It's the little things ... and the pain they bring.
January 3, 2013 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I need to get better at being "detail-oriented" ... So far? Not good.

Carelessness, it seems, has been the bane of my educational and professional existence since ... forever. In grade school (Yes, grade school!) I'd get comments on my report card like "Nubianinthedesert is extremely bright and engaged but is often careless with her work." During my first few years as a reporter, I'd often have to call back sources to clarify something he or she said (Usually after having to run a correction previously. Sometimes my fault, sometimes the source "forgetting" what he or she said but still my fault for not be clearer with my question.) I got better at it but was petrified each morning when my story came out that I had forgotten something.

Most recently, I blew a pretty significant deadline at the office (I'm now in corporate America) ... I had it written down on my Outlook calendar but just somehow ... forgot. Often, with projects, I'll get the big picture down and get praise for it but forget a small (but significant to some higher up) detail. I am all but paralyzed now to make presentations because I am sure I'll mess up somewhere. I have a boss who can turn on a dime (You can be a "rock star" in the morning but will be upbraided publicly two hours later) so I can't afford to keep this up.

I don't think this is ADHD. I'm a lifelong dysthymic but I've got it mostly under control. I don't LOVE what I do but it pays the bills and gives me benefits so I tolerate it.

Please help me keep my job.
posted by nubianinthedesert to Work & Money (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think this is ADHD.

If it is effecting your professionally (and assuming you can afford it and find the time) get screened. This is one of those "weird pain in my side" things where you are so much better off safe than you are sorry. Yes, some people are just not details-people. Yes, you may very well be one of them and the screening will indicate that you have absolutely no clinical attention issues. But, if there is a problem, you can fix it.

More practical tips:

-There should never not be a to-do list on your desk.
-Post-its are nearly as good as remembering something.
-Annoying alarms for anything remotely important. They should make sounds, or blink, and keep recurring until you do the thing the alarm tells you to.
-Post up a details checklist for anything recurring that you do where there are details involved.
-A specific time in your workday where you just assess everything that is going on and make notes on it, even if the note is "did nothing." This will at least keep your deadlines fresh in your head.
posted by griphus at 10:07 AM on January 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

Write everything down, with a pencil on paper, and keep it on your desk where you can see it. Electronic stuff, whether it be Outlook or phone apps or whatever, is too easy to ignore or forget about. The key for me is to have it where I can see it, always, and write every single goddamn thing down, even things I'm positive I won't forget. Everybody acts like tech solutions are the fancy, easiest options for keeping your life straight, but I find them way more complicated than they have to be, and too easy to disregard.

My current system is to have a small daily and monthly planner like this one on my desk at all times, open to the current week. That way I can have easy access to a daily to do list, and can also write things down in advance that I know are due on certain days in the future. I chose the smaller size this year because I can actually cart it around in my purse.

For big projects, the same idea will work: Write up detailed lists of everything you need to be sure to include, and check them off when they're done. They key is to assume you will forget every single thing that you don't write down. Write it all down, always.
posted by something something at 10:08 AM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, it may help to have separate to-do lists, based on priority. I generally do this with numbers grades (e.g., 1- NOW, 5- Eventually) on a single list, but deadlines in my job are either nebulous or immediate. If you have different sorts of deadlines, keep a different list, hand-written and on your desk, for each sort.
posted by griphus at 10:11 AM on January 3, 2013

Is some of the issue due to (lack of) presence? Do you find that you are doing one thing while thinking about another, which distracts you?

I used to be more careless. I still am when I am rushed up against a deadline. Admitting that I'm not good at multitasking was the start. Now, when I commit to being present, it really makes my work shine. I'm not saying it's easy. Background music that I love helps me focus the most (ambient groove is amazing).

Of course, this doesn't help with the calendar issues. That seems to me more of an organizational issue. Just find a system that works for you.

If you're not familiar, there are all sorts of ways to cultivate presence. Do a search for mindfulness, meditation, or present moment and see if anything grabs your attention.
posted by icanbreathe at 10:16 AM on January 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have long had a standing semi-joke with my co-workers: If you start a question with "Do you remember..." my answer will be "No." Because I don't. I got an Apple Newton in 1993 and have essentially outsourced my memory since then. It has nothing to do with how smart you are -- Einstein famously forgot things all the time. I have lists for what to put in my kids' lunchboxes. I follow those lists, every goddamn time, because I know that I will forget something if I don't. "Sandwich... check. Fruit... check. Snack... check." I have an alarm set to remind me to check my to-do list, three times a day. Yes, sometimes it goes to that level of effort to remember things. I still do it, because I have to. It's a pain in the ass, but it's been a long time since my kids had to borrow 50 cents for milk.
posted by Etrigan at 10:20 AM on January 3, 2013

I'm a big picture person who has had to learn to be detail oriented. In my case, I organize a large-scale meeting once a quarter, with enormous volumes of documentation to be generated, edited, formatted, (sometimes translated) and submitted for the reading of those participating in the meeting. Like you, I have a boss that can turn on a dime.

Here's how I get by. Being detail oriented is mostly about strategy, and that's mostly down to making yourself and your boss look good. So, with every endeavour, I work out what's needed to satisfy that criteria. For my boss, having the binder be as "perfect" as possible is very important, so we put a lot of focus on that. For me, having the travel arrangements, catering, simultaneous translation go smoothly so that they are not noticeable is important, so I make sure those things happen.

First you need to work out what is important to your boss. Once you know what he/she wants, set up systems around yourself to help you make sure those things happen. Maybe you need to work a pre-approval stage into the process so your boss can catch the little things that are important to him/her, or create a template so that the little detail is always addressed in the document without you having to sweat about it. Maybe it's breaking the big deadline down into little deadlines, or deputizing a co-worker to be a pest to you about the deadline. Maybe it's creating a list of common questions to ask at the beginning of the project, so the project can be designed better. Things like that.

