How can I work at work?
October 8, 2015 1:54 PM   Subscribe

I can't work at work and I don't know why. I can only get work done after the day's over while sitting on my couch. This isn't sustainable. Help!

I code for a living. I am in treatment for depression, whose main symptom was destroying my ability to concentrate. Now that I'm medicated, I can get into a decent flow state more often, usually at home. I have a terrible habit of showing up late, dicking around on the internet all day long, then going home, making dinner and doing eight hours of work in the span of four.

This has been my experience with work since my grade school days: procrastinating work, doing it all at the last minute — and being praised for my quality work! These days, deadlines are frequent and small; I always get my meager amount of work done and done well, but I think I work more hours than my colleagues because my work days are distracted and actual work takes place in the evening. My boss loves when I commit code after hours and praises me for my passion, but it’s really because the office is a place that I can’t work. My weeknight hobbies are pretty passive and allow me to hack on projects from the couch while doing them.

I work in an open office with about 15 people with a nice corner to myself, it’s casual dress so I can wear whatever I find most comfortable, there are unlimited refreshments and armchair seating available, and the lighting is inoffensive. I usually wear noise-cancelling earmuff headphones playing white noise. Other than that, there are frequent visual, aural and interpersonal interruptions of both the tap-on-shoulder or Slack message variety. Meetings, needless to say, throw off my concentration for the rest of the day.

Things I’ve tried:
- An app that blacklists my favorite sites at the hosts file level, but I end up finding other ways to waste time like paying bills, window shopping or researching some dumb thing that seems interesting in the moment.
- Pomodoro technique for a time, but I can’t stick to it. My willpower is garbage.
- Working from home is great, but my boss discourages me from telecommuting more often than once every two weeks. Butts in seats is very important to the management here.

Does this mean I should be working from home? I'm currently job hunting for exactly that arrangement, but I’m worried that I'll have the same problem at home, should I ever find myself in a job that allows me to telecommute. Is this a common habit? How can I take steps to get work done at work?
posted by theraflu to Work & Money (14 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I have much the same problem. I went to see a talk therapist about it. It helped somewhat. You need to figure out why you're avoidant towards getting work done on a normal schedule. It may be related to your depression.
posted by GuyZero at 2:14 PM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

For me, procrastination is symptomatic of anxiety. You might investigate this with a therapist.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:25 PM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

When this happens to me (and I think it happens to everyone at some point), I make the box very small. I schedule things after work and maybe even in the morning. That means work is the only place I can do work. No taking it home.

Telecommuting makes this worse and not better for me. It eliminates the boundaries of a work day.
posted by 26.2 at 2:39 PM on October 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

...I think I work more hours than my colleagues because my work days are distracted and actual work takes place in the evening....

I work in an open office with about 15 people with a nice corner to myself...

It's totally your office. I loathe open offices. It's impossible to think, it's impossible to do anything without being distracted every 10 minutes. I'm a programmer too, and "flow" is elusive. You're getting more flow at night and this is why you're suffering during the day.

Find a way to mitigate the effects of that office. Headphones are a good start, but if your coworkers are ignoring that signal then it's time to educate them. Explain that when the headphones are on, then you are WORKING HARD AND GO AWAY PLEASE KTHXBYE.

And turn off Slack.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:42 PM on October 8, 2015 [19 favorites]

Hey, I struggle with this too! An angle that's led to some progress has been to look at my behavior in one of these categories: 1) self-pity, 2) entitlement, and 3) regressive rebellion. #3 is the most prevalent one for me--I often "misbehave" by saying "ah, screw it, I do what I want!" and read articles on the internet for 4 hours.

The solution to that is a bit of re-parenting. Instead of my governing inner voice being either the "because I said so parent" or the "ah, screw it" teenager in charge, a concerted effort to re-parent myself has paid off somewhat. So now, instead of looking at a deadline and deciding to be rebellious by browsing the internet or playing games on my phone, I "parent" myself the way a reasonable parent would, e.g. "Do this work now and you can relax later. You will be paid and with that money you can buy ice cream!" (or whatever motivates you).
posted by witchen at 2:43 PM on October 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

I wear noise canceling ear muff headphones.

