Help feeling more motivated and less negative about work.
January 20, 2013 8:44 AM   Subscribe

I have a pretty decent job but don't enjoy it and have started underperforming - how can I motivate myself to work harder again?

I work for a local authority (UK) and have been in the same post for about a decade, a data-wankery job. The demands of the post are quite difficult, with a lot of requests, often very urgent. The demands have increased and are still increasing. I manage two part-time staff.

I used to work very hard and do extra hours. For the last six months I have been struggling to get in to work on time, regularly being one and a half to two hours late and making up the time using leave hours. I have also found it difficult to make myself do the work I should be prioritising. I have sent some borderline-unprofessional emails to senior staff in response to requests that fail to understand some of the fundamentals of our work, don't give us enough time for complex requests, or ignore the fact that they have already received some of the things they are requesting. I don't think these have crossed the line into unprofessional, but I have been told that they show my frustration. I also do not support my own two staff well.

As for what changed six months ago, we had a particularly stressful time at work around that time, and some of the senior managers whom I respected left.

I have got into a cycle of anxiety and shame about my work performance which I think is stopping me being able to address it.

I am concerned that things may blow up on me. I may be called out for not doing tasks I should be, for poor time-keeping or rudeness. My team has now been asked to create a new system for data analysis, a task which feels enormous, maybe 60 to 70 days of staff time. I feel crushed by the thought of this and am not sure what to do. I also suspect that this system will not address the long-term performance issues in the teams I support. I have generally reached a point of being very cynical about the authority's ability to improve performance. To some extent whether the system does improve performance is not my problem, I should do the work anyway, but that inability to believe in the point of it doesn't help.

Things I have considered or tried to make myself perform better at work:

(a) better work planning. This has worked well for me in the past but isn't working now. I know what I should be doing, how long it will take and what the deadlines are, but am still not doing it.

(b) discussing my lack of performance with my manager. She is totally overloaded and I am certain would not have any suggestions that would help. My sense is that she does not want to know that I am struggling because she does not know what to do about it. No-one senior to me has mentioned my poor performance to me. I believe that my manager and other senior staff also over-estimate my importance to the authority so may be allowing me to get away with unavailability, poor time keeping etc on the belief that they need me. That is a view that could switch at any moment if they were to be given clear evidence of my under-performance. I do not have regular supervision or appraisals.

(c) focussing on things outside work to give me more of a sense of achievement, with the aim of feeling less emotionally involved in work and therefore more able to perform better there. This is not helping at present.

(d) discussing with my therapist. Continuing to do this but nothing useful has come out of it so far, though I am generally happy with my therapist and feel I am making progress in other areas of my life.

(e) talking to friends at work. They see that it is a difficult situation but are not able to suggest anything to help.

(f) being honest about my performance with a member of staff I manage who is also a friend, and asking him to sit with me whilst I do some urgent tasks. This has worked well in that I have managed to complete some things, but I don't think it's far on him and it's not a long-term solution.

(g) "fake it till I make it" around feeling negative about the authority's ability to improve. If I am able to find some evidence for improving performance in the data, I make sure I mention that to staff. This has not affected my attitude, however.

(h) emailing my manager each week to tell her what I have been working on and what my goals are for the next week. I haven't tried this, but am considering it.

(i) taking some leave and hope that I will go back to work with a better attitude. I had leave over Christmas which didn't help, and it is now a difficult time to take more time off.

(j) looking for another job. Still looking though there is not much around at the moment.

(k) focussing on the parts of my job that I enjoy, such as some technical processes, and the benefits such as generous leave, good pay and a lot of autonomy.

(l) trying to focus on the difference my work makes to the authority's support to vulnerable people. I do believe abstractly that data analysis is important in improving services and outcomes, but have stopped believing that what my authority does with my work makes any difference to service users.

(m) trying to learn new skills at work, such as SQL. Only just started this.

Also relevant is the fact that my authority is making very considerable cuts to services. This now seems unlikely to affect my team directly in terms of loss of posts, though our workload will probably increase. The cuts in general are part of what is affecting my morale.

My questions are: do you have any suggestions for how I can improve my work attitude and performance? Have you been in a situation where you turned around your work ethic whilst staying in the same job?

Thanks, and sorry for the length.
posted by sock of ages to Work & Money (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
(h) seems like your best option right now. You probably are less motivated by having the autonomy you describe than you think you do. It's hard to motivate yourself sometimes as a person without a lot of supervision. That's perfectly okay -- some people (including me) really need to have someone paying attention to the work they're doing, on a regular basis, to shine.

