Radio, radio... silence
July 3, 2013 12:30 PM   Subscribe

What do you say (or email) people after you've gone "radio silent" because you were focusing on other projects or procrastinating due to anxiety?

I get really anxious and have trouble focusing on more than one task when I am stressed out. So I end up going what several people have called "radio silent". This undermines my career as people wonder what's going on with me, I miss deadlines, etc.

Recently, I was sick for several weeks and I didn't touch base about projects because I just couldn't focus. I get really anxious after about a week of not being in touch and don't know how to start contact again. Or I don't know what to do next or don't want to work on something and then I can't get anything done.

I know this is really unprofessional and I don't know how to address it with the people I'm working with. I don't have a boss, exactly (these are academic, nonprofit, or business projects), but people are counting on me. All of these projects are collaborative, but often the person I've been avoiding is more senior in some way or their recommendation is very important so I need to address it very respectfully.

I'm pretty ADD and have a lot of focusing issues, so just telling me to focus and not avoid things doesn't work. I need more coping strategies for when this happens.

I'd like your thoughts on a number of things:

- What is a good script to use in emails to touch base even if I haven't done any work?

- How do I come back from this radio silence after I've done it? What should I email people that is respectful and not too grovel-y but lets them know I've let them down?

- Also, I want to hear your stories about this:
Do you do this? How did you learn to stop doing this? What has helped you not do it? What has helped you recover professionally from doing it? Etc.

- Anything else that might help
posted by 3491again to Work & Money (18 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
"Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was out-of-pocket for the past three weeks, and for that, my apologies. I would like to schedule some time for us to get back on-track so that I can make up for lost time on Project X. When would be a good time for you? Sincerely, 3491again."
posted by xingcat at 12:35 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can do anything, but you can't do everything. Reducing your workload is the #1 best way to help you get back on track.

Sample script: "I'm sorry I've gone radio silent. I've re-assessed and I'm afraid my workload is such that I'm not able to make the progress we originally discussed. I'd like to set up some time to talk about either a) options to cut back on the project's scope while still meeting your goals, or b) how I can best transition [some of] my tasks to someone who has the bandwidth you need."
posted by samthemander at 12:45 PM on July 3, 2013

Shorter is better. Use the email to schedule a phone call or in-person meeting, not to grovel.

Ask me how I know (no please don't).
posted by deludingmyself at 12:46 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you seeking help for this? It's a pretty big deal, if you're not discussing with a medical professional, then you are really doing a disservice to the other folks you work with.

Frankly, I would work with you once, and if you did this to me, that would be the last time we worked together.

Just saying you have ADD, and doing it anyway isn't really an answer, it's an excuse, and it's not okay. If you need accomodation under the ADA, then you need to let others know what that is, so that you can be accomodated.

If you don't have a real diagnosis, and you're not in therapy, or medicated or really addressing it at all, then I would suggest doing these things YESTERDAY.

If you are, then speak to your doctor about occupational therapy for this. ADD isn't just about focusing, it is a spectrum disorder and different people handle their issues differently. You need to understand exactly how you are impacted and then a professional can recommend accomodations and hacks that will help you in the specific way you need to be helped.

We all get anxious, stressed and overwhelmed. I am on anti-anxiety drugs and they are amazing for me.

The way that your question is phrased makes it sound like, "I've tried nothing and I'm all out of ideas." I'm sure you don't mean to come off sounding entitled, but sometimes that's how it can look to others.

Here is a starting place for resources for ADD/ADHD, one of the first recommendations is to speak with your doctor about medications that may help.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:47 PM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Hi, Mike. Apologies for the lapse in communication. I'm able to get to X Thursday afternoon. Does that work?" Or, "Mike, sorry, but I'm not going to be able to do X after all. Here's a referral/your money back/wish things went better."

If you're going to go radio silent, use an auto-reply. People will really appreciate it. And get someone to listen to your phone messages like your spouse or a virtual assistant (I have used FancyHands for this.)

It will be okay and it's not something you need to stop doing if you can learn to communicate that you are not as easily reachable and time-critical items don't rely on you. However, there are some breaches of communication that completely destroy trust and I think that once you have experienced enough of them, you will become better at getting back to people. That's how I learned.
posted by michaelh at 12:48 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I can feel myself start to fade for various reasons on projects I usually write to one of the participants or the leader and say: "Hey man crap a bunch of stuff just came up that is going to take up my time for the next couple of weeks, can we tough base again then? I'm so so sorry!" then I make a google calendar alert to email them then. I might ignore that calendar alert but at least they know I'm not dead and that I'm just "super busy".
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:48 PM on July 3, 2013

Most important is to manage expectations of email responsiveness even when focused on task. I cultivate erratic response timing so no one is put off by extended silence (or occasional fast replies). I do read all incoming mail and if there's something critical will deal with it, otherwise it may be days or weeks if the project is low priority.