Try changing your aural field to something more like home, e.g., music, television shows, podcasts, etc. I find I work really well in hotels rooms with HGTV on; it's mindless and I can just look up every now and then to follow it. I even like working to QVC or daytime talk shows for the same reason. YMMV, but white noise whoosh is oppressive and anxiety provoking to me.
posted by carmicha at 3:12 PM on October 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I find that in general, in the mornings, my office tends to be sparser and the interruptions fewer. During the periods when I have trouble concentrating, I try to come in early and do as much work as I can in the early morning, to offset how hard it will be to get work done later in the day.

I also find that trying to concentrate becomes a problem in and of itself. If I took an actual 15 minute break to clear my head and walk around, I would come back to my desk in better shape to do work. Instead I stay at my desk 'trying to work', which really means looking at stuff on the Internet and fighting myself over it. I have trouble taking my own advice, but what I'm suggesting is that if you suspect you can't get any work done during a certain period, give yourself permission to not do it. Instead use your time for a substantial other thing, like leaving your desk, or reading a long form article (versus just clicking around on the web). I think the constant social media / news article / forum clicking becomes a trap that's hard to get out of.
posted by tofu_crouton at 3:14 PM on October 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

I went freelance partly for this reason. My natural rhythms make me far more productive in the evenings; the lack of distractions is a huge factor as well. Sitting in an office chair all day trying to look busy or trying and failing to work made things real bad for me — depressed, unmotivated, anxious, unfulfilled. Now that I can set my own hours I do much better: yeah, I procrastinate some, yeah, it's a struggle sometimes. But the quality and the quantity of my work is much higher and I am much happier.

If you otherwise love your job, it may be worth trying to negotiate a work from home situation.

But, also: keep looking for that next job. A company that values your actual productivity (and not butts-in-seats) will support you doing what you need to do to get work done. Maybe you're fully remote, maybe you're in office some of the time, maybe it's a spot that has as strict headphone rule and you can actually concentrate.

Good luck!
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:40 PM on October 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I feel really similar - it's probably because the open office environment is made for supervisors and not for workers, and a lot of people get bored and deal with their distractions in their own way - aka bothering you. The quietness of being on your own, on your own schedule, without having to deal with any interruptions whatsoever is much more conducive to working in a flow state.

Is there a room you can escape to in the office? Otherwise, I think it's a problem worth mentioning to your supervisor, especially because there's been some published backlash against the efficacy of open offices. Couching it in terms of losing your flow and wanting to find a solution to achieve it better would make it a lot more palatable. They would probably lose a valuable employee like you if they don't support your needs.
posted by yueliang at 5:16 PM on October 8, 2015

Can you ask to move your desk someplace more public where people see your screen more?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:31 PM on October 8, 2015

I did this for a while out of anxiety. I felt like I had so many things to do at once and everything had to be perfect, and I spent the whole day avoiding all of them and panicking because procrastinating was making it worse. A few things that helped me were:
- making an UNPRIORITIZED to-do list and allowing myself to pick anything off of it as long as I picked something (which helped with the fear that I had to do everything at once and couldn't prioritize);
- reminding myself that just working on something was enough, and for now I didn't have to worry about perfection;
- making a short list of things to accomplish that day and writing it down somewhere that I could see it, or even sending it to my manager or someone else on my team for accountability;
- deleting my browsing history, cookies, and saved passwords, and forbidding myself to use the Internet unless absolutely necessary for work;
- and taking a walk or going to talk to somebody when I got the urge to procrastinate, instead of surfing the web.
- (And therapy, but not just for that.)
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:40 PM on October 8, 2015 [15 favorites]

Have you ever been evaluated for ADHD? That could be a factor and treatment might help.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 8:19 AM on October 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

You need a physical sign and a virtual do not disturb message, with a specific time block. "In the zone right now, if it's not on fire please come back     between 1 and 3 PM    ". Sacrificing a few planned hours to interruptions will help you remove them from the rest of your time without offending anyone, even legitimate but not immediately urgent questions.
posted by anaelith at 5:53 PM on October 11, 2015

Have you shared your difficulties with any coworkers? It's probably the case that what distracts you at work also distracts them. Social reinforcement (Hey Theraflu, you want to do some heads-down in the conference room for a couple hours?) works a lot better than trying to pound it out on your own.
posted by rebent at 7:17 PM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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