my work habits are going to get me fired

A reader writes:

I started a new contract two months ago. The projects are exciting, the team is inspiring, and I am doing a terrible job. It takes me two or three times as long as expected to perform simple tasks (like drafting documents that are standard in our field or corresponding with colleagues in order to organize projects). I am generally running behind and disorganized, to the point where I have already missed deadlines and meetings. This is particularly egregious since my responsibilities involve project management.

My boss has – kindly and diplomatically – warned me that she will need to fire me if the situation doesn’t change soon. I have every reason to think that she will be fair in evaluating me. Her goal really is to make sure that the job gets done: by me if possible, but if not, by someone else.

At this point, I don’t know whether to focus on improving my performance, or on extricating myself in a way that doesn’t destroy my dignity and sense of self, and that doesn’t make life even harder for the team members who depend on my work. And I don’t know how I would go about doing either of those things.

Some background:

I am a naturally disorganized, distracted, and frazzled. Planning, organizing, and setting priorities are all difficult for me, but I have learned to work around those difficulties, and have successfully handled complicated projects before. That said, because it requires a lot of focus and stamina on my part, organization is the first thing to go when I get stressed out. And, yes: I do get stressed out pretty easily! Personal and professional difficulties really throw me off. I hate the term “drama llama,” but it’s pretty apt.

I have sought, and follow, medical advice to deal with the anxiety. It helps to some extent, but doesn’t really address the disorganization.

When things are good, I’m a happily anxious over-achiever who occasionally shows up to a meeting on time but sweaty, clutching a report that is still hot from the printer. When things are bad, I get lost in a vicious circle of disorganization, poor planning, poor communication, and absurd priority setting. This cost me a job in my twenties. I’m now in my thirties, and precariously employed in a field with relatively few openings. I am terrified.

Have you seen employees who were in my situation turn things around? If so, do you have any sense of how they achieved that? Would it be better to leave now? Are there any steps that I can take to make the situation less awkward and painful for everyone involved?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 277 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Liet-Kynes

    Oh god, this letter is agonizing. I really can’t see a way forward for the OP in this position. If she’s the one dashing in sweaty and clutching a hot printout under the very best of circumstances, I don’t think she can handle this work and these responsibilities, and I say that as kindly and compassionately as I can – it just sounds like a bad fit, and I think she needs to consider a career change where the organization and deadlines are easier to manage.

    Reply
    1. Mb13

      I agree op you shouldn’t just consider if this job is working for you consider if this career is working for you. Wouldn’t it be better to work a government job where things are prepland and organized, realitivly low stress and have a slower schedule than what ever you are doing now.

      Reply
      1. Just replying

        For clarity, not all gov jobs are preplanned and organized, low stress, and slower schedule. The gov jobs I have been in and worked with are quite the opposite and I think it does a disservice to gov workers to paint with such a broad brush.

        Reply
        1. MegaMoose, Esq.

          And I would add that in fields where government jobs generally do have better quality of life/balance/whatever, those jobs are often in extremely high demand and very competitive. Signed: Five Years and Counting Applying for “Entry Level” Government Jobs.

          Reply
          1. Just replying

            Very true- we work very hard to try to provide flexibility and balance where we can to offset the downsides/stress. It’s the only way to try to be competitive since we can’t compete salary wise (at least in my industry)

            Reply
            1. MegaMoose, Esq.

              There’s hope out there! My record for a single position is three first interviews, two second interviews, plus 3 additional applications where I didn’t get a call (I keep a spreadsheet). Maybe nine’s the charm!

              Reply
        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Yeah, this was a bit of a surprising statement. I’ve only had one other job where I worked as hard for as many hours as when I did for the government. I think I explained it to a friend as taking a finals exam all day, every day for 10+ hours with 1.5 days off on the weekend (if I had been really on top of everything). And that was for weeks when there were no dumpster fires, which was rare. In a lot of government sectors, the workload and expectations re: competency are equal to the private sector.

          There may be preplanned and slower-paced jobs, but from what I can tell, those jobs are very much in the minority for federal and state government. Local government seems to vary based on the locality, although a lot of my friends work for cities and counties, and they are all working under fast-paced, high-intensity conditions.

          Reply
      2. Liet-Kynes

        “Wouldn’t it be better to work a government job where things are prepland and organized, realitivly low stress and have a slower schedule than what ever you are doing now.”

        Not all government jobs are like that, and every government or contractor position I’ve ever held has been pretty heavy on the project management. I’m carrying an entire environmental assessment solo right now. It’s incredibly misinformed to represent government jobs as easy and predictable.

        Reply
        1. De Minimis

          With government the pressure is often there to perform multiple roles since they often are permanently short staffed. My spouse manages a government call center and it sounds horrible at every employee level.

          Reply
          1. Liet-Kynes

            Different situation, but everybody I work for wears at least two hats, and does their own funding and project programming too.

            Reply
      3. LQ

        The government jobs we have here that fit that are call center jobs. But those would often fall into those categories. Stress depends on what stresses you out, it’s an inbound call center, and fairly in line with other inbound call centers.

        Other government work includes things like project management where you have to do everything you do in the private sector, but with people saying really bad things about you because you’re a government employee who doesn’t have stress or a pressing schedule.

        Reply
      4. TCO

        Ha, I work for the government and my job is high-stress and fast-paced. Workloads are high, things are not always pre-planned, and my organizational skills have never been tested as much as they are here. My job, and many others in government, would not be a good for for OP.

        Reply
      5. LizzE

        I work in philanthropy (foundation), where things move slower, everything is pre-planned and the environment is relatively lower in stress compared to when I was out in the field, providing direct services, as a nonprofit professional. My salary is also a lot nicer.

        All that said, there is a trade-off: there is a much higher emphasis to be organized and detailed, there is even less room for error (specifically accounting errors) and your projects cannot deviate far from what was planned months – even years – in advance.

        If the LW is struggling with organizational skills, being detail-oriented, and planning ahead, I do not think it is a matter of finding a different sector or organization; the LW really needs to address these issues head on.

        Reply
        1. Salamander

          Yeah. I agree that it’s not so much a field mismatch. LW needs to address the organization, planning, and detail issues. Those are going to be needed for pretty much any job.

          Reply
        2. M-C

          I disagree. Yes, organization and planning and resistance to stress are helpful no matter what the job. But they’re ESSENTIAL to project management of any kind. I’m sorry OP, but you’re in the wrong field. Having to struggle to keep up with the most basic requirements of a job, even 10 years after you first fail at it, is a sign that you need to really re-think what you’re doing.

          I have a suggestion though. Can you take a look at the work of the people you’re managing so badly? Are you interested in what they’re doing? Can you see yourself doing it? I think if you were to go to your boss and say that you’ve made a mistake about the project management and you’d rather be doing that thing instead, you may well be able to keep your job. It’d be awkward being kind of publicly demoted like that, but that may be better than finding yourself out of a job entirely.

          Let me give you an example – I’m in IT. The personalities who do best at this kind of work are not the same as the ones who do well in management. I can think of only a handful of counter-examples in decades of working life. When you do your IT stuff well, management thinks they’re rewarding you by making you one of their own. But that’s a fallacy, and often people switch from decent to good programmer into an indifferent to atrocious manager. It’s not their fault. Yes management can seem better, at least it’s usually better paid. But are the headaches worth it? Why not resist the fallacious ‘promotion’ and just do your own job well? Anyway, off my soapbox, but I do suspect the OP has some real skills lurking under there that she could put to better use if she admitted it to herself.

          Reply
          1. LizzE

            I am not disagreeing that these skills are essential to project management, but my point is these skills are essential to many jobs and sectors, hence why I do not think it is advisable to tell the OP to just switch to the government sector or a similar field.

            Reply
      6. knitcrazybooknut

        LOL forever. I’ve been in a state government job for over three years, and I’m just starting to see the first little peek of daylight after spending so many extra unpaid hours trying to dig out from 10 years of neglect for my team of three. I see departments all over the organization trying to get more resources as their workload doubles due to the economy coming back around (which is great, but we still need more staff to handle the influx). In my experience, working for the state means doing more with less and learning to cope with ridiculously old software because It’s Taxpayer Money.

        Of course there are slackers, but I don’t see more than I did in private industry. But yes, there are some government jobs that are more predictable and scheduled.

        Reply
      7. Blue

        That sweeping statement aside…I worked at a federal agency during graduate school, and my bosses were as fundamentally mismatched for their jobs as OP seems to be and were constantly stressed as a result. Job fit is important for success regardless of who you’re working for.

        Reply
      8. Soon to be former fed

        OMG what a horribly inaccurate stereotype! As a federal acquisition and contracting professional, its been anything but preplanned, orderly, and low stress. Major contract actions are extremely complicated and can have lead times of several years! You had best be organized, as deadlines are strict and disorganization can least to protests which leads to delayed awards which leads to unhappy customers. It’s the nature of the work OP should consider changing, not just the venue.

        Reply
      9. Kimberlee, Esq.

        Honestly, while I think slower and preplanned/organized workplaces might be good for OP to look into, I’d also suggest looking into the opposite. I would describe myself as a generally disorganized person, but I’ve actually thrived in admin and operations roles (the kinds that many people believe need hyper-organization) in part because those roles were at faster-paced, more chaotic organizations. While some stuff might fall thru the cracks from time to time, I’m better than the average person at dealing with ambiguity, changing gears quickly, multitasking, and wearing lots of hats. All those skills combined make me well suited to startup environments, and environments that are too chaotic for more organized people (who would probably tear their hair out in the kind of work environment I enjoy most).

        And as icing on the cake, the fact that I’m an atypical operations/admin worker sometimes means I’m bringing something to the table that complements, rather than replicates, the skills of the other admins at the organization.

        I do still have systems to keep myself on track, and I am continually improving them based on what I do well on vs what I’m not doing as well on, but it’s definitely not a professional focus of mine to become as organized as some of my peers!

        Reply
        1. teclatrans

          This is me. I don’t think I could have excelled at project management because it requires tracking things over what is usually a longer time, and generally involves constant updates from others and getting them to do their work. But a litigation secrestart, the adrenaline and quickly shifting deadlines were totally my thing, and I was an organizing dervish.

          Something I might have suggested for OP is to find an executive function coach. Generally they work with people who have ADHD, but anybody who is struggling with executive functions (planning, organization, tracking deadlines) could benefit from learning tricks and habits honed for the ADHD world. I have also learned a lot about project and time management from ADHD podcasts and blogs. Maybe these approaches won’t woek for you, but if standard time management advice isn’t sticking, this might offer some new approaches.

          Reply
    2. Hills to die on

      As a project manager, one great thing I do is to set deadlines in my outlook calendar for the week / day / hour before they are due. I block out time in my calendar to get things done. Microsoft Project can help a lot too but don’t try to learn new softwate now.

      Take the time each evening to get things under control so you aren’t overwhelmed during the work day.

      I don’t know if this will help salvage the job, but if you do it consistently you may be able to do some damage control. And I second the thought that project management may not be for you in the long run. I have deliberately chewed into things I’m bad at just to get better, but this is some serious boot-camp level learning and you may not have time for the learning curve.

      Good luck to you!!

      Reply
      1. HR Hopeful

        I work in customer service but I find that this method helps me as well. I have a schedule I follow almost everyday and I also have it to where certain emails are automatically flagged and turned into tasks. This has helped me get a lot more work done in a much shorter time span and my supervisors have been really happy with the results. I started doing this system becasue I have ADHD and used to miss emails due to distractions during the day. This has helped me so so much.

        Reply
    3. Steamed

      You know what else is agonizing? Hearing how low-stress and easy government jobs are when you’re chronically understaffed and under pressure to hit deadlines.

      I agree that this job is not a great for the OP, but I really (really) did not appreciate this comment because it’s so far from reality that it does people a disservice.

      Reply
    4. PersephoneUnderground

      This X1000 – People often don’t realize that ADHD comes in multiple types, so isn’t just about being hyper or distractable. ADHD causes big problems with “executive skills” like time management and organization, and also can cause tasks to take “2 to 3 times as long” because it’s hard to maintain focus for long periods of time (that can also come from similar or related cognitive issues).

      And since you have never been in another person’s brain, you might not realize things like focusing and organization aren’t this hard for everyone- you shouldn’t beat yourself up for not being able to function exactly the same as other people. It’s as though you were 4’11” and mad you have trouble reaching a high shelf because it’s easy for everyone else- but in this case you can’t see the difference in starting points because it’s not something visible like height.

      Please get checked out by a specialist (recommend a psychiatrist to start, or a Ph.D. psychologist) who can thoroughly screen you for this sort of issue- it’s expensive but could save your career and sense of self-worth. Even if they find nothing, there are coaches who can help you with better strategies for staying on top of things. I’ve been there, it sucks, but it can get better. And once you understand how your brain works you can find much more effective strategies for staying on top of things.

      Been there, done that, you can do it!

      Reply
  2. look_a_squirrel!

    This sounds like a classic case of adult ADHD. I’d encourage LR to consider being evaluated if he/she hasn’t already.

    Reply
      1. Breda

        Man, I still remember seeing an author discuss her adult diagnosis of ADHD and saying, “I had all these workarounds to deal with my terrible personality, but it turns out they were actually workarounds to deal with ADD,” and feeling it SO HARD.

        I’ve never actually tried the drugs, because when it got really bad in college I ran up against too many hurdles designed to catch drug-seeking behavior but which actually made it impossible for me to do all the work involved in being diagnosed. (When you’re sleeping 14 hours a day and barely making it to class, it is WAY TOO HARD to set up an appointment off campus, clear out half a day for the testing, figure out your insurance, and actually go to it.) And now, my workarounds…well, work, for the most part. But I hear great things from other people!

        Reply
        1. Falling Diphthong

          My physical therapist had two brothers, the youngest with severe ADHD that needed medical intervention. After his diagnosis, the two older brothers realized that they exhibited milder forms of many of the same traits, and it had directed both of them to careers where they regularly changed up what they did. (And ran triathlons in their off-time.)

          So it combined the medical idea–OP might want to run this possibility by her doctor–and Alison’s advice to look for a career that plays to her strengths rather than against them.

          Reply
        2. MDB

          This.
          My experience has been very similar to this letter writer. My boss expressed concerns after I had been there about six months–and it was clear when I discussed it w/him that he has at least one child with ADHD, because he was nodding and interested in the strategies that I was looking into (independently)–and he was pretty understanding about it. During my first performance review, he said that there had been some improvement, but that he’d like me to really look into ways to manage these issues. I had already started doing just that, and because I love to learn/write/research, he had me approach it like an assignment and submit it to him.
          I was having classic, textbook Lady-ADHD (w/o hyperactivity) symptoms. I struggled with this all through school, being deemed “gifted” early on, skipping a grade and being fast-tracked/graduating early, but underachieving my way through school, college, grad school. I think I managed do to *okay* because school provided this structure and there weren’t a bunch of other huge responsibilities competing with it. Also did great in my job before having children–but parenthood was the tipping point for me, and I’ve never done super well/as well as I know I could in anything (including staying home) since–until now, because my kids are older and the responsibility is different/not as intense.
          All is not perfect, but I just had my next performance review and it was 100% positive, as good as it can get, and he is very pleased with what I’ve done on this issue. I still feel very disorganized at times, but I know what it is, and can let go of the notion that I’m just flaky/lazy/etc.

          Reply
          1. teclatrans

            I know a woman who had a successful career as a physician, and received her diagnosis in her 70s. She had the support she needed — from school, family, husband — so it didn’t show up until aftrr loss of estrogen and husband.

            Reply
      1. an.on

        I wasn’t one of the original commenters up there but I have to chime in here. I fully agree with, respect, and comply with the site rules regarding not diagnosing letter writers. But as a 40 year old project manager with ADHD (diagnosed at 13), I can say that this LW sounds exactly like me at work when my ADHD isn’t being managed correctly. That could be because i’m dealing with intense amounts of stress and personal issues so I’m not focused at work, or my meds ran out and I forgot to make an appt to get them filled, or I’ve forgotten to take them for a straight week, or I’m just so overloaded that all my coping mechanisms go out the window. This letter is like looking into a mirror on my ‘bad days.’ I want to be careful with my wording here – I’m not trying to diagnose the author. I can only speak for myself here, so all I’m saying is that the author describes exactly what it’s like for me to work in a high stress project management job with ADHD, and I’ll leave it at that.

        Reply
        1. Falling Diphthong

          I think an important distinction is that it’s suggesting a possible medical thing to check for an LW, rather than for a third party described by the LW.

          Sometime back there was a letter from someone who mentioned in passing that her doc had ruled out post-partum depression back at an early checkup, but what she described–since returning from leave she struggled to complete work tasks she used to be able to do easily, she felt helpless and couldn’t see any paths forward–sure sounded a lot like depression. There’s a difference between saying “You might want to talk to your doctor about pp depression again, because what you describe really matches that” and “Your employee is struggling? Oh, they probably have pp depression and ADHD and a few other syndromes, based on this half paragraph of a third party’s impression of them.”

          Here, this is helpful advice. To someone mentioning that their intern seems scattered, probably not helpful.

          Reply
            1. TootsNYC

              I like this kind of distinction, because I know in my own life, this sort of, “Hmmm, check this out, just in case,” has been helpful.

