How do I not suck at life?
June 9, 2012 9:08 AM   Subscribe

You procrastinate. You're disorganized. You make multiple careless mistakes weekly. How did you go from being a Bad Employee to a good one who actually contributes positively to your organization?

I'm two years into my professional career out of school and have somehow fallen into a career that involves an extreme amount of attention to detail, attention to numbers/finance/budget, spreadsheets, hyper-organization, and managing multiple projects/clients at once on tight deadlines.

I profoundly suck at all of these things. I feel worse because I have a feeling that a lot of these qualities are important for most if not all jobs, regardless of the industry, so even if I'm considering a career switch I still need to get my shit together for the time being.

I am at my second company starting fresh after my performance at my first one went south. When I started at my old job, everyone seemed to really appreciate my work, but as my workload and responsibilities increased, my performance got worse and worse. I had a harder time organizing more things and prioritizing tasks. I rarely met deadlines that my supervisor set. As work started piling up, desire to procrastinate increased. I started putting things off because I was horrified of getting started on them. I'd be on client calls and information would be coming at me so fast that I couldn't keep up with taking notes.

And then the careless mistakes started happening - I'd make so many errors on so many projects, causing my entire team to have to backtrack and cover my ass and producing more unnecessary work for everyone. The scary part is, no matter how much I think I am taking my time on something, and no matter how elaborately I thought I proofed it, I can not count the number of times I'd come in the next morning, the next week, or the next month to find out from my boss or a client that something was completely fucked up because of a mistake or a typo or a detail I overlooked. And I'll pull up the document/spreadsheet that I worked on from that day and THEN and only then will I actually see the error that led to the cluster that we're now in. And it feels like someone who blacked out from drinking too much only to find out the next morning they harmed someone but have no memory of it. It's horrifying, and no matter how much I try to take control over it, the mistakes keep piling up.

So a month ago I left my job to start over at another company. I'd do everything different this time! I'd take my time on things! I'll double check! I'll keep a to-do list and keep everything in folders and binders! Nope, none of this happened, and a month in I've already received my third email from my supervisor telling me "Please be sure to check your work to avoid this from happening again". I feel awful. Just like my last job, I am constantly apologizing. It has already begun - I am doing a Bad Job, and I can sense my supervisor is starting to feel the first pangs of regret for hiring me.

I feel like a shitty worker who sucks at contributing. I want so badly to be a "valuable asset" to the organizations I work for but am just the complete opposite - I screw things up and drag people down with me. I'm starting to feel like I just don't belong here, like I'm not cutting it.

My question: Does this sound like it was you at one point? How did you change your life in a positive way? Did you get diagnosed with ADD and get on meds/therapy? Did you keep at it and things turned around? Did you get fired and hit "rock bottom" forcing you to pull it together? I need to know stories about this with positive endings, because I can only focus on the negative right now. I would also love to hear perspectives from those who are managers and have dealt with people like me.

I want to change SO badly.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (34 answers total) 125 users marked this as a favorite
Quick question: do you like your job? Do you like the work you're doing? Do you feel like the work you're producing is justified and for a valuable cause?

If the answers to those questions are 'no,' perhaps your brain is like 'fuck it, this work doesn't matter' and causes you to be careless.

I am quite curious, though, how you're so cognizant of this issue you have and continue to keep making the same mistakes.. not a dig or insult, but something to think about because you should theoretically be cutting down on the mistakes, especially when you're so focused on not making them.
posted by 6spd at 9:22 AM on June 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

You mention ADD. It certainly sounds like you should have an assessment made by a qualified pro. I got the immediate impression that you might have a touch of it from just you above the fold description. I have known at least one person that worked for me that was very bright and also very disorganized and since getting on meds is doing great in med school. The fact that you mention it tells me that you think it fits. Why not find out. If nothing else it could help eliminate it as a source of the problem.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 9:25 AM on June 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm in the midst of learning to do these things myself, so I feel your pain. Can I ask you why you aren't doing this:

I'd do everything different this time! I'd take my time on things! I'll double check! I'll keep a to-do list and keep everything in folders and binders!

Because, seriously, you need to do these things right now. You also need to STOP procrastinating on your projects - you don't have the time! There have been a lot of good ask-mefi's in the past regarding procrastination, you should take a look at those. Can you work late or take a weekend to spend a few hours on one of your projects? Being rushed causes a lot of errors.

