Fairly severe difficulty concentrating at work
April 18, 2018 8:07 PM   Subscribe

I've always had a ton of difficulty concentrating at work. I don't think I have ADD or executive function disorder, because I'm fairly good in other areas of my life. How do I fix it?

The question pretty much says it all. A lot of the time I feel like the guy in Office Space who "only does 15 minutes of actual work" each week. I'm very good at doing responsive things like fixing problems and presenting at meetings, which makes my boss happy. But when I actually have to proactively do the actual work, I'm utterly terrible. My coworkers completely run laps around me, and it's not because they're smarter, it's because they're focused for far more of the day.

I've tried lots of things. I've blocked most web sites on my work computer for years. I put my phone in restricted mode. I've tried the Pomodoro Technique. I'm reading Deep Work. I listen to music or sometimes audio books. I quit caffeine. None of it really seems to help. I just reread the same things endlessly, or get distracted by some tiny aspect of the problem, or spiral into obsessive negative thinking, or just completely space out when I'm supposed to be working. Pretty soon 8 hours have gone by and I've done almost nothing.

Last year I had a 9-month project with well-defined goals. I basically did very little during the day, and ended up doing it all very late at night -- sometimes staying up until 4 in the morning. It did actually work and I met all the deadlines, but it was obviously not fun and pretty much wrecked my personal life during that time.

Our office is deathly quiet with few distractions, so it's not that.

Again, I don't have this problem much outside of work. I'm capable of keeping the house mostly clean and maintained, paying the bills on time, making dinner every night, reading long books, etc. I'm not perfectly conscientious, but I'm not a total disaster either. I did OK (not great) in college and grad school. In the last few months had to take two all-day super-challenging tests that took weeks of studying beforehand, and I focused perfectly and totally aced them (99th %ile). So I'm clearly capable of paying adequate attention to complex tasks when I'm not at work and/or there's a direct and very clear time pressure. But at work there really isn't, and this has been a problem at several different jobs over most of my adult life.

It's just that if something isn't intrinsically valuable to me and I don't have a deadline, I can't figure out how to MAKE my brain do it. Any ideas?
posted by miyabo to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
It's just that if something isn't intrinsically valuable to me and I don't have a deadline, I can't figure out how to MAKE my brain do it.

I'm the exact same way and have similar issues at jobs I am not interested in/don't see the value in. My "solution" has been to seek work/academic pursuits that really interest me and in which I feel like I am contributing something meaningful. If I can't do that, I become unproductive and depressed.

I know this is not a short-term solution, but can you try to go in the direction of finding what is meaningful and interesting to you, and try to do that, rather than force yourself to do things that don't fit with who you are?
posted by bearette at 8:31 PM on April 18, 2018 [11 favorites]

Is it possible this could be sleep related? I find my 'executive function' is a lot better when I have enough sleep and low stress (the opposite of now).
posted by amtho at 8:45 PM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's still ok for you to read resources on executive function.
posted by aniola at 8:45 PM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I track my sleep and I do average a little over 8 hours (although I end up staying up late to finish things for work once or twice a week, so it's somewhat irregular).
posted by miyabo at 8:52 PM on April 18, 2018

Is it possible you’re bored?
posted by kerf at 9:20 PM on April 18, 2018 [9 favorites]

I quit caffeine

Your letter is like me when I quit caffeine. Now I try to use it really strategically (and in low doses to avoid building up a lot of tolerance) when I need to do the kind of productive self-directed work you describe. I won't drink it on days that look like they're going to be wasted on meetings or when I need to do mindless things (like an expense report). I save it for when I have blocked off the morning to draft up the report, or whatever.
posted by salvia at 9:46 PM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Have you tried structured procrastination? You just have to line up a bunch of tasks that are less unpleasant than whatever the big awful one is; keep putting off the big awful one (if it's really important, it'll get shunted to someone else), and meanwhile, a bunch of other interesting things got done.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:29 AM on April 19, 2018

You struggle with the big-but-nebulous projects with indistinct-and-faraway deadlines at work but you're good with the clearly-defined projects with distinct deadlines. So you need to turn the former into more of the latter.

