How can I sell myself on learning the skills to do office administration
January 10, 2017 1:09 AM   Subscribe

I haven't worked in a long time due to my disability (bipolar) and also many years when I was a caregiver. I live in a city (Glasgow, Scotland) which is great for music and low cost of living, but quite hard to find jobs in outside of bar work and call centres. I have been working with a careers advisor from a mental health charity and we agree that me updating my skills in Microsoft Office would open a way to doing office admin or data entry work, which I could do for maybe 8-10 hours a week while managing my disability and trying to improve my health. Yet my skills are all in English and with words, and although not unintelligent I seem to have blocks about learning Office and resistance to it. How can I reframe this learning task so that I stop resisting it, embrace it, and start getting some office admin experience for my resume?

My degree years ago was in marketing, my aptitude is strongly towards verbal reasoning and wordy things (the only job I really excelled in was making presentations around the country on behalf of our government trade department on the marketing opportunities afforded by the web, this was back in 1999-2002) and I am pretty mediocre at maths although at school I did well with arithmetic. In previous jobs I tended to slack off on paperwork until I got behind then I would do a flurry of activity, I struggled with self-motivation and it seemed I needed deadline pressure to get me moving. Since I am quite shy and hate rejection I would literally be "worse than a player short" at the call centre game, so it really does seem like office work is the most likely way I could get an entry level post back into work. But I keep resisting the task of learning MS Office and in particular Excel. I have so much unwanted mental chatter going on when I sit down to watch a Udemy course video, fears about the ego blow of finding myself out to be useless at it, fears about being trapped in a dull job that is so full of paperwork I am exhausted and have no energy for fun things I do now, basically all kinds of "stinking thinking"! I am thinking of hiring a tutor to teacher me MS Office because I need someone to sit beside me and metaphorically hold my hand through the process, the videos just aren't sinking in. But if I get 10 hours a week of work, even at low wages, in an office that isn't toxic, that would be a hell of a lot more pleasant than the lives of the people who work on zero hours contract and get run into the ground at the nearby Amazon distribution centre. Without getting into why until now I've not been able to put on my big boy pants and get this learning task done, what can I do now to get over this hump and become gainfully employed even if just a few hours a week? To give a parallel for my question, if I was asking a question about being overweight but not getting myself to the gym, people might suggest things like exercising with a friend or keeping fresh gym clothes packed and ready beside the door or joining a gym very local to my home. What are some of these outward things I can do so that even if my attitude is still negative and almost self-sabotaging that doesn't actually stop me getting the job done?
posted by AuroraSky to Work & Money (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You can think of it this way: these days pretty much everyone needs these skills. Gone are the days of admin pools and the boss pulling "his girl" in to take a memo. It doesn't matter what sort of office-based position you're applying for, not having up to date Office skills is going to be a strike against.

As for practical getting your butt in a seat: I also find it difficult to do self-paced courses if I don't have an actual project to immediately apply those new skills to. Can you use excel to catalogue your music collection? Make a meal planner with validation fields? Whatever you're learning, try to think of some application in your own life (as silly as that may wind up being--my husband learned MS Access by making a data base of rpg rules) and use that thing as practice, not whatever fake doc the inductor is having you make.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:45 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

A couple of suggestions. I find it very difficult to learn things from videos - are books any easier for you? And what about learning in a particular place? I'm wondering if going to a library, logging on to the library computer and working through exercises in something like Excel for Dummies would be helpful. In my library system you can only use the computers for an hour at any time and this limitation might be helpful.

You could also try a course at the library.

Also, consider an accountability system like Health Month (MetaFilter group). The title is a bit misleading as you can use it to monitor any goal.
posted by paduasoy at 5:51 AM on January 10, 2017

I did office work for years, and in my experience, every employer had their own Excel worksheet already set up for their particular needs.

So for data entry, I'd either be using a pre-made worksheet, which had all of the calculations in place, or entering on their own proprietary system (i.e., accounting, usually some old clunky thing with a black background and green or white letters and numbers, and lots of hitting F keys to go from one screen to another). In which case, a well-seasoned employee would teach me how to use the system.

