ask the readers: what to do if you’re not good at your job

Throwing this one out to readers to weigh in on. A reader writes:

What should I do if I’m just not good at my job?

It’s an administrative assistant position that I obtained almost three months ago because I knew someone, and I already know how to do almost everything, with some exceptions and special cases and situations. The problem is that it requires certain skills that I either don’t have or have in small quantities. Predominantly, this position requires me to be on top of things constantly, from answering questions on the phone to making sure bills are paid, schedules are done, everything looks good, we have all the supplies, dealing with clients, etc. I admit I am struggling to juggle all the tasks simultaneously. I know I’m not stupid, but I guess multitasking isn’t my strong suit and my brain is more wired to really focus at the task at hand.

Is this something I will get better at as I am longer at this job? I’m doing okay, and I’m not worried I’m going to be let go anytime soon (since they really need to have the position filled). However, my goal is to eventually leave, and doing okay isn’t exactly going to open doors for me in other places.

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 126 comments… read them below }

  1. A*

    I honestly don’t think this is a skill that can be REALLY developed much. The ability to be proactive, constantly juggle multiple tasks and switch focus all the time is something you either have or don’t have. That’s not a BAD thing necessarily because some jobs require intense focus on one task. Maybe you can improve, or find a way around it (like making lists for yourself), but if it’s a huge stretch for you, you’ll just end up getting stressed out all the time.

    1. jmkenrick*

      I actually disagree with you. In the past few years since I’ve entered the “real world” I’ve noticed that my ability to juggle multiple tasks has increased dramatically. Granted, there are certainly exceptions, but generally I think that negotiating a large amount of tasks is something that gets easier with time. (And three months isn’t that long.)

      OP, there are a number of tricks that people employ to help them remember everything on their plate. If you can get into the habit of kicking off each day by doing a rundown of certain things (I carried a literal checklist with me my first six months at my job, of things to double-check every morning) then eventually those things become second nature.

      Additionally, if you devote your energies to being responsive and make sure to respond to every e-mail in your inbox, and every message you receive, you’ll find that this alone gets a done of work done.

      And of course, you can always ask your manager for feedback on how people have handled the juggling in the past.

      1. Anon*

        Also, make sure you have a tickler listing – a list of things you’re waiting for from other people. Don’t send stuff out into the universe without writing down, religiously, in one place, what’s due back to you. “Co X – Call back re: meeting time”, etc. I organize by project on an Excel spreadsheet. Then I can focus on tasks, because I don’t have to remember as much.

        1. Just Saying*

          Lists, lists, lists and more lists… keeps you on track. And a good calendar on Outlook.

          1. Anon*

            This! Lists are awesome! Excel, tasks in outlook- whatever works for you. Not everyone is great at this. My husband is a terrible person at keeping things organized at home but he does a great job & manages quite an impressive caseload partly because his office has a great agency management system to help him track things.

            You can use MS Outlook in a similar way. If you aren’t familiar with all of the functions of Outlook, and there are so, so many, take a class, get a book (this you can take to the office with you too), or do an online tutorial.

            Other outlook stuff that might be helpful:
            -‘Notes’ page in Outlook for common replies / blocks of text — just copy and paste, easier than Word or other file types you have to open a program. Also useful for simple reference lists.
            – Outlook tasks- I have reports emailed to me, they are automatically set to have a task and come up in a new message window — I know when they are overdue, the task page has a listing of everything I have to do and when it is due. Other people can send you tasks as well.
            – I send reminder emails to myself — notes get lost (just remember your employer can read everything) These can be set as incoming tasks as well (you can manually set a date due).

            Admin can be a great way to move up. You learn so much about the business you work for, how businesses work in general. So take this as a chance to really learn. You are still new and learning. The first 6 months are always the hardest. Once you get things down it will be easier.

            1. OneoftheMichelles*

              *6 months*
              I never feel competent in a complex job until I’ve done it about this long. If no one is complaining, maybe everything is fine. After a while, what used to take conscious effort to remember or figure out starts to become rote.
              Once I got stuck in a job with inadequate training/support and I was still lousy at it after 10 months. I got a new job and finished out my time as helpfully as possible. Either way, give it some more time; you’ll be ok.

              1. Long Time Admin*

                Yes, the learning curve is very important to remember. One day, you’ll find yourself juggling tasks and answering questions, and you’ll realize that you *have* learned! It’s a great feeling.

                You won’t learn everything at once, so don’t beat yourself up over it. Learn from each mistake and move on.

                Good luck!

              2. SB*

                Yes yes yes to this – a six month window to get comfortable with your job as well as the organization as a whole.

            2. Cait*

              YES. Make lists and organize them in order of priority or due date–some will be daily tasks, some will be longer-term projects with firm deadlines, others will be flexible but need to be done eventually. Cross things off the list and check it every day when you get to work and before you leave.
              I use the “Tasks” function in my work email program, and while it’s not ideal, it has really helped me stay on top of my work and be more efficient.

        2. Victoria Nonprofit*

          Ok, this is the first time I’ve heard a “tickler file” explained in a way that feels useful to me. Thank you!

          1. Anon*

            Happy to help! This was life changing for me. I had lists and lists of things to do, but lost track once I asked others for stuff.

      2. Chinook*

        I second that multitasking skills can be developed over time if you are open to trying different techniques. A physical list like jmkenrick mentioned is good. And electronic version would be to use the task and calendar aspects of Outlook or similar program. I would have recurring tasks set up, complete with reminders, to help me remember what needs to be done. These tasks also included notes on how to do it if it was something that required a process. On the plus side, I then had a list of completed tasks to give me a feeling of accomplishment and a way to verify where you are on a project if you get interrupted (which always happens as an admin).