This is literally one of those times when the old adage of "work smarter, not harder" really means something.
posted by LN at 10:21 AM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I could mark each of these as favorites. Thank you all.

@icanbreathe: Can you recommend resources for mindfulness at work? I believe this truly is a paramount issue for me.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 10:31 AM on January 3, 2013

For me, the trick has been learning how I screw up and then devising strategies to prevent that. E.g., that deadline? It would not be unheard of for me to not just put it on the calendar but give the calendar item an alarm a week ahead, 3 days ahead, a day ahead, at 9:01 AM the day of, and at 1:30 the day of (depending on how big a project it was). For the powerpoint, I'd create it, then read it thinking about what details Sue might want, then read it thinking about what details David might want, and/or then show the draft to someone who might notice missing details.

I don't think it's helpful to generalize ("a careless person"), because you can't "solve" who you are, if that's truly the issue. The solution will come by you figuring out what details you're overlooking and how to remember them.
posted by salvia at 12:58 PM on January 3, 2013

I carry one of these: book, cover, and regular pen and pencil, constantly at work, and take notes. AND refer back to them regularly.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:05 PM on January 3, 2013

Choose an organizational/to-do system that syncs with your phone and email/calendar, and use it religiously. Some people are good at carrying dates and details in their heads, the rest of use to-to lists and calendars. I find that making a list helps me organize my thoughts and my process, and checking the list frequently helps me stay attuned to the details.
posted by theora55 at 6:59 PM on January 3, 2013

When I'm in a mode where I get easily distracted, I set an alarm on my desktop (and/or my phone) to go off every hour, sometimes every half hour. That keeps me on track without having to worry about it: "Oh, the alarm. Okay, work. Check email work work work work MetaFilter work work Facebook work MetaFilter Facebook. Oh, the alarm. Okay, work. Check email..."
posted by Etrigan at 8:23 PM on January 3, 2013

1. Make checklists.

2. Use them.
posted by notyou at 8:33 PM on January 3, 2013

Have you heard of the Pomodoro technique? I have been using this in conjunction with a simple to-do list and have seen great improvement in focus and getting things done.

First you need to break big, detailed tasks done into manageable bite sized chunks. This helps prevent you from getting overwhelmed and losing details.

The Pomodoro technique is simply a way to help you focus. You set a time for 25 minutes and focus only on the task at hand until the 25 minutes are up. No coffee break, no chatting with co-workers, only the task. Then you have a 5 minute break where you can relax or screw around. Then another 25 minutes focused exclusively on the task at hand.

This has improved my work tremendously by making me more methodical and more focused on process. i think it could help you improve your attention to detail too. The more you use it, the better your focus will become.

You can find a number of generic Pomodoro timer apps for any smart phone for free, or simply use a stop watch or egg timer.
posted by the foreground at 7:12 AM on January 4, 2013


I hope this is going to make sense. Because you're asking about work and I'm going to say something that is not at all work related. But I think that mindfulness is a complete paradigm shift, and because it becomes a part of your life, you can't separate work from non-work.

If I had to pick one thing that helped me the most... it's yoga. The breathing, the attention required to take varying instructions, setting aside the time to take care of my body, the few minutes of meditation, the continual reminders from the instructor to be present, and the wonderful feeling of resting after almost complete exhaustion. Yeah, especially that last one. If you want to stop restless thoughts... that will do it!

I don't react as much as I used to at work. When I'm stressed, most of the time I actually remember to stop and breath through it. If I feel stuck, I force myself to take a walk. My attention has gone up tremendously.

I go to a yoga studio and do a combination of vinyasa/power yoga and yin yoga. Been going 2-3 days a week for a little over a year. It's a bit expensive, but I think it's really worth it. Oh, and as a bonus, I have a yoga butt!

Everybody has their own way though, so if yoga isn't for you, here are some other ideas:

Reading: I like Eckhart Tolle and Jack Kornfield
Mindfulness classes: there is at least one place in my area that offers classes
Audio: Sounds True has a lot of good audios
Physical: Look into Tai Chi or Qi Gong

I don't feel like it's something you learn once. What I find weird is that the practice changes as time passes. It's weird because it is so simple, so how does it change? I don't understand that part. I started by reading Eckhart Tolle back around 2005-ish. I was at the library and his book kind of called to me. It brought me where I am now. So now, when I read his books, the meaning is completely different than the first time. It's all good.
posted by icanbreathe at 4:30 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, I forgot something! Here's 2 fun things to try.

1 - Try to think of what you're going to think of next.

Ha! I bet your mind went blank for a few seconds.

2 - When I feel like I'm not present, I try to engage all of my senses then observe without judgement. What do I hear, what do I see, what do I smell, what do I taste? And where is my body in relation to all that? That seems to shift me quickly.

Try it!
posted by icanbreathe at 6:28 PM on January 4, 2013

@icanbreathe: Thanks so much for coming back in to respond. Yoga has been something I've been planning to do regularly for some time.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 9:03 PM on January 4, 2013

Kind of late to the party, but one more thing - there's some stuff so small that it's not worth sweating over. Unless a typo causes significant confusion (such as misnumbering in a list), then I don't stress over it. There's being detail oriented, and then there's getting the job done in a reasonable amount of time and effort. If the former becomes paramount over the latter, then that can lead to burnout as you work crazier hours to meet ever-increasing demands.

Just something to think about. I am learning this lesson currently, slowly and painfully.
posted by LN at 7:49 AM on January 7, 2013

« Older Do we find out our baby's sex?   |   Is itunes match limited to 25,000 songs or as many... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.