How do I speed myself up without a nervous breakdown?
May 16, 2013 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Just started a new job that moves way faster than me. I'm scared that I can't keep up. What can I do to make it work?

Backstory: I used to live in a small southern (US) town and worked for a small software company for several years. We had a laid back office and I was used to that slow paced rhythm and lifestyle. I've never been a very physically active person. 10 months ago I moved to a big city up north, keeping my old job and working from home. Spending all day frumpy and indoors caused me to slow down even more. My productivity plummeted. I've always struggled with internet addiction but in this environment it became a serious problem. My first winter in this place was grayer and had shorter days than I've ever seen. All these things, plus a lack of any real friends here besides my spouse, left me lethargic and severely depressed. I nearly got fired and felt like a failure watching my career fizzle out.

This month I quit that job and started working for a local software company. I think it's a real improvement: I'm back in an office with some structure, getting out of the house and doing something I enjoy. And making more money than ever! I can't remember the last time I felt as happy and relieved as the day I started this fresh opportunity. The warmer weather and longer days of summer help too.

But I'm also terrified because for the first time I'm surrounded by competent metropolitan go-getter professionals. I'm way out of my league. I'm not entirely sure how I even got the job because I don't feel like I bring anything to the table that they can't do themselves in half the time. I haven't been working here long and I'm already struggling to meet deadlines. I'm constantly intimidated by how everybody seems to know exactly what they're doing. I'm almost 30 and feel like I should too, but instead I'm awkward and fumbling and foggy headed.

It's not that the work is too hard for me, more like my brain has just slowed to a crawl over the years. My new coworkers are firing on all cylinders and I'm just... pokey by comparison. I'm stuck in a mental rut and don't know what to do. When the day ends I feel like I've barely accomplished anything and don't know where the time went. I'm embarrassed to write my time reports because I can't justify the hours I've spent reading and re-reading project requirements and trying to figure out what to do. For now it's excusable because I'm still the new hire but I'm scared I won't ever be able to move at the speed expected of me. It takes me 30 minutes just to type a one paragraph email to a client because I'm worried everything I say will be wrong or make me look amateurish.

I'm physically slow too. When I walk it's more of a meander. I'm tired all the time and have chronic back pain. I hunch when I stand and slouch when I sit and sometimes I feel like I'm stuck in a body twice my age. My new coworkers, on the other hand, are fit and always doing exciting things outdoors. I'm not jealous, I have zero desire to do that stuff. But it illustrates how insufficient I feel next to the others. The onset of this was so gradual it seems like it's always been the case.

Sorry I can't be more concise. Here are my questions.

1. How do I jump start myself to keep up with these zippy city people, and stay productive and focused all day?
2. How do I assure my new colleagues that I'm not wasting their time while I figure out how to become a zippy city person?
3. Assuming I do learn how to move at that speed, how do I sustain it for the long term without completely burning out? It looks exhausting.
4. How do I overcome my fear of failing at my new job like I failed at my old one, and also these feelings of incompetence and worthlessness?
5. How do I prepare for next winter to avoid becoming depressed again when it gets dark, cold, and gray?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
ASK QUESTIONS. I can't help with all of your problems because I'm trying to solve a lot of them myself, but one really important practical thing you need to do at work is not try to hide your ignorance. I know it's intimidating when everyone else seems to know what's going on but you need to ask questions. You can say, "Look, this is really embarrassing but I don't understand what [foo] means." If people can't deal with you asking those questions, maybe this is not the right place for you to work. But if you don't ask the questions you are setting yourself up to fail. (I speak from experience!)

Also, just reading this, you sound kind of depressed and anxious. Time for therapy? And although you say you have no desire to do physical activity kind of stuff, it might help a lot with the chronic back pain, which presumably you would prefer not to have.
posted by mskyle at 6:46 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Look into treatment for depression and chronic pain. If your treatment is successful your job will be easier to manage.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:56 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Perhaps rather than fighting what sounds like your natural tendency toward a more measured, unhurried persona, you could instead embrace it as a strength? Perhaps you were hired in part because you bring that quality to the workplace?