Finally, ask for help. People don't just all of a sudden become good at the type of job you have - they were usually helped by someone or a class that allowed them to pick up a few tricks that work for them. Have someone listen in on a call with you and then compare notes, have them check your work. My boss helped me, maybe yours can help you. It's not to their benefit to have you keep "screwing up," and they'd rather have you ask for help instead of quitting in a panic. Good Luck!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:25 AM on June 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

God, yes. This is/was me. And I have a science doctorate. I work in business now and have for a decade. The only thing, seriously, that made me change and start paying attention to detail was the fear of losing my job and being homeless.

Here is what I do to try to correct my horrible tendencies:
-mark all emails that require follow-up with the red flag
-mark "done" emails with the green flag
-have one list, on paper, of what must be done today
-save that list and continue to next day
-notebook of every call/notes about that call

Other than that, I have stress dreams and fear attacks. I think we are the same. I hope you fare better because my life is hell. I'm guessing this is a personality type unsuited to business or a disorder - don't know.

I wanted to respond because I feel your pain and have developed some tricks. I'll be watching this thread and wishing you luck!
posted by Punctual at 9:29 AM on June 9, 2012 [14 favorites]

This may not be the answer you are looking for or want to hear, but is it possible you can transition to another sort of position in the same general field that does not involve this "hyper organization," as you call it? Maybe being "detail oriented" is just not your strong point, a deficiency that is not at all synonymous with "suck[ing] at life."

On a more micro level, you might want to examine the idea of "single tasking," i.e., when you have a job to do, you ignore the phone, ignore email, ignore passers-by to your desk and focus narrowly on the task at hand. This may require actual physical relocation for the time necessary to complete the task, e.g., move into a conference room and shut the door, having left away messages on your phone and email that you will be unavailable from X time to Y time. Or, if your office culture permits it, put on noise-canceling headphones, log out of email and turn of the ringer. The point is to muffle those attention-grabbing distractions.

I wish you luck.
posted by La Cieca at 9:30 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone has this problem to some degree. I'm going to list things that I did on my own and'/or were company policies to mitigate this problem. Vary it per your work.

• You know how you said that you make little errors? Are these consistently the same type of errors? I used to make a list of the 5 most common errors that I usually made on reports and would go through that checklist before I turned it in (i.e. things like Check the numbers on tables and figures, check the drug names, YMMV but do it according to what you do).

• What you can do with others. I used to partner up with a colleauge.I would proofread her work, she would do mine.Just because the brain doesn't work that you -you aren't going to see the error on what you reviewed 100000 times,but you will see it instantly on someone elses work. Find either another new person or someone very conscientious.

• Check to see what other companies do. Some companies throw things back and forth with no real double checking/reviews and ...things slide.Other companies have checkpoints in place- like an editor, established to review the work, including fact-checking, etc. See if other companies do this and could your company do it too?

• Phone calls/norwa - ask if you can record calls (I have done this, with permission ...makes a big difference).

• Deadlines. Renegotiate deadlines if you need to improve quality. I *rarely* did this - but if you (over time) churn out good work and pple know it,then they will trust you when you say "I need 1 more day and the quality will be good" etc.
posted by Wolfster at 9:30 AM on June 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't have an idea of whether or not you have ADD, but I'm an executive assistant to a CEO and have to be very organized. Here are some basic tips I have learned the hard way over the years:

- Write everything down. Physically, on paper. Keep that paper in front of your face, in a prominent place on your desk. I've found this is way harder to ignore than pop-up reminders and task lists in Outlook or similar programs. I have a big legal pad with the week's general to do list at the top, and the bottom half is reserved for important notes throughout the day. I write those in pencil, so when they're taken care of I can erase them. You can also just have a separate pad for writing down things throughout the day. The point is: write them down, even things you think you'll remember.

- Set deadlines for yourself that are earlier than your boss's. This will give you some leeway, but also will give you an extra day or two to let a project sit, and then you can come back to it and check for errors before you submit it. Failing to see mistakes after you've been staring at something for a long time is a really common thing.

- Ask a coworker roughly at your level to review important documents for you before you submit them. You're new at your job; this won't be looked down on as a weakness.
posted by something something at 9:34 AM on June 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

It seems like you're really aware of your mistakes and shortcomings, which is HUGE. Lots of people can't even get that far in their own self-analysis and never figure out why they continue to fail at jobs.

But despite that hyper-vigilance, there are two things missing from your description that I'd expect to know. First, is it possible that you're simply being given too much work for someone who has only been working for 2 years? Just because your boss keeps giving you New Piles of Stuff doesn't mean that he knows WTF he is doing or what a reasonable amount of work is for someone with your level of experience.From the sounds of your description, it seems like part of the problem is that you're drowning in work and it's making everything suffer because, obviously, the more stuff you get the less time you have for everything. Can you talk to your boss about the amount of work? You don't want to come across as lazy, but simply saying "hey boss, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed with this New Pile of Stuff. Can you help me prioritize my time so I can make sure my Previous Piles of Stuff that you gave me don't get overlooked?" might help.