              Reply
            2. teclatrans

              Oh, I am so glad to hear this.

              OK, please get tested for ADHD! It is way underdiagnosed in adults (and especially in women), particularly if you aren’t Hyperactive-type. Also, as someone else mentioned, anxiety often goes with ADHD — there is a major comorbidity (some very high percentage that my doctor quoted and I can’t remember), and usually complicates treatment of the anxiety.

              As others are saying here, reading this letter was like looking in a mirror (some details changed, but close enough emotionally).

              If you are a woman who has struggled with organization, planning, and etc. in your life, I highly recommend reading a bit about ADHD in girls and women, you may be surprised to see yourself in the descriptions.

              Reply
          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            This is a great way of clarifying the distinction between armchair diagnosing and helping people consider all their potential options/avenues when faced with daunting or otherwise challenging circumstances.

            Reply
        2. random reader

          Hi, I actually diagnose children with ADHD and my husband has it. There are some classic executive functioning issues and anxiety that tend to appear as symptoms of ADHD (google executive functioning and adhd). I’d look into it – this might give you some insight on exactly what to work on and how to work around it, if not for this job for the next one.

          Reply
          1. MDB

            Yes, exactly.

            I commented above because I’m an adult woman with the diagnosis (just in recent years)–but I found that when I was researching ways to cope and manage my exec functioning issues, a lot of what I learned would benefit people who don’t have ADHD also. Or who think they have an issue but have not been diagnosed. This does not include medication–but does include a lot of in-the-workplace habits and practices that really do help.

            Reply
      2. IT'S ME TOO

        Is suggesting getting looked at for ADHD based on LW’s description (and it being a probability to which treatment could vastly improve her day to day) the same as saying someone just MUST be bipolar based on vague description of an interaction? I think we have to be careful not to call every outburst or sad time or x or y or z on here a MH issue, but I also think its okay to suggest to LW that it could very well be a “this thing I also deal with and this is how I manage and it could be worth looking into for you” thing and not an “armchair diagnosis”

        I think there is a difference?

        I don’t know if what I am trying to express is making sense?

        Reply
        1. Rachel 2: Electric Boogaloo

          It makes perfect sense to me. I also have ADHD (diagnosed at age 40) and the LW’s experience sounds so much like mine. In a weird way, it was somewhat of a relief when I was diagnosed – knowing that there was a legitimate medical explanation and it wasn’t because I was a slacker with no work ethic.

          Reply
      1. look_a_squirrel!

        Oops. There doesn’t appear to be a way to edit that out of my comment or am I just not seeing that function?

        Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          There isn’t, but I actually thought your comment added value and context/nuance to the conversation. Personally, I did not think you crossed the armchair diagnosing rule.

          Reply
      2. WomanEngineer

        Yes… but could we say. ‘You might want to go back to your doctor (or see a psychiatrist) to rule out any medical issues (like adult ADD). ‘ it is way underdiagnosed in women and adults. And besides medication there can be other interventions like coaching that could help this person.

        Reply
        1. Cobol

          I almost asked this yesterday, but what about talking about yourself? I have ADHD which was treated as a child, but the general idea was it goes away as an adult (which turns out not to be true). After losing jobs for the reasons OP outlines in their mail I got back on the drugs :) (Stratera and Ritalin work for me).

          I know we’re not supposed to armchair diagnose, but the OP directly addresses anxiety.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            I think it’s fine to say “When I encountered something like this, it helped me to go to a doctor, who treated me for ADHD with Dammitol and Helluvino.” It’s insisting you know what’s going on with the OP and/or not providing an actionable suggestion or model that’s a problem. (And also it’s worth checking the comments to make sure you’re not the nineteenth person to say it.)

            Reply
            1. Stranger than fiction

              I found the studies on Dammitol inconclusive and I believe Helluvino can only be found in Mexico now.

              Reply
                1. Floundering Mander

                  It’s too bad Smokabol is only available in some areas. It was helpful during my post-undergrad depression years.

      3. Amelia

        There’s a clarification about the rule (endorsed by Alison) upthread. Basically, it’s fine to suggest things the LW themselves may want to look into, but not OK to provide armchair diagnoses for people the LW is writing about. For example, “I felt a lot like you until I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and got some treatment for it” is fine; “I think your disorganized intern has ADHD and you should mention that to her” is not.

        Reply
    1. AnotherAlison

      I find the ADHD comments to this post interesting. My husband has ADHD (took Ritalin briefly as a kid in the early 80s, but not since). My 8th grade son also has ADHD. He takes Concerta, and has taken something since 1st grade, but he’s currently on his second “medication holiday” ever.

      Both are disorganized people by my standards, but what is interesting is my son seems more able to organize himself right now than he did on meds. He has more drive to get things done, and more interest in things, which results in him deciding to clean his closet or whatever. Off meds, he was happy to sit in his room alone on his phone, but now he’s more social and wants to know what the rest of us are doing. So, I don’t know that I would say meds are the magic bullet for improving organization. I think I would still be inclined to find the type of career that really fits with your natural strengths, medicated or not. My husband has to be organized at work, but he also picked a career where he drives and movesa lot and his hands-on skills are more important than organization.

      Reply
      1. Breda

        This is actually part of why ADHD is diagnosed more often in men/boys than women/girls! In boys, it often manifests as hyperactivity; for girls, it’s often quiet enough to go unnoticed. (Part of this is certainly that hyperactivity is really socialized out of girls.) It manifests as mental disorganization rather than physical activity – except for periods of hyperfocus, when the ONLY THING YOU CAN DO IS CLEAN THE CLOSET, THROW EVERYTHING OUT, ORGANIZE, VACUUM, LAUNDRY, and hopefully it lasts long enough for you to get everything back in place before you crash. :P

        But yes – even if this IS the case with the OP, a career as a Professional Organizer might be the wrong fit, and that’s ok! Life feels better when you have a job that plays to your strengths.

        Reply
      2. Jessica

        Meds are definitely not a magic bullet. They do not transform one into an organized person. What they do is fine-tune your brain chemistry so that it makes it easier TO focus on your already-existing organized plan. You still have to learn how to plan and organize.

        I was diagnosed a couple years ago (I’m in my 40s) and I found medication to be helpful, and to make it easier to follow through on tasks, but the coping skills I’d learned throughout my life were just as effective in managing said tasks.

        Reply
        1. Siberian

          I posted a too-long comment below on this theme already Jessica, but I’ll add here that my huge set of coping skills was all that kept me functioning for years before my diagnosis, but when I added medication, those skills were ten times more effective. I think I feel compelled to say that because some people (not you) act like if we just tried harder, we could overcome those ADHD symptoms. I tried harder, and I did achieve, but at such huge internal personal cost. And I achieve so much more with so much less effort when I add in medication.

          Reply
        2. Junior Dev

          I have a similar experience with antidepressants. They aren’t a substitute for coping mechanisms or lifestyle changes. They allow me to use those strategies consistently.

          Reply
      3. EllenS

        I was diagnosed in my 40s, as I mentioned below, and I find something similar. The meds allow me to focus, but that can easily slip into hyperfocus or being immersed in a task and “losing” large stretches of time. Fortunately for me, that is good for my work (which requires long periods of deep focus). Unfortunately for my housekeeping, I don’t notice or feel an urge to take care of the tidying or the dust bunnies.
        I have to use other strategies like timers, alarms, and checklists to make sure those routine things get done. On the other hand, the meds do overcome the sense of overwhelm and “where do I start” so I can actually plow through that checklist when the alarm goes off.

        Reply
        1. E H

          Yeah taking Adderall is helpful for just being able to generally do stuff but I also have a huge tendency to get “stuck” doing whatever I happen to be doing regardless of whether it is useful or not.

          Reply
      4. Jaydee

        One thing to consider is the timing and circumstances of a medication holiday. I don’t know if it’s the case for your son, but a lot of kids will have medication holidays that coincide with school breaks. Their routines and activities are often a lot different on break than during the school year. No sitting in a classroom forcing themselves to focus on something that isn’t interesting, more flexibility as to when they do different things in the day, possibly getting more sleep, etc. I know I’m much more able to Clean All The Things on a Saturday afternoon than I am on a Wednesday night, even though I don’t take my Concerta on the weekend. I get more sleep, I don’t have a full day of work and commuting, and my available time and energy seems almost endless. But if I don’t take my meds during the week, it won’t be long before I can Clean All The Things whenever I want because I’ll be unemployed.

        To be clear, I totally agree with you that finding a job and structuring your life in a way that suits your strengths is critical. But for the situations where that isn’t possible, meds can be a big help in using your strengths in a less-than-ideal environment.

        Reply
    2. C Average

      This. I faced similar issues and got evaluated for ADHD. That’s how I discovered that I’ve got Nonverbal Learning Disorder, an autism-spectrum learning disability that brings with it some distinct strengths and deficits. There’s no medication for it, but there are some effective coping strategies and lifestyle changes that have helped me learn to be a better and happier and more effective employee, friend, family member, and human being. I’ve also read a lot about ADHD and adapted some of the strategies recommended for people with that condition. I’ve found recommendations for coping strategies for kids with ADHD especially helpful; they were clear and easily implemented.

      I know some people fear acquiring a label, but personally I’ve found it empowering to have a name for what I’m up against, and an avenue for learning more about it.

      Get tested! And good luck.

      Reply
      1. Siberian

        Gosh, I wish I could talk to you in real life, C Average! My foster son was diagnosed with NVLD and it’s hard to get good information and hard to connect with him to understand what he needs or wants. I’m so glad that you have found adaptations that work for you. That is very cheering.

        Reply
        1. C Average

          Hey Siberian! Thanks for the response. Your foster son is fortunate to get a diagnosis a little earlier in life than I did; I definitely spent a long time muddling through the wilderness in terms of career, relationships, and pretty much everything else, and I think if I’d had some self-awareness about my limitations, I might have avoided some of these experiences.

          Here’s what I’d recommend for him/you. This is the distillation of a lot of experience and reflection.

          –Anytime you can put concepts into words, do. If he’s struggling with math, talk to him about the concepts using words rather than numbers, and coax him until he can also use words to convey what he’s learning. If you’re giving him directions, write down the steps rather than drawing a map. If you’re teaching him to do something, have him do the thing while you narrate the steps. If it’s at all possible to make any learning experience into a story with narrative structure, that will help him absorb what he’s learning.

          –Focus on doing, not being. This is key for careers as well. Don’t encourage him to be a go-getter or a self-starter or a people person or whatever. That’s too vague and abstract; even if he wants to be these things, he won’t know what exactly they are or how to be them. Encourage him to get to work or school a few minutes early, to review his to-do list at the same time every day, to establish comfortable and sustainable routines. If he needs to have hard conversations with others, help him develop specific scripts.

          –Encourage him to read advice columns! No, really, do. It’s how I’ve learned almost everything useful about existing in the world. In real life, people won’t tell you when you’re stepping afoul of a social norm; they’ll just stop hanging out with you. By reading advice columns, you’ll learn the truth about what drives people crazy about other people. AAM, Captain Awkward, Dear Prudence, Ask Polly, the Dear Sugar archives . . . and, most of all, the comment sections! It’s like eavesdropping on the neurotypicals. I read letters, responses, and comments and think to myself, “Ohhhhhhh, THAT’S what it means when this happens or someone says this or does this.”

          –Read up on the condition. There are some good books. My favorite is the Rondalyn Varney one.

          –Encourage him to streamline parts of his life that don’t require variety. The world is overwhelming for those on the spectrum; if areas of it can be made predictable, it has a calming effect. I have a small, rather uniform wardrobe. I eat the same things for breakfast and lunch every day. I try to arrange my days so that at least some parts of them have the same rhythm. I run the same route every day. This would be boring for some people, but I find it soothing.

          –Help him get comfortable with accommodating himself, and with saying aloud, “This is harder for me than for other people.” I avoid freeways because I have crappy depth perception and it makes tight merges scary and stressful; people who are close to me know that if they ask me for a ride, we’re going the long way. I have trouble recalling left and right, and need a moment to orient myself. I have to focus when I’m transitioning between tasks, and actually say to myself, “I’m transitioning from drawing to writing now.” It’s like I put a new hat on when I switch tasks. These are all odd things to do, but I give myself permission to do them because I know I’m more effective when I’m less stressed.

          –I strategically avoid things I don’t enjoy and will never be good at. I can’t and don’t dance. I avoid large, noisy gatherings because the cross-talk disorients me. I don’t do jobs that involve a lot of numbers because, despite sincere effort on my part, I am just not a numbers person, and there are limits to how much I’m willing to struggle against my nature and my limitations.

          –I strategically seek things that play to my strengths. I do the daily crossword in pen every day. I read the Economist every week. I write and edit. I do activities that involve following directions–sewing, baking, building things. I teach myself new skills out of how-to books.

          Much of this may be particular to me, but some of it may ring some bells when you think of your foster son. I hope he will take the time to learn about the condition and work to build a professional and personal life suited to his assets and deficits. It can be done.

          Reply
          1. Siberian

            This is incredibly helpful, C Average! I really appreciate you taking the time to write this. I’m copying it into a file as a guide for myself, especially when we’re discouraged. Thank you!!!

            Reply
    3. Siberian

      OMG YES! I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 49 and my whole life I had to work triply hard to manage myself in order to manage my work and life tasks. As someone below says, reading this email was like looking in a mirror. It is certainly worth the letter writer’s time to check in with her doctor on it.

      Also, there’s a lot of misinformation out there that even after I was diagnosed, and even after Adderall really made a difference for me, I didn’t fully believe the diagnosis was correct. My doctors gave me no information about ADHD other than the diagnosis. What really helped me, and might help the letter writer decide if a doctor visit would help, was listening to the ADHD Experts Podcast. Episode 114, “Are you sure, Doc?” on ways that ADHD is missed or misdiagnosed, was literally life changing for me. Completely changed my understanding of myself, my anxiety and my depression. I highly recommend it to anyone who is wondering about ADHD-like symptoms. It will help you understand what’s going on with you, but also, a lot of doctors and even psychiatrists don’t understand ADHD very well, don’t do thorough evaluations, and can be very dismissive. That podcast, plus this week’s podcast on how a proper evaluation is done, will help you spot poor mental health care and avoid some of the typical errors doctors make in diagnosing.

      I am so grateful for the various things, including that podcast, that got me on the path to feeling “normal” for the first time in my life. I am so grateful to be able to sit down and work with focus, and to spend my time managing my projects and not constantly managing myself.

      Reply
      1. ArtsNerd

        Thank you so much for this rec. I’ve spent years waffling on whether my diagnosis was ‘legitimate’ and only just recently felt comfortable claiming it.

        Reply
      2. Cherith Ponsonby

        Thank you for reccing that podcast! I’m pretty comfortable with my diagnosis (I am pretty much a textbook case now that the textbooks admit that girls can have ADHD too) but some of the other episodes look very useful.

        Reply
    4. Long time lurker

      YES. I wouldn’t normally armchair-diagnose but this was EXACTLY me before I was diagnosed. ADHD + anxiety. I am hugely successful with things that fall into my areas of expertise/interest but it is a mighty struggle to stay organized – and as a woman, people unfairly expect me to be ‘naturally’ organized in a way that isn’t expected of men, and I have been penalized in the past in a way that men who are similarly absent-minded haven’t been.

      I would urge the LW to run, not walk, to a good psychiatrist with expertise in adult attention all disorders, and try Concerta. It has literally saved my life, and I don’t say that lightly.

      Reply
      1. Long time lurker

        (Also: I don’t know the LW’s gender identity, so they may or may not experience the same gender-specific penalty that I did. I also don’t know if the LW has ADHD and really am not trying to diagnose them, but if they do, I want them to know that help exists and can make a huge difference.)

        Reply
    5. Jaydee

      I don’t want to armchair diagnose the LW, but I see myself so much in this letter, and yes, I was diagnosed with ADHD 2 years ago at the age of 34.

      The ADHD/anxiety loop is brutal. Stress –> disorganization –> balls getting dropped –> stress and around and around and around.

      Reply
    6. EllenS

      I made it to 44 years old before it even occurred to me to get evaluated for ADHD, but it became immediately obvious that I’ve had it my whole life. Before then, I was underperforming according to my apparent “potential,” but it was that year my life got complicated enough that the wheels really came off. ADHD is comorbid with anxiety and depression, but it can also get mistaken for those things or even cause them because it does hugely increase your difficulty in navigating ordinary day-to-day tasks.
      Just knowing that this is a brain wiring thing has helped so very much. First, because it reduces the emotion and anxiety of thinking it’s a series of inadequacies and character flaws. Then, finding tools that actually work for my brain and my life, because conventional wisdom about goalsetting and time management doesn’t always translate directly.
      The meds are a helpful tool, but they don’t magically fix everything. For me, I need strategies, tools, and self-care. The meds are what make it possible for me to consistently *use* the strategies, etc.

      Reply
      1. teclatrans

        One thing that’s made a huge difference for me is learning that all those executive function things really do take more of *my* energy than they do of someone without ADHD, and that it is therefore okay to outsource or get help with them, or even change my career aspirations so they aren’t nearly so central to my professional success.