        A couple of companies I worked for also had us sign up for a time management course that included tips on how to use programs like Outlook or paper calendars and checklists to better organize ourselves. I carry my notes from those courses to every new job.

        Lastly, do not believe afraid to ask another admin for tips or even to mentor you. It may feel like you are alone in your job but there are probably others in the office that can help you learn more efficient ways to do your job. It may surprise you to know that these types of skills don’t come naturally to most of us but are learned over time.

        1. danr*

          Use both, a written list and Outlook tasks, and don’t be afraid to duplicate them when necessary. The idea is to learn to juggle tasks, not to have neat lists. And don’t give up on learning how to do it. As a focuser, it took me about three years to get the hang of it. And I was never as good as my boss was.

        2. Long Time Admin*

          “Lastly, do not believe afraid to ask another admin for tips or even to mentor you. It may feel like you are alone in your job but there are probably others in the office that can help you learn more efficient ways to do your job.”

          This is also a very important point. In my first job as an executive assistant, I would have failed completely if it weren’t for the help and support of the admin staffers. There was so much co-operation and true teamwork in that company, I wish I could have stayed there for my entire career.

      3. A*

        Yeah, I suppose you’re right. I think it CAN be developed but it has to be something to individual really wants to do. There are some people I know who are just unable to succeed with it comes to following up with people, being proactive, juggling multiple tasks, regardless of making lists etc. But you are definitely right in that there are ways to do this and become skilled at it.

        I have to juggle a lot in my current position and at the beginning, I made a lot of lists, checklists, etc. Now I rely mostly on my memory as it’s become habit, but I still keep lists of some things, and calendar reminders for others.

        Unfortunately, I think I’m just used to working with people who are incapable of doing this and express no interest in improving their abilities, so I think it gives me the incorrect impression that it’s not really a skill which can be developed. But if you’re motivated and conscientious, which it seems the OP is, there are definitely ways to improve.

        1. myswtghst*

          “There are some people I know who are just unable to succeed with it comes to following up with people…”

          I think this can have less to do with being organized, and more to do with interpersonal skills. I’ve known people who are plenty organized, but are always afraid they’re bothering people, or insist on only using email when they should be calling / stopping by to get an answer.

      4. Liz T*

        Conversely: I got WORSE at these things. In my case, it was because I doing admin as a “day job” while trying to cultivate an entirely different career. While admin assistant is a job you can usually leave in the office, it still requires a real presence and focus while you’re there, and I was just really *done* with all that. I got (quite rightfully) fired from my last admin job, and have since focused on finding more project-based work. It’s hard for me to stay focused when every day is a lot of little maintenance things, with no real end goal, indefinitely.

        So, I think some people absolutely can get better at this, but emotional investment is important. I was excellent at my first professional, full-time admin assistant job for about a year and a half because, while I left my work at the office, I was very gung-ho while I was there. If you can do that, you can probably improve. (And yes: lists.)

        Basically, my advice is to be honest with yourself about how committed you are to getting better in a long-term way.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          This: “It’s hard for me to stay focused when every day is a lot of little maintenance things, with no real end goal, indefinitely.”

          This is why restaurant work is so hard for some people. There is no end, no feeling of completing something.

          Really good point, Liz T. OP, I hope you mull this one over- it’s really helpful.

          1. Kelly L.*

            That’s exactly what I hated about restaurant work: the feeling of futility. Come in, make the food, people eat the food and make a mess, clean up. Next day, come in and make the same food and clean up the same mess again. It wore on me. I like the admin asst job I have now in part because there are random “different” things that happen, and some events that have buildup and then happen and are over and there’s a sense of completion after.

                1. Jazzy Red*

                  I have to tell myself that I *deserve* to live in a clean house to stir up the ambition to do the work.

        2. Jamie*

          It’s hard for me to stay focused when every day is a lot of little maintenance things, with no real end goal, indefinitely.

          The one thing I don’t love about IT. The part of basic end user support which feels akin to bailing the Titanic out with a teaspoon. The water just keeps coming. IMO most jobs have these types of tasks – the key is having enough other tasks that give you the little victories that keep you in the game.

      5. Chloe*

        Totally agree with this. I think if you become rigorously organised – lists, lists, more lists – then you can learn to get on top of the routine things automatically, which frees up your brain to deal with more things at the same time.

        Maybe write little scripts to jog your memory when you’re dealing with phone queries, so that you can refer back to what you routinely say. This might take the stress out of that task.

        Put all bill payments into your calendar, set reminders and do them at a set time each day.

        Do the same with stationary supplies – have a master list, check it at a set time each week/month whatever, so that you don’t have to think about it outside those times.

        And remember you can’t literally do everything at once, but if you’re organised and methodical you can get it all done.

  2. Anony1234*

    Has the OP had any feedback from her boss regarding her work in a negative way? I’d be curious to know if how the OP is feeling is really showing through in her performance.

    1. Cat*

      I think this is a good question. There are jobs where nothing is ever going to be quite perfect and that is part of having a lot going on and juggling a lot of things. And it’s made worse by the adrenaline crash that comes after you finish an intense period of work. When I first started practicing law, I always felt like bursting into tears after I filed something because it never was quite how I wanted it or went quite smoothly enough. With time, I both learned how to balance the myriad things that needed to be done and also learned that nothing would ever be completely perfect. Not that we shouldn’t strive for it, but we’re not going to achieve it. And that made the difference. (And at no point did I get negative reviews for my work; it was a mental thing. Obviously it would be different if you were.)

      1. Victoria Nonprofit*

        Heh! In my last role I coordinated a huge, major, ridiculously complex event with a teeny-tiny staff (complex as in over 100,000 participants including VIPs, teeny-tiny as in 3 salaried and 1 AmeriCorps). One of my major breakthroughs in maintaining my sanity was realizing that sometimes I go to decide to just not do something. There wasn’t enough time for everything so some things just didn’t happen. Oh well!