Which brings up a second thing I don't see. Are you asking your colleagues for help? Very few people work 100% solo and having a second set of eyes is almost always a good idea (unless your work is based on competition with your colleagues and showing them your work would cause them to steal it for fame and glory). I have been doing my job for >10 years and I am awesome at it, but I still have colleagues proofread nearly everything I do. Even casual client emails often get shown to my deskmate for a quick sanity check.

You're going to fail if you try to do all of this on your own. You need to talk to your boss about your workload and talk to your colleagues about proofreading. Hell, they may even have some suggestions for how to handle the workload too.
posted by joan_holloway at 9:38 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was bad at getting work done in school, but have learned how to do well in a work environment. A few thoughts beyond the great advice others have given above.

Devote first ten minutes of every week to updating a task list of your major deadlines. Spend this time to look ahead not just at what you need to do today or tomorrow, but any information or help you might need for projects that come up next week or the week after.

Devote the first few minutes of every day to updating your task list.

As noted above. Keep a task list on you at all times. Add to the bottom, cross things off when done. Occasionally, when you feel overwhelmed just take a moment to copy it all to a fresh piece of paper. If you are currently procrastinating you have time to do all of this.

When you are taking notes and falling behind, let people know! I have never once had someone get genuinely upset to know that I need an extra moment to ensure I capture their thoughts accurately and completely. Don't let the conversation end if you don't feel you have gotten everything that was expected.

And here is the key one for me:

Many work places and bosses (and it sounds like you've run into this) expect that if you don't speak up it means you think you can get everything done. That doesn't mean that the deadlines are actually reasonable for you. If you are up against a deadline you are not going to meet with a high quality and accurate product, you need to let people know as soon as possible! This is really hard at first, both for you to recognize and others to accept. But, in the long term if you take complete responsibility for this - simply notifying others of the moment you realize you can't meet the deadline to the expected standard - your credibility and reliability will grow. Most supervisors would rather have a worker they can give three projects and know things will go flawlessly than a worker who will take on five and have problems with all of them. Sometimes the ideal of the worker who takes on all five flawlessly isn't possible, even if management would like it that way.

Re-read the advice above about getting help, medical assessments, a co-worker who can take time to proofread your work, whatever it takes. Again, you may be surprised that your work environment is more supportive of your asking for these resources to make you successful than you expect. If they are not, you may need to find some place that will be.
posted by meinvt at 10:07 AM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a professional organizer, I hear stories like this every day from prospective clients. I know how overwhelmed you are, fearful of what this means for your future and stressed about your dwindling self-esteem. What I tell all of them is that disorganization isn't a character flaw; it's just a mismatch between the skills and systems you're using and the demands being placed on you.

You don't say whether you encountered any of these difficulties when you were still in school, or if you have issues with procrastination, missed errors and overwhelm in your personal life. If you did/do, but to a lesser extent, then a few different things may be in play, on their own, or in combination. Perhaps you were so naturally smart when you were younger that never having been taught (or never having developed) good work skills had no negative effect, but the fast pace of the business world is bringing these troubles to the fore. Or, you may have ADD/ADHD that you've otherwise been able to compensate for. Or, small errors caused anxiety, and the anxiety triggered fear of making more mistakes and procrastination, and so on. It could be any or all of these things...but it doesn't have to continue to be.

IAAPO (I am a professional organizer) but IANYPO. May I suggest you start by using quiet time, like today or Sunday, to go into the office and get a handle on what's going on? A few hours now, when it's quiet, can help you be far more effective and efficient without the external stimuli of the boss, the colleagues, the ringing phones, etc.

-Create reference files so that you can put away documents you'll need to retrieve again for information.

-Create action files for projects you're working on now, so that all related items are together.

-Use a tickler file (memail me if you're unfamiliar with the concept) so that as each paper-triggered task pops up, you'll have a safe place to put it (other than in the pile) and then be able to retrieve it so that no deadlines fall through the cracks.

-As you go through your office, each time something comes up that triggers a task you have to perform, put it on a master list. Later on, you can figure out WHEN you're going to do it and even put a note in your task reminder system (electronic, like Remember the Milk, or tangible, like your tickler system...or both!)

-All of the lifehack advice you've been given is apt, but you have to remember to keep looking at your lists, to create lists, and to safe them. Make alarms/alerts your friend to prompt you to carry out specific tasks far enough in advance of when they need to be completed. I'm SUPER organized, and I still set phone alerts to remember to take pills and computer alerts to remember to stop, take breaks, drink water, change categories of tasks, etc.