        Learning that I could ask a friend to come study while I work, or offload a chore to my partner, or forgive myself for not finishing my to do list… Learning that folks with ADHD have some fundamental issues with time, and are generally way ovetoptimistic about how long things will take (until procrastinating, when we become ovetoptimistic about how long those same tasks will take)… I guess I could say that learning more, generally, has been transformative.

        Reply
    7. phedre

      This is EXACTLY what I thought. I was diagnosed with ADHD a few months ago at age 33. I never ever thought I could have ADHD because I was always a high achiever. Sure, I was messy/disorganized, procrastinate constantly, talked way too much, am super fidgety, am a big interrupter, etc., but I did well in school, didn’t have behavioral problems, and kept getting promoted at my job. But with the latest promotion it became clear that the volume of work increased enough that my same habits/behaviors were not enough to keep up. My doctor told me that this is a really common pattern with adults who are diagnosed – you cope and do fine until you something changes, like a promotion, etc. – and then all of a sudden you can’t manage any more.

      I’ve been on Adderall since May, and while we’re still working out the dosage, it’s been a life saver. I get so much more done, I’m on top of deadlines, I procrastinate much less, I have more consistent energy throughout the day. I can’t believe I lived like this for so long. Medication doesn’t change who you are as a person though – I’m still disorganized and messy, I still interrupt when I get excited. But I’ve found that the bar for action is lower – it’s easier to focus, it’s easier to not procrastinate, it’s easier to bite my tongue and let people finish speaking, it’s easier to not mess around on the internet all day instead of working.

      Reply
      1. Siberian

        I feel like I could have written half these posts on ADHD but yours in particular hit home, phedre. Your first few sentences are me! Uh, so is your entire last paragraph. So, I guess I just haven’t had any promotions (I was self employed for many years) but otherwise we’re apparently the same person. :)

        I too had to adjust my Adderall for the first year or so. When I got on extended release instead of short-acting, that did the trick.

        Reply
    8. SystemsLady

      Agreed, I would add especially if they’re also having similar problems managing things at home. House never entirely clean/things have no assigned spot/can’t seem to balance Netflix and cooking dinner/missed appointments/lost bills and important documents etc.

      Reply
    9. bookish

      I came here to say the same thing. It’s amazing how much difference it makes with motivation, focus, stamina, stress-reducing, overall mood.

      Reply
    10. Graflex

      I agree, I would encourage the LR to consider an evaluation for adult ADHD.

      I don’t want to diagnose over the internet, but I can say “Hey, your situation sounds a lot like mine, and this helped me.”

      I found I have adult ADD. (I might have always had it, it just wasn’t until I was on my own in college that it actually became a really noticable problem.) I’d equate having it to trying to do daily chores in a house filled with fog. Sometimes you decide it’s time to go do laundry in the basement, but you get lost, and trip over the coffee table in the living room. . .and then start reading the book that’s on the coffee table, and two hours later, you suddenly realize you have no idea how you got to where you are, and that the to-do list is still getting longer. It’s not that I’m hyper (at all), or can’t think and plan – its just actually getting from point A to B takes SO much effort.

      I found that there were quite a few things that my ADD was throwing off. I was having some issues with anxiety too – because I wasn’t getting anything accomplished. I’d look at my to-do list, and get stressed out about the fact that I hadn’t gotten anything done on it. Instead of taking an hour and doing something about it, I’d just sit and stew over it for two hours. . .and then I was just out two hours of time, with an equally long to-do list. It created a feedback loop. Just the thought of how long it would take me to do something was enough to make me not start it.

      Being anxious killed my sleep schedule. I was never in a hurry to get to bed, because tomorrow I’d just have to deal with stuff I didn’t do today. Being tired, paired with the ADD, made it impossible to get up in the morning.

      Reply
  3. Amber Rose

    Aww, LW, I am you. Project management was just a nightmare for me. I am much happier away from it. I still do have projects, but lower stress ones.

    I have tasks and reminders for everything set up in my email and my phone. One or the other will interrupt me with reminders that I need X done by now. My tasks let me set up percentage completion dates (so, 25% of this needs to be done by X) and notes on what I’ve defined that as, which is nice. Technology can be your secretary in so many ways.

    Alternatively, I have friends who swear by bullet journals.

    Either way, finding a way to improve and get out on your own terms is best. I know there aren’t a lot of openings, but if you can improve enough to get a good reference, and find work better suited to your strengths, you will live a happier life. Killing yourself on work that makes you this unhappy is not good for anyone.

    Reply
    1. Princess Carolyn

      I have a lot of the same issues as OP, but part of me wonders if project management might actually work for me? Because of my ADHD, I’m pretty good at imposing structure and plans. My weakness is actually focusing long enough to actually carry out the work I’ve scheduled. Does that sound compatible with project management or not so much? I’m still looking for a role that suits my strengths.

      Reply
      1. Jady

        An important question to determine that is how well do you handle sudden changes in direction?

        PM can involve a lot of that, so if you had something well planned and structured out yesterday, tomorrow it might all have to be deleted.

        And also, how quickly can you plan and structure? The longer it takes, the less likely you’d be comfortable in that position.

        But, to degrees I’m sure. It would depend on your industry and company how often these problems would occur.

        Reply
        1. Princess Carolyn

          Hmm, those are good questions that I’d have to think about. I struggle a lot with shifting tasks, so interruptions can really derail me. But changing directions is kind of different.

          My background is in writing, editing, and marketing. So far the best work style I’ve found has been with editing/proofreading: I get the task, complete it pretty much immediately, and move on to the next task. But the downside there is that you can’t really ever make mistakes, and I’ve been known to miss things when I’m not feeling well or I keep getting hit with interruptions.

          Reply
      2. Lucie

        Project Manager here! That’s going to depend greatly on what sort of project management you’d want to do. It can very greatly in fields. For example what people do in PM in technology doesn’t sound much like what I do in automotive etc. Look into it in the field you’re working in our interested in for more details.

        I spend a lot of time on master schedules and open issues lists and meetings to make sure that everyone is on the same page about next steps and that balls are getting dropped, so you need to be a good people person to make sure that all the departments are working with you and keeping you in the loop. My friend/mentor person likes to describe our jobs in that we have almost nothing to do when everyone else is doing their jobs — but put out a lot of fires otherwise in communication both internally / with the customer / and with the suppliers.

        Reply
      3. WomanEngineer

        This is very much me too. I can set up a plan but following through and sticking to it… different story. My Dr. is trying to help me find a medication that will help me sustain focus/energy to get things to completion. She said one reason I might like ‘planning’ things is that it allows me to do something new which satisfies that need for stimulation.

        Reply
        1. Princess Carolyn

          Oh, that’s a really interesting insight. I bet the novelty is part of why I like planning and dislike executing so much.

          Reply
        2. Jaydee

          Novelty seeking is definitely an ADHD trait. And not just for hyperactive types. The impulsiveness can also be present for those of us with inattentive type ADHD, it just looks different. Less physical restlessness and more mental restlessness that manifests as daydreaming when bored, starting new projects and not finishing old ones, interrupting and blurting out ideas, having dozens of very different hobbies or intense trouble choosing a major in college.

          Reply
      4. AnotherAlison

        No! Don’t do it! Honestly, I can’t say from a comment on the internet if it is right or wrong for you, but when you say you struggle focusing long enough to carry out work you’ve scheduled, that sounds bad for a PM.

        I am an engineering project manager. Not only do I have to be really organized, but I have to work with a team to keep them organized and on track. And organization is almost the “given” skill in the job. What you really need to be good at in managing capital projects is personnel management, risk management, client interface, scope management, and 100 other things that you have to have an eye on at the same time. (Now, if you’re talking about a different type of project management, where let’s say you are an administrative person, and you manage yourself completing things like a project to restructure the department’s website or something, that’s not the same as what I’m talking about.)

        What I would recommend is taking something like the DISC profile. It can be found for free online. My company has a lot of PMs, and they tend do fall in the high D (dominance)/high C (conscientiousness) areas. I am High C with D next myself. Once you know what your profile is, you can focus on work that is compatible with that.

        Reply
        1. Princess Carolyn

          The DISC profile is interesting. Some of the questions were tricky to answer because I saw myself in all of the answers, but that’s a problem I have with a lot of personality tests. I ended up scoring high in C and I. I’m pretty task oriented but I like being around people, which can be a weird mix. Love the idea of a team but I’m not great at getting what I need/want from people and always hated group projects. I’m direct but also very conflict-averse, somehow.

          Reply
          1. AnotherAlison

            I saw above you were in writing and marketing. If you’re really looking at a change, you might fit a proposal coordinator role well (assuming that’s not the field you’re in now). With the high I and C, communicating is supposed to a be a strength for you. In my field, a proposal is like a fast-paced mini-project, which suits people who can’t focus too long, but is still interesting and project-based. If you’re the proposal manager, you’re responsible for getting everyone to adhere to deadlines, but it’s not terrible because there are usually people above you who can hammer the people who aren’t doing their job.

            Reply
        2. Ramona Flowers

          I just did this and I have a level mix of all four which actually doesn’t surprise me as I’m weird like that.

          Reply
        3. Mallory Janis Ian

          Well, now I know I should never be a PM, as my DISC results were Very Low D (dominance) and Low C (conscientiousness), but Very High S (steadiness) and High I (influence).

          Reply
          1. Hrovitnir

            PM = Prime Minister? I feel like no.* High steadiness and influence seem like good traits in a politician to me. :D

            *Ohhhh, project manager. Obviously given the context but I’m more amused by Prime Minister. I mean, I still kinda think S/I are ideal traits in a leader.

            Reply
        4. Hrovitnir

          I’m fairly amused my DISC profile was 50 D>23 C>17 S>10 I. (Since dominance and compliance seem kind of contradictory.) That’s probably accurate? I am a very weird mix of driven and, well, compliant. I prefer not to be a leader but often am when put into a situation that requires one, because I’d rather take charge than deal with wishy-washiness.

          Reply
          1. Mallory Janis Ian

            Ah, I’m so envious of the high C part. I keep landing myself in jobs that require high C and then having to work my frickin ass off to fake it.

            Reply
      5. Amber Rose

        It depends on how aware you are of your own limits. I can’t focus for long periods of time for the life of me, but I can and do make sure my schedule is adapted for that. X project needs me to work on Y which will probably take four hours, and I know I can focus for about an hour, so I make sure I know what I want done in an hour, and when that hour hits I stretch and take a short walk, then move on to the next hour chunk. Or however long.

        Basically it’s about knowing your limits. The biggest part of my trouble with the work of previous job was how much depended on deliverables from people who never delivered, and while I can be a bit flexible, I ultimately couldn’t keep up anymore. I burned right out.

        Reply
      6. AVP

        You might be! I have a lot of the same issues but I’ve been successful at film/tv producing (which is very similar to project management). I have a system I really like and a great memory for details which saves me every time. I will say that as I’ve moved up in the world I feel better working in bigger-picture roles, but I had to go through the more detail-oriented positions to get here, and they worked out fine.

        Reply
      7. NPOQueen

        I’m also a project manager, with my own host of mental issues. It is sometimes hard for me to focus on one thing for a long time (hence why I’m on AAM in the middle of the workday), but I agree with some of the points made above. To me, the important part is knowing how well you can focus intently on something and get it done. You might need to focus on making a project plan, or finishing a task NOW because other parts of the project depend on it. Another part is how well you can keep others on task, because project management is 50% your own work, and 50% fussing at other people.

        I just laid out a whole project plan on Friday, complete with timelines and plans for all the individual team members, only to find out today that half the team got cut. This project is now in limbo. How well can you do with complete shifts in priorities? How well can you deal with shifts in tasks? I was doing testing for the previous project, but now I’m doing research for another. All in the span of two hours. Plus you have to continue thinking that this limbo project might come back up, and how would it work if it does, and how important is it to the company (aka should you push for outside resources to complete it, or just push it to the back burner).

        I like what I do because I have a knack for planning, but I work in bursts of energy and focus. If your attention is everywhere but you can settle down for a time to be very productive, then it might work. But perhaps take on projects at your current job that might simulate this, rather than jumping in head first. All PM jobs want to know about how well you have succeeding in doing projects on your own, so try that on a smaller scale first.

        Reply
        1. AVP

          this is so me! I also think it helps to know what time of day you focus best and are the most productive, and try to find jobs or projects that can work with that. I am a zombie most mornings, but can set up my schedule so that the bulk of my work gets done in the afternoon when I’m super productive. It makes a huge difference.

          Reply
      8. Queen of the File

        Others have already covered it but I’ll chime in as an ADHD lady currently working in project management. I am really, really struggling (OP’s letter definitely hit me in the work feels). Setting up the plan was great fun but constantly adjusting for last-minute changes and trying to get other people to stick to it is putting me into “dread work every morning” territory. I’m really looking forward to getting back into more of an individual contributor role. I find working on a few projects at once–even though it is sometimes challenging–is still much more compatible with my strengths than being the person in charge of one of them over a longer period.

        Reply
  4. vlad the conqueror

    I was just going to say the same thing. Seconding this. ADHD requires specialized attention. Don’t wait until it’s too late to get a diagnosis!

    Reply
  5. Hannah

    Do you have the resources to look into a life coach? I’m completely not the kind of person who would normally recommend everyone have a life coach, but in some cases I think life coaches can help with the exact things Alison describes in a hands-on (OK not literally!) kind of way. A good life coach should be able to help you identify how to implement systems that are going to work for you, and also maybe help you identify kinds of work you may be happier and and how to work towards getting those jobs.

    Reply
  6. Princess Carolyn

    I have some of the same problems (in my case, mostly ADHD with a touch of anxiety and depression), and this letter speaks to me so hard. Alison’s advice is good: get religious about a system, any system. Time how long it takes you to actually do a task. Schedule some time each day or week to clean up your inbox, follow up on things, tidy your desk, etc.

    But also: Don’t psych yourself out! Negative self-talk has tanked me in the past when I was in a precarious-but-salvageable position. Remind yourself that you can do this. Maybe this position doesn’t play to your strengths. Maybe you’ll decide that you’re better off in a different role. But you can do the task at hand. Don’t let your (legitimate) fears about the future paralyze you in the present. Tell yourself you can do this.

    Reply
    1. FlibertyG

      Yeah OP I agree, if you’re committed to trying to make this role work for you, try to delete the idea that you’re “just this kind of person.” I find it very hard to overcome this kind of thinking for myself (if it’s something I AM, then what’s the point of trying?) and it’s hard but necessary to downplay and avoid thinking this way. Everyone struggles to be organized but they work hard at strategies that work for them, and you can too.

      Reply
    2. Jesca

      This is great! I like the part of “don’t pysch yourself out”. The important thing to remember here is that this advice on how to get and stay organized is not usual. This is exactly what organized people do every single day. It doesn’t make you different or “bad” because you have to learn these new things. It is how successful people do it as well! This is always helpful for me to realize as sometimes I can believe that I am defective some how and am “compensating” for something that “most people” can do naturally when it is not the case. I just learned a new skill is all. No point in kicking yourself over simply just not knowing any different than what you are doing now! You got this! I think it is absolutely worth a shot to try! If you try and still feel the same, then you know it is just not something you have an interest in. But you know!

      Reply
    3. RVA Cat

      This. I really think negative self-talk is a huge issue here, and quite frankly, the phrase “extricating myself in a way that doesn’t destroy my dignity and sense of self” scared me. Even if the OP is fired, that shouldn’t destroy her dignity or sense of self. It sounds like she’s over-identifying with her job in a way that’s often self-destructive.

      Reply
    4. Mallory Janis Ian

      Omg, such good advice. I psych myself out all the time. I just had my annual evaluation from my department head, and I was thinking the only way I’d ever come out okay would be to either quit or die, and he gave me a good eval! I thought he must not remember what a mess I was this time last year having procrastinated the annual report and fiscal-year budget duties until the last week.

      Reply
  7. Van Wilder

    A lot of this describes me. My default mode is definitely not organized and I have been struggling to implement Getting Things Done on and off for months. (Side note: bullet journaling has helped me a good deal. And it’s faster to implement than GTD. Google it and watch the video on their website. You can do it with any square ruled notebook.)
    And yet, I still have dreams of being in a project management role. I sometimes think of Alison’s advice to others here, that this is not a moral failing but a skill you can work on just like anything else. Someday I will reform myself.

    Reply
    1. Mallory Janis Ian

      I have dreams of being in a project-managee role (e.g. someone else is the manager tracking all the moving parts, and I am a kickass individual contributor who does all the things and is in the middle of all the action on the ground, but who isn’t ultimately responsible for making all the parts of the whole function together.

      Reply
  8. Temperance

    LW, two tools that help me run my life: Outlook calendars with reminders and a steno pad. Write down every single task. Check the notebook every 2 hours. Schedule your deadlines on Outlook and then reminders a day and a week before for large projects.

    That being said, this may not be the job for you, and that’s okay.

    Reply
    1. a Gen X manager

      “this may not be the job for you, and that’s okay”
      Yes! This! a mismatch does not equal “failure”

      Reply
    2. Rachel 2: Electric Boogaloo

      Oh yes, Outlook is my savior. I schedule all my deadlines, meetings, etc. on my calendar and task list and I make sure I have reminders set for each. It’s hard to overlook a reminder when it pops up on my screen.
      I also find it very helpful to make checklists for complicated projects or procedures that require lots of steps/moving parts.
      And I am a big fan of the “post-it-notes in very visible places” method for things I need to refer to frequently. I also like to keep reference documents nearby – either on the cubicle wall or somewhere that I can easily find them if needed.