I make sure people know when I am doing their shit, tho, and give them progress reports when there is a milestone hit. But again, I don't respond predictably to general inquiries.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:49 PM on July 3, 2013

Oh, also, if there's any automated way to turn your work into communications, do that. For example, I like Basecamp's daily progress e-mails. I don't have to actually write them; I just do the work and check things off, and people find out about it. And since Basecamp is part of the work, it's much more of a lower-friction communication to talk in Basecamp comments on files, milestones, etc. Many other tools have this functionality.
posted by michaelh at 12:52 PM on July 3, 2013

Hi there! I have been you, and here is what I did:

I hired an assistant to come stand in my house and answer my email for me while I rocked back and forth on the couch occassionally sobbing into a pillow. She sent an email like xincat's from my email account:

Dear Dr Collaborator:

Many apologies; 3491 has been unable to respond until now as she is recovering from an unexpected illness. She would like to schedule time to progress Project X with you and will email you by close of business tomorrow/will drop in a call to see if you're available on Thursday. Thank you
for your patience.

Email Goddess
on behalf of 3491again

She kept a running list of all of these contacts, so if we'd agreed she would say I'd call on Tuesday, I'd call Tuesday when she was here. Same if we said I'd email. I just found having help and someone to deflect the rage and blame I was sure was there made all the difference.

It took 5 days of two hour visits to get caught up. Once I was caught up, she came three and then two and then one day a week for another month to keep me on track.

So that's how I dealt with it immediately. I also put a sign over my desk that said IT'S NEVER AS BAD AS YOU FEAR IT IS, which has always been true in fact.

But the most important thing I did was seek treatment for anxiety. In the very short term I took a lot of Xanex just to be able to sit at my desk. Medium term, having a mental health professional to talk to was a huge relief.

Note that everything I did to cope (except making a sign) involved getting help of one kind or another. This is the third question you've posted tagged anxiety, and it's a consistent theme with your posts. Please, please seek help. It can be so much better and so much less overwhelming.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:55 PM on July 3, 2013 [22 favorites]

Seconding RB as another ADHDer - it's harder for us, but there are ways.

Anyway, I think a short, professional apology followed by a suggested course of action is the way to go. "I'm sorry I've been out of pocket, can we meet tomorrow to talk about next steps?" If, when you talk to the person, they're still upset or seem to want more of an explanation, then you can go into more detail. But belaboring the point pre-emptively can often actually make things worse or make you look even flakier.

For future reference, one thing that's been helpful for me (in addition to medication) has been using google calendars to remind myself to check in on other projects. I have a whole system that I'm happy to share if you think it might be helpful, but the most important piece is that, when I start a project, I schedule times to check in with stakeholders. So even if my checking in is to say "I'm sorry, I won't be able to work on it this week," at least I'm not going totally dark. Even better if you can schedule check-in times with these key people on a regular basis.

Also, I know for myself that it's better if I can really focus on one project at a time, so I try to schedule my work that way as much as possible, even to the point of declining projects. Is that a possibility for you?
posted by lunasol at 12:56 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, one thing to remember: this is a way bigger deal to you than it is to anyone else.
posted by lunasol at 12:58 PM on July 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

I get really anxious and have trouble focusing on more than one task when I am stressed out.

IMO, this is the problem.

How do I not get so anxious so I can focus on more than one task and not get stressed out?

Sorry for abusing your words there, but I am wondering if this is what you might focus on. A possible answer is structure, planning and keeping people prepped. I know from experience if I need two days off for whatever, then telling others beforehand is a much better strategy than afterwards. Heck I'd even tell them three days so when you come back in two they are impressed.
posted by 0 answers at 1:06 PM on July 3, 2013

You can't will yourself out of anxiety and you know this is not something that you can continue doing.

First, you have to take care of yourself. Set expectations with your collaborators as best you can and don't take on more than you can handle. Seek professional help for your anxiety. There's a number of great anti-anxiety medications out there that a doctor can help you navigate.
posted by inturnaround at 1:23 PM on July 3, 2013

"My apologies for the delay. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to devote much time to X since we last touched base, as I was offline, focusing on some other projects.
Now that I am ready to give my full attention to X, please let me know what are the next steps that you need from me."

A lot of my work-related anxiety/ADD-type behavior in the past came from overwhelming projects that weren't sufficiently broken down into smaller, doable steps with finite due dates. I think it can really help to reinforce the other party's sense of power/control over the project without groveling.

What helped me was getting work that I loved so much I was really internally motivated to work on it, as well as working for people who don't accept such unprofessional behavior.
posted by blazingunicorn at 2:37 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

So here's what I do...

With time, I've learned to anticipate this kind of stress, so now I do my best to set people's expectations at realistic levels. It is a sign of professionalism to be able to say, "that is too little time, I need a least a week", or "no, August is full and I have three deadlines. Could we talk again in September?" It's often possible to request as much time as you know you will need, especially if you do it at the very beginning and not at the last minute - it shows them you have a grasp of time management. Ask for exaggeratedly long deadlines whenever you can. It'll give you more time, so you'll be more relaxed.

I like to make long lists of stuff to do, decomposing each project into minimal tasks that take little time to do. Whenever I'm feeling very anxious about getting things done (with that stress-driven anxiety that doesn't let me focus), I will do some or all of the smaller things in the list, the easy ones like filling out a form and mailing it, copying a book, writing a short easy e-mail to someone. The act of completing ONE task and crossing it off the list makes me feel accomplished, which is motivating. The act of listing all the small things you need to do helps to focus on each of the trees and lowers the anxiety (the feeling of being lost in the woods).