        1. Christine*

          100,000 participants??! Wow, makes my handling a conference of 850+ attendees (mainly overseeing the hotline and email for registration questions and issues) seem like nothing! At the time, I thought the workload was insane!

    2. Leslie Yep*

      I was thinking that too. Three months is just about enough time for the newness of the role to wear off and to fall into that so-I-have-to-do-this-every-day? depression before you really come out on the other side with the skills and systems you need to really do well, maybe at a year?

      If I were the OP, I’d make sure to get some solid feedback, and even better, any guidance on where her manager thinks s/he should be at the end of 6 months, a year, whatever benchmarks so s/he has something to measure against. (Obviously depends on having a good manager, but doesn’t it all!)

  3. AnonymousForNow*

    I’m having a very similar worry (in a very different role).

    I actually can’t really tell if I’m not good at my job, or if it’s not possible to do what’s being asked of me, or if I am succeeding and am just insecure, etc. It’s a new organization and I’m launching a new initiative so there’s nothing internal to compare it to, no benchmarks (aside from those that I developed), etc.

    I think both of us need to loop our managers into what we’re thinking and worrying about. My managers are actually pretty terrific, but even if they were unhelpful airing these concerns at least means that they aren’t festering alone in the back of my mind.

    1. Christine*

      I actually can’t really tell if I’m not good at my job, or if it’s not possible to do what’s being asked of me, or if I am succeeding and am just insecure, etc.

      That sounds exactly like what I went through at my last job! To this day, I still don’t know if it was me, or if I just wasn’t trained well enough.

      1. AnonymousForNow*

        That sounds exactly like what I went through at my last job! To this day, I still don’t know if it was me, or if I just wasn’t trained well enough.

        Or if I was fine, the training was fine, but the JOB just isn’t fine.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Also a good point- some jobs have so much work that there is never a feeling of “catching up”. Over time this can wear us down- make us feel like we are not contributing.

  4. Kara*

    Personally, I would start looking for other positions, depending on the situation. If you are not a chronic job-hopper, and can therefore pass this off as a bad fit for your skill set in an interview, then you’d be fine to look for other positions that are a better fit. I’d be concerned that staying there would increase the chances of poor performance reviews, or of being let go for a more qualified candidate. Even though the OP is confident that she won’t be let go because they need the position filled does not mean they won’t be searching for a new candidate quietly and let her go anyway. Those outcomes would be more difficult to explain in interviews for future positions, and as AAM has said before, its easier to find a job when you already have one. Of course, if the OP has a history of job hopping, then it might be worth trying to stick it out for awhile and try to acquire some skills to help with the position. Multitasking is a hard skill to acquire though – its more of a personality type than a learned skill. And if there’s a history of job hopping, it would take more than a year to repair that reputation, which may not be a possibility, as I said before. I’d tell the OP to take the chance and start looking for a job that better fits his or her skill set while still employed.

  5. LCL*

    1. Does your company have anyone else doing the same work? If yes, ask if you can shadow them for a couple days.
    2. By now, you will have some feel for the flow of things. That is, when supplies need to be ordered, when appointments need to be made, bills to be paid. For now, follow a fairly rigid schedule of when you will do these things. That is, bills will only be processed Friday afternoon, supply ordering day is Tuesday, etc. That will allow you to interrupt what you are doing for the day to day crises, then return to the task later.
    3. If you have your email always on in the background, or set on notify, stop it. The best thing I did for my office productivity was to disable email notify.

    You can do this, and sounds like you are doing it already.

    1. Ashley*

      +1. This is exactly what I was going to suggest. Prioritize what needs to be done that day or week. Work on that in between phone calls, emails, etc. Make a list in order of priority and what must be done that day. Sometimes this is the only way I can make sure things get done!

    2. bo bessi*

      This is a great way to start. I keep a running to-do list with me all the time and cross things off when they’re complete. It helps me keep track of all the little things that pop up and are easy to forget. It’s also a good way to keep track of which items have been on the list for a while. I think it’s a really great idea to use your calendar to remind you too. For instance, you can set reminders to pop up every Friday at 3:00 so you remember to get the billings out.

      Good luck OP – it will take a little time to get your methods ironed out, but you can do it!

  6. Risa*

    Talk to your manager… I would want to know if I was her that you felt like you were struggling and have you ask for help before it became a big problem.

    Can you schedule any of your tasks for a certain time of day, or day of week? Such as bill paying on Fridays from 2-3pm, or ordering supplies on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11am… By creating a schedule for when certain tasks will occur, and training people around you to expect those timelines, you may be able to cut down on having to deal with lots of little instances of tasks throughout the week. This may allow you to feel more settled and less like you are juggling/being reactive. Come up with an organized plan and present it to your boss – it will show that you are trying to be proactive about handling your workload.

    1. HAnon*

      Agree with the advice above, except I would strongly recommend approaching it from a different angle: don’t say “help I can’t do this job!” Say something more along the lines of, “I’ve been learning a lot about what is required in this role to support the company, but I want to make sure that I’m fully tracking with you — what do you feel my top X priorities are in this position? My understanding is that they are X, Y, Z…” This way you’ll also get clarification on what kinds of tasks are ok to push to the back burner (I don’t know if this is an issue but one of the things that gets people off-task is co-workers constantly asking for/demanding things. I’d learn how to say “I’ll be glad to look into this after I wrap up such and such” in a very nice, but direct, way.)

      And make lists to keep yourself organized/take advantage of software at your disposal to stay on top of things. Knowing what your manager considers to be the priority will help you prioritize your day as well. Make daily and weekly goals; they are much more attainable.