      Reply
  9. a Gen X manager

    Oh, OP. I can’t think of anything to supplement Alison’s amazing response, but I can say that you’re not alone. I struggle with anxiety (!) and even just reading your letter made me feel super anxious and oogie, but have faith that you’ll work your way through this.

    I, too, struggle with disorganization and Alison’s suggestion about finding a system that captures E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G is pretty much how I’ve been able to keep my job in a rigid, deadline-oriented environment. At some point I read or heard something about how the human brain is designed for processing, not for storage, so I’ve learned to NEVER let myself tell myself that “I’ll remember”. I have a notebook that I put every single thing into and I keep the notebook with me basically all the time. I also have strategically placed notepads and pens in a bunch of places in my every day life (car, nightstand, several places at work), so that even if my notebook isn’t handy I can write “it” down. FWIW, I’ve found that the 8 x 11 notebooks are too big and the 3 x 5 notebooks are too small – that the 6.5 x 9.5 is the sweet spot where there is lots of room to write, but it’s still small enough to tote around.
    Good luck, OP! It’s all a journey and you’ll find your way :)

    Reply
    1. TheAssistant

      Seconding this! I have a brain like a sieve – tell me something one second, it will be out of mind the next. Strategically placed notebooks (also love my 9.5×5.5’s!), pads of multi-sized and colored post-its, a robustly color-coded calendar, OneNote, and Toggl (for time-tracking, so I know exactly how long it takes me to Do The Thing) have been invaluable. I also keep a big desk calendar/blotter for big projects, meetings, and travel.

      You can definitely improve organization skills in general. But for me, even with instituting systems using the tools above, I still had to find the job that worked best for me. Never a PM, but as an Executive Assistant, I was the worst. My bosses thought I was doing well, but I would come home each night stressed and fretting, dream about all the things I had to do, and work a twelve-hour day just to accomplish it, then start all over the next. It was a nightmare. I’m much happier as a data analyst where I track deadlines for certain things, but mostly focus on numbers and formulas and other nitty-gritty details rather than the big picture of a project. Think about what tasks you enjoy – and which you don’t! – in order to better place yourself in your next role.

      Reply
  10. De Minimis

    I live in terror of this happening to me. I have many of the same issues–I can stay organized if I have time to focus on it, but if the workload goes up or if I have interruptions then organization is the first thing to go.

    The only possible answer I have is to find something with a somewhat slower pace, if possible, or failing that, with regularly occurring tasks with very few surprises [which I’ve more or less been able to get at my current job after a rough first year.]

    It’s hard because the trend in the workplace seems to be for jobs to pile on more and more and be faster paced. I think what can help is if people can withstand it and do well enough to where they can advance and be able to focus on a few key duties.

    Reply
    1. Anon for this

      Oh man so much your last paragraph. My boss wants me to learn additional areas beyond the one I have been mastering – when I started, each person had an area they focused on (not single experts – multiple people in an area) but now it is all cross-training.

      That’s great in theory, but I’m overwhelmed. And I know most of them aren’t urgent, aren’t important, and aren’t expected any time soon…but there’s months worth of items assigned to me.

      I have to remind myself periodically to ignore all but my top two lists, which are very specifically my *current* things to focus on.

      Reply
      1. De Minimis

        Another thing that can help—try to look for employers that are into doing things electronically, employers that are as “paperless” as possible.

        Reply
    2. AZ

      Yes to your last paragraph. I’ve spent the last 2 years on a four-week role rotation, and I’m looking for a way out. The schedule combined with covering for any absences means I have essentially no consistency in my workload. And having to keep up on the changes for four roles when communication and process documentation across the organization are lacking is super time-consuming, if it’s even possible.

      I realize that my memory challenges of late could mean I should look into getting tested for ADD. And if a role change doesn’t make the symptoms go away, I absolutely will. But when I explain my job to friends and family, nobody understands why work would be distributed this way.

      Reply
  11. Tau

    This is fantastic advice and I can only +1 it.

    I’m similarly disorganised and easily frazzled. I’m also really slow at various organisation-y tasks, also writing e-mails etc. To top it off, this ties into disability-related issues (executive dysfunction is terrible, do not recommend – not ADHD for me but a similar sort of thing). There are techniques, sure, but no matter what I do these things will never be my strong point.

    In my job? It doesn’t really matter. I’m a software developer. There’s a limited amount of organisation I have to do, and a lot of it is stuff like planning out a major code change which comes a lot easier to me than planning a project. The core abilities required by my job are technical skills and know-how, which I have. A big part of the reason I went into this field is because I knew that my lack of organisational skills would be a problem no matter what I did, and I needed a job that valued something I was really good at in order to compensate. And it’s worked – I’m an excellent software developer and get fantastic reviews. As a project manager, I’d probably be in your position.

    Software developer isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, in general I’d encourage you to consider roles that involve contributing/creating something and avoid ones that involve coordinating the contributors/creators. Simplifying tremendously: there are roles which are project managers and roles which are project manageds. You want to be on the project managed side of that fence.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      I was thinking this same thing. I know some people who are great at project management who struggled (past tense) with disorganization because it taught them to put in place systems that are rock solid; however, project management is kryptonite to people who struggle (present tense) with disorganization. I think at least for the OP right now, it’s worth considering the fit issue when deciding how much effort to put into fixing this situation if you could find success quicker and easier by changing your path.

      Reply
      1. TL -

        I’m really good at designing and implementing organizational systems and kinda average at sticking to them. But I’m only really good at making them because I hate wasting time looking for something and I’m even better at figuring out who is excellent at maintaining system after I’ve built it. :)
        (But I would be a terrible project manager.)

        Reply
  12. Jady

    So, I have a bad memory. A really terrible memory. Not “oh where did I put my keys”, more like “oh how long have I been married, when is my anniversary, how old am I, what did I do yesterday” levels. Obviously, that’s going to affect my work if I don’t get a handle on it. And obviously, it affected school a ton, because this has been life long as far as I can recall (hah).

    Any system will work, you just have to pick one that fits your style. I’ve tried dozens of organization systems and combinations of systems. Technology makes it so much easier and flexible.

    In school, it was checklists. Lots and lots of lists. Lists are simple and effective. Combine with highlighting to mark high priority tasks. Doctors and pilots use checklists. Everyone has used them in the past or uses them regularly.

    Digital lists – Wunderlist, Todoist, are commonly used, but there are thousands that work between mobile and web and desktop.

    Note taking and task organizing: EverNote, OneNote, Google Keep are the biggest. I’ve used all 3, using OneNote now combined with Wunderlist myself.

    Evernote probably has highest flexibility of them all, since they support labels. Labels can be anything from “Urgent- Do Immediately” to “Next Week” to “Project Teapots” to “Coworker Penny” to “ToDo” and “Done” and everything in between. The combinations of labels makes thing really flexible.

    All of them are excellent tools that I recommend strongly. But they are just tools. You have to use them. And as Alison said, once you really invest in using them, you’ll never go back. It will become natural.

    I’m sure I would have failed a lot of classes and lost a lot of jobs if I hadn’t managed to find a way around my own issues.

    And I will say from personal experience, once you’re using a system that works for you, stress and anxiety will plummet, things become routine. You’ll be worried a lot less, and have a good reputation for being reliable. I’ve gotten a comments from coworkers about this myself, one of them being: “You get s–t done.”

    I laughed, because my first thought was “what did I get done?”

    Reply
    1. Breda

      I have a whiteboard in my office that shows me my to-do list whenever I look up from my computer. Low-tech but VERY helpful, perhaps because it’s low-tech.

      Also, I work with a lot of writers, and I know some of them swear by Habitica. It’s an online team-based questing game where you put in a list of things to do (say, “write 1000 words on WIP” or “get groceries”) and you only make progress in the game when you check things off. That might not work for the OP – part of the draw is accountability and having other people rely on your tasks, and the OP already has that IRL – but I wanted to share it.

      Reply
      1. Cobol

        Big whiteboard works for me too. It’s a habit to start writing everything down (especially when you always feel behind, but it helps).

        Reply
      2. Alex the Alchemist

        I swear by Habitica. I used to use WorkFlowy, which is pretty great too, but Habitica provides much more of an incentive for me to do things than just checking it off of a list. It also allows you to earn coins and customize your avatar, which really adds onto it for me. I’m currently equipped with a yarn shield and cat ears and I’m riding a purple tiger.

        Reply
    2. Becky

      This will be different for everyone, but I prefer to write lists longhand–the act of writing helps me remember it.

      Reply
    3. Statler von Waldorf

      Checklists are my secret weapon. I’ve tried the high-tech versions, but for some reason it just works far better for me if I use old-school pencil and paper. I carry a notepad at work, and I write down EVERYTHING. I jokingly say “If it didn’t get written down, it didn’t happen” but it’s the absolute truth.

      They come in handy later too. Having a notepad summing up everything I deal with in a day has been valuable so many times over the years.

      Reply
    4. ArtsNerd

      YES.

      OP’s challenges are absolutely in line with the ones I face (adult ADHD, depression and anxiety… It can be hard for me to tease apart which issue is causing which symptoms, FWIW.)

      In case this is helpful for someone – one of my biggest coping strategies is to remove as many decisions from my day as possible. (Which is maybe just a different way of framing ‘have a system and stick to it’.) In practice, this looks like:
      • I use ToDoist as a task list app because it has recurring events, notifications, and syncs across my devices.
      • I put every tiny task on my task list with a deadline.
      • I break bigger tasks into tiny tasks when it’s time to get to the project.
      • Calendar events are also synced to my task list, so not only am I looking at the things I need to do, I also see what meetings I have and my after-work commitments all in a glance.
      • When I’m at my desk, I ALSO handwrite my task list, in order of priority, and cross out tasks as they’re completed.
      • I use a voice assistant at home (Amazon Echo dot) that can add tasks directly to ToDoist so I don’t have to pull out my phone and get sucked into all the fun addictive phone things. (Alexa/Echo can now do named timers and reminders – so I can ask it to remind me to move my car by 9:30am next Monday for street cleaning, etc. This is game-changing.)
      • The Pomodoro Method is fantastic when I remember to use it / I don’t have to answer phones. It’s also a helpful way to get a feel for how long things take without needing to tediously track your time in detail.
      • Checklists.
      • Post it notes. Everywhere.
      • Write a quick note to my Monday self before I leave the office for the weekend.
      • Automate everything that can be automated – both in terms of software tasks AND recurring habits.

      Reply
      1. teclatrans

        Pomodoro has changed my life. I always feel funny giving it a name, but, whatever, some days those 20-minute (or 15, or 25, or whatever works for the schefule and tasks at hand) chunks of time are the only thing that get me through.

        Reply
  13. Meow

    Oh, OP! I feel for you, I really do. As an anxiety sufferer, I completely understand the organizational cycle you described here.
    I’ve recently found myself in a similar situation. After some constructive talks with my manager (I report to one of our VPs), I tried to put some new processes in place. Did a little better for the next few weeks, but it was such a struggle. The months of anxiety and feeling on-edge at work caught up with me, and I found myself in a major depressive episode. I ended up resigning (carrying out my two weeks now) because it was obvious I was going to be fired if this pattern of behavior continued. I preferred to leave on my own terms.
    Currently working with both a psychiatrist and psychologist to help address some of these issues. I hope you find a solution that works for you.

    Reply
  14. BTW

    Are you my manager? ;) I’m type A so unfortunately anything I say probably won’t help you as it just comes naturally to me but… if there’s one thing you’re really good at it’s self-awareness and I think that’s a wonderful trait to have. Good luck OP!

    Reply
  15. Some Sort of Management Consultant

    Oh OP, I feel for you, SO MUCH.

    I’m more junior than you, from what it sounds like, but I had soooo maaany issues with disorganization last year. Literally, the most prominent feedback I got was that I needed to be more organized, make less careless mistakes and tell people when I needed help.

    Not very easy.

    I had this year’s performance a few weeks ago and got compliments for how organized I am and how immensely I’ve improved. I still make silly mistakes under pressure (E.g. wrong date in a presentation) but other than that, no issues.

    So all is not lost, if you decide to try one more time.

    I DID get a ADD-diagnosis and started medication during the year but most major improvements happened earlier. It was very helpful in changing my mindset (“I’m legitimately struggling, I’m not just lazy,”-type of thing) which put me in a more constructive mood.

    What else helped me then? (But any system that you can stick to is the best, like Alison says!)
    – Bullet journaling – writing things down on paper makes it easier for me to remember and prioritize. Google and you will finds heaps of info.

    – timeblocking and color coding stuff in my outlook calendar. I make tasks list in my bullet journal and allocate them to a time in my calendar.

    – the pomodoro method aka working in short bursts with the help of a timer. Break the paralysis, just do one tiny task for 5 minutes!

    – dedicating a time everyday (~20 min) to plan my day, time blocks and make adjustments as necessary

    – spending some time on weekends picturing my week, like when will I collect my dry cleaning? Has to be Wednesday because that’s my only day in the office and so on. Basically doing all the stressful things related to planning beforehand.

    -minimizing “take off distances” as much as possible.
    I lay my clothes out the night before. I leave a cup of smoothie in my fridge that I can just take out and drink for breakfast. Important papers I can’t forget? I put them on top of my shoes in front of my door so I can’t miss them.
    If there’s a task I need to finish first thing in the morning, I leave the program open (with some instructions to myself) on the computer.

    – writing simple things down (and doing them)immediately. I never remember stuff even though I think I do, especially stuff like meeting invitations and distributing documents that are of low complexity but both makes me more organized and makes me LOOK more organized.

    Whatever you do, if it’s looking for a new job or giving your current one another shot, I wish you the best of luck!

    Reply
    1. KR

      I agree about setting time to plan and shortening the distance you have to travel. I have learned that I need to prep my coffee the night before, I need to shower the night before, I need to lay out what I need for the next day the night before (I like to put it in the car ahead of time but I live in the desert and it’s currently too hot for that). I have started using Outlook tasks at the suggestion of my manager @!$ I really like it. Something I used to do at my old job where we used the Google suite and not Outlook was to write a list every day of what I needed to accomplish. Then I would, at the end of the day, see what I had left and write a small list of things that I could not forget for tomorrow’s list. I do the last part now but with Outlook tasks. I also schedule dates out. When my boss tells me something has to be done at a certain date or checked in on at a certain date I will set a task or reminder for that date. In my personal life, things go on my phone/Google calendar.

      Reply
  16. Bend & Snap

    This used to be me + being late everywhere, late paying bills, having trouble with follow through without a gun to my head. Through my job, I took Franklin Covey’s time management course. It was life changing. That was in 2005 and my family still remarks on what a turning point that was for me. I learned how to prioritize, how to ask better questions and better analyze my own workload, how to make lists and track projects and most of all, how to knock things out without getting overwhelmed AND work through being overwhelmed.

    Time management is skills plus state of mind. Staying calm when deadlines are looming is tough but critical.

    I still use the Covey paper planning system, their iPhone app, Benjamin, and various other tools to track my whole life. Everything has to be written down, calendar reminders are my best friend and I’ve learned how to best spend my time (mornings for thinking, afternoons for mindless tasks because that’s how my brain functions best). I’ve also learned to protect my time from unnecessary meetings, people encroaching via IM, email or drop by and other distractions.

    You need to treat this like a project–Project You–in order to be successful. I highly recommend the covey training if you can swing it.

    Reply
    1. Bend & Snap

      Also at work, I plan first thing Monday morning for the week, last thing every day for the following day, and last thing Friday for Monday morning. This helps me catch everything and I can come in knowing if I have a deadline, need to work around calls, etc.

      I also look every day at the number of hours of work I plan to do, and the number of hours of meetings. If that all adds up to the hours I’m going to work that day, I already know I’m going to fail and need to make a new plan.

      Reply
      1. FlibertyG

        I will say, one thing that really helped me when I was getting caught in a cycle of disorganization: the last five minutes of the day are sacred for reviewing my calendar for tomorrow. Doubly on a Friday afternoon, as I was really failing at sneaky Monday morning calls / meetings. I also try to check my calendar shortly after I wake up, to review the day ahead (and because people can add appointments to my outlook and then assume I saw them). Sounds really easy and brainless but it made a big difference for me.

        Reply
        1. Mischa

          I do the same! It was honestly life-changing when I started setting aside time to look over the calendar and make the next day’s to-do list.

          Reply
  17. 541Go

    OP asked, “Have you seen employees who were in my situation turn things around? If so, do you have any sense of how they achieved that?”

    I am such an employee, and the ADHD diagnosis and treatment literally changed my life. (This is not a diagnosis.) I didn’t get diagnosed until I was 40. I had been seeing a psychiatrist before that, and at one point had even asked to be screened for ADHD, but I was told, “I’ve seen ADHD before and that’s not you.”

    Well, it was me, and my new doctor suspected ADHD without my even having to ask about it.

    Since I began treatment (a simple prescription), my career has totally turned around. I also have less trouble with anxiety because I feel less overwhelmed.