-On phone calls, as you're taking notes (and yes, record if possible), make an asterisk in the margin to note an issue that you're responsible for doing. Write the deadline date. (When you work, set an earlier deadline so you have that buffer time.) Before you get off the phone, verbally review the plan of tasks to be completed by you. Consider recapping by email and asking for a written reply. ("To make sure we're both on the same page, my understanding of our conversation is...XXXXX, YYYYY, ZZZZZZ. Please let me know if I've omitted anything or if you have any revisions.")

It's not cheating to let something else help you remember to do all you must do.

Once your physical space is more conducive to serving your needs, go back and look at the work you did last week. Check it for mistakes. Make corrections as necessary and provide fresh copies with everyone, letting them know you looked at things with a fresh eye. We ALL make mistakes, and sometimes our brains see what we expect them to see, so, as previously suggested, find a work buddy to trade proofreading skills. (When I worked in television, and was still a very math anxious person, I used to call my best engineering pal from college and have him check my math; in return, I taught him how to avoid stupid dating mistakes. )

Think back to college. Did you just WRITE papers, or did you actually set aside time to edit your papers? If you were naturally good at your work when younger, you might have gotten in the habit of just doing things and merely eyeballing for errors. Writing (reports, emails, etc.) and editing/proofreading use different skill sets and different areas of the brain, so do each with a fresh, hydrated, appropriately well-fed and well-rested head. So, if you have control over when you do what, but need to make sure you get it all done in the day, divide your day into blocks of time, alternating blocks where you need creativity, or sharp mental acuity, or good listening skills, or physical tasks (filing, organizing, delivering, etc.) keeping in mind your natural flow of energy (low in the early morning and after lunch, perhaps, but high in the late morning or afternoon).

Seek outside help: get an ADD screening; consider short-term counseling for the anxiety/depression that can attend these kinds of situations, talk to a professional organizer about a consultation. (We don't just handle the physical -- we do time management training, coaching to create effective systems, work-flow skill training, etc. You'll almost certainly be able to find someone who can do weekend sessions (so you don't have to work on your employer's time) and/or phone coaching.)

Finally, I'll finish the way I started. I work with clients who present your issues...every single day...and their lives get better. By addressing these issues so early in your career, you're opening up the opportunity to dramatically improve and have a long, rewarding professional future.

posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 10:18 AM on June 9, 2012 [56 favorites]

Therapy helped me a little, meds helped me a little, and memory tricks helped me a little. Caveat - I am inherently way, way too organized when everything is going great for me; hypomania brings out Super Hero Fee, who can manage fourteen projects simultaneously and doesn't lose track of anything. I actually have OCPD, apparently - they think that part of why things get so bad for me is that I won't engage when things are going downhill. That is, I do the "I can't fix everything, so I'll sit here in despair instead of fixing anything." CBT (and recognizing the difference between "I can't" and "I can but I feel crappy") has helped a LOT with that. This is not at all part of my ADHD memory/organization stuff - this is depression/anxiety. The difference is whether I'm frozen with despair or trying but failing (at least, at the extremes.)

You might want to take a look at the Job Accommodation Network advice for accommodations for memory deficits and time management/organization. You might need to ask for your employer to do things for you, but some of the ideas may be things you can do for yourself.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 10:18 AM on June 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Track your progress toward developing the habits that you want to develop.

Since keeping checklists doesn't seem to be working all that well for you, just write a diary or something.

Without a measure of progress there's no sense of progress, and without a sense of progress you won't believe you're progressing, and that tends to make it difficult to accomplish anything.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:51 AM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

What do you do when you procrastinate? Do you use other work or do you daydream, surf the intertubes or...?

This is important because it will be your cue that you've become overwhelmed.

Once you decide that while at work you are going to do the work, the whole work, and nothing but the work, so help you god, you will be on the right path. When the urge to switch over to your favorite diversions comes over you, that's when you have to stop to evaluate what's going on at the present time.

I think it was Robert McKee, writing in Story, who said that when a writer feels blocked it is because they don't have enough information. I find this true with other work as well. Maybe not always information, but some element is missing.

Your trips into procrastination are like writer's block. You are missing something, either a skill, a process, information, or...well, you'll be able to figure it out once you look for it. Information is the easiest to come by, usually.