      And as a side note, almost every job requires some kind of multitasking/juggling/staying on top of things changing at the last minute, so it’s a skill that you should develop, regardless of where you plan to work (I should know — multitasking is hard for me! I use a ton of programs to stay organized).

      Hope all of the comments help!

    2. EM*

      Yes! Talk to your manager. A coworker was recently let go. She mentioned that she felt like certain things weren’t made clear to her. My thought at the time was, “we’ll did you ever ask for clarification??”

      Some managers won’t spell everything out for you. You need to ask. Try to come up with specific questions, though. Things like what the priorities are. Who are the most important internal clients.

  7. Leigh*

    I would guess that *most* people aren’t good at multi-tasking, even when they think they are. And I would also guess that if you can find a way, whatever way works best for you, to stay on top of all your tasks then it will serve you well no matter what type of job you take next.

    My suggestion would be to decide what things can be done on a schedule and what has to be done as it comes up. For instance, phones have to be answered immediately (and your sole focus should be on the call), but perhaps supplies can be checked and restocked once or twice a week, the schedule can be updated only on Tuesdays, bills are paid on Wednesdays, etc. That might help you focus only on the current day’s tasks without getting stressed about the things on tomorrow’s to-do list.

    1. Anna*

      An HBR study I read a little while ago actually showed that — that no one is truly good at multitasking. BUT the big difference is that people who claimed to be good at multitasking were actually far, far worse than people who rated themselves as mediocre at multitasking (supposedly because doubting your multitasking abilities indicates greater self-awareness and conscientiousness – since, as mentioned above, no one is actually good at it)

      1. Natalie*

        That’s probably an aspect of the Dunning-Krueger Effect – the more a person knows about topic X, the more accurately they assess their own knowledge of topic X. The more ignorant a person is of the topic, the more likely they are to overestimate their knowledge.

        1. Liz T*

          I remember, in my 20s, telling a hip musician friend, “I know enough about music to know I don’t know anything.” He said that was pretty good.

  8. Anonymous*

    I think you do get better at multi-tasking over time, because you get used to it. It takes a while until you are familiar the particular rythm of the business cycle in your organization. Work on developing tools to help you manage all the tasks – if you are a visual thinker, sometimes having a paper calendar or lists that you can tack up in front of you helps a lot. If you are tech person, you can set alarms in email, etc. or on your outlook calendar. Create separate calendars in Outlook for different areas like Communications, Meetings, etc. if that helps.

    1. Rana*

      This. Use whatever tools and crutches you can to get the tasks out of your head and out where you can see them. Right now I have one program to keep track of recurring to-do items – it generates a fresh list every day, and you can either say “yes, put this on today’s list” or “no, defer this until X date” – and I use several overlapping Google calendars plus Tasks to keep track of appointments, deadlines, upcoming projects, things that need to get done sometime this week if not right this moment, etc.

      My philosophy is to save my brain for thinking about how to do things, and use technology to keep track of what to do, and when to do it.

        1. Chinook*

          I use Outlook for this and it is a powerful tool. When I had to work on a Mac, I went through withdrawal and felt so unorganized as the company decided not to use any version of Outlook (and to use it at its best, emails need to be easily transferable to your task list and calendar). There are programs available in Mac but the company hadn’t decided on a standard one at that time.

          If you are in Canada, Priority Management runs courses in various cities on how to use various programs for this (but none Mac based :( ). I have never been paid to endorse them but their manual is dragged to every job and completely dog earred from my use of it for setting myself up well.

          1. Jamie*

            I know it gets a bad rap but I love Outlook. Without Outlook synced on every device I own I would be completely lost.

        2. Rana*

          It’s Cultured Code’s Things (you have to search for the company as well as program, for obvious reasons) and I really like it. I don’t know if there’s a PC version, though.

  9. Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog*

    I’m convinced multi-tasking is a myth. I can’t focus on multiple tasks at once, and I believe most people can’t. Can you carve out chunks of quiet time to focus single-mindedly on your responsibilities? Would it make sense to come in a bit early or stay a bit late to finish up critical tasks? I do think starting a jobs search now would be a good idea, but the job market is tough, and it will probably take a long time. Unless you’re financially independent, you’ll need to do a decent job in your current position for some time before you find a new job.

    1. Ash*

      There was a recent study (which of course I can’t find right now to link anyone to) that came out which said that multitasking actually makes you do all of the tasks in question poorly, because you aren’t giving each task as much attention as it needs. There is something to be said for being able to switch gears quickly, or keep track of multiple things, or being able to work while talking on the phone (as I have to do a lot), but I don’t think that many tasks can–or should–be done at the same time as others.

    2. Ellie H.*

      Ditto Ash – there is no such thing as “multitasking,” only turning your attention from task to task very quickly. I think in pretty much everyone, this just means that you perform all tasks less well.

      1. -X-*

        Real multi-tasking (thinking/working on more than one thing at a time) may be a myth, but the question here is can the OP work on, say, five or ten things each day effectively – that is, have multiple balls in the air in a limited amount of time (not necessarily simultaneously).

        I think she/he should check with the boss on how it’s going. If the boss thinks the jobs are being done OK to well, stick with the job for at least a year. The OP’s skills may improve a lot.

      2. Jamie*

        Agreed – although for some small, routine tasks good enough is good enough – I hate feeling like I did 20 things half-assed than 10 things properly.

        Every so often when I’m completely underwater at work (more and more lately) I recall a quote from M*A*S*H when Charles joined the 4077. “I do one thing at a time, I do it verywell and then I move on.”