    I am not diagnosing OP. OP asked how employees in a similar situation turned things around, and this is my answer which applies only to me.

    Reply
    1. Marisol

      If the OP wants to self-diagnose (in addition to, not instead of, seeing a doctor) my psychiatrist recommends John Ratey’s book, Driven to Distraction, which has a long list of traits used to determine if you have adhd or not. The author has a follow-up book, Delivered from Distraction, which I have not read but which gets glowing reviews, that could also be helpful.

      Reply
      1. teclatrans

        Interesting. These are very good books, and I saw some resemblance, but even then I talked myself out of it. It wasn’t until I saw women being described in Shari Solden’s book that I saw myself starkly represented. Maybe because I could relate to the I realized voices of shame, plus the ways that having a family and dealing with %$#!@ housework are hellish with ADHD. I think the focus in this book us most strongly on inattentive profiles, but I recommend it to all the women I can.

        Reply
    2. Siberian

      Just chiming in to say that our stories are very similar, 541Go! How enraging for you to be told “I’ve seen ADHD before and that’s not you.” But great to hear that you too had things turn around with a prescription.

      Reply
      1. 541Go

        I mean… it said on my first grade report card: “541Go is a bright girl, but she does not pay attention in class.” But in the 70s, ADD was associated with fidgety boys, and I was a quiet girl.

        But in the 2000s you would expect a mental health care professional to know better. I cannot imagine what my unhelpful NP thinks or thought that adult ADHD looks like.

        Reply
        1. Siberian

          Apparently ADHD gets really short shrift in medical school, so even a lot of psychiatrists don’t know much about it. This seems weird to me as it’s such a frequently discussed condition.

          People also see what they expect to see. I volunteered to be interviewed by a panel of psychology residents/interns/whatever they call them, because I wanted to be part of helping others get better diagnoses. I remember one of them said that I must have the inattentive type of ADHD (I have combined). I was like, “sheesh! I’m tapping my foot under the table right now! and I constantly count on my fingers or do other kinds of fidgeting!” but they didn’t expect it and didn’t look for it or ask about hyperactivity symptoms. I could have made a long list.

          Reply
    3. Super Anon for This

      I don’t want to derail, but this! It super sucks when your health professional dismisses you and you later find out you have exactly the diagnosis they dismissed.

      Reply
  18. MegaMoose, Esq.

    Would anyone under 30 recognize those two weird rectangular things the lady in the stock photo is holding? I know it gets said almost every week, but NYMag’s stock photos are hilarious.

    Reply
    1. JulieBulie

      Hah, I still use a paper planner/organizer. But it looks as though she’s being menaced by Captain Hook from above…

      Reply
    2. Game of Scones

      Today I learned that Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch once had a baby together. And this baby grew up to be a corporate woman in the 90s.

      Reply
    3. Princess Carolyn

      29 here… I still use a paper planner. In college, I took my notes in a paper notebook (this was 2006-2010, when the notebook to laptop ratio was around 50/50 on campus). My brain processes/comprehends things better when I write them by hand. Then I use my phone’s calendar (synced to Google) and alarm to remind me of important things, plus Outlook reminders at work.

      Reply
      1. Marillenbaum

        I am currently in graduate school, and several of my professors have “no laptop” policies (exceptions for disability accomodations, of course). It low-key annoys me (I like being able to pull up my annotated PDFs of readings), but if I’m being with myself, I do better and retain more if I hand-write my notes.

        Reply
        1. Princess Carolyn

          For me, the trouble usually came when professors would lecture faster than I could write because their slides were available in advance on Blackboard. That meant I could go back later and hand-copy the slides if I really wanted to, but that would be annoying and I don’t think I ever followed through.

          Reply
      2. Liz

        I’m in my late 20’s, too, and there was this one meeting I attended where someone mentioned an upcoming event but couldn’t recall the exact date, and everyone whipped out their phones to look it up. I pulled out my mini weekly Moleskine and found the date faster than they did! (I’m young for someone in my line of work)

        Reply
        1. Super Anon for This

          This has been my experience too! When the batteries die, when the software is glitching or loading, low tech wins every time!

          Reply
  19. J.B.

    The other alternative is to talk to your manager. I would think long and hard first, as this is the easing out approach – do you want to make this job work or are you better off doing something else? If the latter, than maybe your manager can help you move.

    Now, are these tasks completely new or is the pace completely new? The type of questions to focus on are whether you want to stay in the field because it’s the situation here that’s difficult or whether a new field would be better. Also, organization strategies are good no matter what.

    I am by nature someone who does best with a lot of different balls in the air, and actually do worse when things are slower. But I’m not a detail person and would be awful at any job that requires that kind of focus.

    Reply
  20. FlibertyG

    I feel ya OP. But I have to work hard to make sure I don’t think there are magical “other people” who don’t struggle with these things. Everybody struggles to stay organized, even though there’s a spectrum of how naturally this happens. But most people are in the middle, and I’m not that far from the middle. I watch to see what my bosses do to keep track of things, and it usually turns out there’s no magic – they’re just more careful than I am, they check their calendar more often, they plan their days more thoughtfully.

    Reply
  21. LQ

    I’d say in addition to what do you come home and feel great about (because sometimes the great feeling comes from months of horrible stress and then you have to decide if that one night of greatness is worth the months of stress), but what feels easy? What feels like you could sort of ease through it. Even when it’s hard and requires work it’s still kind of natural. Where do you end up in the Flow State where time stops and you’re just making magic?

    I had a job for a little while that was 100% not in my Core of Who I Am. It required being extremely outgoing and chattery and the work was incredibly important and I was doing Good Work and Good Things. But I’d get home at the end of the day and go directly to bed, think tv trope of flopping face first onto bed with shoes still on tired. I moved to a different role that still does Good Work and Good Things but feels so much more in line with who I am and doesn’t make me exhausted at the end of the day. Even when I have to do a lot of meeting and talking, it’s so much of a better fit. I just want to say it’s ok to go, eh that career wasn’t for me, and move over to something else.

    Reply
  22. Dee-Nice

    LW, you say you are receiving medical advice about your dilemma, so please excuse me if none of the below applies to you because of a special condition.

    But. I used to coach high-school kids on becoming more organized, and the #1 thing I used to tell them was, “Organized isn’t something you ARE, it’s something you DO.” It’s true that some people have a better natural ability to find their way to their own organization systems, but in my experience, everyone who stays organized HAS a system of some kind, so I agree with Alison’s advice to find yourself a system and work it like hell. You will have to devote extra and separate time to maintaining your system, but that’s okay; it will save you time in the long run.

    You may have one of those “good periods” you describe during which everything is running smoothly, and you may be tempted to think your problems are over and you don’t have to use your systems anymore– but keep at them! The point is to make them automatic so they are still there for you during the inevitable bad period.

    It’s also okay to analyze your habits and choose a system that requires the least change for you, because that’s what you’re more likely to stick to. For instance, if you find you hate writing things down, it’s okay to keep everything digital.

    One last note: I DON’T get this from your letter at all, so disregard if this doesn’t apply, but it might be worth mentioning I’ve encountered many people who take a certain level of pride in being disorganized and are reluctant to change because they think it will, ironically, hamper their creativity/productivity in some way. Taking time to organize can feel like a chore, but it is ultimately freeing to no longer see “being organized” as part of your personality and realize it’s merely a set of behaviors that are, to a large extent, within your control.

    Reply
    1. FlibertyG

      +1 this is a good way of saying what I was trying to say above. Don’t get over-invested in a self-image as a naturally disorganized person who can’t change.

      Reply
    2. Jaydee

      Organization can actually create the freedom to be more creative. Imagine a painter who, instead of sitting down in her studio to paint has to spend an hour cleaning brushes and finding paint colors because she didn’t clean them and put them away properly the last time she painted. At the end of that hour, the spark of creativity is probably fizzling out.

      One thing that helps me is to remember that there is a friendly middle ground between being overly structured and being totally impulsive. I’ve decided that my personal preference is to feel that I can be spontaneous, so I’ve decided to differentiate between planning, spontenaity, and impulsivity because that resonates for me personally. Others might have different words for each point on the spectrum.

      Basically, in my mind planning and organization can feel boring, overly-rigid, and confining. It also stresses me out when I plan something very carefully and then something comes up to change the plan. On the flip side, impulsively doing whatever I feel in the moment is fun, but it is also stressful for different reasons. It leads to a lot of poor choices and feelings of regret and loss of control.

      For me, the ideal is somewhere in the middle (and don’t kid yourself, I’m very much still trying to find it). I need enough planning that I’m able to stick to my goals and not miss important events or deadlines. But I also need enough freedom to get that dopamine hit that comes from just doing what I want in the moment. So no scheduling the day in 15 minute increments, but instead identifying the top X priorities and then giving myself freedom to do them in any order or to do whatever I want once those are done. Not waiting until I’m hungry and standing in the cafeteria to decide what to have for lunch, but instead giving myself some parameters beforehand (must include at least one serving of vegetables, shouldn’t be pasta because that’s what we are having for dinner, do not get a scotcharoo because you will eat the whole thing and regret that decision when the sugar rush wears off and you nearly fall asleep at your desk) lets me choose from 2-3 relatively nutritious options depending on which looks best in the moment.

      Reply
  23. Brogrammer

    Since there’s already a lot of ADD/ADHD talk in this thread, it seems like this is a good place to ask as any – does anyone here have any tips on handling task aversion? I know what I need to do, I don’t have any specific anxiety about the task itself (okay, sometimes I do, but I have an easier time managing anxiety related to a specific unpleasant task), I know how long it’ll take me to do it, but then I just… don’t do it. No amount of promising myself, “Okay, just work for 15 minutes, then you can take a break” will get me started, because getting started is the problem.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      Do you know what your resistance comes from? Can you talk yourself through that? “I don’t want to do this because . . .” (and not just “because Twitter is more fun”–why is this task sending you to Twitter the way this morning’s weren’t?). I find that really helpful because I can identify and talk myself through the obstacles. A lot of times for me it’s essentially that a task is a big amorphous blog that I have no sense of how to start on and it seems like it will take forever, and I find literally saying out loud where I can start and talking myself through what step I’d go to next can be really helpful. Anything I can do to make the unknown into the known eases the transition for me.

      Reply
      1. Brogrammer

        I can say for sure that part of the answer is “…because as soon as I get started and get into a groove, a client will call me or a coworker will interrupt me with something that has to be done RIGHT THIS SECOND and break my flow.” I really, really hate it when I finally manage to focus on something and then somebody interrupts me. My supervisor is mostly supportive but sometimes it can’t be helped. The work environment isn’t ideal but there are enough other things I like about the job to keep me here for the time being.

        It’s not the whole answer, though, and understanding the rest of it is something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember.

        Reply
        1. Halpful

          I’m struggling with this right now too. I spend more spoons on talking myself into doing the thing than on actually doing it. No matter how well or badly I do it, anxiety screams abuse at me the whole time, and afterwards I don’t feel any sense of reward. I made myself a salad for dinner, which is a huge achievement, and I felt nothing. I barely even tasted it. When I was talking myself into starting the laundry, I expected someone else would be using all the machines, or something else would go wrong; all my brain can see right now is negative things.

          I miss my dexedrine. it was turning my anxiety into ocd and making me super paranoid, but at least I could do things. Maybe I need to try a non-stimulant adhd medication. Or maybe tweak the antidepressants.

          Reply
          1. Brogrammer

            I am 100% there with you on not feeling any sense of reward once a task is complete. “Just get it over with, you’ll feel better once it’s over” said my parents and so many teachers, and I never did. For years and years I just assumed they were lying to get me to Do The Thing, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that other people do actually feel satisfaction or at least relief when an unpleasant task is done.

            Reply
        2. Jaydee

          Thank you! You have put into words one of the biggest sources of my task aversion. I LOATHE it when I’m just settling down to be productive and Do The Things and then the phone rings or an email comes in needing a response yesterday. You helped me realize that I avoid the task so I can avoid the negative feeling that comes from the interruption.

          One thing my therapist suggested to me that was really helpful was silencing the phone, closing out email, and putting a sign on my door that says “Focusing on a task. Available at [time].” It doesn’t prevent the truly emergent interruptions, but I found that it prevents most of the ones that can wait an hour or two. Just be good at coming back on-line at the time you say you will and you will get people trained pretty quickly.

          It has the added benefit of helping prevent the bad kind of hyper-focus where you go down a rabbit hole and spend hours and hours doing a task that should only have taken 1/3 of that time and you forget to eat or drink or go to the bathroom and all of a sudden it’s 9:00 at night and no one else is in the office and you’re starving and you sheepishly slink out of the office and grab McDonalds on your way home….

          Reply
        3. Jiya

          Okay, for that I’d suggest taking things a bit farther: Why do you hate it when your flow is broken? Is it because that means you get less done? Because then I’d suggest keeping in mind that if you start and get interrupted, you’ve at least taken that first step, whereas if you never start at all, you get nothing done.

          Or it might be a perfectionism thing – thinking that you have to do the whole task in the “flow state”, maybe even all in one chunk. And again, I think it’s good to just focus on that first step. Break down the project into smaller bits, maybe, and write down all the teeny things you’ll do to get to the end. Or start at the end and go backwards – whatever works for you.

          If you’re envisioning the whole project as one giant thing, sometimes our brains go “I can’t do all of this!” because all of the parts of the project are one big tangle, rather than a series of smaller things laid out over time. Maybe try focusing on how something is better than nothing, and every finished project is just the sum of many small somethings.

          Reply
    2. LQ

      Not highly recommended but highly effective for me is to say to myself first softly then at increasing volumes “Just DO IT.” (sometimes being specific, “Just sit down and write the damn email NOW!”) The tasks I have the hardest problem with are ones at home so I can get pretty loud before I finally engage. Promising myself breaks doesn’t work either on some of these, but chewing myself out has been effective. I wouldn’t do this if you don’t work from home or have a very sound dampened cube. But it has been effective for me on a few things.

      Reply
      1. Breda

        Hahaha, I sometimes do the same thing. “Ok, come on, get up,” much like I would for a recalcitrant toddler.

        Reply
        1. LQ

          Yup! And then sometimes I am also the recalcitrant toddler and do the thing while whining until I realize how stupid it is to be doing that as a grown adult and just suck it up and put on a podcast and take care of whatever it is. (I’m glad I live alone…)

          Reply
    3. AnotherAlison

      I don’t know if it will translate, but I am currently not allowing any decision-making on whether to do my gym classes and workouts in the morning. The mindset is basically, this is what is happening at 6 am till 7 am no matter what else happens. I don’t have to decide to do it that way, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t like that day’s workout, or if I have a busy day and rather get to work early. Can you schedule Averted Task for 10 am, and just do it?

      Reply
    4. Cobol

      I have task aversion sometimes. It’s not for everything, but certain things seem impossible to start.
      This seems simple, but if I just start the project, even if I only do 5 minutes of basic/sub par work, it helps a ton.

      Reply
    5. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      I game my brain with it a bit — I think up the most onerous and awful way to go about doing the job, focus on that for a little bit, and then I “make up a shortcut” that really means just doing what I needed to do from the beginning. This might not work for everyone, but I’m good enough at tricking myself that it can usually push me over that “getting started” obstacle.

      Reply
        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

          Really, all I’m doing is harnessing my native laziness. Who was it that talked about hiring lazy people specifically because they find the quickest and easiest ways to get things done?

          Reply
      1. Brogrammer

        I like this. I’m not usually good at tricking myself into being productive (I have a whole rant about how much I loathe “gamification”), but this is creative enough that it just might work. Thank you!

        Reply
    6. Squeeble

      It may have been on this site where I once read, the sooner you do the thing, the more of your lifetime you’ll spend with that thing as a distant memory. That helps me sometimes when I’m spending an inordinate amount of time putting off a task that I don’t want to do.

      Reply
    7. Breda

      Sometimes what I have to do is close every window but the one I’m working on. (Sometimes minimizing does the trick; sometimes not.) If I can’t click away instantly, it’s easier for me to turn my brain to the task.

      For non-computer things (like, uh, getting off the couch & taking a shower & going to bed, not that I speak from last night’s experience or anything), sometimes the only thing that works is tossing my phone out of arm’s reach. Then I have to get up to get it, and then I’m already standing, and as long as I can keep myself from sitting down again, I have enough momentum to do the thing.

      Reply
      1. TL -

        Oh! I always have two browsers on my computer. One is work – edge, Firefox, or safari – and one is fun – chrome. Chrome has aam/facebook/personal email open, but I can’t open them in the work browser.

        Reply
    8. Kimberly Martin

      I have the same issue! I can sit there and look at my task list, many of them are small, simple things that I know will not be difficult, but then I just don’t do them. Being the boss does not help, as there is no one above me to keep me in line and I know I won’t get in “trouble” if I do not do them.

      One thing I did do for an important task that needed to be done regularly (reply to quote requests that came in) but I was not getting done in a timely manner, was to set a daily 15 minute virtual meeting with one of my employees to go over what quote requests we have and then knock them out right then and there. I started that two weeks ago and now at least the quote requests are getting done every day on time. So, for me, having someone else to hold me accountable for a task works.

      I think one of the problems is I have too many items on my task list. When I calculated how many responsibilities I have each week, and how much time I need to do them properly, I came up with 60 hours of work.

