Time management, for real this time
February 10, 2015 4:16 PM   Subscribe

Got my 2014 performance review. It was, like always, a straight split between "you are amazing beyond belief at this stuff" (actual job functions, strategy, driving new initiatives) and "you are so unimaginably bad at that stuff" (time management, deadlines). My boss told me very plainly that being unreliable is the agreed-upon Thing holding me back from leadership roles, it comes up whenever they talk about high-potential employees at the exec level (in a company of 250!), and if I were anyone else I'd be put on a performance improvement plan (I got a promotion and a raise instead—I was in a visible position before, now it's extremely visible and much higher-stakes if things go off the rails). I want to fix this for real, at work and also just in general with life. But I have no idea how to really do it.

My entire life—school, work, relationships—has been characterized by being offensively flaky, late, and slipshod and getting a pass because what I do produce is really, really good. It puts the people relying on me through a lot of trouble and burns goodwill, and I'm getting tired of it myself. I would like to be a reliable teammate and partner and to not be constantly stressed out by everything being in a state of emergency all the time but don't know where to even start—I've probably resolved on my own to be better a thousand times and it never sticks. It has to this time, so I'm thinking I need help and resources beyond my own jerk of a brain. Additional details:

1) I'm 30. I checked out the possibility of ADHD last year, got on Vyvanse, and it's amazing how now I can turn focus on and off if I try—except that I only try if I'm interested in something anyway.

2) My main issues are procrastination (serious, like, I can spend literally hours or days avoiding something that takes five minutes) and struggles with long-range planning—I can manage daily tasks if I try but I'm horrible at doing (or even knowing) the thing today that sets me up to not be crazy in three weeks.

3) I really am very, very good at the things I'm supposed to do and can produce extremely high-quality work under extreme pressure—so my habit is to assume I can do everything with one all-nighter. I know my work would be better if I could do it in a sane way but...

4) This is the biggest and toughest one—I have zero work ethic for stuff I don't care about that second; I just can't seem to connect "I am supposed to do that now" with "so I should do it now". I feel no guilt about putting things off or missing deadlines—until things are at seven alarm fire levels of emergency, and then I can do it. It makes me an asshole to work with, which bothers me a lot (but not enough to do anything about it!). I actually love my job and once I'm actually working I'm fine—it's the timeline, admin, and planning that are problems.

My boss and I have talked about ways she can help me while I try to tackle this and she's very supportive overall. My end of the bargain is actually tackling it. I know this is kind of a mess but it's honestly scary to even think about trying to deal with this for real—this huge identifying thing about myself that I've tried and failed to fix so many times and has always seemed to be hard-wired into me. Please give me anything you've got—book, therapist, program, tips—I'll be so grateful!
posted by argyle socks to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 126 users marked this as a favorite
Your brain is my brain, and obviously needs a much bigger fix than I can supply, so I'll be tracking this thread with interest. Here is one tiny jigsaw piece:

serious, like, I can spend literally hours or days avoiding something that takes five minutes

What snaps me out of these trances is to dangle some super-immediate reward, with a lot of sensory impact/imaginability. Like: a bacon sandwich. Or: downloading a song that's been going through my head, that I've only ever heard half of.
posted by feral_goldfish at 4:48 PM on February 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

"Therapist" sounds about right. You take pride, rightfully, in being so good at what you do that for the most part people will overlook your general suckiness at meeting deadlines. My sense is that this has been a pattern for you: procrastinating until you are literally on the brink of failure, then pulling it out at the last minute into a net win but at tremendous cost (in terms of stress) to you and those who depend on your work. What keeps you in the pattern, even when it seems self-defeating, is some sort of payoff for you. I couldn't begin to speculate what that payoff might be, but that's what a therapist is for - to help you figure out what that payoff is and then to figure out how to satisfy your needs without engaging in such extreme brinksmanship.
posted by DrGail at 4:54 PM on February 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

To me, your current state sounds like maybe still too much ADHD and not yet enough Meds Working? But I'm no psychiatrist.
posted by salvia at 4:58 PM on February 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oh, and check out anxiety as A Thing -- a common source of procrastination.
posted by salvia at 4:59 PM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'd recommend getting in touch with an ADHD coach. The medication has taken you a step towards your goals, but it doesn't work like magic...you still have to unlearn a lifetime's worth of bad habits. You can do this!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:00 PM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Okay, two last thoughts, then I'll stop:
- Maybe find better to do lists? Back when my mind worked like you describe, I could get myself to do some stuff via a To Do list or progress tracking format that made me happy. (Yes, I know how sad this sounds, but it's true. Some are better than others. Simple is good.)
- You may just grow out of this. I kinda just lost my taste for the adrenaline of the last minute as I got older. This may clear up on its own. Once you don't enjoy feeling stress, not even partly, then you'll start trying to get stuff done well ahead of time like everyone else.
posted by salvia at 5:13 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're almost an exec, can you ask for the time of/share the resource of an admin assistant on your team to manage your task list and calendar, and prep you a daily to do list?