Also, I would suggest giving yourself a really difficult, multi-faceted, long-term project that will keep you engaged and on your toes through work. It sounds like some of this is boredom, and challenging yourself may help.
posted by xingcat at 9:01 AM on January 20, 2013

I'd go with (j). After 10 years in the same job, maybe it's simply time for something new.
posted by Longtime Listener at 9:29 AM on January 20, 2013

As someone who is in a position that depends on someone in your position from what you describe, I have often been frustrated because projects seem to be taking too long, priorities not matching, etc. What helped in our case was when he called a meeting with senior staff and outlined all the issues, timetables, etc. and asked us for our priorities. He has also stayed in closer touch with us, checking in on projects so that we wouldn't feel as frustrated thinking that nothing is progressing when really it is. So maybe speaking up for yourself and your department in a professional way would help. This also helped us run interference for him with minor issues when we had big projects that needed attention.
posted by tamitang at 9:30 AM on January 20, 2013

As for what changed six months ago, we had a particularly stressful time at work around that time, and some of the senior managers whom I respected left.

Sounds to me like it's time you followed their example.

The feelings you're describing strike be as an absolutely textbook case of burnout. You've given this job ten years; I bet you've got a bunch of accumulated leave. Stop pissing it away in dribs and drabs to make up for late arrivals, take it all at once, and give notice two weeks before it ends. Use the time you're on leave to find an employer with Clue.
posted by flabdablet at 9:39 AM on January 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

2nding h)

Also, as somebody who supervises people I would urge you to try to turn up at work on time. I realise your coming in late is the result of a lot of different frustrations. But chances are that this is seriously frustrating and demoralising your team and compounding your workload problem. Even if you don't manage to actually be productive in that time by being there you give your team a reason to turn up on time and do their job. Your problems will only get worse if they lose respect for you.

Not sure about the politics in your organisation or how political this project is that you mention. But unless additional resources are made available for this to take on a project of ~60-70 staff days seems ludicrous. So you should communicate concerns about resources for this project regularly (including in email) and keep a record of your communications to protect yourself should it all go pearshaped and people try to pin it on you.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:41 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are burnt out. You either need to take a sabbatical (not just a vacation, but a significant absence in which you go somewhere else and seriously pursue something fulfilling to yourself) or, more likely, you need a mew job.

Your frustration and lack of motivation sound completely understandable. It isn't just that you are not good enough or not hardworking enough -- your work environment is dysfunctional, you don't have any intrinsic motivation for doing it (it is common for money alone not to be enough of a motivator for many people), and you are sick of your work.

It is time to take your life in a new direction and pursue something more meaningful. You needn't quit your job right away but you should try to identify a place where you'd like to be in your life five or so years from now and start working toward it. You may find that just having a plan and a purpose will provide you with the energy you need to stay at your current job for a while longer, or you may find that you need to jump ship as soon as possible.

Either way, it sounds like it's time for big changes. It is time to build something for yourself that makes your life happier and more fulfilling! Go forth and kick ass!
posted by Scientist at 11:54 AM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think you need a technical solution at all. I was in your situation a couple-three years ago. Two things helped me. First I started reading philosophy for school. Second, I was loaned out to another office to lend technical and leadership support because my counterpart and his boss could not get along. As it happened, my counterpart was not all that different from me -- though he was 15 years older and ready to retire. I saw what I could very well become: a tired old burnout who did crappy work and blamed it on others. At the same time, I was reading the stoics -- Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, etc.

What I re-learned in a new way is what I can control and what I can't, and that I should stop investing emotion in what I can't. I know I have to work. I've agreed to give my time and expertise for money I need. So I work for me. I show up on time -- or don't -- for me. Every payday I agree to continue to live up to my contract. I do that for me, because I refuse to be the kind of person who won't live up to his word. That cured my burnout immediately, because you'll never get burned out about being yourself -- you may give up, but you won't get burned out. So I don't give a tinker's damn about office politics, the stupidity of my superiors, etc. If my boss is an idiot he's not my problem, he's his boss' problem.

The flip side of this is that I reexamined my situation and started drawing lines. What I had been doing was irrational. I changed how I worked, I took the obvious advice -- work-life balance, etc. -- we all think we can't or don't need to take. When my bosses ask me about cuts I tell them the obvious truth: you can cut, as long as you're willing to live with the consequences of your cuts. That's on you. Nobody can make 5 people work like 3, and you have an agreement with people you can't expect them to go beyond. So cut. Just don't expect me to magically make life a consequence-free environment. I tell them that because A, they pay me to; and B, I refuse to be a bullshitter or an ass kisser.