      So, while some of my tasks were getting done, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number and often just stared at my list and nothing got done. After speaking to my therapist, I started writing down a list of everything I HAD done that day, every little thing, instead of every task I needed to do. That really helped and it made me feel like maybe I was being productive and getting stuff done as I filled three notepads worth of stuff that I had done in one day. For whatever reason, doing it this way keeps me motivated to keep knocking out those small tasks instead of avoiding them.

      Reply
    9. Security SemiPro

      I break things up into tiny, tiny bits.

      I know that sending the four form emails I need to send will take 10 minutes if I just start but I procrastinate on it for three days. So instead of saying that I’m sending the emails, I re define the task to “look up addresses to send to.” Which takes almost no time and I can do and then just stop. And then, since I have looked up the addresses, I paste them into the draft email. And once I’ve done that I can open the form out of google docs. And I can stop there if I want, the draft is open, the form is open, when I’m really going to send the emails, I’m at least that far.

      But usually at that point, I go on and do the rest of it. Part of the ‘trick’ is that I really have to rationalize to myself that I can do the first tiny bit and stop if I want to, that one more day will be fine, but I’m preparing for when I’m really going to do the whole thing. If I can convince myself I’m not really getting started, I’m just preparing for the moment when I start *for real*, I can get enough momentum going to finish a task.

      Also, I bribe myself with gummi bears sometimes. (Professionalism is getting the job done.)

      Reply
      1. Kimberly Martin

        I used a similar tactic for working out. I would “just put on my workout clothes” without a promise that I had to workout. But then when I got the workout clothes on, I would tell myself “just 5 minutes on the treadmill, that’s all” and those 5 minutes turned into a full workout.

        Reply
      2. knitcrazybooknut

        Yes to this, times a zillion. Break it down into the smallest steps. It’ll look ridiculous on paper or typed up, but checking that box or crossing it off gives me a feeling of accomplishment. When I’m feeling really discouraged, I’ll write something down and cross it off just to get “credit” for having accomplished it.

        Reply
      3. Siberian

        Yeah, this method worked for me (not the gummi bear part, I’m a chocolate kind of girl). Just do even a tiny step on the project. Give yourself permission to do a less important step, or a step from later in the process, or to write a list of all the steps involved–anything that gets you interacting with the project. During a particularly bad period, I would let myself write one paragraph and the read articles online, then another. Oof. Also, I know that a timer isn’t great for you, but what about for five minutes? Two minutes? Is there one aspect of this task that’s freaking you out the most, such as asking person A about question B? If so, could you just do that, maybe by phone instead of email? Could you ask person C a question about it? Basically I would just gnaw on the problem from multiple angles until you can get inside it.

        Reply
      4. Brogrammer

        I have a bag of sour cream and onion chips in my desk drawer for when I finish the next section of this interminable documentation project. =)

        Reply
    10. FlibertyG

      You may have already touched on this, but I do use a literal five minute timer and try to get as much of the task done as possible before it goes off … I think this makes it more like a game, and it’s only five minutes. I am a big list person so I hate to see the same stupid task left on the list every day – on Fridays especially I will try to clear the list if it kills me, and this ‘only five minutes who can say no’ technique seems to help break free of the inertia. I usually discover the task was not so bad, or at least I make some progress on it.

      Reply
    11. Marisol

      Some ideas: 1) make the task itself as pleasurable as you can by giving yourself some sort of treat–chocolate, a glass of wine, listening to music and taking a dance break–while you do it or immediately afterward; 2) google
      “eft tapping” and do the exercise about procrastination or about the task itself; 3) enlist someone else’s help as an accountability buddy–maybe each of you agrees to spend the morning on yucky tasks and call each other every hour or so for moral support (then have brunch if you want.)

      Reply
      1. Marisol

        Also, what is your reason for doing these tasks and is it attached to a goal that motivates you? If so, see if you can get excited about that bigger goal.

        Reply
    12. AnonAcademic

      Getting started is the hardest part. The best I’ve come up with is to ask myself “what happens if I blow this off?” If the answer is nothing, then I deprioritize the task and stop torturing myself over it. If the answer is “something will blow up ” thinking about it will help tip my anxiety from “OMG I don’t want to do the thing” to “OMG DO THE THING ALREADY OR THINGS WILL ‘SPLODE.” Some days I’ll admit to really not being good at this though.

      Reply
    13. gladfe

      This might sound really goofy (and it might be weirder than you want to look in some offices), but it helps me to just stand up and not sit back down until I do the thing. Sometimes I get distracted, forget, sit back down, but then as soon as I remember it’s like, “Oops, not yet,” and I stand back up. Standing up is a simple enough motion that it doesn’t trigger my task aversion, but standing at my non-standing desk is awkward enough that I can’t comfortably put off the task for very long.

      Reply
    14. Tea

      A method that has occasionally worked for me is to sit around for a few minutes thinking about how GREAT I’m going to feel in an hour (two hours, end of the day, etc.) once this thing has been done, it’s a load off your back, you don’t have to sit around thinking about it or dreading it or deliberately ignoring it anymore. Focusing on the relief, on “I’m DONE it’s gone” helps me power through, because it gives me a goal to shoot for.

      Reply
    15. Cedrus Libani

      I’ve found it helpful to schedule my day. If I start the day with “Okay, my most important tasks are X, Y, Z”, then my day looks like “Okay, X down. Now for Y. Ugh, don’t wanna. It can wait until after lunch. Oh hey, emails. I’ll just get some more tea before I do Y. Also I should Z. Huh, day’s almost over, I guess I’ll do Y tomorrow.” And then it’s a month later, I still haven’t done Y, and I’m in deep poo poo. But if my calendar says “10-11: Do Y” and it’s 10:40, I know I need to stop messing around and do Y, or it’s not getting done today, period. Which is (often) enough to shame me into just doing it.

      Reply
    16. Aardvark

      I don’t have ADD/ADHD, but I do have a hard time getting started on tasks/staying on them. These sometimes help:
      — Highly itemized checklists (like, “start list”, “open new browser window”, “search for teapot stacking methods”, “make notes about XYZ on notepad”, “switch to editor window”, “type teapot stacking outline”, “outline steps to flesh out outline”, etc.) Then I get started on the task without really getting started on it, which is somehow easier, and I don’t really have to think about what I’m doing once I get started. I’ll also sometimes write out a stream of consciousness description of what I’m trying to do as I do it.
      — There’s one album that has been my “get *$&# done” album since I was in college, so if I’m having a rough day, I’ll put that album on as a mental cue to get going. I try to only use it 2-3 times a week, in dire circumstances. Maybe you have a particular song or something you can use as a reminder?
      — Sometimes if there’s a lot of things like that, starting with the least onerous works the best. Once that one’s done, I’m on a roll and can tackle the next one.
      — I use a timer app and set it for something low, like 10 minutes. Then I turn off the sound on that app/tab and move that window behind something else so I can’t see it counting down. If I get distracted, usually I’ll notice it and it’ll remind me to refocus.

      Reply
  24. Bets

    I don’t know how I feel about all this “you have ADHD” stuff. I think often women get sidetracked into project management roles because “women are good at this stuff.” So, OP, if you’re a woman and you don’t want to be good at project management, that’s ok. Women can do technical jobs, too, not just coordinate what others do.

    Reply
    1. ArtsNerd

      Diagnosing OP is actually against commenting guidelines. Slightly different – many of us are sharing our coping strategies that come from our experiences with ADHD, but are useful for anyone hoping to become more organized as a person.

      I also agree that Project Management is not for everyone and it’s absolutely okay to not be interested in it, and that some of these expectations can be gendered.

      Mostly I hope OP understands that finding different work that plays to their strengths better isn’t failure – it’s SUCCESS.

      Reply
      1. Ciemme

        Agreed! I have a different disorder and can relate to OP, they most likely do have something but it’s not necessarily ADHD.

        Reply
        1. Optimistic Prime

          I wouldn’t say that they “most likely do have something.” Some people are just naturally disorganized and that’s just part of their personality/psyche. (The OP’s first paragraph sounds a lot like me 10 years ago and I do not have ADHD or a disorder. And “happily anxious overachiever” is a pretty great description of me then and now.) There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s possible that the OP has a disorder, but it’s just as possible that they do not.

          Reply
  25. MLHD

    I would strongly advise this person to see a therapist and/or doctor about anxiety and adult ADD. Sometimes these things can be alleviated!

    Reply
  26. peachie

    I agree with Alison’s response–but I also wanted to add some of the things I’ve found helpful.

    I’m super disorganized and forgetful (for me, it’s that I have wild ADHD) and I’m in a position that requires the total opposite. But I’m now 3 years into that position and doing very well, so it is possible! I’m adding below some of the things that have helped the most. (Note: I initially wrote everything below as advice specifically for dealing with ADHD in the workplace; I’m not implying that that’s the case with you, OP, though I also think it might be worth getting checked out.)

    LONG-TERM PLANNING & ORGANIZING:
    – Use your company’s resources: It sounds so obvious, but it was a LONG time before I started using my personal Outlook calendar to organize my work. I had only used the company calendar as required by office policy, but I never marked my own meetings, deadlines, etc. on my own calendar. Don’t neglect resources like this! In Outlook, for example, you can set reminders, color-code everything, and more.
    – Use an old-school planner: For some, working on paper works better. Get a planner — it can be just for work — and use/refer to it faithfully.
    – Work backwards and set your own deadlines: For ongoing or recurring projects, work backwards from the due date to set your own mini-deadlines. For example, if I have a mailing that goes out every 3 months, I will set a deadline for when I have to have the copy checked, when I have to make sure we have the materials, when I have to print, when I have to mail, etc. Once you come up with these, WRITE THEM DOWN in your preferred organizational tool.
    – If you’re given deadlines, write them down: Again, this is probably obvious to non-ADHDers, but I would so often not write down deadlines, especially other people’s (ex., Dr. X is supposed to send me ABC by this date). Now, they have their own color category and I see them as they approach when I log in to Outlook. Much easier!
    – Get a whiteboard!: Old-school? Sure, but it works! Get a small whiteboard to write down anything unusual — one-time projects, super important deadlines, etc. Hang this right in your field of vision where you won’t miss it.
    – Use Outlook’s Delay Delivery function: I cannot properly express how much this has helped me out! In Outlook, when composing a message, you can delay delivery until a certain date and time by going to the “Options” tab. If you get a message that says “Do X, but don’t do it until this date,” forward it to yourself and have it delivered on that date. You can also email yourself reminders this way — just make the email subject “REMINDER: DO X TODAY” and send it to yourself. This feature is a GODSEND.

    HAVE AN END-OF-DAY STANDARD:
    – No voicemail and no email at the end of the day — I don’t always succeed but I always strive for this. If I don’t have time to deal with all email, I still end the day with my inbox at 0 by using the delay delivery function mentioned above to forward the messages to myself to handle the next day.
    – Neatness standards are not something I have strict rules about, but I don’t let myself leave without my desk being in some semblance of order. Make sure to give yourself 5-10 minutes of “tidy-up” time at the end of the day.

    DEAL WITH YOUR PROCRASTINATION:
    – Use a Pomodoro timer or similar — stay on task for a certain interval, then take a break.
    – Mix in fun and boring projects — admins generally plan their own days, for the most part, so try to work on novel/interesting projects AS WELL as the boring, routine stuff.
    – Productively procrastinate: Look, we’re all going to procrastinate. Try to make it productive. If you want to take a break from a super boring project, switch over to something different/easier that you also have to get done.
    – Don’t beat yourself up: We’re all going to have low-focus days. It sucks, but try not to beat yourself up. What’s important is that you keep trying.
    – Look for opportunities within the company: There are often many opportunities to take on projects outside of what your actual job description is, and if you can take advantage of these, your work will be more varied and interesting. For example, I now run a conference solo every year and am the administrator for one of our software platforms, just because I asked.

    DEAL WITH YOUR GUILT/ANXIETY:
    It’s essential to figure out where your guilt is coming from and what you can actually do about it. Here are some personal examples:
    – I felt a lot of guilt about not answering emails on time and constantly having voicemail to check, so I established a “no email in the box” rule for the end of the day.
    – I frequently missed deadlines for recurring but irregular (ex, not on the same day) projects, so I set up a double reminder system to keep that from happening.
    – I felt guilty about procrastinating too much, so I made a plan to reduce the amount of procrastination.
    – I felt guilty about frequent therapy appointments, so I had a discussion with my boss and worked out something that makes everyone more comfortable.
    – I felt guilty about being late often, so I worked out a schedule with my boss and HR that is somewhat flexible but keeps me in the office for core hours.

    Sorry for the novel! I hope you find some of it helpful. Best of luck, OP.

    Reply
    1. Bertha

      Copying, pasting, and saving this. Much of this I “know” but of course forget about (you know, adult ADHD, um.. is that a squirrel?!). Thanks for sharing your insights!

      Reply
    1. Ciemme

      Get an evaluation without a specific diagnosis in mind, I have similar symptoms and have a completely different mental illness.

      Reply
      1. ArtsNerd

        I see you don’t want to name your similar-presenting diagnosis elsewhere in the comments. If you are willing to share, I’m curious to know how your care providers were able to make the distinction. Was there a specific diagnostic test? Did they try ADHD treatments that you didn’t respond to?

        My experience is that doctors (rightfully, in the vast majority of cases) go with the most common/likely explanation for symptoms and there needs to be something pretty specific pushing them to look at other options.

        Reply
        1. Anon for this

          They will actually look at other options – I think Ciemme is saying “go in, present issues, let doctors figure out which way to go” – there are a number of things that can impact executive functioning. ADHD isn’t even necessarily the default one, although lots of people are aware of it. Another is anxiety – and anxiety will have additional symptoms beyond the ADHD diagnostic criteria. (And yep, you can have both.)

          https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/understanding-executive-functioning-issues

          Admittedly aimed at parents trying to get kids diagnosed, but it has some info on other things it could be. Even as a layperson I can see that in many cases there will be obvious criteria to rule some in or out, and others will be a judgement call.

          Reply
          1. Optimistic Prime

            Yes, and suggesting a specific disorder or diagnosis to physicians actually biases their diagnosis and treatment. There’s quite a bit of research on this particularly with the advent of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing. Doctors unfortunately aren’t immune to social cues (and pharma companies know and exploit this – that’s why they tell you to “ask your doctor about [insert drug here]”.

            My mom’s a nurse and in many cases I am able to figure out what’s wrong with me before I ever go to the doctor, but this is one of the reasons I never say anything up front – much like any other human, once you suggest something to a doctor it can be difficult for them to remove it from their head. And often I’m wrong!

            Reply
  27. Spooky

    Oooh oooh! Pick me! Call on me! *raises hand and waves it wildly*

    I used to have some of these issues. It was much harder than I thought it would be to get all my ducks in a row and figure out what I was doing. This is actually more common than you’d think, especially when people are in their first job–we’re used to school telling us exactly how to do something, but the work world requires us to figure a lot of stuff out for ourselves. It’s a big change.

    When I was a PR copywriter, I was drowning in my work, stressed to the max, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep my job. I was working as hard as I could, but it felt like I was spinning my wheels (like Mom always says, work smarter, not harder). So I asked myself how my best friend, who is an engineer, would optimize my system, just like she optimizes industrial systems:

    1) Never repeat work.
    With PR releases, there’s a lot you can re-use, like company boilerplates, product descriptions, and influencer bios. I made a giant doc with all the approved pieces I could re-use, and then whenever I wrote a new piece with those sections, I could copy-paste them right in without having to redo them from scratch. Saved me countless hours. You should try to do the same to speed up your own process. Identify whatever approved pieces of your work can be used in more than one place and store them – the more pieces you have, the faster future work will be.

    2) Make (or find) templates.
    There is nothing more intimidating than a blank page…so don’t start with one. With press releases, many follow the same basic structure, so I made a template. It’s a lot easier to fill out clearly defined sections than it is to create everything from the ground up. You mention that you create documents that are standard in your field. Try to find a way to make it a template for yourself, almost like a MadLib (not literally, but hopefully you know what I mean). More importantly, it reduces that moment of panic that hits you when you first start a project, that “Oh god I don’t know what I’m doing!” moment. You DO know. You’ve done it before, and you’ve already got an outline.

    3) Use tools.
    You remember that old ad campaign “there’s an app for that”? Well, it’s still true. No matter what your work problem is, 9 times out of 10, someone else has had it, and there’s a very good chance someone has created a tool to make it easier. You mention that you have problems crafting emails, so why not try an email tool like Crystal or Respondable? In fact, you can even combine this point with the previous one by making a few email templates for yourself. This is also one time when it’s generally okay to copy your coworkers’ style–if their emails skip the salutation, give a two-line description of what they need and when, and sign off with just a quick “thanks!” then that’s all you need to do, too. Don’t put too much time or energy into emails–they’re not as big a thing as you think, they’re not public-facing, and people usually don’t care if there are a few typos, etc.