I had to learn how to do pie charts in Excel once. One of my bosses was really hep on charts, so that's all I did for a while. But probably couldn't remember how to do it now.

I took a class for word processing, and the teacher had us learn the basics, then help the next student in line learn. I enjoyed the teaching more than the actual learning, which was pretty dull.

If you think you need a teacher, by all means, find one. I like being shown how to do things.

Also: when I was assigned to an accounts receivable temp job, which lasted over a year, I too was very resistant. But once I got over the learning curve, I found it soothing. And when a big Excel project came up, there was some whiz there who set up the worksheet for me, because it was beyond my skill level. I think if you can just get past the basics, you will be fine.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:04 AM on January 10, 2017

In terms of learning MS Office, I'd suggest finding a textbook (or online class) that is project-based rather than just trying to learn through videos. The project-based learning puts the material into context and makes it clear WHY particular skills are useful or saves you time. Personally, it is a lot more rewarding to me to see a finalized spreadsheet or a properly formatted document versus stating that I've watched 8 videos or read 1 chapter.

There are even some textbooks that start you with basic, structured projects then progress onto open-ended projects that involve applying the skills you learned to something more personally meaningful (such as soren_lorensen suggested). While it may not be necessary, these project-based classes or textbooks also allow you to build up a portfolio of examples of your skillsets.

In full disclosure, I used to work for a textbook company developing autograded MS Office projects to supplement their MS Office textbooks. When I left, a lot of instructors were starting to prefer just using the projects as it made the learning more efficient (students would actually read the sections they needed to use to complete the project versus skimming the chapter and assuming they understood.)
posted by TofuGolem at 6:29 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Can you reframe MS Office from "necessary boring/difficult skill" to "fun tool that I can use outside of an office environment"?

In terms of learning MS Office, videos are (in my experience) not good for learning software. The best way to master a new program is by practicing with it. For example, here are some MS Excel practice exercises that you might find useful: (I would only focus on items #1-8. As much as I love running regressions, you just don't need to know how to do them for office work.)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:54 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

One thing I've discovered for Excel in particular, both for myself and for people I've taught (librarian) is that it gets a lot of people through that block to have a specific reason to want to use Excel. (As soren_lorensen says!) Basically, start with something, and build a spreadsheet, and then keep adding stuff to it, and learning how to do new things with it. Some topics that lend themselves well to learning some new skills:

- Tracking something: (symptoms, exercise, number of times you get up from your chair each day, how many pages you read) and then doing averages, totals, etc. for different time periods. Play with conditional formatting once you have 10-14 pieces of data.

- Lists: Put a list of items (song tracks you like with artist + time + album/source, books you read, foods you got at the grocery store), and play with the data. A mix of text and numbers will let you play with more functions (the thing that lets you manipulate the data).

- Budget: categories of expenditures, how much, when they happened. Again, this will give you data you can then manipulate in different ways. (This can be a good kind of project to explore something like pivot tables with, and pivot tables are one of the Excel skills that can make you stand out.)

The Ask A Manager blog has had a couple of great threads about Excel tricks, which I recommend reading for two reasons - first, they're a great illustration of the huge variety of ways people use Excel, but also that (beyond the very basics) tons of people know some things about it, but not others, even pretty common things. I find that really reassuring. Learning how to figure out a new Excel thing is a really great marketable skill by itself, once you can do some basic data entry / sort / filter / basic functions (sum, average, count) and formatting. "How do I get Excel Skills" and "What's the coolest Excel trick you know?" are the two most relevant.
posted by modernhypatia at 7:06 AM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yes, you need a project.

What's a field you would really like to end up in? See if you can find some data from that field and make a REALLY SWEET SPREADSHEET out of it. Reverse engineer it from whatever they've got available up online.