I spin at a slower RPM than most people I interact with, and at first it made me feel anxious, so I get where you are coming from. But I'm finding that if I focus on emanating a sort of Zen calm, no-hurries-no-worries attitude, I am able to relax and get more work done, and people seem to appreciate that lower-key presence in the office.

It's OK to march to the beat of your own, slower-paced drummer.
posted by nacho fries at 6:59 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

You know what stood out for me in your question? You are seriously an EXCELLENT writer (there's something very clean and balanced about your writing style). Is it possible you would prefer writing real words instead of software code? Is it possible that you are not highly motivated and energized by programming? It's hard to have a bounce in your step if you are doing something that doesn't excite you. (I'm making an assumption you are a coder, but if that's wrong, maybe my comments are still applicable in terms of not being energized by the nature of your current work.)
posted by Dansaman at 7:06 AM on May 16, 2013

Beware of attribution errors.

You don't actually know how fast your coworkers are really moving. You are going by apparent motion. People signal certain things and conceal others.

The difference between how I feel when I am jogging and cycling and how other people look when jogging and cycling is huge. I'm on the edge of death and everyone else is just carrying on without effort. But people have told me that it looks effortless when I run or bike while they are struggling.

This generalizes to pretty much everything in life.

Within the professional context it tends to manifest as what is called the 'imposter syndrome' and almost everyone feels it.
posted by srboisvert at 7:08 AM on May 16, 2013 [17 favorites]

Can you get out to take a short walk during the day? Even a ten minute (five minute!) walk in the sunshine may help you get some perspective and blow out the cobwebs.

I'm not entirely sure how I even got the job because I don't feel like I bring anything to the table that they can't do themselves in half the time.

This is true in most organizations, though. Say I have five people on my team, and I can do every single task they do in half the time. That means I'd need to work 2.5 times the usual working hours every day to get everything they do done -- plus whatever additional jobs I have! Someone who can take my 2-hour task and get it done in 4 hours is invaluable, because they've given me two hours to do MY job.

Also, are you asking for help early enough? I find people tend to either (a) ask for help right away when they should try figuring things out for a few minutes first, or (b) sit and spend several hours trying to figure things out, when they should have asked for help after a few minutes. It sounds like you might be doing the second.

Like the commenters above, I also thought of depression/anxiety while reading this, plus getting checked out by a doctor for other possible causes of fatigue/low energy (low Vit. D. etc.).
posted by pie ninja at 7:10 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

How much of what they're doing is high speed competence and how much is desperate flailing around in an effort to look busy and create the impression of high speed competence?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:22 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

How is your relationship with your boss? Do you feel like you could get a 10 minute "head check" from your boss without souring anything?

Say, "hey, boss, can I get some feedback on your perceptions of my performance? I'm really enjoying my job and feel like I'm making a solid contribution, and just want to make sure that you feel the same way. Do you have any thoughts to share about what's going well and what might need tweaking, just really informally?"

If you put it like that, you should get a useful answer on your actual job performance as well as a head check on what might just be a simple case of impostor syndrome.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:28 AM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Find an office friend that you can build up a relationship with and then try to gauge from them whether or not you are doing a good job. It's likely they have or at least have had the same worries you do. They might admit that they look more productive than they are, as others have suggested. Ask for their advice on things (in general, not specifically with the problems you mentioned above). Do you have a formal mentor? You could either request one, or just find a friendly person that likes to help and that you can ask questions of. At a 3-month point or so, earlier if you like, ask your boss or team lead how he/she thinks you are doing. Either you'll be reassured that you're doing just fine, or you'll have specific things mentioned that you can improve on.

It sounds like one of the things that is slowing you down is anxiety (taking half an hour to write an email is silly - but I've been there and done that too). The productivity cost there is greater than the cost of wording something slightly wrong.

When you can't work faster, you have to work more efficiently. Sorry, no specific advice here. Just something I learned as a waitress and haven't managed to apply to my career yet.

I also agree with what people are saying about therapy and mental health, vitamins, etc, Do you have benefits for acupuncture, physio, massage or anything? That could help your back.