        I would love to be able to live that philosophy…unfortunately my job is hitting what’s pitched all the time. You know those machines on a tennis court that you can set at different speeds to lob balls over the net? Sometimes I feel like me and my metaphorical racquet can only hit 1 out of 5 and the machine keeps picking up speed and shooting them faster and harder. Makes me wonder sometimes if maybe I’m playing above my ranking.

        Wow – didn’t mean to whine…just trying to figure out if I have a raging infection of Imposter Syndrome at the moment or if I just really suck now.

        1. fposte*

          Well, and remember the context for that Winchester quote–it was just before he got his ass handed to him.

          If you’re going to take a M*A*S*H lesson, I’d draw on that lesson–that you have to know when good enough is good enough. That may be part of what the OP is struggling with–it’s hard to know in the early days what level of accuracy matters for which task.

          1. Jamie*

            Hee – the quote does work better without context. But I think that’s why it’s a fantasy for me – because I will never have the luxury to be as thorough as I feel I need to be.

            When I first went out on my own I cleaned my house all the time – because I was constantly taking books off of shelves to dust individually, pulling dishes out of the cabinet…and it was frustrating because it was never, ever done.

            My mom took me aside and told me I would be miserable if I didn’t force myself to learn “good enough.” Beds made, floor vacuumed, stuff put away is a clean room – if you insist on doing the inside of the window tracks every time you clean you’ll burn out and you won’t have anything left to give your family.

            At work I learned to triage…I constantly keep the priorities in mind and then every couple of months I come in to get caught up on the little nitpicky stuff that no one cares about but me.

            Wow – seeing this in writing makes me seem kind of tightly wound – but I think it’s something a lot of people struggle with.

            1. jesicka309*

              YES. When I first moved out of home I was cleaning everything obsessively. My mother ended up telling me that I really didn’t need to do ironing everytime washed clothing (clean is good enough, ironing can wait for weekends), that showers only really needed to be done every two weeks, and that I only really need to mop the hardwood floors when they were dirty.

              Some of it comes with experience (this isn’t even dirty! Why am I cleaning it?) other times you need a push.

              To do lists ruled my life when I was an admin. The first thing I would do every morning was review my to do list from teh previous day, and rewrite anything that still needed to be addressed. Then, I’d add anything new that popped up in my email, or as needed. It helped when my boss would shout out “call Jenny about those teapot orders!” while I was in the middle of the monthly chocolate report, for example. And it gave me a record of when everything was finished, as I could flick back through my diary and find when the item had been crossed off my list.

        2. Liz T*

          Yeah. We should all combine “multi-tasking is a myth” with the concept of “satisficing.” No, you can’t do five things together as well as you’d do each of them alone, but maybe you can do them well ENOUGH.

  10. majigail*

    First, are you happy in this role? If not, start looking and move on. If this is stressing you out and you’re not happy, then you need to find something that fits your skill sets better.

    But, if you’re happy or think you could be happy in this role, as it is now, then there are a couple of things that you can do to structure your day to help you stay on top of things. Use your Outlook (or google or what ever you have) to remind you to send a request to the rest of the office to see if anyone needs supplies every Tuesday at 10:00 (or whatever makes sense), schedule time every Wednesday to pay bills and Thursday to do schedules. And most importantly, remember to move the appointment to a later time if a client comes in and needs your attention immediately (they always come first!)

  11. Clara*

    I think what you’re describing is a skill that most people learn over time. Most people can’t really multi-task. They just develop systems for dealing with multiple things at once, or set priorities and quickly go through tasks one by one. You need to ask your boss how to set priorities and create task lists so you don’t forget anything.

  12. kristinyc*

    Oh, OP, I want to give you a hug. That sounds an awful lot like my first job (only with a very crazy, demanding, verbally abusive boss). I stuck it out for a year and then jumped at the first other offer I got. It was extremely difficult, but I learned a ton about juggling multiple projects and deadlines, and general organization.

    A few tips for you:
    You office calendar is your friend. As soon as you get something that has a deadline, put it on the calendar for the day before it’s due (or longer if it’s a project that will take a few days to do). It’s okay to block of chunks of time on your calendar to work on things.

    Also, try to set up systems/structure for as many things as possible. If everyone comes to you constantly for office supply orders, let everyone know that you will place the order once a week (or month, or whatever), and that all requests need to be sent to you by (a few hours before you place the order). Have a set time each week that you work on invoicing and any other tasks that have to happen regularly.

    Try to keep your desk as organized as you can. Have a specific place for bills, things that need to be signed, or whatever else you do, and keeps things in that place. It makes it a lot easier to stay on top of everything if you know where it is!

    In your job, I’m sure you get interrupted a lot and lots of unplanned things come up. If you try to plan for as many things as possible, it’ll be easier to manage all the other stuff.

    Good luck!

    1. Chinook*

      Also, OP, don’t be afraid to ask people who had you work when it needs to be done and it’s priority. At one place, I had an inbox with sticky notes and pen next to it and then I “trained” those I supported (I did a lot of typing) to write their name and date due and emphasized that no date means it will get done when it got done. I also followed up email requests with questions about due date. Then, if I had two competing deadlines, I would then ask the assignees which one was a priority (I had been know to ask them to rock, paper scissors for me). It worked so well that even partners, who were always high priority, started leaving the work with notes in my inbox.

      The side advantage was that, when we were swamped, no one had to spend time talking and, if someone was looking for something in my queue, they knew to check my inbox because the only thing in front of me was my current assignment. If other wasn’t there, I didn’t have it.

  13. Anon2*

    When I was an admin assistant, I had a daily planner that I kept religiously, and looked at everyday. I’d note when certain things were due, and also write a note a few days before so I could already be working on them. I’d write notes to check supplies about once a month or so, so I could order things before someone took the last box of pens. I’d make a note of when each of the bills were due, and when the schedule was due. For me, it helped tremendously to have all of those due dates in one place, rather than post-it notes or relying on my memory.

