Procrastinated badly and screwed up - damage control?
April 23, 2016 11:01 AM   Subscribe

I screwed up at work...despite all the time in the world, I dragged my feet on some important tasks and I let a lot of people down. What can I do to show that I take that mistake seriously and it won't happen again? Difficulty: remote team.

I work on a small sub-team of a larger team, and my sub-team produces discrete documents that enable everyone else to get things done. Typically we split up the documents, write them semi-independently, and then review each others'.

It's fairly boring work, but it's generally straightforward and I'm able to do it quickly and well. Two weeks ago, I dragged my feet a bit on a set of things and then it mushroomed when I became paralyzingly anxious about not having them done and I started to second-guess if I even knew which documents I'd been allocated (but it felt "too late" to check in and ask because it would be a tacit admission that I wasn't doing it...awesome strategy, go me). My personal life was also unusually busy/stressful too, which probably contributed. By this week (we were trying to complete them the documents in question yesterday or today) I was so anxious that I stopped sleeping, eating, showering, or leaving the house almost entirely. I'd end up on really silly time wasters instead of doing this completely manageable task (I could probably get it done in 8-10 solid hours realistically) because I just...physically couldn't. It's hard to explain, but there is nothing more I wanted to be doing and yet it was just like I'd stare at my hands and will them to go and nope. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I didn't willfully ignore it - I honestly couldn't think about anything else - but it didn't get done in time. It's a manageable mistake workload-wise (I know what I need to do now, and as long as I get it done over the weekend, our team should honestly be fine) but it reflected pretty poorly on me and let down everyone else.

The paralyzing anxiety isn't new for me (oh yeah ADHD contributes, too) and I've tried virtually everything from therapy to strategies right out of books, but clearly I'm not doing it well enough. I'd been far more efficient and productive at this job than I have been in the past, but this incident was a wake-up call so it's back to seeking out new resources and strategies. Notably, one of brothers struggles from almost identical challenges and it's just as awful for him (if not worse) while my other brother is practically the opposite - from that, I can see that it's something that the two of us are probably always going to struggle with a little bit worse than other people and the roots of the issue are unfortunately pretty deep.

I should mention, *most* of the time I'm pretty good at the work we do (as long as I'm not already behind and there's plenty of back-and-forth happening). My manager genuinely thinks the world of me and frequently says glowing things about me to in conversation, over email (to others!), and even behind my back (in a talk she gave recently, for instance). We have a great, friendly relationship and we IM about random stuff constantly. Similarly, I think very highly of her and how she handles management remotely (no easy feat) and I feel very comfortable talking to her and asking her questions. And I know I produce high-quality stuff. But this is the second time that I've run into this sort of roadblock in the last six months (the last incident was similar but at a less crucial time) and I'm very worried about letting her/the team down. Since I've never met her in person and we're all given a lot of independence, I'd say that she's not particularly aware of my limitations and poor work ethic until something like this mushrooms up. Oh, I should add - I'm visibly the youngest and most junior member of the team, but I take on the exact same work as the other team members and I, honestly, do just fine.

So I'm looking for ways to do damage control and show/signal to the team that I really don't want to be that person, that I do care a lot about turning in good and efficient work, and that I am capable of better organization than what I showed this week. I'm interested in both short-term things and longer-term changes.

Here's what I've already done:
-Apologized immediately and sincerely when I was "found out", in a way that blamed nobody but myself and laid out the steps I should have taken instead when I first realized I was behind
-After that conversation, I put my nose to the grindstone and cranked quite a bit out (funny how those moments tend to settle my anxiety long enough for me to actually work)
-I will complete everything on my plate this weekend, so it's all polished for Monday morning
-I found a therapist (haven't been in a while) and made an appointment for next week, to continue to work on the bigger-picture issues and build better coping techniques. Not that I told anyone at work, of course, but it's something I'm definitely committed to doing for a while.