Your problem is that you're trying to eat the elephant WHOLE. You've got to cut it into pieces first.

Example goal-setting for yourself: "Tomorrow, I am setting aside X:00 to X:45 to do Y. I will write it on my whiteboard. I will do do B+ work on it, I do not have to do A+ work. When I have done it, I can cross it out with red ink and go for a walk around the block."

It's effective because you are setting a hard deadline for yourself to do a small concrete bit of work within a short, reasonable time frame, while also letting yourself off that perfectionist hook. Often, done is better than perfect.

And then, when it's done, you get a reward. Personally I love making lists just to cross them out and have that visual evidence.

Like anything else, this gets easier with practice.
posted by (F)utility at 1:52 AM on April 19, 2018 [12 favorites]

It's just that if something isn't intrinsically valuable to me and I don't have a deadline, I can't figure out how to MAKE my brain do it. Any ideas?

Yeah, it really sounds like you find your work boring. You don’t even mention this, except by implication in the line above, which makes me think you maybe don’t even realise that work doesn’t have to be boring. Sounds to me like a new career direction would benefit you, either to work in a new field, or for a new organisation.

I’ve done similar jobs in many different organisations; when I worked for a few months for a company whose sole purpose was making money, specifically more money for the already-rich directors, I had zero interest in it. Other places the purpose of the organisation was enough to motivate me, even though the actual work was similar. Likewise, working culture can have an impact on my ability to care about my work and therefore focus on it. Places where I feel like I fit in and feel valued and connected, I’m more likely to knuckle down to the work.
posted by penguin pie at 2:43 AM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

You sound like me when I'm trying to do something boring and seemingly pointless. I can manage it from time to time, but when I have a job where I have to do that kind of thing day-in-day-out… yeah. I don't perform well and I get miserable.

Do you care about your job? Are you doing work that you think is meaningful and important? If not, then maybe that's the ultimate source of your problem and it's possible that no amount of anything is going to make you fully apply yourself to something that you just can't bring yourself to care about.

In that case, you have two options. One, you can re-frame your internal narrative about your job so that it becomes more meaningful to you. Look at the bigger picture of your work and how it fits into the broader goals of your company. Look at those goals and try to identify the ways in which they are doing positive and important things in the world, and then think about those things as you work. Or, if you really just can't find any value in the work that you do other than the fact that it puts food on your table, start looking for another job doing things that you find more satisfying.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:27 AM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh - and one thing I missed from my comment above - are you underworked? It sounds like you're pretty much able to phone it in and nobody cares. I find it's incredibly hard to knuckle down to the few things I do have to do if I have acres of time to spare. Days when I have a long to-do list, I just get on with it far more effectively.

So maybe you need to either try and take on more work, or seek a job where you're less able to drift.
posted by penguin pie at 5:24 AM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hi -- You sound almost exactly like me. Or like I was. And I was not underworked; nor was I bored. I was by all measures relatively successful. By no means was I a "disaster." Like you, I had developed a fairly robust set of techniques I used for getting work done when it needed to get done: including those pomodoros and website blockers. I also (mostly) met my deadlines, kept my house (mostly) clean, made dinner, paid my bills, had my hobbies. I'd gone to therapy when times were tough, so I could see where a lot of my hangups seemed to come from, and I had developed a set of techniques for working through and around those, too.

But then, I don't know what happened. One day, I just couldn't anymore. I could see clearly, like you, that my peers were lapping me. I started getting too old to pull all-nighters to finish stuff. I had just had it with myself, with that sense that I still somehow couldn't seem to make myself do what I knew I needed to do.

The short version of this story: I found out in my late 30s that I do, in fact, have ADHD. When my shrink confirmed the diagnosis, she pointed out that I had been working so hard for such a long time in order to... be able to work hard. That the daily habits as well as the habits of mind I had developed to make myself productive were themselves so. much. hard. work. Of course my peers were lapping me. Of course I was exhausted and frustrated.

I was so surprised. I never would have imagined that I had ADHD. Reader, I cried and cried -- so true did what she say ring, so sad did it make me to think of all those systems I had built and maintained when, maybe, I didn't need to. I now take a very small dose daily of a commonly-used Rx for this sort of thing. And it has MADE A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE.