    1. Chinook*

      The writing of notes in a day planner is also good if you have to refer back to something you did a few weeks, or months, earlier. If it becomes a habit, in the future you can then state that, if it isn’t written down, you didn’t do it (and wasn’t told about it to begin with)

      Honestly, the best admins that I have seen remembered nothing and, instead, relied on written notes/task lists/calendars (whether paper or electronic), often because they are often interrupted and it is the only way to remember where you left off v

      1. Leslie Yep*

        Bingo. In my experience, it’s also just so stressful to try to hold all that in your mind. Build systems, keep records, and use your brain for the things in your hands right now.

        1. Chinook*

          When I asked why I document everything , I like to misquote Einstein, “why remember everything when it is much simpler than one just remember where to find the information.”

  14. LCL*

    I have to add one more thing. Multitasking is totally a learned skill. It requires two things. First, the desire and recognition that this is the way the job is going to be, so you may as well get good at it. Second, it requires a good understanding of what the tasks are, and how the different parts of the job flow. If you can understand how the different pieces fit together, you are well on your way to nailing this.

  15. Kelly O*

    I’ve done a lot of administrative work in the past, even though my current job is a little different.

    It took me some time to really adjust to figuring out how best to do things. Understand that you’ve only been there three months anyway, so you’re still learning about how things work and getting in your groove. I don’t want to sound overly Pollyanna about it, but if you give it time and some work, you might find its not so bad after all.

    Priority one is a capture system, so you’re not depending on just your own memory. I carry around one of those 8×5 notebooks everywhere, and I write down everything, even if I think “oh, I’ll remember that” because trust me, you may not.

    Once you have your capture system in place, think about a schedule – can you do what Leigh suggested? Pay bills on a certain day at a certain time, every time. You know about what time the mail comes in, so you can allot that time to mail delivery/processing. Every office, no matter how hectic, has a rhythm.

    The other thing you need is a tracking system. You can use your notebook for that too, or you can use a spreadsheet, or Outlook, or whatever you’d like. Set up your recurring tasks along with notes you may need to execute them (send Weekly Chocolate Teapot Report to Bob, Jane, and Tom – don’t forget to format number columns!) The nice thing about Outlook is that you can mark it complete for that week or day and it automatically moves it to the next day.

    The positive thing for you is that you’re acknowledging you need help, and you don’t want to leave a negative impression. You can take administrative skills and apply them to lots and lots of other professions, so some of the things you’re struggling with will be helpful in the long run anyway. Learning to balance the daily stuff that always has to be done with the interruptions that may come your way is valuable to anyone (at least I think so.) I’m sure they exist, but I’ve yet to find a job that doesn’t require at least a little firefighting.

    Also, if this job is in an industry in which you have an interest, take this as a chance to learn about how the offices work, and the types of information that come in.

    You can totally salvage this. Trust me. I’m a reasonably introverted person who writes everything down, and I have had success as an admin (I’d like to get back to it, to be honest, at least while I’m starting this school journey.)

  16. Carrie*

    You will DEFINITELY get better at this – 3 months isn’t a long time! After a year, I bet you will look back and marvel at how much you’ve learned/accomplished/mastered.

    Most people with office jobs had to pay their dues as an Administrative Assistant in the beginning. What makes a great Administrative Assistant, more than perfection at multitasking, is a positive attitude. If you are always eager to help out and can accept critiques with a smile, you will make a positive impression at work. Don’t gripe about doing mundane tasks like scheduling or copying – managers can tell when you’re disgruntled. Avoid internet distractions like AAM at work and create some consistent to-do lists. You’ll be fine – I’m sure you’re doing better than you think!

  17. Sydney Bristow*

    Are you using any sort of organizational system? I find it is key to keep track of to do items throughout the day. Getting a system down that works for you can be key. In my case, when I was in an admin position I’d make a list before I left for the night of the items I needed to accomplish the next day.

    Another thing I find helpful is making a checklist for the things you have to do repeatedly. For example, when approving bills for payment I’d have to gather the invoices from my file, enter one into the computer, verify amounts, stamp invoice, then set aside to have my boss sign them. Process makes things easier for me. This can also be used for scheduling your daily tasks. The phones will be a constant interruption, but at least if you try to pay bills between 10-11, office tidying between 3-4, etc with some built in flexibility and scheduling tasks that require lots of concentration for times where there is typically a lower call volume can help.

  18. Cruciatus*

    I started my administrative assistant position about the same time you did, and I felt that way about certain things. The previous person did everything one way and made it all look so easy–but she had been there 7 years! I would panic over scheduling people (always worried I would double book a room or something), or over this or that…then one day it all seemed a bit easier. I’m not perfect at everything, but within just a few weeks I went through most everything my job will entail at least one time and just going through everything I needed to do a couple of times made certain tasks seem less daunting when they came around again. I didn’t have to remember to to make sure to change X on the spreadsheet or Y on the Word document–I just did it because it was habit. And as a couple of people have said–LISTS! LISTS! LISTS! I have a dry erase board where I write things that need to get done. That way I can get it out of my brain and focus on other things when I can–but I can see that reminder to work on XYZ when time permits. I was fortunate that I was able to train with my predecessor, so I followed her organizational methods until I slowly started to change it up to become my own. It’s still 90% what she did, but I am more confident now about when I need to change something to make it work better for me.

    So, in short, you may just need more time until some of the tasks feel more “every day”, and just work on getting a routine down that works for you, using lists to keep you on track as necessary.

  19. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

    Oh man, I feel for you. I’ve struggled with this sort of thing in the past, and am still trying to figure out exactly what works best– because my job just got busier, which means I can’t juggle as well as I used to. But don’t despair– I honestly think that these are skills that can be learned, and once you’ve learned them, they’ll translate into whatever you move onto next.