Also, seek out the best person in the organization who does, or has done, what you do. Ask that person to be your mentor. Learn from the that person, in grave detail, how to do your job. Follow the expert's model extactly until you've mastered it. This is a well-worn path to mastering any skill.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:18 AM on June 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

You could try find a job where you don't need attention to detail or have many deadlines. You might be a lot happier then. I don't know exactly what those might be, but I know there are tons of people who have no attention to detail and they are somehow gainfully employed. Maybe something simpler where you are doing only a few tasks that you enjoy or working with one customer at a time.
posted by meepmeow at 11:28 AM on June 9, 2012

As a specific tool, I am currently in love with trello.
posted by gregglind at 11:46 AM on June 9, 2012

I am a bit concerned by some of the complexity of one or two bits of advice above. I want to strongly second something something: start by writing everything down in one place – to-do lists, checklists for common procedures, everything all in one place. This is only my opinion, of course, but if you decide to follow it, I'd suggest not doing any of the other organizational/productivity things first. Just get everything down on paper.

This isn't a complete solution, by far, but it may be enough to inject some calm into the proceedings. Once you are dutiful about writing everything down in one place, you can rest assured that you are never more than one notebook-read-through away from being up to speed with everything. Worried that you might be forgetting something? Just read through the notebook. It will slow you down a bit but it will give you the first basic element of control. You can have all sorts of fun with folder systems etcetera, later on.
posted by oliverburkeman at 11:56 AM on June 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

So when you're proofreading and you catch a typo, what's your instinctive reaction?
  1. Oh crap, I made another mistake! I suck at writing! I'm so careless! It's really embarrassing how bad my first drafts are!
  2. Yay, I caught another mistake! I'm great at proofreading! I'm so thorough! It's really satisfying making a bad draft better!
If you're doing #1, you're basically punishing yourself for proofreading well. When you kick yourself every time you spot a mistake, you train yourself not to spot mistakes. Switch to #2.

(I say that like it's easy. Actually, it takes a lot of effort and mindfulness to redirect your own instinctive reactions like this. You have to catch yourself doing #1 and then stop and try to do a sincere version of #2 instead. So it's hard and it's slow but it can be done, and you may as well start now.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:57 AM on June 9, 2012 [10 favorites]

I work in the sort of field that sounds very similar to yours but I am much more senior. A few thoughts.

1/ Use a paper notebook - one with spirals and a cover or else an actual bound notebook, not a note pad that you flip over - they fall apart too quickly and you lose information as you tear off the top pages.

Whenever you talk to your boss, clients, colleagues, read emails and you are given relevant information or need to do something as a result - take notes (incl. who, what, when). You cross stuff out as you have actioned it - you do not tear out pages, ever. That way you can refer back to stuff.

2/ Be clear what expectations you are supposed to meet.
Somebody asks you to do something or you sit in a meeting and need to take action afterwards - clarify exactly what you are supposed to do and by when. Only once you're clear on what you are supposed to do and to what timeline can you actually meet those expectations. If it transpires that you need help to do the task or with the deadline raise that immediately and ensure you get that help. it is ok not to know something or to be swamped - people can coach you on a task, people can reshuffle work. But they can only do that if you raise the issue.

3/ Be clear on what went wrong and why if stuff goes wrong
You describe a bunch of different problems and they all have different causes and different learning to allow you to fix them and different short-term remedies. Work out what you can fix easily and what is going to take more time.

a) Spreadsheets
- do you have the necessary Excel skills to do your work? If not raise this so people are aware you may need help/more time and learn how to use Excel better. There are plenty of resources to help you do that.
- all number crunching people make mistakes - the trick is to identify them and fix them before your work goes to others. That's why complex spreadsheets ideally have some kind of 'check' formulas in them. Use these check formulas, or develop them if there are none.
- make note of errors you make and develop a checklist - go through that whenever you think you have finished a piece of work.

Bosses do not expect you to never make a mistake. But they do expect self review, they also expect you to not repeat the same errors over and over. Diligent self review would probably go a long way to fix the easier to fix problems you describe. Take time to do that.

b) To do lists
Use your notebook to compile and update your to do list once a day. Do this either first thing in the morning before you do anything else or last thing at night before you leave.

I keep mine in Excel and I have added some conditional formatting to allow me to prioritise things easily and sort them in different ways. The sort of information I include is if a matter is work or private, what it is, who the client is, deadline and resulting priority level.

Look at this and if everything is high priority you have a problem and you need to go and talk to your supervisor about your to do list and ask for their input in prioritising.

Junior people often don't realise that it is not a crime to be overworked, that there are normally many ways things can be done and that they are not the only people who can do a task. But if a task is assigned to you, you accept it and accept the deadline and let your supervisor believe you will deliver on time and then fail to deliver this may cause a significant problem because there may be little or no time for somebody else to do it at that point...which will cause your boss a headache.