I'm a complete newbie in your industry and the newest on my team. I know that I am slow, lacking in a lot of knowledge, a drain on people's time asking questions, etc. But I also know that I am valuable partly because I am taking a lot of the piddly simple work off of someone's plate, leaving them to do larger, more crucial projects. And as time goes on, I will become more valuable.

When I am feeling distracted an unproductive (which tends to be a big portion of the day lately), I put on my headphones and listen to a crappy binaural beats app I downloaded. It blocks everything else and helps me to focus.

Good luck to you.
posted by kitcat at 7:30 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

And next winter? You're worrying about this too far in advance. Your anxiety is showing. Enjoy the sunlight and warmth while it lasts ( I don't know where you are, but here it sure doesn't last long).
posted by kitcat at 7:33 AM on May 16, 2013

You really sound like you need to visit your doctor. Make sure they check your vitamin D level. What you're describing does sound a lot like a D deficiency. (Or if you can't chisel out the time and money just yet, maybe try taking some hefty doses of D3 for a couple of days to see if it changes how you feel.)
posted by Andrhia at 7:34 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

How long were you at your old software company? Part of your problem could be that you are in a new job, plain and simple. I say it takes 2 years before an employee is 100% competent in a new position. (Same position at a new company is still a new position.)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:34 AM on May 16, 2013

You've been there less than a month. It's normal. If you were already comfortable it would mean you took a seriously unchallenging job and would get very bored and/or not learn anything. If they are competent developers, then they hired you because you are yourself at least competent. Don't panic, give it time, and try to notice the areas where you are better than the other people - there are always some, regardless of how smart they are, because no one is the smartest at everything.

I've been there at least twice. In one I lucked into working with some of the best coders in the world, just about scraped by for a few years, and learnt enough to double my salary overnight after leaving. In the other, I actually delivered more and better things than the others after a few months, because people just looked smart, and I didn't get bogged down in too-clever-by-half techniques. The first experience was by far the best.
posted by Spanner Nic at 7:41 AM on May 16, 2013

For the first few weeks to month and a half in any job, you pretty much suck value out of the room. And, yeah, it can take a couple of years before you're awesome.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:43 AM on May 16, 2013

There are some great answers already; I just want to add:

"3. Assuming I do learn how to move at that speed, how do I sustain it for the long term without completely burning out?"

They don't. The software industry, like many others, has a huge problem with burning people out and using them up. Even your best and brightest are probably going to be struggling with this sooner or later (or already are but are hiding it).

"5. How do I prepare for next winter to avoid becoming depressed again when it gets dark, cold, and gray?"

When you go for that doctor visit, ask about SAD. In the meantime, you can buy full-spectrum lights to make your indoor spaces brighter next winter. (It's true that winter is several months off, but you can do this now if you find it useful to take some simple, constructive action.)
posted by mbrubeck at 7:46 AM on May 16, 2013

On the body: have you considered one of the body modality approaches? I did a long run of Feldenkrais Functional Integration sessions a few years ago (that's one-on-one work) and it made a massive difference in how my body feels to me.

There are a bunch of other systems out there, but Feldenkrais, in particular, is focused on doing the stuff you're doing with less strain on your body, and on being about general 'want to live the life I want' without focusing on specific problems. Very whole-body/whole-life in nature.

(Briefly, and I'm glad to discuss in much more detail in MeMail, it helped me use my body a lot more effectively, helps me short circuit minor but persistent aggravations - my neck and shoulders more than my back. And in the process, I got a lot more energy, because I was using less of it in the problematic ways to force through things my body was fighting, and that left more energy for everything else. I am still not "Going to go hiking for 3 hours for fun", but "Randomly deciding to take a walk over lunch with co-workers" does not mean I'm in misery the rest of the day.)
posted by modernhypatia at 7:56 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Re embracing your slower rhythm vs speeding up: I would recommend a little from column A and a little from column B.

I got my first fulltime paid job at age 40. It was a fast-paced job. I and some of my also older coworkers just could not get promoted. Promotions were largely based on speed. I did get up to speed enough to keep the job for over five years. I never became one of the fast people. My last position was a lateral move to a team where quality mattered more than speed and that could have become a new career track within the company. When I left, they were talking about reassessing our duties in order to try to get us reclassified at a higher pay grade.