    The key to being a good admin is keeping track of what needs to be done and then making sure those things actually get done, all while being flexible for those inevitable emergencies that crop up.

    First, you need to find a time management system that works for you, and then stick to it. Otherwise, things will fall through the cracks. You might have to try multiple systems before you figure out exactly what works. For some, it’s paper to-do lists (I started here, but it no longer works for me). For others, it’s using Microsoft Outlook to schedule reminders and block out chunks of time. Or you might prefer using Google Calendar. Or maybe a good old-fashioned Franklin Covey day planner. Maybe you’d like an app like Evernote that you can sync across multiple devices. Or maybe you need a combination of some or all of the above.

    Second (and this is where I’m struggling as my life gets busier), you can’t just put things aside till later– that’s a sure-fire way to guarantee that things will get forgotten. I’ve been trying to make sure that as things come up, I do *something* with it. So if it’s something that will take less than five minutes and I know I can come back to what I’m working on, I might just go ahead and do it right now. If it’s something that will take longer or if I’m in the middle of a big project that requires my concentration or that has higher priority, I file it in an appropriate place (with the other invoices that need to be paid, in the folder for that client, etc.) and make a note on my to-do list or schedule a time on my calendar to come back to it. Then I block out, say, an hour at the end of every day to triage my pile and either complete the tasks or include them in my to-do list for the next day.

    Second, you should definitely schedule certain times to do tasks that come up regularly. I process invoices on Friday mornings, I order supplies on Mondays because we get next day delivery and there’s a meeting on Tuesdays where people can take supplies to their job sites, I pay bills on the first and 15th of each month because some are due on the 5th and the others are due on the 20th, etc.

    You should also, however, be ready to throw all of your planning out the window and re-prioritize based on new projects, emergencies, and interruptions. Being an admin means that you WILL get interrupted and you WILL get handed a project that was due yesterday. Sometimes you’ll need to push back– “I’m happy to book your travel to the Chocolatiers Anonymous convention, but Wakeen already asked me to pull data on chocolate teapot production for last quarter for a meeting with the CEO this afternoon. Would tomorrow morning be okay?” And then make a note and be sure to follow up.

    Take a look at a few Time Management books. I like Getting Things Done by David Allen and Time Management From the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern. If neither of those work for you, keep reading until you find something that works.

  20. Maire*

    I am also in an almost identical position. I am personal secretary for a manager who oversees a huge area and my workload is constantly changing and extremely varied.
    This does not come naturally to me as I am someone who likes to to get into one task and do it very well. I am not naturally organised in my personal life but I have found that I can manage my workload pretty well by setting reminders on Outlook, making lists and updating them for the following day. I suppose I am a bit conflicted because it’s not a job that uses my natural skill set and yet I am doing it pretty well. However, I think that organisational skills are something that are useful in any job not something that managers and higher ups should think they’re above.

  21. Marina*

    The smartest thing I ever did in a job was ask for help in a similar situation. Summer internship, totally overwhelming new stuff for me, I was working my ass off 50 hours a week and thought I was doing great until I got a talking-to by one of my supervisors. I literally went and cried in the bathroom, it was awful. And then I picked myself up and went to the supervisor who was officially in charge of my internship and asked for help. She shadowed me for about two hours of my day and suggested half a dozen changes that made it possible for me to get more done in a 40 hour week than I had been doing in 50 hours. At the end of my internship the CEO told me I was one of the best interns they’d had in that position, and I’m pretty sure it was because I took the initiative to ask for help and growth. I still pull that story out at job interviews. :)

    Of course, the other major thing I learned from that internship is what I DON’T want to do. There are some things I’m just not naturally good at and don’t enjoy, and I’ve tried to avoid them since. It helps a lot in job interviews to be able to ask about company culture and have enough self knowledge to figure out whether it’ll be a good fit. Start thinking and investigating now what jobs might suit your personality and natural talents.

    tl;dr 1) Ask for help. 2) Don’t be an admin assistant your whole career.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      2) Don’t be an admin assistant your whole career

      Unless you like being an admin and want to make it your career. In that case, join IAAP (the International Association of Administrative Professionals) and excel at your job!

      1. Marina*

        Nothing against being an admin assistant as a career! Just, if someone feels like multitasking is a struggle for them, my guess is that wouldn’t be the right career fit for them.

  22. Rachel B*

    Oh I so sympathize! The hardest job I ever had was being an admin assistant for a busy university department.

    One of my big issues on the job (Besides learning how to be better organized) was being “fast” on programs like Microsoft Office and our bookkeeping software. I knew how to type up a paper, but it would take hours to print mailing labels properly. Even longer with frequent interruptions. I found training online after work helped; I got faster as I went along and those skills helped me in later jobs. If you have coworkers who with these skills, it may be worth sitting down with them for 15 to 30 minutes to work on digestible projects. Be sure to take good notes so you don’t waste time. Good luck!

    1. Chinook*

      I can understand taking hours to print off labels if you haven’t done it before. My rule of thumb is “if this seems to be taking too long/too many steps in Microsoft, Google to see if there is a better way because there usually is.”

    2. Jamie*

      This is a great point – everything takes longer the first time you do it…then just through repetition you make the process more efficient and find the shortcuts, etc.

      And yes – if someone wanted to ask me how to do X and had a notepad I’m more than happy to share whatever info I have. If they claim they don’t know how and want me to do it for them…I’m less happy…but that’s not what the OP is doing. Definitely see who you can learn from while you decide if the job works for you – Office skills and other admin tasks come in very handy no matter where your career takes you.

      1. Rana*

        And when you find those shortcuts, document them!