4) Minimise distractions when you are doing things that require you to concentrate - some things can't be done well with constant interruptions
- only check your email once every couple of hrs or twice a day - scan, prioritise, add to your to do list and go back to your other tasks.
- let calls roll to voicemail if it is inconvenient but be sure to call people back in a timely fashion - not immediately but when you have a suitable stopping point in your other tasks
- if you need to concentrate lock yourself away for a couple of hrs or even a day, either factually in a break out room/unused meeting room or 'mentally' - tell your colleagues you need to focus on a task and ask them to leave you in piece until xhr, ignore your email and your phone and do what you need to do
- if you can't lock yourself away make maximum use of quiet times of the day to do those things - come in early or stay late or shift your lunch so you work with minimal interruptions whilst people are at lunch. You'll be amazed how productive you can be if there are fewer people around.

5/ Don't be ashamed to ask for help.
You'll notice I am saying ask for input and help - a lot. I really mean that. You are in a junior role and people expect to have to support you. Perhaps I am wrong but people expect a certain progression rate in terms of skill development in junior people and will delegate work in accordance with those expectations, especially with people they have no history working with. In addition people will just pile on work until you say stop. Being realistic about what you can or can't do in a given timeframe is one of the key skills you need to learn in any career.

You are probably right that your boss is getting worried if he's now asked you 3x to check your work before declaring it complete. And the best thing you can do is to ask for a chat on Monday morning where you talk through the difficulties you've been facing, why you think things seem to be going a bit wrong and how you'd like to fix that. Boss probably has a few thoughts on that, too. Ask to go over your to do list (which you'll be preparing as best you can tomorrow) to assess your workload, the kind of work you are supposed to be doing (which may be too complicated for your level or assume you have experience in an area when you haven't) and agree how realistic the tasks and deadlines are.

Your ideal outcome from this meeting is to make it clear to your boss that you want to get this right, understand their main concerns and how you can address them and are clear what tasks on your to do list are priority. Bear in mind the main development points you are given when you work on the tasks you agreed as priority. Check-in with your boss about progress fairly frequently. As for feedback as you complete these tasks. Repeat as necessary. The first step to feeling less overwhelmed is to realise that you can take control of this situation and that there probably is help available - use it.

6/ Finally, not all jobs are for all people
People tend to be happiest in jobs that play to their strengths most of the time. And there are always aspects of each role that play to your strengths and others you can learn to do and even do well but that will require a lot of extra effort because they are not your strengths.

For example the technical and organisational aspects of my job play to my strengths. I love to work out technical problems and I love to get stuff organised and running smoothly. But as introvert I find the social aspects of my role more challenging. Which doesn't mean I can't do these things or don't do them well - it just takes more effort and it is a learned thing as opposed to intuitive for me.

If my job primarily required these learned skills it would not be a good fit in the long-term because it would be too exhausting and I'd never be able to keep that up enough to excel at it.

Is your main problem being overwhelmed by volume or complexity of work, you start to procrastinate, fall behind even more, get flustered, rush things and do them badly as a result? Or does this kind of role really not play to your strengths in a lot of ways and you have to use a lot of skills that are not intuitive for your a lot of the time. If it is the latter rethink what sort of work you want to do - life's too short to waste building a career in a line of work you will never do easily, especially if there are plenty of jobs that would play more to your strengths.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:16 PM on June 9, 2012 [8 favorites]

I was never diagnosed with ADD, but I was diagnosed with depression and after taking antidepressants (Bupropion) for 3-4 months, improved significantly. I believe that I either had a touch of ADD or was experiencing symptoms of depression that behaved very much like it, because the increased mental clarity that I have now is just barely perceptible but so empowering. I can organize writing projects several steps in advance instead of getting turned around inside my thoughts. I can keep track of the documents I digitize at work and organize them with spreadsheets. I can even play fucking chess, finally.

I do not care whatsoever about the actual tasks involved in my job but I'm much better at it now that I can focus. I have some kind of Protestant work ethic, now. I know that I'm working for a living and thus I appreciate it and want to contribute positively to my workplace. There are many jobs that would play to my strengths and which I'd be much better at and which I intend to pursue, but I'm not clutching my head in my hands every day ready to burst at how overwhelmed I am by simple, routine tasks.

Real tips:
- Organize your workspace. Use work space for work and not for anything else (eating, &c.) if you can help it. Have post-its or a memo book on hand at all times. Write down any ideas you have about workspace improvement if you can't implement them immediately (if you can, do).
- Make lists whenever possible and use them use them use them.
- Check in with a doctor/psychiatrist if you have other symptoms of depression or want to be evaluated for ADD.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:35 PM on June 9, 2012

Oh, and
- Get enough sleep (at the same time every day), drink enough water and eat well.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:35 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

All the task management advice above is great. I'd add that you should get into work half an hour early to take a deep breath and review the list. Often the employees I manage who struggle with organization are the ones who consistently dash in sweating at 9:18. Not an issue if they are getting work done, but an anxiety provoking way to start the day.