Some things I did:

Early on, when I just could not keep up and it wasn't resolving, I asked to shadow someone faster and more experienced than me. I think I spent 30 minutes with them (or maybe an hour) and learned enough procedural tricks to catch up to where I needed to be to at least keep my job.

I focused on taking care of myself physically so I could stay focused mentally. I found that when my mind began to wander, it was more effective to take a bathroom break, get a snack and/or drink and/or just take a short walk than trying to force myself concentrate. I would come back three to five minutes later with a functional brain. It soon became a habit to hit the bathroom and refill my drink every hour or hour and a half. I got a lot more done if I took a few minutes to take care of myself than if I tried to put all my time into working. I was also working hard to improve my health/stamina when not at work so this became generally better over time. It sounds like you have some health issues you could stand to work on as well.

I talked to some of the experienced people, assessed what I needed to get done daily, weekly and monthly and then crunched some numbers. Then I tracked my productivity so I could make judgement calls about where to put my time on any given day.

(Details, in case it helps: I needed to complete an average of at least 60 files a day to make my monthly quota. They varied in size and there were typically two hours of other things per day which also needed to be done. Sometimes, doing that other two hours of stuff whittled down the number of files a good bit but other times it didn't. So I would block out two hours to do that stuff at the start of my day and also try to get at least 20 files completed before lunch. After lunch, I tried to get through another 40 files and tried to limit distractions.

Files that were promising to be a problem sometimes got set aside until the following day to handle during my two hour block of other tasks. For many months, the last day of the month, I needed to finish 85 files that day in order to make my numbers for the month. I consistently pulled it off. It eventually got better. I went through a period where that became an every other month thing. Etc.

It took me maybe a minute at the end of the day to record my numbers for that day. It took a few seconds every hour to look at how many files I had done so far and determine if I was on track to hit my numbers that day. Over time, I got more used to the natural variability throughout the day that sometimes files went fast and smooth but other times it was slower and more frustrating. I analyzed the workflow and made judicious decisions to try to minimize overall time spent per file for certain types of files. This helped me avoid being penny wise and pound foolish with my time.

It was possible to periodically do 85 files in one day in part by putting off certain things. I could do that easily once a month and then pick up the pieces over the next two or three days without it becoming a crisis. I could not do it all the time.)
posted by Michele in California at 8:14 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Number one: you are not slow, you're DELIBERATE. You rebrand yourself as DELIBERATE. It is essential that you hang on to this view of yourself as DELIBERATE when interacting with cow-orkers.



Also, for the Internet addiction, get a pomodoro timer and set it to intervals of 15 minutes working, 5 minutes break. Now, ideally you would start from a 20/10 arrangement but I think that's pushing it in terms of how stuff looks, so go for the 15/5 for now. Officially pomodoro is 25/5, but that's a bit long for me sometimes.

You are DELIBERATE and you are HARDWORKING because look what a great system you have! You work in 15-minute intervals and take breaks at set times, and you don't go to the bathroom or even make a cup of tea outside of your 5-minute interval. No goofing off for you! You get *loads* done this way, and your mind is always fresh. Your new cow-orkers should try it! You're an example to them all.
posted by tel3path at 8:38 AM on May 16, 2013 [11 favorites]

The first month at a new job is EXHAUSTING. I was SO EFFING TIRED when I fist started my new job (in March). You're in a new environment, learning new things, new schedule, etc. Cut yourself a little slack. :)
posted by radioamy at 9:35 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Look, one of the people on one if my teams transferred within my organisation last autumn - same role, different country. And she still gets herself into trouble because she makes assumptions about how things should work because that's what she was used to. If she asked me for advice I'd tell her to make kes assumptions and ask more questions. If you are technically competent than you're getting flustered around things in the 'how we do things round here' category, not just around culture but just processes. You can't judge his long something will take because You'll get unstuck on some practical problem that you'd have sorted in a minute in your old job but takes 20 now cause you need to work out all the what/where/who/how first in a new job. And that's fine. So give yourself a break, become deliberate and you'll feel much better next month. Then you can worry about some if the other, probably unrelated, questions you raise.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:27 AM on May 16, 2013