Here's what I've considered doing:
-Asking for extra regular check ins or something else that I know would keep me moving (a honest conversation about where I am tends to really help me get unstuck). She'd do it, but I don't want to ask for extra coddling.
-Speak more candidly about the anxiety I experience, or why it is that I didn't get it done (yeah, I probably shouldn't do that. I just wish I could).
-Make sure I go really above-and-beyond on the next few things (for instance, sometimes we just flag questions for later discussion and sometimes we hunt down people and get the answer right away - I'd make sure to do more of the latter)
-Something like IMing people every single morning with a good morning and a quick back-and-forth to make sure we're on the same page (we do IM frequently, so it wouldn't be inappropriate)
-Keeping more of my personal life (which has been kind of a mess - I don't tell, like, drunk stories but we do chat about things like my boyfriend's challenging job hunt and how he doesn't know if/when he'll be able to move to my city so I've been shuttling sublet to sublet to kill time) to myself to combat any image of me as someone who can't get my act together

Would those be appropriate? What else could I do?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
As a fellow ADHDer, I sincerely feel your pain and know where you are coming from. ADHD + anxious procrastination is a recipe for disaster and can strike even those of us with who have managed to get our ADHD under very tight control.

I would not ask for regular check-ins. If you want to reestablish your reputation, you need to prove that you can operate with the same amount of (or less) supervision as you did before this incident.

If I was in your exact situation, I would ask my therapist to work with me on setting up independent, automated self check-ins using alerts on your computer and smartphone; or hanging up a gigantic wall calendar in a place in your home where you can't miss it. Automated email or text message reminders, like ones that you schedule to arrive at 1pm and say "Is ____ task complete?" or "____ is due by 5pm." You may also need to work with your therapist to ensure that you actually heed these reminders. I'd focus with them on executive functioning skills.

Talk with your therapist (and close friends), but not your supervisors and coworkers, about your anxiety. I'm not asking you to live in hiding, I'm just pointing out that you can get the emotional support you need without airing your achilles heel to the people who least want to hear about it. You pay your therapist to hear you out and help you manage your anxiety; your employer pays you to get work done promptly with the least amount of supervision necessary.

Concerning the daily, morning IMs: I would say that with this, you're headed in the right direction. Instead of morning IMs, might I suggest you consider keeping a log of everything you do each day and sending it to your supervisor at the day's end. Or, keep a daily log, but only email it to your supervisor every Friday.


"Happy Friday, supervisor!

Just checking in to let you know I finished stages 1 and 2 of the XYZ Project on Monday. I finished the final draft of the Yada Yada Paper on Tuesday. Since then I peer-reviewed our respective papers with coworkers Sally and Mike, followed up with Clients G and K on Thursday, and completed step 3 of the XYZ Project. I've attached a copy for your review."

...Or whatever is appropriate to your workplace. YMMV. Depending on your workplace culture, the above could still be overkill, but I think most supervisors would be receptive to a BRIEF email outlining your completed tasks for the week - especially if they don't hunt you down for it, first.
posted by nightrecordings at 12:07 PM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

These are close to okay:
-Make sure I go really above-and-beyond on the next few things (for instance, sometimes we just flag questions for later discussion and sometimes we hunt down people and get the answer right away - I'd make sure to do more of the latter)
-Something like IMing people every single morning with a good morning and a quick back-and-forth to make sure we're on the same page (we do IM frequently, so it wouldn't be inappropriate)

Except I'd say you need to decide on a methodology that is highly responsive and just do that always rather than just the next few times. And don't IM them every morning (they'll come to dread it) if you don't definitively have something to say to them, decide on certain milestones upon which you will check in, whether that's a particular status or whether that's maybe 2 days a week. Do not IM someone every day to ask the same questions under the guise of "checking in".

(On preview, I agree that a status email is significantly less tedious (and better serves as documentation) than having to have the same conversation every day. It is possible to over-communicate status too (I work with a contractor who writes these ponderous status updates so often that a lot of the time I have to compare it to the previous one to find out what had even changed, like one of those newspaper "spot the differences" games.) but if you are succinct this may be preferable. They can IM you if they have a question about it.)

Do not beat the dead horse of the bad thing you did. Talking about your anxiety is not going to be productive (and it's not going to help your case like you think it will) unless you need to speak privately about it with your supervisor. All anybody cares about is whether your shit is going to be together in the future, not how it's getting together or what roadblocks you are suffering. They don't want to think about it, they just want it to not cause them any more grief.

Depending on the nature of the deliverables, you can maybe schedule a specific Outlook appointment for completion of delivery. But do not be overdramatic with this; don't make it a thing they now have to manage just so you get your work done.

