Stuck at work
January 28, 2015 9:13 AM   Subscribe

I'm so far behind on a project that I feel like I'm lying to my employer and I'm deeply pissed at myself. How can I move forward?

I've been working independently on a project at a fantastic organization for several months now and I've gotten nowhere because I'm not working well. I always work there in person and my manager generally comes to check in (in a very friendly way) every day that I'm in. I've never lied to him, though I do feel like I may have misled him on my progress. I'm beyond screwed.

I say all this 100% recognizing that it's my own fault and it's an awful thing to have done but I have no idea how to cope, move on, and maybe actually get somewhere on this. For reference, I am just out of undergrad/also in grad school (in a program much less heavy on independent work like this, thank goodness) and I feel like I'm playing a role somewhere between intern and consultant in this department. I'm paid hourly. I've been working/"working" about 10 hours/week.

I'm not entirely sure why this is happening. The work is hard - understanding similar prior work has really pushed me to research statistical techniques that I didn't (and still kind of don't) understand - and I've honestly never been good at long-term, independent, open-ended work. It's possible I should have been more honest with myself about that when starting this. While I had momentum at the beginning, I've entirely lost it. I don't really know how to do it and I don't know how to get moving again.

I've tried trying to go to my manager and say "hey, I'm stuck" but I think it's still hard to admit how far behind I am to him. I've tried to restructure my work week (working longer days when I was on break from school, incorporating a lunch break, specifically choosing hours to avoid my awful and distracting cube-mate).

It makes me feel sick to think about my work there but especially to think of where I am on it and how I feel like I'm taking advantage of them. To boot, this is more or less the most I've been paid ever and I really don't want to take their money for any of this. If they look at my internet history, at this point, pretty sure I'm violating our policy on it at a fireable level (they're pretty serious) - I'm not doing particularly inappropriate stuff, just reading the news for hours at a time. I can't even plan to go in without feeling nauseous right now.

This is a prestigious place to be, but more so, I really respect these people. I find their publishing fascinating and I like talking to them quite a lot when I get the opportunity. I ended up here through a connection that I treasure, so I couldn't be more angry that I'm doing what I am.

I don't think they think I'm as behind as I am - when I did a big check in in December, I apologized for being so far behind and they said that they didn't think I was. They also formally asked me to stay on for spring, which hadn't always been the agreement.

I realize that I don't have a lot of actionable stuff above but I'm not really sure what to do. There's a professor at school that I have a relationship with that might be able to talk me through a bit of the tough statistics, but outside of that, I don't know. How can I get moving again on this, or what should I do? I think I'm capable of it and I would really, really like to be able to do this project for myriad reasons, but if it's not going to happen, I'd also like to cut my losses in the best possible way under the circumstances.
posted by R a c h e l to Work & Money (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I was in a very similar situation recently, and - if you're correct in your assessment that you can do the work but are just behind - you CAN do this. What I did was to simply set a firm deadline, de-prioritize literally everything else in my life, and work 12 hour days until it was done. It sucked but I got it done and I was very proud of myself. You can do this!

It might also be helpful to plan out EVERYTHING that is left to do, in excruciating detail. I figured out that I had to watch around 80 videos and take notes, then write up those notes in a report. I made myself two sheets with 80 checkboxes - one sheet for watching/notes, one sheet for write-ups. I switched my checkmarking pens every day, and it was very satisfying to look down and see that on a particular day I had gotten 15 videos done, for example. A great motivator. Makes you feel the end is in sight.

Also, listen - as an intern, even a paid intern, your work will not make or break this organization. Yes, you still need to do it, but they did not give a brand new grad student intern working 10 hours a week a project where lateness would be catastrophic. I really, really promise.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:27 AM on January 28, 2015 [11 favorites]

Take a deep breath, make a to-do list that works out the steps that are confusing you in detail, start now (now), and go bird by bird:
"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
posted by sallybrown at 9:31 AM on January 28, 2015 [29 favorites]

When this happens to me, it's about momentum against what appears to be insurmountable. For whatever reason, momentum has been lost and the more I dwell on the lost momentum, the more insurmountable the overall task becomes. The way I get out of it is to small, consumable units of work, list them all out and then check them off... I do this every day until I just don't need to do it any more.

So, step 1 is to build a list. No item on the list should take more than an hour to accomplish and the list should not contain more than 2 days worth of work in total. As you are working through the list, more items will appear that need to go on the list. Add them. As you complete things, check them off and hit the next item on the list. You are now making small, incremental progress on your project and are starting to build your momentum back up.
posted by Jacob G at 9:32 AM on January 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

Deep breaths, this sounds stressful. I think you may be catastrophizing a bit, though, if you had a check in in December and they didn't think you were far behind and in fact extended your stay. So try to remember that.