You don't sound important enough for an admin on your own yet. But if that's what you need, maybe an existing admin can dedicate some time to you.
posted by slateyness at 5:23 PM on February 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

I've been reading The Now Habit. Although I hate the idea of reading self-help books, I've found it really helpful for addressing and reframing my procrastination issues, which are similar to yours.
posted by girlmightlive at 5:23 PM on February 10, 2015 [12 favorites]

Do you procrastinate by noodling around on your phone or visiting non-work sites on your computer? There are a few browser extensions that limit the amount of time you can spend at blacklisted domains; the StayFocusd extension for Chrome is one example. You might also consider removing apps for Facebook, Twitter, etc. from your phone.

As far as organizing your time on a day-to-day basis, if you're doing project-based work, I would suggest working with your boss or a project manager to set milestones at shorter intervals than you're used to (say, weekly or twice a week)\. That way, you'll always be working against the clock, but even if you procrastinate a little, you're less likely to end up with a huge pile of behind-schedule work.
posted by Owlcat at 5:35 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

You would probably be well-suited to take a project management course. Long-term project management is all about knowing where you're going and cutting that down into the chunks for every reporting period (for you, I would call your reporting periods "days") so that each chunk is working towards that goal.

If you have project managers on your staff, take one out to lunch and present her or him with what's on your plate right now and see if you can get that into a plan and if you could ask this person to keep you on-track for, say, a week. Getting into that PM habit is of the utmost importance at this time.

As for procrastination, I feel that way too. I get the "I can do it right away, so why do it now?" mindset, so you have to make yourself immediately accountable for everything. Something needs to be done in 5 minutes? Tell someone you're giving it to them in 5 minutes, and make them keep you accountable right then. A boss can be helpful in this. You're probably left alone for large swaths of time, so ask your boss to micro-manage you and mentor you for a month or so.
posted by xingcat at 5:39 PM on February 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

Seconding The Now Habit, it's available as an audio book too. Very helpful for me in identifying some of my procrastination triggers and developing strategies for handling them.

(Though I'm adding feral goldfishes "image a bacon sandwich" technique! Yummy...)
posted by pennypiper at 5:44 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'll just mention some strategies that work for me as a remote worker. It comes down to motivation and habit.

Motivation: The stress point where you decide to buckle down is currently too late. How do you make that point occur earlier? By making a new "stress point" of course. :-)

There's a lot written about telling other people about your internal deadlines or shortening deadlines into smaller chunks, and that kind of works -- but if what you want is stress *relief*, then you want to focus on relieving it.

That is, if you feel *any* guilt for not having accomplished what you wanted to do after the day is done, that is stressful enough. Your goal should be to avoid *that* stress as opposed to the deadline stress. The mind trick is to remember that if you don't do it today, it will be on your mind tonight, and the rest of the week. And you could always do it at 4am on a Monday -- but who wants worry about this stuff at 4am on Monday? :-)

The stressor becomes not that you will disappoint other people (and be fired), but that you will disappoint yourself and take away all your free time by borrowing against it during work with guilt-based interest. Better to save.

Habit: Well, kind of self explanatory -- you have to make it a habit to think this way. Work time is for work, and play time is for play. And if you finish work early, well then more time for play. I know, basic kindergarten stuff :-), but we all need reminders every once in a while.
posted by smidgen at 5:51 PM on February 10, 2015 [13 favorites]

Thirding The Now Habit, which I'm reading right now, on my Android Kindle app.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:58 PM on February 10, 2015

Just another though, because you sound a lot like me: could you also have perfectionist tendencies? I recently figured out, through some professional quiz-type thing, that perfectionism was a big stumbling block for me, and it goes like this: you have ridiculously high standards for yourself, and you want things to be perfect, but they can't be perfect, so you put them off and put them off, and then you do them at the last minute so that you have an excuse (if only to yourself) that they're not perfect.

This blog post offers a great overview of the perfectionism-procrastination cycle, and how to break it.

Here are a few other suggestions:

Get an ADHD coach. (I haven't done this, but a therapist has helped me some of this stuff, and it's been incredibly helpful, especially when I'm feeling overwhelmed. I imagine someone who specializes in this would be even better.) I know you will put off doing this, but it's totally worth it.