I could go on and on (I'm talking about myself, after all), but I'll leave you with a little of my favorite, Epictetus: "In sum remember this: the door is open; be not more timid than little children, but as they say, when things do not pelase them, "I will play no longer," so do you, when things seem to you of such a kind, say I will no longer play, and begone: but if you stay, do not complain."
posted by 1369ic at 11:57 AM on January 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

To be honest, flabdablet's advice would sound pretty damn tempting to me as well, were I in your situation. If that is feasible for you and would not introduce an unacceptable amount of instability to your life (you decide that for yourself) then I would heartily endorse that strategy also.
posted by Scientist at 11:57 AM on January 20, 2013

I've found that just getting more face time with my manager makes me feel a little better. It helps me remember that he's not an ogre who is always mad at me but that we're on the same team. Also, lately I'm getting a lot of phone calls and I'm getting frustrated. I started making myself pause when I hear the phone ring, take a deep breath, and smile. It sounds corny but I think it has made me sound friendlier on the phone. I think then the person who calls is nicer and then I'm happy after our call.
posted by kat518 at 12:55 PM on January 20, 2013

Maybe what's happening is, you have willingly taken on extra work gradually over time, and you just recently reached the point where this unsustainable pattern falls apart and you can no longer get your work done. I don't know what sort of work you do, but in my experience, the amount of work you get done at any job is a lot less important than being consistent.

For example, think of a car mechanic. When your car breaks down, you have to send it into the shop. It's an unpleasant experience, because you are out of a car for a while. You want the mechanic to do his work as fast as possible because you want your car back ASAP.

Now let's say you have two mechanics that you've gone to in the past, Mechanic A and Mechanic B. Mechanic A always gives optimistic estimates of when he can get your car fixed, but he can only deliver on that timeline 50% of the time. Then there's Mechanic B, who almost always gives you a longer estimate than Mechanic A, but he always, without fail, has your car ready when he says it will be ready.

Now let's say you have an important trip you need to make in two days, and your transmission starts making funny noises. You call up both mechanics for an estimate, and each says he knows what the issue is and he can have it ready for you in time for your trip. Which mechanic are you most likely to send your car into?

In this scenario, Mechanic A may be objectively a better mechanic; he may even work harder and get more total work done per day. But Mechanic A is totally unreliable, so he is not as useful to you, as a customer. You can trust Mechanic B. You cannot trust Mechanic A. The contract you make with Mechanic B will be honored.

My point is that if you know how to push back on what is asked of you, if you are conservative with the amount of work you take on and the deadlines you give, you will actually be more valuable to the company than someone who works himself into the ground to meet every demand asked of him.

Most work environments would prefer a reliable and competent employee who always meets his deadlines over one who is infinitely accommodating but never meets his deadlines. I say most because it is possible that you work in a toxic workplace that has long since given up on honoring the contracts you make with one another. But if you are in such an environment – a "sick system", if you will – better to realize it now, so you can stop blaming yourself for circumstances outside your control.
posted by deathpanels at 5:45 PM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would take a day or so to understand to sort out what all is on your plate, and to prioritize it, assign it and to update stakeholders/customers/recipients to let them know when to expect their workproduct.

You've been through a very stressful period and I suspect, that like most of us, you're in an understaffed, underfunded department.

Re-evaluate what you can conceivably do, and do only that. If you can afford it, stay late to get things done, but personally, I don't believe in doing that, especially if you're salary and not hourly.

When I'm overwhelmed, I find it soothing and useful to list things. So go through your email, and list out each project. Use a spreadsheet (makes it very official and grand) with different benchmarks (or use Microsoft Project, whichever you like.)

When you've got everything listed from A to Z, sit down with your staff and sort them out.

1. What's on fire.

2. What's over-due, but not on fire.

3. What can be done easily and quickly and moved off your agenda.

It may suck, and you may find that a whole bunch of stuff is super-late, or whatever, but hey, live in the truth.

Then start attacking the list.

Do not accept any new projects until everything is back to being manageable.

You must involve your supervisor/manager in understanding where your department is underwater. If you need more staff, bump up the hours of the part-time folks, or hire more people.

Government and businesses want us to do more, with less, for less money. People in hell want iced water, but that doesn't mean they get it. Demonstrating that you have a grasp on the issues and the work, and that you are overwhelmed and overworked, will go a LONG way towards forgiving yourself, and towards your higher-ups understanding of your problems.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:33 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another option that i didn't see on your list is to gamify some parts of your job, especially the repetitive, small things. Get one of those apps that let you set goals and tick off each time you achieve that goal. Make goal number one to be on time to work. Every day that you can tick that off, you get closer to some prize. Maybe put some of the goals up on your office wall and keep track publicly (maybe not, you decide). Is there anyone else in your office that needs a little boost in some part of his work habits? Make it a contest and the loser buys lunch once a month.
posted by CathyG at 11:19 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

A sabbatical sounds like a very good idea. A break would help you get some sense of your own priorities. Then, if you decide to return or don't find something while you are away, you can start to apply some of the very good practical strategies in these answers.
posted by rpfields at 1:42 PM on January 21, 2013

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