Proofreading tip: read your emails out loud to yourself - it's a great way to catch careless errors.
posted by mozhet at 1:46 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not a detail oriented person at all, but I've gotten a lot better since i realized I'm not a detail oriented person. Every job says one has to be, and everybody says they are, but not everybody actually is.

Everyone has to find their own system. Systems are like diets. It's possible to lose weight a hundred different ways, but individuals do it by becoming a marathon runner, going low carb, or religiously counting calories--it's personal.

So my system is Post It note/pile heavy. I like brightly colored Post Its and thick black markers and visible piles of things I can scan and decide whether to act on. Mr. Llama has an elaborate email based classification system involving flags, coupled with some cloud based To Do list thing (I think it's called Nirvana) -- he loves that. Sometimes I get bored with Post Its and piles and go Small Spiral Notebook. I'm also big on white boards (again, I like to see things). I've gone through phases involving folders.

Maybe you have ADD (and you should get that checked) or maybe you hate your job (and if so you should think about getting off that track) but trying out a few systems is definitely worth an investment of time because even if you wind up in a not-detail oriented job, some stuff, like house-buying, benefits from a knowledge of how you personally best keep track of details.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:54 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you been tested for dyslexia? Symptoms can include numerical mistakes, difficulty putting things in priority order, slow / difficulty reading, and other things that might contribute to what you are experiencing.
posted by salvia at 3:38 PM on June 9, 2012

Adderall. And finding jobs that aren't insanely detail oriented and where I can walk around and there's a lot of action going on. But mostly Adderall.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:30 PM on June 9, 2012

I had your problem with careless errors at my first job and found that what really helps is to work with your boss to discuss what to do in the future. Basically what we decided on was to pick a few random things to spot check all the time. As in, don't wait until the end to check for mistakes, instead check your numbers as you go.

I agree with koahiatamadl that it's unlikely (or at least, unrealistic) for your boss to think you'll never make any typos--in fact in that job I was constantly finding typos that other people, including my boss, made. So dont take your experience as evidence that your terrible at your job and will never get better, instead work at creating a system where errors like this are caught early.

As for a positive story, I'm now at a job where "qc" (quality control) is a really important part of the workflow, and people at all levels help each other out. Consequently, I have yet to make, or even see mistakes like that which used to happen at my old job. (People including me still make some careless errors, but they are usually caught before the next stage of the project, and always before a client/VIP sees.)
posted by tinymegalo at 6:10 PM on June 9, 2012

I had every one of these problems since grade school: forgetting important assignments, losing things, being constantly late, making dumb mistakes that a few minutes of double checking would have fixed but that just went right over my head without noticing, etc. Parents, teachers, bosses, friends, everyone told me I was talented but immature, wasteful, disrespectful and self-sabotaging. And I couldn't understand myself how I was destroying every chance I seemed to have to do what I loved best. Not really a recipe for feeling good.

I was a year into graduate studies, and sinking like a rock in a program that demanded both overwhelming commitment and maniacal focus on detail, when I got diagnosed with ADD. Off the charts, crippling levels of ADD. It still took months, if not a year, to get my meds down just right and my life in order (and still running horribly aground, but that's a separate issue) but now I'm back on track and doing good in the career track I planned for.

Really, learning that I wasn't a lazy, selfish slacker but essentially functionally disabled since childhood changed everything. That this wasn't some fatal flaw in my character, but a neuropsychiatric syndrome that I could fix and live with. And it explained twenty years of feeling like I was swimming upstream while everyone else seemed to sail past.

To me, it sounds like you have textbook inattentive variant ADD. Find a doctor who knows adult ADD and get that checked out. Blaming yourself for this is like hating yourself for being left handed, or needing glasses. It does get better.
posted by demons in the base at 8:18 PM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Make a list of all the things you have to do, in order of priority.

Every morning, start your day by pulling items from that list that you have the time and the necessary components to can get done by lunchtime, in order of priority. Do them, one at a time. If you run out of items, pull in another item. When you run out of time, go to lunch, leaving any unfinished items unfinished.

When you get back from lunch, pull new items into your list and work on them one by one until you hit the end of the day.

If at any time some emergency comes in, put that at the head of the list. If you already have one or more items on your list with a boss-imposed lunchtime/end of day deadline, ask your boss: "Boss, I need to get [list item with deadline] done by [lunchtime/end of day], but [emergency] just came in; if I can't get both done, do you consider [list item with deadline] or [emergency] more important?"