Who prescribes your Vyvanse? Talk to them about this and see if they have suggestions.

Get Anti-Social, Freedom, or some other social media or internet site blocker. (I add Metafilter, my favorite procrastination site, to my list!) I need to be online for some work tasks, so I use Anti-Social to keep me off Facebook, Twitter, etc. It's amazing how quickly the time goes, and it's so much easier when you don't have to exert willpower.

Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 6:29 PM on February 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

I am not a psychologist but having gone through similar here's my guess - you have a bad anxiety problem. The anxiety makes it overwhelming to make decisions or get started on things. Work on the anxiety. In my experience anxiety is a physical problem as much as mental. So maybe see a therapist, but definitely get regular exercise (cardio! weight training, yoga, whatever), eat healthy, cut back on sugar, cut back on caffeine, get enough sleep. I try to be careful about all these things and a night without enough good sleep puts me right back in avoidance/anxious mode and struggling just to get through the day. I found that practicing healthy, self care type of habits - especially the exercise which has physical and mental benefits - got me in the practice of just doing things I didn't particularly expect to enjoy without worrying so much about it. It also helped me to start to become a better planner. I couldn't plan when I was a student because I had no habits or routines in my personal life, so I'd procrastinate and figure I'd just finish everything by pulling a few miserable all nighters. That assumption looks as unrealistic as it is when you know you have your daily exercise time and routines and places to go and need your 7-8 hours of sleep every night and have to be in bed by 11, and you gradually learn to start estimating the hours that are actually available.

Now, I am still working on it and have a ways to go. But, for instance, the practice of frequently putting on workout clothes and just going out the door and going for a run even if I thought it was going to be miserable and really didn't feel like it - that carried over, eventually, to where I could just start a project at work even if I didn't want to and didn't feel like it. Because even though the task was different, the ability to tell myself to just acknowledge my negative feelings and expectations, let them go, and get moving was the same. Also I don't even hesitate to express (even if only to myself), where necessary, that I actually hate a task I have to do and it sucks and is boring, because it helps me actually do the thing if I first allow myself to express the feeling that it pretty much sucks.

ADD meds and self help books and websites with this or that recommended system didn't do anything for me, to be honest. Though I am planning to read the Now Habit because it sounds really useful. But overall my brain is wired to be anxious and serious physical exercise (cardio and yoga) is the only thing that has helped me change that wiring.
posted by citron at 7:12 PM on February 10, 2015 [12 favorites]

I went to a therapist for other reasons but it also really transformed my work life.

What do you do outside of work? Why do you do what you do? WHY do you procrastinate?

My suggestion is finding a cognitive behaviour therapist. An executive position is serious business. This is like being an elite athlete in terms of focus and the demands of high-level performance. Athletes have coaches. Your therapist doesn't have to be your coach per se, but you need help deconstructing your work style so you can identify why you do what you do. This is pretty critical before you can take the next step of changing your behaviour.

It's also just a good investment. No one can guarantee that therapy will get you anything, but it's helpful for a lot of people and the cost isn't much relative to the potential of moving up to an executive position. Or even avoiding being fired.
posted by GuyZero at 7:32 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I share some of your tendencies (but without the willingness to push things quite so far into "oh shit" territory). It makes me a genuinely terrible worker for repetitive and production tasks, but makes me a phenomenal project manager and planner. Anxiety and ADHD-ish tendencies play into this in obvious ways, of course, and can either work for you or hurt you depending on your environment.

So I'm not the person to ask about how to do better at your current job (for that, listen to all the suggestions above); my suggestion is to work towards shifting your job towards one that plays to your strengths rather than weaknesses.

So I do well when I'm on my own timeline, not other people's, and I do really well at managing other people's time (because I can almost always do their tasks faster, except that I would get bored and stop doing the work of course) but am terrible when someone is trying to manage my own time in a granular way. Everyone is different and I am in no way saying that we are identical or even very similar -- my point is that changing your environment is almost always easier than changing yourself, particularly for something that is at the core of your personality.

All of that said, I also agree with the comment above that it sounds like you might have the right diagnosis but the wrong meds, and I'd have that conversation with your doctor before making huge changes at work.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:03 PM on February 10, 2015

Read Immunity to Change. It's self-helpy but I think it gives you a really powerful way to change the habits that we can't seem to ever change. The authors, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, are academics at the Harvard School of Ed who focus on adult development and learning and have used this approach as consultants with tons of organizations and people.