Is it possible you're overestimating your coworkers' productivity? At one of my old jobs, my main responsibility was writing. My process is to think a lot, chew on the words, roll them around in my mind...and then pound out a first draft in one burst of creative energy. My coworker in the next cube would spend the day clacking away at her keyboard for hours--and she wasn't even a writer! I started to feel inferior and lazy in comparison, whiling away my time on a luxury like thinking while she was working. Until one day, I had to take a file to her mid-typing spree, and you know what she was doing? Gchatting. What I thought was someone being hyperkinetically productive was actually a sterling display of screwing around. The longer I worked there, the more I realized that while she was good at her job, she was outstanding at seeming busy. The same may be true in your office.

Also, perhaps your coworkers know shortcuts that you don't. Like, that you can skip reading certain parts of reports because they don't impact your work, or that there are templates for common tasks on the shared drive, or that client X doesn't care about task Y? You're still a new employee, so this is a good time to ask questions about optimizing your time and attention.
posted by serialcomma at 12:18 PM on May 16, 2013

There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with asking your manager for a check-in to see how you're doing and if there's anything you should be working on improving. It shows that you care about your job, and about your performance.

As for the cold, dark winter: I live in the northeast, and the winter is rough. Joining a gym really helped -- and it was key, for me, that the gym I chose has a sauna. Exercise gives me more energy, and counter-acts the natural impulse to hibernate; and the sauna lets me feel like I'm warming myself through to the bone.
posted by chowflap at 12:25 PM on May 16, 2013

If they're throwing a lot of new stuff at you, it can feel like a pack of wolves closing in. I had barely learned one job satisfactorily before they started me on another, and then expected me to spiral back to the first one as though I had lifetime familiarity with it. Interweaving a lot of new responsibilities can be mind numbing, and then your body starts to shut down also.

Ask for milestones from your direct report; if you have a tangible set of expectations beforehand, you can hit the marks with more confidence. Also remember that what business people refer to as "90 days" (i.e. three months) works out to be about 60 days on the actual job learning and working on the new stuff, not 90 days.

If you start more slowly, then you go long. Fast burners never last, they just look pretty bright for a short time.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:32 PM on May 16, 2013

Good advice above. My 2 cents are that you shouldn't judge your insides by other people's outsides.

You feel slow & confused and think everyone else has it all together...but most everyone is confused on the inside, and all that moving might be flailing.

Plus, exercise & vitamin D in the winter. Have you considered curling?
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 6:39 PM on May 16, 2013

Something I did in my new job is, I created a worklist for each hour of my work day. My job has repeting tasks each day - probably more so than yours - but yours could probably be broken down that way as well:

9-9:30 Greet coworkers, check email, answer urgent messages, make priority list for day.
9:30-10 Read project discriptions or work on write ups.
10-10:15 Take a break, stretch [post instructions for simple stretches above your desk]
10:15-10:30 Prepare for 10:30 meeting

Also, I did this: choose an end time for each activity you start each day, as in, "I will work on this draft until 1:15, then I have to be done with the first draft."

Something else I've done in some work contexts, take a 15 minute brisk walk during your lunch break each day. This will help with depression and will give you more energy for the afternoon and will give your brain and body a break.

Try to avoid focusing on what other people are doing. I had this problem as well when I started my job, feeling like others were so fast and competent. But your job is to focus on you. Later, when your confidence is a little stronger, you can start looking at them, but not to criticize yourself. Look at specifically what behaviors they have that are helping them achieve and try to emulate them. But be wary of this as it seems to really trigger your negative self-talk stuff.

Good luck!
posted by latkes at 10:21 PM on May 16, 2013

Hugs. Take your time. Be who you aare. Fear nothing and nobody. Every team needs a variety, if your employer don't value you for being you move on. I am sure they will mind.
posted by BenPens at 6:28 AM on May 17, 2013

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