Lather, rinse, repeat. Just basic time management skills; some people can juggle these "lists" in their head, but lots of people (me, for instance) have to make actual lists. I personally used to be able to do it in my head, but as I get older, I've resorted to bugzilla for long term projects and a whiteboard for the daily list.
posted by davejay at 8:24 AM on June 10, 2012

by the way, this is somewhat different from the to-do-list + binders approach you've already tried and struggled with, in two key ways: first, you're free to not worry about binders and whatnot, and second, you deal with the list at two specific times per day, every day. I tried generic to-do-list + binders myself, and totally failed at it; for me, any system that requires organization beyond "do this on this date each month consistently" or "do this at this specific time each day", I can't make it work.
posted by davejay at 8:27 AM on June 10, 2012

Getting Things Done
posted by Snazzy67 at 9:05 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did you get diagnosed with ADD and get on meds/therapy?

Yes, this is what I did. It's been very effective but, of course, not a silver bullet. However, getting diagnosed and taking meds has been what allowed me to start getting better at managing time and projects. There's some really, really excellent advice in this thread, but none of it would have been helpful to me before my diagnosis. A lot of this stuff is still a struggle for me, but at least I'm able to try the organization stuff, where it was seriously close to impossible before.

I had a very similar experience as you when I was starting out in my career and it was so frustrating and scary. So I really feel for you. I would definitely recommend getting screened for ADHD - it can't hurt. For me, it's completely turned my career around.

On the procrastination thing - I think there's an element of ADHD there, but it's also fear. You might want to see a therapist for a few sessions to develop some tools for dealing with that.

Feel free to PM me if you want to talk more about diagnosis, etc.
posted by lunasol at 4:31 PM on June 10, 2012

not all jobs are for all people

Meant to say this too (ADHD!). Why are you in your current field? Is it what you love, or did you just fall into it by chance, or becuase of your major or whatever? If it's what you love, is there something else in this field that you could do that requires less attention to detail? Most people change careers lots of times these days, and there's no shame in looking for something that better matches your strengths. For instance, ADHDers tend to be very good at things that require you to think on your feet, come up with innovative solutions, and work with other people (obviously, this is a vast generalization). We're less good at things that require you to spend 6 hours working with a spreadsheet.

When I came out of grad school, there was a particular kind of job I thought I wanted (involving data analysis). I really liked a lot of the creative/intellectual work involved, but I got to do some of it as side projects on a few jobs and quickly realized that it involved a LOT less time on the intellectual/creative side and a lot more on the cleaning up data/living in spreadsheets side. Fortunately, I've been able to find jobs where I get to keep doing these projects on the side while spending more of my time doing things I'm good at (writing, strategy, and planning).

I'm much happier in this role and also much more successful. It is absolutely true that you will be more successful at something you enjoy and are naturally more suited to than something that stresses you out and is not in your natural wheelhouse.
posted by lunasol at 4:41 PM on June 10, 2012

Search metafilter for the several hundred threads mentioning ADD, ADHD, or depression.

Set a one hour timer, so you don't sit at the computer reading these for too too long. :-)
posted by talldean at 7:34 AM on June 11, 2012

At my job, I get a near-constant stream of requests from my boss and from other departments throughout the day. These requests range from time-consuming to quick, and from urgent to whenever-you-get-a-chance.

Because no one other than me knows how much stuff I have to get done, and oftentimes people absolutely don't understand the scope of their requests (just reformat the website, that's just one click of a button, right?) I have developed some habits to cope.

1. Write it down. If someone verbally asks me to do something, I repeat their request back to them and then write it down. I used to feel bad about making them stand there and wait for me to write down the details, but I've learned that it's time well spent for all parties. I take my goddamn time making sure I've got the details correct and confirmed in writing, because it saves my ass when someone mis-remembers their request.

If possible, I also tell the person how long the project will take and a general estimate of when they can expect me to start working on it.

2. Make your supervisor prioritize your work for you. Sometimes my boss forgets how many projects I'm juggling. The way I see it, the projects I'm juggling are actually his problem, not mine, and I'd rather check in too many times than too few. Whenever I start to feel stressed with competing deadlines, I check in: "Hey, wanted to let you know, these are my current projects and this is how I'm prioritizing them. I'm worried about this particular project not getting any time today. Do you want me to re-prioritize anything?"

Good luck and hope that helps.
posted by pluot at 8:12 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Think about your deliverables and if there is a systematic way you can create and review them that will prevent errors. Try and see how easy you can make your job.
posted by xammerboy at 11:31 PM on June 21, 2012

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