Your personal life should stay out of the office. Pick one positive inoffensive thing thing - you like to cook! you volunteer with the community garden! you're taking up swimming again! - and that's your personal topic. Nobody wants to hear about your life upheaval or relationship (at all, good or bad), and it absolutely leaves an impression that is not the impression you want to leave.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:10 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hi, me! I can totally relate. If you and I are really alike, I think one of the things making you freeze is trying to decide what kind of shame to take on. That is, do I admit that I don't know what I was supposed to be working on by asking questions, which makes it seem like I procrastinated? Or, do I face the shame later of not having completed the thing? But the second can be put off for awhile, and maybe (just maybe) I'll have a flash of inspiration or energy to take it on, so it becomes a matter of waiting out the clock in what feels like a potentially no-win situation, but with a statistically unrealistic sliver of hope. For me, this is a very real dynamic.

What can be done to short circuit it, then? What can hit the "reset" button when you are feeling the panic of being between two different types of shame: one that I take on right away, or a currently potential one that I wait for in the future? What I've learned to do is try to re-frame the possibility of present shame so as to kickstart the motivation. For example, in your situation, I might have called one person on the project whom I knew I could trust and say, hey, I'm on track to get this thing done (because you genuinely know how much time it will take to get things done), but I'm realizing that I might have misremembered one of the details correctly. Can you confirm that A is supposed to be the focus, and not B? A kind person will add the clarification you need to keep on going. Also, you are currently showing initiative to get the details right, which is a good thing, especially when you end up getting the project done on time. That is what will be remembered, regardless of the initial perception.

I think what you are going through now can actually be pretty helpful. You've proven to yourself that putting off future pain doesn't really work, as it really is pain you are experiencing right now as you worry about the future. So, it may help to be a motivation to start earlier next time. Take this feeling, bottle it, put it on a sticky note, and don't let it trick you next time. This isn't necessarily a hit-bottom experience, and it can be used to redeem some bad habits.

Now that you are in this pickle, I think it's exactly right to just prove yourself capable for the very next thing coming up. Don't make additional apologies, don't set up accountability structures that put more work on other people and serve to remind them of this situation. Keep remembering the feeling of getting caught up in a false dichotomy of current pain versus future pain. I've heard it said that at work, people don't necessarily stew on how unpredictable a certain person is as part of their character perception, as much as they pragmatically hope that whatever has gone wrong will not happen again, so work can get done. Show them that you can do better by using this current situation as a learning opportunity. If you prove yourself trustworthy over time, this is the dynamic that you will be known by: not someone who dropped the ball, but someone who made a necessary improvement to do better and could be counted on as a trustworthy asset to the team.

Good luck to you!
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:19 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Status reports are a good idea. Others might even appreciate the initiative.

I normally believe in sharing personal life issues which may be impacting work. However, you are positioned remotely and that makes it a whole lot trickier-- you can't read body language or really evaluate the perception you may be creating. If my team are having a tough time, I like to know so I can give them more structure or cut them some slack, but it really is tough to do from a distance.

It sounds as though you are doing all the right things-- I cannot advise you there. But given the cycle you describe I really wonder if you want to work remotely in the long term? Some people really need the structure of being in an office to give them support.
posted by frumiousb at 6:06 PM on April 23, 2016

Do the things you've tried in the past include medication? Because if not that should be priority number one. It's amazing how much easier it is to use tips and tricks for fighting procrastination when your anxiety is under control.
posted by MsMolly at 6:49 PM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have to say that you might be in danger of overthinking this. You seem to be in a good place - your boss thinks you're great and you produce high quality work. It's natural to be concerned about making a mistake but because you are self-analytical it's easy to think of yourself as a ticking timebomb where another disaster could happen at any time (I am also that person). It's also easy to think that it must be obvious to your boss and the rest of the team how fragile your performance is and how it could go off the rails at any time because of the issues you describe. However, frequently that isn't how people who aren't you see it - they just see a valued team member having an off-day / putting them in a somewhat difficult (but fixable) position.

You should absolutely put your hands up and apologise, and put things in place that you think you need to try to avoid the paralysis you've described, but at the same time creating a lot of extra visible processes around your working day and sending status emails etc may end up making this into a bigger situation than it needs to be and reduce your team's confidence in your ability. I guess the point here is to trust the strengths that make your manager appreciate you so much whilst doing the work to fix the issues you see.
posted by patricio at 3:16 PM on April 24, 2016

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