    4) Set time limits.
    This was the hardest one for me to learn. If I was assigned a project, I would take as long as I felt I needed to make sure it had been done perfectly, which is anathema to the working world. Often, completing a project simply but on time far outweighs doing it with elaborate flourishes after the due date. I had to tape this phrase to the top of my computer: Finished, not perfect. It’s simple, but it makes all the difference. If you know you only have an hour to finish a project, stick to that deadline at the expense of perfection. This does not mean you should start from the top and work in your normal method until time is up–you’ll only get halfway through if you do that. Instead, stop looking at the details and zoom out. First, you build the skeleton: Make sure all the crucial information is present, correct, and in the right order throughout the entire project (or, if you’re editing something, you fix all the mistakes first. That way, if you don’t finish the full project, at least you know that all the information is correct, even if it’s not pretty.) Second, you put some meat on the bones: Add some context for the information, add in any supporting details, etc. Lastly, you dress it up with the finishing touches. Better a naked project that’s intact and on time, and all that. And don’t be afraid to hit “send” (or whatever your equivalent is)–if you’ve been staring at it for more than fifteen minutes and can’t think of what else to change, it might be time to say it’s done and move on.

    Basically, you just need to build up your own toolbox and streamline your process. It really does get easier as you gain experience and build your confidence. Sorry this comment is so long, but I hope it helps!

    Reply
    1. Princess Carolyn

      My job is some content creation, some copywriting, and some PR. I know templates would really help me, but I’m having a hard time getting started on them. It seems like a huge, unmanageable project. Any advice on putting together templates and master files instead of searching through a thousand files for something I think I remember that I could maybe use again?

      Reply
      1. TL -

        Every time you find an old useful fine, just save-as in a new folder as “Y template.” Don’t make any changes.
        You don’t have to make it pretty or empty; all my templates have data in them from the first analysis I ran. I just replace old data with new. Then, when I’m training someone or have down time, I just open the template file and make it pretty.

        Reply
      2. knitcrazybooknut

        When you make a document, save it as the template. You can go back later to take out identifying information, but in the meantime, you’re building a library. It’s kind of like cooking two portions of dinner and saving one for tomorrow!

        Reply
    2. Liz

      I love the 2nd suggestion- I’ve tried different methods (Eisenhower matrix, Bullet Journal, the Ivy Lee method), but what I found that best works for me is to create a chart at the end of every week that plans out my next week. I’ll use rows to list my projects or priorities and columns to track my progress each day (including matters as big as milestones accomplished and tasks as finite as “called back xxxx.”) I reserve the bottom row to list meetings that I have. Granted, I’m not that high up the chain at work where I’ll often have more meetings than what fits in a small cell on an 8.5 x 11″ piece of paper, so this wouldn’t work for everyone.

      The number of organizational tools out there is overwhelming, so it might take some time to find something that works, but stick with it once you do. And when your method no longer works, then adapt and change. Even though my main method of staying on top of tasks is the custom template I made, I still use the Ivy Lee method or an Eisenhower matrix when I feel that I need to.

      Reply
      1. Liz

        Oh whoops this didn’t really tie in to the post above, but I saw “template” and thought immediately about tools that I use to stay organized (this is what I get for skimming instead of actually reading). I do also have a template saved to Outlook, for an email that contains similar content that I may have to send out to the same person from time to time. It’s cut down on a lot of time I’d have to spend rewriting the email, because all I have to do when I use it is insert the content that’s different but otherwise the rest of the text is the same!

        Reply
  28. WhosThatGirl

    Oh, OP. I feel for you. Like others in this thread, I have ADHD and struggle with organization and time management and it took a long time for me to realize where I fit in. If you want to give it your absolute, 100% best shot at this job, I second the Getting Things Done system – with a caveat. No one I know follows it religiously. You take the parts that work best for you, and use them. And note that if you are chronically disorganized and not used to using a system, you will probably fail, and that’s okay. You just start again. (I start again every few weeks.) Just by using a few parts of the system I’ve been able to improve my organizational skills, time management, and my anxiety as well.

    Things really changed for me when I was able to take on more strategic roles. I realize those are few and far between in many industries, but you mentioned that you are in your 30s, so perhaps you have enough experience that would translate to a job that requires you to be less deadline-oriented. What is the positive feedback you’ve received from your current or previous managers? How can you build on those traits?

    I wish you the best, OP.

    Reply
  29. animaniactoo

    Are you using any sort of Project Management software?

    If not, I strongly suggest you look into it. There are several types, some are free or very cheap for under 5 users. Some let you schedule for just yourself with flowing deadlines, some let you schedule with other people having access to check off their completed tasks. Most have a varying range of the numbers of projects you can use it for, with the ability to do more for an extra cost.

    Basically, it allows you to plot the timeline of a project – what steps happen in what order, how long they’ll take, what’s dependent on what, who is completing each task, assign flowing deadlines to each task, and so on. Depending on how you’re using it, you can look at it at any moment and get a picture of what’s on track, what’s due, what’s in trouble. You can log issues and readjust timelines to try to and get overall projects back on schedule, and so on. You can set notifications via site or email for tasks that are coming due soon or are behind and leave comments on individual tasks about the status and when you last checked in on it, etc.

    Do a google search for the software and you’ll come up with a bunch of them including reviews of which ones are better in which kinds of situations.

    I have literally saved the job of a co-worker with substantial memory issues by pushing us to better utilize our PM software and getting it up and running for our dept. Things are working much better because it also leads to better communication or cutting out unneeded repetitive e-mails “Please advise status of these 5 projects” when the status is there and easy to see.

    Reply
      1. animaniactoo

        Currently my company is using WorkFront (formerly AtTask). We previously underutilized Huddle, but my memory of it was that it was pretty user-friendly.

        One dept tried out Wrike but I wasn’t in love with it. Microsoft has Flow in development, some of it is already available, but I haven’t checked into it because it’s not yet at a good point imo. However, it does come with the functionality to easily use MS other built-in document storage (Sharepoint) if you’re using 365.

        When I was researching one for just our dept, Trello was a top contender, but that was over 2 years ago so not sure what would be top right now.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          I’ve goofed around with Trello but it’s never quite stuck, so I’ll be interested to try some of the others.

          Reply
          1. ArtsNerd

            Basecamp, Asana, and JIRA are names I’ve heard come up a lot.

            I used to use Teamwork, and liked the intercase – but my team didn’t actually *use* Teamwork.

            Reply
  30. AMT

    On the subject of organizational tools, has anyone tried Panda Planner? I’ve heard good things about it, but they’re a little expensive and I’ve been holding off on ordering one.

    Reply
    1. AES

      I just started last month! Like others in this thread I am an adult lady with only recently diagnosed ADD and it has been super useful in helping me implement a system to deal with a ton of new responsibilities I just took on at work. I have the one that has month, week, and day pages and I like being able to review all three to make connections. Almost everything in it is also in my Outlook calendar but I’m one of those people who’s helped enormously by physically writing things down, and this is going well so far.

      I’m not so much on the “daily gratitude” bits, but maybe as I get more fluent with planning I will be?

      Reply
  31. Greg M.

    So I’m a procastinator, it never goes away but you can mitigate it. I find part of the issue is how big the mountain of work looks. One thing I did that worked great at college was every single assignment I had for the entire semester I printed out the assignment description and put them in a clipboard in order of which was due first. Then every day I did one thing, and only that thing until it was done. I needed a system, a simple system, no bells, no whistles no bs that makes me frustated with it. It needs to be simple, the system can not be a time consuming task in and of itself. I hope this helps.

    Reply
  32. LQ

    There are a lot of really good comments about software and tools that people use here and I wonder if there could be a post of some kind about favorite and best work/productivity software. I will try to throw it out on the Friday Open Post too but it would be really interesting to hear from people what works or doesn’t and why. I know that they are never the solution to most work problems, sometimes they can be a tool for change (what I think could happen here for the OP) and sometimes they are an easier way of doing something that could be done with paper. And now I will refrain from asking every single commenter who mentioned software a thousand questions.

    Reply
    1. Anon for this

      +1 – and what doesn’t work and why can be super valuable even if it does work for other people, because different things will work for different people. There are some productivity apps I don’t like at all, but I know from others’ use of them that they’re good – for the people who work well with that paradigm. I’m just not the person they serve. But if I found someone who didn’t deal well with X, Y, or Z for (reasons similar to mine) and they recommended new-to-me Q, you bet it would go to the top of my list to evaluate. (And maybe it wouldn’t work for me, for reasons, but….)

      Speaking of which:

      http://www.askamanager.org/2017/03/open-thread-march-31-april-1-2017.html#comment-1424188

      Reply
  33. Almond Milk Latte

    If it weren’t for some details, I’d think I wrote this post. I’m so grateful for these comments because if there’s hope for the OP, there’s hope for me too.

    Reply
  34. olives

    Please don’t assume that you know what it means to be diagnosed with something, and what treatments that might entail, unless you are a medical professional.

    Getting a diagnosis, specialized attention, and treatment does not immediately mean that you should be medicated. As many people mentioned above, there are lots of ways to handle having ADHD. I think this is worth saying, because it’s quite commonly believed in this culture that as soon as you get diagnosed with ADHD, you’ll be strapped down and pumped full of Ritalin until the “problem” disappears. However, much like any chronic medical diagnosis, that’s not how this works.

    I have ADHD and medication is only a small part of a more comprehensive treatment plan that I need to better manage various symptoms: being disorganized and distracted, getting easily derailed by personal and work-related stress, and setting priorities. I cannot diagnose the LW, but I know that for myself knowing that anxiety was only half the battle, and ADHD was a different, distinct, and interlocking battle, was incredibly helpful.

    Reply
    1. olives

      Shoot, this was meant to be a reply to a comment that I believe was deleted. That’s fine; I think my point still stands. =)

      LW, I really wish you the best in this – there are so many of us out there who have struggled to be what the world asks of us in terms of organizational abilities! I think Alison’s advice is great to focus on your strengths, and to pair that with some systematic way of being conscientious. It’s a hard road, but from someone else who’s wondered if their actions warranted firing from being so disorganized and distractible, there’s absolutely a way to Be in the world for you. Good luck figuring it out.

      Reply
    2. Siberian

      I agree with you, olives, that people should know that medication, if indicated and prescribed, is only one part of the treatment. I guess I don’t see it that way as much because I was a very organized person and relentless problem-solver before my diagnosis, so I had all these great coping skills. Coping skills for days! Got tired of people suggesting more coping skills! But until I got on medication (and for me it was Adderall first and then a year later Wellbutrin for seasonal depression) I couldn’t get traction. I would put in 100 lbs of effort to get 20 lbs of results when other people seemed to put in 25 lbs of effort for 20 lbs of results. Post-medication, when I put in effort and it equals commensurate results. So in a sense I had most of the treatment plan in place, it just couldn’t fully get me where I needed to go without the missing ingredient of medication. I’m sure not everyone is like this, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. After all, it was only through all those coping skills that I’d been able to be successful at work to the degree I was.

      However, more in line what with you’re saying, there were other ways that I changed as part of my treatment. Like learning that a person with ADHD tends to get multiple ideas at once from their brain instead of one at a time allowed me to understand my own thoughts better and present more professionally. Instead of getting confused and dithering in a meeting when I’m flooded with a whole bunch of possible solutions for a proposed issue, I tell people something tongue in cheek like, “Hold on, calculating!” and then I gather my thoughts and say, “Okay, I’ve got a bunch of ideas on that,” and I roll them out. I’m more aware of how much listening to podcasts while doing housework can keep me focused (for hours!) or listening to music at work can keep me on task (for hours!) and I’m not down on myself for it either. It’s been about three years of adapting and learning, even beyond the extensive coping skill set I already had. So yeah, guess I’m basically agreeing with you. :)

      Reply
      1. Boötes

        Thanks for your insights, olives and Siberian.

        I was recently diagnosed with ADHD and haven’t been given any other resources from medical folk beyond prescriptions. I, too, have coping skills galore (timers! interval timers for multiple or multi-part tasks! listslistslistslistslists! accountability buddies! alarms for one-time or recurring tasks (I’ve stuck with titled alarms on my phone to avoid getting, then forgetting, yet another nifty/frustrating little app)), but I’m still struggling to put everything together.

        Are there books or websites you’ve found to be particularly helpful in creating–or getting a sense of what goes into–the rest of a treatment plan? Or that explain the differences between ADHD and non-ADHD brains in everyday circumstances and how to gently rein this brain toward the shared goal?

        Reply
        1. Siberian

          Best resource for me has been the ADHD Experts Podcast. I mentioned it in a reply above. Some episodes are super helpful for me and many not so much, but there are plenty to choose from. It’s produced by ADDitude (online) magazine, which you might also find useful because it’s got tons of info, but I find it unappealing and confusing visually and after I got my basic info I stopped visiting it. Anyway, I mentioned above that their podcast 114 on diagnosis was very helpful for me in learning more about ADHD symptoms.

          I wish I had more resources for you–I looked hard when I was first diagnosed and didn’t find much. A lot of what I know now comes from a little bit here and there. And I think a lot of the progress I’ve made has come from the positive feedback loop I’m now in, where medication plus coping tools adds up to better results, so my work goes better and I’m calmer, so work goes even better. This is despite a no-win, overloaded job. I almost feel like it’s been kind of a maturing process these past two years, and I’m 51. I’ve learned so much in that time about what works for me, and I’m so much calmer. Whew. :)

          Reply
          1. Jaydee

            ADDitude Magazine’s website drives me crazy. It is geared to people with ADHD. Why have it so cluttered and visually unappealing?!?!

            The podcasts are excellent. I have a long commute and have listened to many of them.

            Reply
    3. Ciemme

      Also, ADHD is not even the only condition that can cause these symptoms, I have similar symptoms but have a completely different diagnosis that I don’t want to name because I think OP should see a psychologist and find out for themselves without going into it biased.

      Reply
  35. Mary

    Sometimes it can help to talk to your boss.

    My husband is an awful worker with bad habits, he was fired from every job he had for years. In his most recent role he got that dreaded ‘final warning’ slip for his behavior. He knew it wasn’t going to improve but he wanted to hold onto the job desperately to fund his discretionary spending. He went to his boss and put it all on the table; he said he wants to improve but can’t and stressed where he is having trouble specifically.

    His best hope was that he’d get laid off instead of fired and eligible for benefits while he tried to find a new job. But his boss ended up feeling bad for him and extended a branch. My husband was demoted from his full time work and given a part-time position that took him away from the biggest performance issues he had. It saved his ego and was meant to be a cushion for his job search but he’s been working like this for 3 years now and everyone is happy with the arrangement.

    Reply
  36. Clean Bandit

    OP, please ensure that you’re getting enough sleep (and quality sleep). Not getting enough sleep can really impact how well a person can perform at work. Concentration, focus, attention to detail, organization, mood and the ability to stay calm can all be badly affected by a lack of sleep.

    Also, making sure that you’re eating well and taking your breaks (preferably away from the office) can really help with stress.

    If there are any tasks that you have to do repeatedly then create some sort of template for those tasks. The same applies if you need to send out e-mails of a particular type. MS Outlook has e-mail templates that you can create – it will make composing e-mails much quicker so that you can devote the time saved to something else.

    Is your workload reasonable? The most organized person in the World is going to struggle if they have an unrealistic workload.

    Regarding missed deadlines and meetings, I would recommend making use of technology. If you use MS Outlook, you can have your meetings in your calendar and it will alert you at certain intervals that you have
    a meeting coming up. Add deadlines to your calendar and use Outlook categories. I have Outlook categories for important meetings and deadlines both of which are in bright yellow. My calendar is always visible on the right hand side of my screen and so I can see what meetings are scheduled/deadlines and because they are in a bright yellow color they are extremely visible to me.

    When you receive e-mails that require an action from you, use the flag feature, it will automatically add them to your task list. Try to allocate time to work on one item at a time as much as you can. Chopping and changing from one task to another can result in a lot of half finished tasks, which is frustrating. Create a task list and prioritize it.

    When you get to work in the morning look at your task list and work your way through. If anything else comes up, add it to your task list but don’t let it derail your other tasks or priorities. Also check your calendar for the day when you arrive at work and print off any items you’re going to need for your meetings rather than doing your printing shortly before the meeting starts.

    If you put in place some of the suggestions by Alison and commenters, but it still doesn’t help, then you may want to think about a change of career. It may be that this career is not a good fit for you (there is no shame in that we are all different).

    Reply
    1. Janey

      +1 for taking breaks. Even a 10-minute mental reboot (taking a walk, sitting in the break room and breathing, listening to music) can be enough to refresh your mind, help you look at things in new ways, and get more energy. Like…. you can spend 10 minutes doing nothing and spend the next 50 minutes operating at 90%, and thats way better than spending the full hour only operating at 60% (or 50, or 40….)

      Reply
      1. Clean Bandit

        Yes, taking your breaks are so important. It can really help a person to de-stress and re-focus. A change of environment, even for a short-time, can work wonders.

        Reply
  37. gladfe

    I was at a similar point a few years ago and again this past year, where I needed to tackle a lot of big-picture organization issues (which are ADHD-related in my case), but I also needed to not lose my job in the short term. There’s an old Captain Awkward article about how to keep your job while dealing with depression, and I found its suggestions to be really helpful, even though depression wasn’t part of my problem.
    The two most relevant ones: Start being a few minutes early to everything, and start cleaning your desk at the end of each day.
    It can feel really, really frustrating to make these shallow-seeming changes when you’re also feeling panicky about all the substantive changes you need to make, but those two things make a huge difference to whether other people perceive you as disorganized. That may help give you the time you need to get other things under control.
    Good luck!