Maybe reading this will speak to your experiences; it did to mine.

Good luck to you.
posted by pinkacademic at 6:13 AM on April 19, 2018 [24 favorites]

I struggle with plenty of similar stuff, and The Now Habit was by far the best, most relatable, most constructive thing I've ever read.
posted by mosst at 7:23 AM on April 19, 2018

I don't have much to add except to say that you sound exactly like me. I mean exactly. I'll be following this thread with great interest and seeing if there are any suggestions that might help me.
posted by octothorp at 9:27 AM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh man, I had a job like that for a few years. I was an ace performer, blasting through all the metrics they set up, but MY GOD it was hard to motivate to actually get stuff done. I did maybe an hour or two of work a day, so transitioning from internet distractions and spacing out to actually working was really hard. I eventually quit because really, I was bored out of my skull.

It sounds like you've run through a bunch of time management systems already, so I would suggest you look for a more stimulating work environment, or ask to be placed into QA or something that will focus you on problem-solving rather than free ranging assignments. That way you are working towards your strength instead of forcing yourself to get better at something that's really difficult for you.

I'm also going to second pinkacademic that you seek out an official yes or no to a diagnosis. If medication could help, that could be the best answer in the end, especially if you really like your job and don't want to leave.
posted by ananci at 10:43 AM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wait, wait, how are you doing this? What are you doing when you space out? Just staring at the wall? If you've blocked everythi

You haven't blocked metafilter.

posted by Don Pepino at 10:48 AM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

You were in the gifted program in elementary/middle school, weren't you? I was, too; from talking to others, this is common among gifted kids. We spent so much of our childhood being challenged by difficult work that normal stuff bores the crap out of us. Hence, me typing a Metafilter comment while at work right now...

First, it's not a bad idea to see someone about having ADD/ADHD. There's no downside. If it turns out you're right and you don't have ADD, nothing changes. If you're wrong, and you do have some ADD symptoms, you can get treatment.

Second, deadlines are the key. Micro-deadlines, specifically. Say to yourself, "this is what I'm going to get done in by 9:30am". Actually write it down so you can cross it off. Somebody above suggested breaking up tasks into their constituent parts ("not eating the elephant whole"). This forces you to do it. It's one thing to say "I'm going to finish a project in two weeks." But it's ridiculous to say "I'm going to finish the whole thing in the next half hour". This forces you to focus on what you can actually accomplish in a half hour.

Competition can sometimes be useful, especially if you have some easily-measured work and co-workers you don't like. I used to have a job where I'd monitor what my co-worker was doing, and make it a point to do one more than him each day. Or you could just shoot for not being last in your department.

I suspect you'd probably also benefit from having more agency over the work you do. Is it possible for you to choose which projects you work on, rather than being assigned work?

If it's a longer-term problem, though, you're probably going to have to talk to someone higher up about it. The next time you talk to your supervisor, mention that you don't feel particularly challenged. Ask for additional responsibilities that will challenge you more than your current ones. If you can suggest a project, all the better.
(Be careful, though. This can backfire. I got fired once for something similar.)

Lastly, the unavoidable truth is that you're probably going to have to look for a new job. You've tried a lot of stuff already, and it hasn't helped. Try the stuff that I and the other commenters have suggested, but keep in mind that much of it isn't going to work any better than Pomodoro or blocking websites. If you do all this stuff and the problem still gets worse, the problem isn't you or your lack of concentration; the problem is the job.

Good luck.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:28 AM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Everything that pinkacademic wrote. I could have written your question word for word. I discovered I had ADHD at 35, I'm being treated for it, and now everything's different. Don't discount it without at least seeing a psychiatrist.

Consider reading Driven to Distraction. There are several stories in it that are very similar to yours. It might cause a lightbulb or two to go off.

Good luck!
posted by naju at 11:07 PM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also, regarding this:

In the last few months had to take two all-day super-challenging tests that took weeks of studying beforehand, and I focused perfectly and totally aced them (99th %ile). So I'm clearly capable of paying adequate attention to complex tasks when I'm not at work and/or there's a direct and very clear time pressure.