It sounds like it would be worth meeting with the professor you know at school and asking for help. You will feel some immediate relief if some of the concepts you aren't understanding are explained to you and the project won't feel so overwhelming. Beyond that, I think showbiz_liz has the right idea, if you can put in hours outside of the ten you are there weekly (if I'm understanding your explanation correctly).

Best of luck, you can do this.
posted by JenMarie at 9:33 AM on January 28, 2015

Here's what you need to do.

1. Make an appointment for a project status review with your current supervisor. It should be an hour-long at least.

2. Figure out exactly where you are. If there are benchmarks, show what you've hit.

3. Figure out exactly how much there is left to do. Make a list of those things.

4. Create a document that spells this out specifically. Perhaps in a project management software or Excel.

5. Understand what you don't have that you need to progress. Note it. So if you're waiting for a download from IT, note when you asked for it, and how many times you've followed up. If you have been trying to pin someone down about a data-set, if they want Year to Date, or Calendar year, have the email back up.

6. Ask for specific help.

7. Create a plan for moving forward with measurable benchmarks.

You may discover that you're making as much progress as they expect from you. Or they may be pissed and ask you to leave. Either way, you're acting with integrity and you're working to solve a problem.

I will say that you may not be the best judge of your performance. Don't shoot yourself in the foot. Make it a give and take, and ask for any help you honestly need. If you don't understand the stats, your supervisor should, or should be able to point you to a resource.

You may have a history of always having ease in projects. Most students do. But putting things to use in real life is very different from in an educational or theoretical arena. Be gentle with yourself.

The worst that could happen is that they terminate your employment, which you expected to happen in December. No matter what, this isn't the end of the world. Not even close.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:33 AM on January 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

I don't think they think I'm as behind as I am - when I did a big check in in December, I apologized for being so far behind and they said that they didn't think I was.

This stuck out for me. Are you clear on their expectations? Are there any deadlines? Did they see the work you had done as of December and think you were on track?

If you're looking for something actionable to do, I think you need to talk to your manager (or maybe even just email) and say, "I've done A, B, and C but at the rate I'm going I don't think I'm going to be able to get Y and Z done before [DATE], because I'm still learning [STATISTICAL TECHNIQUE]. Is that timeframe OK?"
posted by mskyle at 9:33 AM on January 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

You need to talk to your superior. If you really are as far behind as you think you are, then them knowing may be the difference between you totally fucking them over and ruining your current and future jobs and working together to get it done in whatever way necessary/possible.

I once worked on a production in which one of the designers disappeared into a workhole only to emerge the night before her deadline to notify the artistic director that she had basically none of the work done. This left a massive amount of make-up panic work for everyone else, and a whole crew of professionals soured on working with her ever again. All of which could have been prevented if she'd told anyone at any point prior to way-too-late time that she was struggling.
posted by cmoj at 9:54 AM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've so been there. Same exact situation, intern-consultant, grad school, etc. For me, the problem was at least partly one of having extremely unrealistic expectations of myself, so you'll see that theme below.

1. Listen to the part of you that is trying to give you a reality check. You're not behind; they said so in December. If you're communicating clearly, then maybe it's only in your own mind that you're behind?

2. Address your guilty conscience by deciding realistically how much time you owe to make up for slacking off. Work that for free. It'll suck but it'll make all the rest of these steps possible. Do that after reading the comments below so that your estimate is realistic. But you are going to need to ask for help, and it will be easier to do that once you're confident that the problem is the size of the project and not the fact that you spent that one day checking ESPN every two minutes.

3. Recognize you're in a tough spot. You're probably working 50 hours a week. Your outsider role is somewhat isolating. You're having to teach yourself new skills as you go. The project is big and overwhelming. It's probably bigger than they think. Later in life you'll look back and think, "yeah, that was actually one of the harder things I've done." Think about what's hard (e.g. working alone) and how to solve that (e.g. more frequent progress meetings?), and also just give yourself sympathy and encouragement. It's hard, but you can get through it.

4. Gain realistic expectations. In particular, try to figure out what percentage of the time most staff are actively working. As a part-time consultant / intern, you should do somewhat better, but don't aim for 100%. Even the Pomodoro technique wants people to take a 10 minute break every hour. Social people can't work silently alone for 10-hour stretches.

5. Have you done your self-employment taxes and bought health insurance? Don't get too intimidated by how much they're paying you until you do. It's different than being an employee; you can't compare the hourly rates.

6. To further cease beating yourself up, recognize others aren't necessarily contributing to this project's success as much as they could be if they wanted it done tomorrow. It sounds like maybe your supervisor isn't experienced in managing research projects. You're probably not fully integrated into this workplace's support network of staff meetings and possible team members. If they wanted it done super-fast, they'd either pay a high price consultant (like $200/h) (one who already knows statistics), put more of their staff on it, or both. Do your best, but don't expect yourself to be something you're not You're a consultant / intern doing this kind of project for the first time. If they wanted a slick consulting firm who does this every day, they would have paid for one.