    Reply
  38. Still learning how to adult...

    OK, I saw my younger self in this letter, and it brought back TERRIFYING memories! Been there, done that, have the job record to show for it. Yes, the ‘performance problems’ the PIP, etc., etc.

    Right out, I also suggest “Driven To Distraction” by Hallowell & Ratey. It tackles the subject of adults with ADD/ADHD, which sounds like the LW has in spades. I can empathize!! I tell those close to me that if the concept of ADD/ADHD had been around when I was a kid, I would have been at the top of the list!!

    One idea from the book is that the ‘old’ idea of childhood ADD/ADHD was that kids grew out of it. Not so, it’s just that lot of people develop various coping mechanisms to get around it.

    LW, stop, right now, take a deep breath, and (in the words of Douglas Adams, see large friendly letters here: ) “Don’t Panic” Really large. Really friendly.

    As much an ADD person as I am and love excitement, and new, and distractions… I find that making certain structures in my work & personal life really do help.

    You’re not a bad person. You’re a person who may be in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The fact that you’re concerned is great, because you CARE!! You haven’t given up ! And there is no need for you to give up! But you can get better. Even now, while I will probably never approach the level of project planning that my wife has, I have learned over the years. This is not the end of the world. It’s the beginning of learning what you are capable of.

    Reply
  39. Ciemme

    Has OP been evaluated by a psychologist for a possible mental illness? I struggled with being intelligent and creative yet disorganized and easily stressed out most of my life and it turned out that I have legitimate issues with executive functioning as well as a probable dopamine deficiency. I understand a lot of people are afraid to be evaluated because of stigma, but having an untreated mental illness can ruin your life, and once you are self-aware, you can make adjustments to better set yourself up for success. I currently have a job I love and am great at, but I don’t think that would be the case if I didn’t realize I had a mental illness.

    Reply
  40. Janey

    Wee bit of advice here:

    Sometimes you make your task list and it’s huuuuge and overwhelming and you freeze because you don’t even know where to begin!

    Flip to a fresh page and make a new task list: things you can/need to get done in the next hour (or 45 mins, or 30 mins). It should only be a small small number of items from the big list. This is your new to-do list. The Big List no longer exists.

    Work off of THAT list until you check everything off.

    Only then do you back to the full list, where you can now cross off 3 items in one go (very satisfying), and then make your new mini-list for the next hour of your day.

    Helps a lot with getting started, staying on track, and managing your time, especially when the Huge Amounts Of Work you have to do feels oppressive and disheartening.

    Reply
  41. Erin

    I have no idea if this is helpful but you seem like a really good writer. Clear, concise, great descriptions, vivid imagery.

    Reply
  42. MsChanandlerBong

    I really empathize with the letter writer. Before I started my own business, I had a lot of difficulty at work. I was good at what I did, and I always got along well with people, but I would often end up in a panic because I forgot to do something or didn’t plan enough time to finish something. I have tried so many reminder systems, and none of them have worked for me. If you put things in a paper calendar, you have to remember to look at (and not lose!) the calendar. If you rely on a device, you have to remember to take the device with you and make sure it’s charged and not leave it on the table at lunch or forget it on your desk when you go off-site. Those things, which are really simple in theory, are difficult for me. I’ve always got a million ideas in my head, and those ideas crowd out things such as “Don’t forget your name badge, or else you’ll have to call security to unlock the door” and “You need to put the red file folder in your bag so you have it for the meeting tomorrow.” I don’t think it’s totally impossible to overcome these issues, but it is difficult. The LW might end up with less stress and more job satisfaction if she finds a job that works with her strengths.

    Reply
  43. Jaybeetee

    I actually did lose a job on probation a couple years back – it felt terrible at the time, but frankly it was utterly the wrong job for me, and didn’t match with my skills or really with my career goals (Okay, I might have been a bit desperate for work…) To boot, it was a 90 minute commute (I wasn’t familiar enough with the region, numerous people and even online sources said it was an hour’s drive). I had another contract gig around that time too where I was basically put on a warning due to lack of organization and too many errors. I feel your pain, OP.

    Certain things that help me:

    1) I needed to learn to SLOW THE F DOWN. I’m inclined to rush tasks, especially if they’re not particularly interesting tasks. This of course leads to errors. I had to force myself to slow down and be methodical, which majorly reduced my error rate.

    2) Notes are my friend. I’m one of those that just papers my cube with Post-its, but many people here have weighed in with more sophisticated systems. When I have many tasks in front of me, I’ll sometimes make a list. In particular, if I’ve noticed that I tend to make mistakes doing a certain task, I’ll put up reminder notes about how to complete it correctly. I also like to make step-by-step lists of how to do even relatively basic tasks (in my current role, they LOVE standardized written procedures, so I fit right in in that respect).

    3) Ask for help. At my current job, I decided early on that I’d rather annoy people by asking a million questions when I was still a newbie, than annoy them several months later because I still didn’t understand or know how to do something. While you don’t want to badger your colleagues endlessly, people are often willing to help when you’re stuck.

    4) Some mistakes are okay and even expected. After those two back-to-back bad experiences, I was a basket case about making mistakes or having performance issues. And while errors rate has been a general issue in my current job (across the whole team), I’m actually viewed as one of the higher performers – even though I still make errors!

    5) Double-check. Especially when I do forget myself and rush a task, I find a quick once-over helps me catch things.

    6) Meditation and/or yoga. Will help your focus and your stress levels.

    Most friends and family agree I probably have some level of ADD, but it’s never been officially diagnosed – I did inquire with my doctor once, but he basically felt that there was no point going through the diagnostic process and throwing me on meds if I was already more or less handling my life. I still struggle with certain things – most of all, motivation and lateness, which are still recurrent issues.

    As for what you should do now, it’s up to you – I’m a “it’s not over till it’s over” type, so I’d still be inclined to try to turn it around. But if it just feels like the wrong place for you, the best thing to do might be to walk away and stop wasting your own and their time. I suppose the question to ask yourself is: gut-level, does this feel like the right job for you? Does this feel worth fighting for? Or would you just rather be somewhere else, doing something else?

    Reply
  44. EllenS

    I weighed in upthread as an adult with a late diagnosis of ADHD, but if the LW does not find that relevant, I wanted to recommend a book called “The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success” by Dawson and Guare.

    The authors do not focus on diagnosing or labelling, but strengths and weaknesses in specific executive skills (working memory, task initiation, goal-directed persistence, emotional regulation, etc etc) and how they function together, so you can assess your strengths and weaknesses and come up with personalized strategies. There is almost always a way to apply a strength in one area to compensate for a weakness elsewhere.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  45. Audiophile

    I have ADD ABS was diagnosed at a young age. Through elementary and junior high, I took medication. I stopped in high school for a variety of reasons and managed to cope. During college, I couldn’t get by at all and wound up on academic probation and never really was able to fix the damage that did to my GPA.

    In the working world I definitely struggled. My last two jobs both ended in disaster, some of it my fault and some of it because the orgs themselves were disorganized.

    Now that I’m in a job where I feel more secure and I’m really working on homing these skills. All of that is to say, I’ve decided I want to go back on medication. Nothing harder than trying to find a doctor will to prescribe drugs to an adult. OP should definitely talk to her PCP, ask for a referral to look into these issues.

    Organization doesn’t come naturally to everyone and that’s OK, but then you really can’t function in a job like project management, where it’s imperative to getting job done.

    Reply
  46. Kimberlee, Esq.

    It’s a bit hoky, but I would recommend that OP look into different types of organizations and workstyles to try to understand themselves and where they thrive better. Personally, when I did the HBR Carson Tate Workstyles quiz, I found myself thinking “wow, so much of how my brain operates makes sense now.” I have a less-common workstyle, and while it’s certainly not a cure-all for disorganization, simply having another framework to understand myself in has really expanded my idea of what is possible and reasonable for me (and, tangentially, expanded my understanding of diversity and what having different kinds of people at an organization can really do!)

    Reply
  47. phedre

    So I posted above about my ADHD diagnosis and what a life-changer that was, but I also wanted to mention some organizational things that work for me in the hopes that they might work for someone else:

    * Write things down. Make lists that can be checked off when the task is complete. Refer to your lists regularly. The thing that works for me is posting the list on the wall to the right of my computer screen so I can see it every day, and cross off tasks as needed. I also love sticky notes, but if you don’t have an organized desk they can add to the clutter and are easily lost. This works for me so much better than using Outlook’s tasks feature or some other electronic system – I need to write tasks down and see them written on paper and not on screen.

    * I’ve found that Outlook only helps me with remembering meetings, not with deadlines/tasks. I need to see things right in front of my face, not electronically. So I bought a giant desk calendar (22×17) and hung the sheets for the next 3 months on my wall. I color code due dates/events etc. with washi tape (which is removable if/when dates change). This lets me see the big picture for 3 months at a time.

    * Each morning go through your lists. Figure out the tasks that must be done today, the tasks that would be great if they got done, and the tasks that can wait until later. What additional tasks need to be done? Who do you need to follow up with? I also do this Monday mornings and use that to plan out my week (with the caveat that there are always unexpected/last minute things). This also super important to do before weekends or vacations because otherwise I won’t remember anything when I come back.

    * I dedicate one morning a week for the stuff I hate to do and procrastinate on (typically filing/admin/organizational stuff). I have to do it in the morning because if I wait until the afternoon to tackle the things I hate, I’ll postpone it until the next day.

    * Check your Outlook calendar regularly and set up electronic reminders. I check in the morning, during the day as needed, and again before I leave work so I know what tomorrow will look like. And if I have an early meeting, I set my alarm at work because if I wait until I’m about to go to sleep I’ll forget.

    * Figure out what you can automate. Are there reports that can be set to run automatically? What systems can you implement to streamline processes?

    * Is there an admin person who can take over some of the organizational stuff? I work in fundraising, and one of the things I hate but is super important is the filing/record-keeping for donations/database stuff. I hired an assistant last year and now she manages those things which has made my life significantly easier.

    * If I think of something at home I email my work email so I don’t forget. I know I won’t miss those emails, but I will miss things I write in the “Notes” section of my phone.

    * If you can, build in buffer time for projects. I’ve found over the years that I’m not great at estimating how long it’ll take me to do things. So I always add a few extra days/weeks to my calendar when possible.

    * Document what you can. If there’s a task you only do 1-2 times per year, you’ll probably forget how you did it over the course of the year. If you write down procedures you won’t waste time recreating things.

    Reply
  48. cncx

    late to the game on this one, but i realized after a few stressful years that any job which involved project management or long term deadlines did not mesh well with my anxiety. i perform much better in jobs where i have shorter, tangible, quantifiable deadlines. anything where the deadline involves anything longer than a couple of weeks, or anything where my deliverable has “interpretable” merit pushes my anxiety through the roof. i now have a job where my project deadlines are weekly at the longest, and very black and white- they are either done or not done, and not something open to my boss’ or colleagues interpretation (e.g. my deliverable is sending patches to computers versus drafting a report for my boss on teapot production in Norway). i am a much happier, less-stressed employee with happier bosses than i had before. i echo the comments which say this might just be a bad fit.

    Reply
  49. Siobhan

    Adding – Dx’d at 37 – that this sounds like my adult ADD plus cases of boundary issues with coworkers. I worked as a PM once in a very chaotic environment – hard to get work done with 6-7 hours a day in meetings. The crazier stuff got, the more people interrupted and screamed. Blocking my IM when I was running meetings or needing to focus, walking away from/hanging up on/recording a screamer (latter if particularly abusive kr threatening), shutting off my ringer while I was sleeping, all helped. There was initial damage to these relationships, that eventually reversed once I was able to. Ale more progress.

    Reply
  50. hanky panky

    I’m going to put on my Librarian hat and recommend a couple of books:

    Smart But Scattered Guide to Success by Dawson and Guare — specifically handles executive function/ organization issues. Excellent strategies included.

    Getting Things Done by David Allen — an organization method for project managers/executives that really works at reducing the stress of keeping multiple plates in the air.

    ADDitude magazine — has some great resources for Life Coaches /ADHD Coaches. Even if you don’t have that condition there are some great tips for reducing anxiety and improving organization.

    Good Luck!

    Reply
  51. Lurker who knits

    Alison’s idea of one single log, even for little things, is great. I skimmed and didn’t see anyone mention the following so forgive me if this is a repeat comment.

    OP, what do you do in the moment to when your feeling rushed, and disorganized to try to refocus? You said you’ve sought and practice medical treatment so did they give you any tools to use when stressful situations arise at work?

    When I feel rushed and disorganized, my brain freezes up; I can’t think, and my communication skills drop way down. To counteract it, I take deep breaths that are equal lengths on the inhale and exhale. This slows down my heart rate and unclogs my brain somewhat. I also try saying out loud what I was intending to do next (I can forget in 5 seconds!). Pairing the log with the slow breathing might give you immediate results until you figure out your long-term solution.

    Hope this helps. Wishing you success on finding a solution(s).

    Reply
  52. Kelly

    Holy heck, this was like reading an excerpt from my own journal! I feel this OP’s pain. I’ve spent most of my life thinking I am lazy and stupid because I’m just a hot mess when it comes to being organized. I am ALWAYS chasing my tail and cleaning things up at the last minute — but, luckily for me now I’m in a job where I have been able to hide the fact that everything is done last minute because I don’t have daily deadlines, just a single weekly one that I can pull out of my rear at the last minute and the same for two monthly deadlines. But, it doesn’t take away the anxiety about being behind all the time or the fear of being “discovered.”

    My anxiety is directly related to my ADD – notice I didn’t say AD”H”D – there is no hyperactivity in my disorder for sure. Once I was on meds for ADD my performance improved greatly and my anxiety subsided with the help of meds for that, too. But after 10 years of being on daily meds I felt like I was in a place where I didn’t want to put those chemicals in my body every day and have found a job where deadlines are not a major focus and I can handle the 3 that I have pretty well.

    Yep, find a job that doesn’t require so much of you deadline wise and you can better manage the anxiety. I know, easier said than done but man, when you find your place it’s awesome – life changing.

    Reply
  53. Greg

    OP, I can totally sympathize. I’m very disorganized, and have struggled in roles that required a lot of project management. A couple thoughts:

    1. One thing I’ve discovered about myself is that, while there’s always a baseline level of disorganization, the problem is exacerbated when I don’t feel connected to the underlying project, either because it’s not a subject I care a lot about or because I don’t feel ownership of the project. In one job I was constantly berating myself for not being able to stay on top of things, and it wasn’t until after I left the job that I realized I simply couldn’t get excited about what I was doing.

    2. One thing that really helps me — and I picked this concept up from Getting Things Done — is the notion of a brain dump. I need to sit down at the beginning of a project and write down every task that needs to be done, no matter how small. Then I can constantly go back and review the list to see how I’m progressing on my goals, and am less likely to let things fall through the cracks.

    3. On a day-to-day basis, one thing I try to do is prioritize my to-do list. I’ve seen this described as the “1-3-5 Rule” (do one crucial thing, three important things, and five less important tasks). My version is to assign points to all my tasks (10, 5, 2, 1) and always focus on getting the 10-point task done every day, then worrying about the 5s, etc.. The point is, it’s very easy to spend your day checking items off your list without really getting to the important stuff.

    But I still go back to No. 1. If you can’t do some self-analysis and figure out what’s at the root of your organizational problems, whatever systems or lifehacks you come up with are unlikely to be successful.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  54. lobsterpot

    IANAD but I am a person who is being assessed for adult ADHD, and I could have written this letter at various points in my career.

    Reply
  55. SUMORA

    Hi:

    My suggestion if you decide to give this job a try:
    1. find someone in the team (or the company) who is organized and calm-tempered under pressure. Observe what this person does to manage time and prioritize correctly. If possible, ask upfront for recommendations, tools and even mentoring opportunity. I believe having a listening ear and someone to emulate can go a long way for you.

    2. When you regularly submit work at the last minute and don’t find a way to be organized (but you LIKE your job), its usually related to “focused” issues. Music helps many people to stay focus so it can be something you can try. You can also get with a doctor to prescribe something that can help with this.

    However….
    It sounds ot me that your personality is better fit with a task-oriented job (example: manufaturing operations, a job where you follow a step-by-step guide) with well-defined timelines and processes. My suggestion will be to:

    1. Talk to your manager (who seems nice) and discuss the possibility to reduce the workload to a task-oriented one. This may mean a demotion, not sure, but it might save your job.

    2. Ask your manager or HR for training opportunities that can help you identify tools (or create tools) to help focus and organize your work environment. You may be surprise of how easy it can be to get your act together with already available tools.

    3. Evaluate your skills. It seems you understand were your strengths and weaknesses lie based on your letter. If you do not feel like working on these weaknesses (and you can, you have options as recommended above), perform one of those job-skills evaluation tests and start gearing your career to something more align with you which will at the end of the day make you happier.

    Wish you all the luck in the world and hope these tips serve you well!

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Before you comment: Please be kind, stay on-topic, and follow the site's commenting rules.
You can report an ad, tech, or typo issue here.

Subscribe to all comments on this post by RSS