Then I used that motivation to do the slightly more difficult tasks, that need more concentration or the ones I might get wrong.

For the hardest tasks on which I procrastinate because I am afraid of doing them imperfectly, I imagine I am only "practicing", and that this is not the "real" paper I have to write, or the "real" super important e-mail I have to send to Prof. Dr. Dr. Van Famous. If it's practice, it doesn't need to be perfect. So I write it, I let it sit till the next day, and usually by then it sounds acceptable. If it doesn't, having slept on it gives me a different perspective and I can normally make satisfactory corrections. Just in general, telling myself "you get to make mistakes, you don't have to know everything, nobody's perfect" helps me relax and focus on doing the work itself.

As to making contact after radio silence, I agree with those who say you should briefly apologize for the delay and offer a concrete course of action.
posted by ipsative at 2:55 PM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

- What is a good script to use in emails to touch base even if I haven't done any work?

Send out a status email that lists what remains to be completed, and your anticipated completion date for each. For items you expect to deliver late, be up-front about it and ask for assistance. Be brief, be honest, and be transparent:
I have been [focusing primarily on project foo|laid up with an illness] for the past [3 days|week|2 weeks|etc], so I wanted to send out a status for my current responsibilities:

Project A deliverable A: on track to complete [date]
Project A deliverable B: at risk, estimated completion date [date], 3 days after the [date] deadline
Project B deliverable A: on track to complete [date]
Project B deliverable B: at risk, estimated completion date [date], 1 week after the [date] deadline

Please advise if you can offer assistance towards speeding up completion of any "at risk" items, or advise if any "on track" items can be deferred to focus on the "at risk" items.
If you do this consistently, people will worry less about your radio silence, because they'll know how things are going. Plus, you can set a calendar reminder for yourself to do it.

- How do I come back from this radio silence after I've done it? What should I email people that is respectful and not too grovel-y but lets them know I've let them down?

They already know you've let them down. Acknowledging that is nice, but not nearly as good as warning them in advance -- most people will feel a lot less let down if you give them advance notice so they can mitigate your impact. You want to be known as the person who has more work than they can take on and keeps you updated, not the person who just keeps on dropping the ball.

So you need to stop waiting until after you've let them down to apologize. Instead, when you are about to go radio silent you need to reach out and let them know what you're doing, and (via your status reports) you'll let them know how each deliverable will be impacted as your [reason for radio silence] proceeds.
posted by davejay at 2:57 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just want to clarify the finances and the person in case my post was confusing. The Email Goddess came two hours a day; five days in Week 1, three days in Week 2, and one day in Week 3. In total it was 15 to 20 hours. The qualifications for this job are someone who is email literate, organised, and unflappable or just far enough removed that they don't actually care about these communications.

I hired a cousin of my husband's, who is an actress with a production company, so the email and organisation were well within her skill set. A student, friend, SAHM, Mefite, or nearly anyone could have been helpful for this very short-term gig. A cheery disposition, a sense of humour and a healthy dose of compassion on the part of Email Goddess helped me not feel like a fucking failure while I sat there trying not to puke.

I paid her something like $20 an hour. I figured it was less than therapy, less than the cost of being unemployed if I didn't get my shit together, and a small price to pay to get back on top of my overwhelming guilt. Despite the fact I didn't really have the money, I found it, and I'm very glad I did.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:47 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have this problem. Stupid ADD. Stupid anxiety. Stupid human weakness. (Talking about myself here, not you).

I try not to over-apologize or focus too much on my problem, because I believe that over-emphasizing my weaknesses is the No. 1 way to make other people more aware of those weaknesses. So, if I can get away with it, I just respond to the email and don't acknowledge the gap in time. Other times, an apology seems necessary and unavoidable.

Some scripts I might use:

* "It's been a while since I touched base, so I wanted to (update you on Project and answer some of your questions/let you know I'm still on track to meet Deadline/etc.)."
* "I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you, here's the information you requested..." and then dive into the email.
* "I apologize for my slow response -- my email inbox got the better of me..."

If it is especially bad, I think a phone call is more effective than an email response: "Hi, this is Caller. I was reviewing old messages and realized that I never responded to the email you sent me several weeks ago about Y, so I wanted to call to provide you with an update and confirm that I still take this relationship seriously."

However, if email is the best/only way that I communicate with somebody, I'd try to be honest without groveling too much:

"Hi there Person-
I have been sick for several weeks, and while away from email I dropped the ball on several projects. I would like to apologize for my long absence, which I'm sure must have been an inconvenience to you. I'm back now, however, and very eager to pick up where I left off. Is that acceptable to you, or would you like to discuss this further? I'd be happy to arrange a phone call or in-person meeting to discuss next steps, if you would like, or I can proceed with Project according to the plan we established before my illness.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:57 AM on July 5, 2013

« Older Communities for growing older in lower Orange...   |   Cervical barriers and rough sex Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.