7. Find a way to be very transparent about where you're at. Come up with some way to communicate progress that you feel accurately conveys the status in a way your supervisor and others can understand. Consider having a meeting specifically about the timeline. "I'm concerned about the pace of progress vs. the project timeline. Could we talk about whether this timeline works for you, or - if we need to finish sooner - how to do less (or get more resources?)?" That said, you just did and they said you weren't behind, so you may not need to do this yet, unless you truly think they misunderstood.

8. Create more structure for yourself, with their help. You (like me) don't sound like you work well in isolation. You need lots of little milestones, or a visible progress bar, or something. Could you even get teammates?

9. Communicate what you need, where you're stuck. Asking for help is a great idea if you pair complaints with constructive suggestions. "I'm stuck. Do you think you could meet with me to be a sounding board?" "This requires a statistical technique I don't know. I can teach myself, but it will take 5 hours. Alternatively, is there someone here who could give me a quick tutorial in the ABC analysis?"

Good luck. Don't expect yourself to be perfect -- just transparent. Find ways to get yourself the support you need to succeed.
posted by salvia at 10:11 AM on January 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

I may be reading this wrong, but you're clocking 10 hours/week on this? I would guess that you may have higher expectations than your superiors do on how much you're expected to get done by when. I agree with the advice above...schedule a sit-down with your direct manager and tell them that you're behind, that you're stuck, and you need to work out a plan to get back to where you need to be. That's not only the best thing to do to help you and help them get out of this problem, but it also shows the maturity you need to be able to admit a roadblock/error and right it.

No matter what, don't let this affect your self esteem! Work is work, and though you may have drifted off the path, it doesn't affect your worthiness at all.
posted by xingcat at 12:19 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Nthing the general rule above -- talk to your supervisor early and often. Letting them know about your problems before the deadline is about a billion times better than the alternative.

I'm unclear from your question what is expected of you and the amount of time it is taking. Regardless, you need more feedback and monitoring from the employer. At this point in your life, you're not able to deal with an open-ended project like this one. That's part of the training you're going to get on this job.

Also, sorry to bring this up, and please ignore it if it's off-base, but there may be an undiagnosed anxiety condition (even if temporary) at work here. If so, a simple pill a couple of times a day might quiet you down enough to get on with your work and not be stymied by your rising fear of failure. Consider getting advice about whether medical intervention might be helpful. I'm speaking from experience.
posted by JimN2TAW at 2:38 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

You've gotten great, specific advice above. I just wanted to let you know that I've gotten myself in similar situations in the past, and the way to fix it was to just f'ing do it, get it done, and leave it behind. Think about how awesome that will feel, and get going. I've also been surprised in the past that once I do get going, it's easier than I expect to make a ton of progress quickly.
posted by metasarah at 4:51 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I just started a technical grad program that meets for 12 hours each week and seems to require at least that much time outside class. I'm expected to get, and want, an Internship as well.

This seems manageable, now, because a.) It's interesting, b.) I've stopped spending hours every day on irrelevant reading, and c.) I did some intense mental housecleaning. Then I cleaned my actual apartment, so I no longer want to 'study' in coffee shops or bars. Or drink, or smoke pot, or read lots of longform pieces, read news, watch TV, etc. I didn't decide to quit these things - I just don't feel like doing them.

Ditching Feedly, dropping FB non-actual-friends, and unfollowing every page and everyone I never read/interact with or which isn't relevant to my program feels pretty great, too.

But yeah. Mental housecleaning - like 50 hours of just intense thinking and feeling and figuring things out over the MLK holiday, that really rebooted me. It may be rather idiomatic, however.
posted by unmake at 2:16 AM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I was kind of scared to come back and read my answers, for some reason, but mefi never disappoints.

To be clear, this project has no specific time pressure or due date (which I'm sure is part of the problem) - it was a report that was sitting on the back burner for a while that they ended up giving me when I was connected to them for the possibility of an internship. It's not make-or-break for the organization, I'm just worried about my relationship with them.

I went today (after calling in sick because I had felt so awful about my work the last few days) and actually made some headway, in part by skipping a sticky part (even though it's the most pressing) and working on a new section. Thanks, all, sometimes I guess I just needed to be kicked into gear.
posted by R a c h e l at 3:06 PM on January 30, 2015

That's great. Friendly reminder though, you can't skip this sticky part forever, so have you come up with a strategy for getting some help working it through? Maybe schedule a meeting with your boss?

Also, are you in therapy? Seriously, once anxiety has you skipping work, that's a level where you stand to gain so much relief and improve your life (and also your productivity and career) by so much if you proactively get some help.
posted by salvia at 9:58 AM on January 31, 2015

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