It's similar to the Now Habit in that it addresses the emotional/mental stuff that's driving your procrastination (though Immunity to Change isn't focused on procrastination specifically). Basically the idea is that you hold on to your bad habits because of some underlying belief about the way the world works - maybe you secretly think that your work won't be good enough so you have to give yourself the excuse of doing it at the last minute all the time, or you believe that doing boring work means that you are a boring person whose youth is gone, so you avoid doing boring work so that you can hold on to your idea of yourself as an exciting person. Or whatever (not saying either of those apply to you). That's a pretty straightforward idea, but the book gives you a very clear structure for uncovering those hidden beliefs and testing them and slowly learning new beliefs that will better support the new habit you're trying to develop. It isn't a fast process but it's so cool how they give you the guidance to work through the emotional and world-view stuff that is often behind our habits.

Therapy and maybe adjusting ADHD meds sound like good ideas too, but consider also going through the exercises in this book.
posted by aka burlap at 9:24 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Have you seen Why procrastinators procrastinate? Instant gratification monkey, dark playground, panic monster? You might connect with this.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:31 PM on February 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

Nthing The Now Habit. Also, the author accepts clients. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 10:42 PM on February 10, 2015

You may also want to consider an Executive Function Coach.

"Adults with AD/HD and Executive Function challenges generally have difficulties with a combination of some of the following areas, especially at work and in the office:

Task initiation and completion
Staying organized
Time management
Being easily distracted
Managing daily responsibilities
Constantly feeling overwhelmed
Focusing on one topic at a time in conversation
Having relationship problems with employers, coworkers, family and friends
Forgetting appointments, meetings, and deadlines
Having difficulty concentrating on any one task over a long period of time
Not being able to achieve your full potential."

Many of them will work remotely with you, beware that there are hacks. But these people work with reorganizing self-destructive thoughts and work patterns and can be helpful.
posted by kinetic at 2:30 AM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can definitely relate to only being able to focus on something if I care about it. I try to frame tasks in terms of things I do want: I want my project lead to think I'm competent, I want the IT guy to be likely to answer my calls, I want to give the rest of the team a chance to comment on my slides before I present them, I want to put 3 little tickboxes on today's list, etc.
posted by aimedwander at 4:58 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

N-thing the Now Habit. You might also be interested in The Now Habit at Work, which is about how to apply these principles in a work setting. Really reframes how to think about doing work.
posted by peacheater at 7:01 AM on February 11, 2015

So, I'm a program manager, and hit the same thing.

If I have three or more tasks, where one is my favorite, one is my boss' favorite, and one is what actually needs to get done based on long-term efficiency, I find it trivial to work on my favorite, harder to do the long-term needed thing and harder still to get my boss' favorite underway. I get an enormous amount of stuff done. That said, the problem is that the work I get done is often a mismatch with what's best for me, and for what's best for the organization.

My solution to this is twofold.

First, actively prioritize the work, which requires some planning; I need to know which tasks the work requires, in which order, and how hard those tasks are (how long will each one take?) I tend to break work into half-day chunks. Some people go hourly, some people go weekly, do whatever works there. I also call out dependencies between tasks; I know what has to be done first, and what can be done at the same time.

Next, I call out the milestones; when some of those tasks are finished, no one cares; when others are finished, it's a big important thing. Those are what I'm trying to optimize for. If the boss wants their next milestone done in two weeks, everything has to fit.

Finally, I look at my goals. If my personal work is so damn important to me that I'm willing to sacrifice pay/promotion for it, that's one thing; if my personal work energizes me to be able to work harder in general, that's worth noting too. Goals also change over time!

So I have my tasks; the units of work to be done.
I have my milestones; the big units that I am judged on, by myself and others.
Finally, I have my goals.

I use that to stack rank the tasks; what's most important over time? I reshuffle this on Monday morning over coffee.

In my case, simply thinking about the goals was what got it for me, and a coworker helped me out with that. He pointed out "you say you want to get promoted, but also say your pet project is the most important thing here. that conflict is driving you nuts, and going nuts isn't making the motivation easier".

So even without the whole system - just by making sure my goals actually matched real life - I got a pretty damn big gain.

If it's simply motivational, and you don't think it's anything else? Take a look at the Wikipedia pages for Getting Things Done and Pomodoro Technique; the first reduces a bit of cognitive load in planning crap (do tasks that take two minutes as soon as you hear about them!). The latter - Pomodoro - is a way to drive yourself through short/medium term work that you don't truly love, while keeping off of email (among other things), while making it clear where you actually lose time.

The basic idea of Pomodoro is: anyone can do work on something they don't love for five minutes. You can build that up to 25 minutes over time. You should take a five minute break every 25 minutes, and call it winning. Buy a timer, and use it to give yourself regular breaks, even if it breaks flow, which it will.
posted by talldean at 7:06 AM on February 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

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