly stressful yet productive client services role. I'm just starting to get the hang of it after six months.
posted by mochapickle at 4:33 AM on April 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

If you want to give your artificial deadlines some teeth, there are web sites (one, two) that enable you to set up a contribution to some organization that exists to promote values or activities that you loathe; the gift is only activated if you fail to complete the obligation you define. Back in pre-Internet days, my father and his work buddy would hold each other's checks in a home-grown version of this idea.
posted by carmicha at 6:15 AM on April 12, 2012

I tend to have the same problem. Reminding myself that I'm at work to trade my services in return for a paycheck tends to keep me moving for a while, particularly when I'm working on a task that is tedious.

For Internet distractions I installed the stay focused add on for chrome. I have it disabled at lunch time, otherwise any sites I frequent remove time from my available browsing time until those sites are blocked. If I really need to focus it allows me to block everything except specific sites (company intranet for example).
posted by Quack at 7:46 AM on April 12, 2012

I too find it difficult to work without concrete deadlines and the pressure that comes with that.
I find that the methods described in David Allen's "Getting Things Done" have been a great help.
The lists and reviews very helpful as they create structure and deadlines.
This, in conjunction with artificial deadlines such as meetings and phone calls that I set up, force me to get motivated and get my work done.
posted by Snazzy67 at 7:50 AM on April 12, 2012

I actually just ordered a book this morning called Zen to Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System that's supposed to be like a simplified version of Getting Things Done. Just thought I'd throw that out there. If I had any substantive advice for you I probably wouldn't need the book, so...
posted by désoeuvrée at 10:09 AM on April 12, 2012

One of my favorite things in the world to do is make lists and cross off tasks after I've finished them. If you don't love lists as much as I do, this technique might not work, but I'm with divisjm and mochapickle--divide up your work day or week and figure out what you're going to work on and when. You could also reward yourself with something little when you stick to the schedule.
posted by easy_being_green at 6:37 PM on April 12, 2012

Do you ever have to account to your boss for how much work you get done each week? If so, that helps. If not, maybe you should.

You can also try the timer method. Set up some kind of timer so that for 15 minutes you work on a work thing, then take 5 minutes or 15 or whatever to get your Internet ya-yas out, then go back to work, then take a break, etc. If it seriously doesn't matter when it gets done, then it's okay to take Internet breaks. Just try not to do it all afternoon or day, and make sure there are periods you dedicate only to work.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:48 PM on April 12, 2012

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