For example, say you want to get into the charity/non-profit sector. Have a look at some big charities' sites and see if you can find an annual report containing info on where their donations came from, and what they were spent on. Get that sweet data into a spreadsheet and make it smart, make it do cool stuff, produce graphs from it, produce visualisations.

To learn PowerPoint, produce a presentation about that data. Then take a look at some great presentations. Then go back and make your presentation better.

Not only will you then have the skills, you might even have some stuff you can use as a portfolio.

Also, you will learn most of it once you're working so don't fret about anything past the basics.
posted by greenish at 7:22 AM on January 10, 2017

I've gotten fairly proficient at Office-related tasks over the years, just by trial-and-error. I've never had formal training or read a book. (I just kinda figured it out as I went along and got familiar with it, and tend to learn best that way.) For Word, maybe you could start a journal (just for your own use) to get into the habit of typing, editing, inserting pics, etc. Play around with it and make it as fancy or as simple as you want. Excel is a bit different. I use it at work primarily to manage data, not for financial or mathematical reasons. It's great for organizing lists, making pie charts of interesting figures, sorting and filtering things out of what you want to look at, etc. Most jobs already have their own templates and formulas in place when you're hired. If not, there are plenty of templates online. I doubt any future employer would expect expert-level perfection, but would appreciate a general familiarity with the software and a willingness to learn. Best of luck - you've got this!
posted by jhope71 at 9:14 AM on January 10, 2017

As others have said, the key is separating it from "boring admin work" and looking at it as a basic life skill.

I have used office (or the simpler equivalent, google docs) to help manage basically every productive thing I've ever done in my life. I don't even think that's an exaggeration. This includes but is not limited to:

Every single class in university, including labs
Technical work in a research lab
Grad school in another research lab
My current job (desk job but interesting and not admin)
Planning out my garden space
Organizing and tracking my finances
Tracking progress on personal goals
Makings lists of gift ideas all year
Time management (both at work and personal)
Doing calculations for video games I play
Tracking diet and exercise
Managing the budget for a volunteer event
Calculating rankings for an ongoing card game tournament
Organizing teams for volleyball
Etc, etc, etc

It's tremendously useful software and not at all limited to boring office admin stuff!

If you're really unfamiliar with office, I would suggest starting with something simpler like google docs or open office (bonus, free!) so you can gain comfort with the main functions without being confused by the more complicated stuff (though that can be useful later on). Maybe stick to using it for very non-work activities at first, like tracking health goal progress or hobby stuff or something, so you break that sense of it as a "work tool".

Once you get used to using it routinely, improving your skills will come naturally as you start seeing how your existing documents could be improved, and learn how to search online to figure out how to do that improvement. You don't need to learn everything all at once - basic familiarity and knowing how to look up how to do new stuff will take you 95-100% of the way to what most workplaces want for "ms office skills" (and if they want more, they'll tell you).
posted by randomnity at 10:08 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

PS if you don't believe me and/or want to see some examples of non-work spreadsheets for inspiration, memail me - I'm happy to share some of my beautiful google docs, haha.
posted by randomnity at 10:16 AM on January 10, 2017

Find something in your life that needs to be organized and use that for your Excel project. And don't be afraid to google for a starting version that you can then modify. For example, I wanted a spreadsheet for keeping track of which Pokemon I had collected in the new Pokemon Go. I found one online that someone else had made, then I modified it to also show how many km I would have to walk with a buddy to evolve the ones I needed. I had to look up a couple of the formulas so I could understand what they were doing - I never would have looked those up just sitting around or even using a textbook. It's only because I needed them that I looked them up.

That's your motivation. Find something in your life that you can organize and start typing it in.
posted by CathyG at 1:31 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I learned MS Office as a byproduct of low-paid contract work. "Hi, I'm your new Kelly girl," I used to say -- me a hirsute middle-age white fellow.
Such contract jobs often focus on one thing. E.g.: Create an Excel file with this info. But they don't expect much. Basically they pay you to learn some Excel. Same w Word, Powerpoint.
You've got this.
posted by LonnieK at 5:41 PM on January 13, 2017

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