That would seem to provide further evidence of ADHD, not discount it, imo. There's something ADHD types commonly get called 'hyperfocus', it's worth reading up on (pinkacademic's link touches on this)
posted by naju at 11:15 PM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I agree that a lot of what you describe is entirely consistent with ADHD. At the very least, I suggest you be evaluated in order to rule it out. You might be surprised to find that your perceptions of what ADHD is aren't in line with the actual symptoms of it - many of which are in your description.

You may also be dealing with perfectionism and/or anxiety.
posted by Miko at 9:33 AM on April 20, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.

I did actually get evaluated for ADHD a couple of years ago. I waited more than 9 months for an appointment, he was the most disorganized professional I have ever interacted with, and still sent me a bill for $2,500 and a report that said I had a perfectly normal attention span. So I'll read info on ADHD and such, but I don't think I'll be able to get any medical treatment.

I think a lot of it is my job. Without going into details, while my team is awesome and my project sounds fun in theory, the company itself is incredibly demotivating and borderline hostile to its own employees. So I decided to find a new job first.

I interviewed for a new job on the 20th and got an offer on the 21st. (Have I mentioned I interview well? Probably that hyperfocus thing.) I'm going to try to get one other offer this week and then pick between them.
posted by miyabo at 7:29 AM on April 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Miyabo so sorry to hear about that frustrating experience with the doctor. One hitch with ADHD diagnosis is that they still require (I think) that symptoms manifested in your youth. So people whose parents or schools didn't know to refer them can get (at least initially) shut out as adults.

Here's the thing about having ADHD: I can't maintain focus on things I don't care about without stimulants. Looming deadlines work very well for this, because the stress hormones, or adrenaline, or whatever, help me focus. Likewise the performance jitters for presenting at meetings. Urgent task that gets dropped on my desk? I've got it. All of them mobilize internal stimulants. And because stimulants work the opposite for people with ADHD, I can focus.

Right before I got my diagnosis and medication (and after I'd internalized many of the coping mechanisms you and others have described), I'd started drinking my coffee differently: I spread the equivalent of a 10oz cup over 5 hours, pouring myself a 2oz shot of normal strength coffee once an hour from 9 to 1. This had a slight but noticeable impact on my ability to focus, and may be worth a try if you've otherwise quit coffee.

Oh, last thing: stimulants will help you focus on whatever it is you've started doing, so you still have to make yourself start the right thing. The Now Habit talks a lot about the importance of starting a task, even if it's in the form of telling yourself you're only required to spend 90 *seconds* on the task.
posted by mabelstreet at 8:48 AM on April 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

I did actually get evaluated for ADHD a couple of years ago. I waited more than 9 months for an appointment, he was the most disorganized professional I have ever interacted with, and still sent me a bill for $2,500 and a report that said I had a perfectly normal attention span. So I'll read info on ADHD and such, but I don't think I'll be able to get any medical treatment.

That sounds like a trainwreck of a doctor, and I wouldn't set any store by it. My husband went to his primary care physician (regular copay) and one appointment with a specialist (specialist copay) and that was that. He checks in with his primary. His medication costs $6/month. Your experience sounds difficult but also unusual - please don't let it stop you from seeking more appropriate care. Primary doctors are trained in referring for this.
posted by Miko at 11:50 AM on April 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding Miko. This is too important to leave to a single doctor's diagnosis. If you're on different insurance and able to see a different psychiatrist, do so. A prior negative diagnosis will have some weight in their own diagnosis, but they will still consider your story on their own terms and evaluate it.

When evaluating psychiatry practices to contact, see if there's any explanation of their philosophy of treatment on their website. Some say that they have mandatory objective evaluation tests to screen for ADHD, but some take a more subjective, holistic approach that involves a few patient sessions, but don't necessarily require objective screening. In general, you want to avoid practices that seem to treat patients as potential drug addicts rather than ordinary people seeking evaluation and treatment in good faith.
posted by naju at 3:50 PM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

« Older Writing at Work/The Ol' Sneakaroo   |   Cheapest way to ship, and pay for, t-shirt from... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.