        (Just one small example: every printer I was assigned, I figured out how to orient things like labels, envelopes, letterhead, etc. in properly, then drew a little diagram for myself that I stuck by the printer. That way I didn’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.)

        1. Chinook*

          For a lot of people, documenting what you have learned has the added benefit of reinforcing what you have just learned/discovered. As you learn how to do things more efficiently, start creating an “I won the lottery” book that outlines how to do everything in case you ever need to hand the tasks to someone else. Then you have your own notes to refer to when you got overwhelmed or blank out on what to do.

      2. Chinook*

        Jamie, you have now confirmed what i always suspected – you sre my long lost twin. you deal with shortcuts and teaching them the same way I do!

  23. Anna*

    It’s almost crazy to me that the “paying your dues” job is one of an administrative assistant — in most offices, being an excellent AA requires a very particular skill set that isn’t necessarily indicative of success at other types of work. On top of that, the role of an admin is very important to the flow of the office and to the success of the boss; it’s playing with fire a bit to assume any “young smart college grad” can be an excellent AA.

    I know it’s the result of the economy, but it’s a shame that there isn’t a wider variety of entry level jobs for all different skills.

    1. Carrie*

      Great points. Our office couldn’t run without the AAs, but they are the lowest paid and lowest on the totem pole, so they tend to only last 1-2 years before leaving or being promoted. If we valued them more and paid them more, we could keep some really stellar people.

      1. Chinook*

        i watched the Good Wife last night and cringed at the partners’ reactions to the admins asking for better working conditions. It was so condescending yet true to how some places see us. I can see some of them leaving with Kerry to the new firm if the 4th years showed them just a little respect. I think it would be fun to watch the office grind to a halt once they realize that the admins do more than order lunches.

  24. The Other Dawn*

    If you’re someone who really needs to focus on one thing at a time, I don’t think that’s something that can really be changed all that much. I do think you can improve at multitasking in general, but I don’t think it can really go beyond a certain point.

    For now, I would say to think about all the different things you do. Is there a process that can be improved upon? Can something be eliminated? Are there any tasks that have been given to you, but really should be done by someone else? (Not likely, but sometimes tasks get passed from person to person because years ago Bob from accounting decided he didn’t want to do it and the admin person should do it instead, or there was no one else to do it at the time.) As someone else mentioned, maybe supplies are ordered once a week and each department head is responsible for sending their completed order sheet to you for submission. Also, keep a spreadsheet of common items, like copy paper and pens, with their items codes, how often they’re ordered, etc. I would also say that accounts payable can be done just once a week. Putting certain tasks on a schedule should help to eliminate some of the chaos you might be feeling and will leave you more time for other things that need to be done immediately, like putting out fires for clients, etc.

    If, after you’ve done these things and made things as efficient as possible, you still feel like you can’t handle everything, then I think it’s time to look for another job. Maybe this job just isn’t right for you.

  25. VictoriaHR*

    I think there’s an opportunity to target a weakness and improve yourself. Giving up and quitting would be doing yourself a disservice. Google how to be a better multitasker. Use a calendar and/or planner. Utilize Outlook Calendar. I think you can get better at it if you try your best.

    1. Jamie*

      That’s the key – to focus on improvement.

      It’s kind of like being an athlete. Some people are born with the inherent talent and gifts to make them a world class runner…so when they take to the track they have the advantage. But if someone like me (firmly in the non-gifted running category) started running each day soon I would be better than I am now…and at some point maybe better than the average bear in my age category.

      It’s just easier for some people than others – not that success is out of reach if you want to master it.

      Personally I’m a one thing at a time person, too, and there isn’t a thing wrong with that.

  26. SarahJ*

    I think of multi-tasking as the ability to get interrupted when you’re trying to do a task but being able to pick it up again rather quickly. This may not be as feasible with customers but I’ve found that coworkers will usually respond well if you nicely ask them to wait for a second while you finish what you’re right in the middle of. For example, “Let me finish my thought real quick” as you’re typing an email.

  27. Anonimal*

    OP, I feel you on this. I felt that way when I started the job I have now. It wasn’t my first job and I was a seasoned professional but the first 3 or 4 months I felt like a newborn hippo trundling around making nothing but mistakes. I was adjusting from big fish in a tiny pond to small fish in a big pond even though it was a promotion. Add to that a former boss who was nurturing, caring, everything you’d want in a boss to…not so much. Once I figured new boss out, things got a lot better but I made myself sick. Literally. Put myself in the hospital sick. I should’ve told my boss how I was feeling, if I could’ve trusted her. If you can, then talk to your boss. If you can’t, then use the tools others have suggested and give it a little time.

    Personally, I’m a compulsive list maker.

  28. Leslie Yep*

    What you’re describing doesn’t actually seem like an issue of multitasking – it’s an issue of planning and prioritization, and that NEVER goes away. I was once an admin; I’m now a bit higher on the totem pole. Definitely haven’t stopped getting lots of asks from lots of people, many of whom have somewhat unreasonable expectations of response time :) The key now is that I have someone to send some of these things off to in my admin; it’s tough being the end of the line–totally get it.

    Others have given some great examples of their planning systems; obviously you need to figure out what works for you. But here are some of the things that helped me as an admin and continue to help me in roles with different responsibilities:

    1. Quarterly plan. Think of everything you need to do this quarter — every check request deadline, every trip your boss is taking, every planned office supplies order, every expense reporting deadline, etc. Write them all down. Keep this as your big picture structure to plan with. Having these recurring to-dos out of your head and on paper will just make you FEEL better. Keep a list too of every recurring deadline/action. Daily, weekly, biweekly, monthly, quarterly. Then you can refer to this list and pluck them into your plan.

    2. Some kind of narrative document where each week (or day, whatever makes sense) you write down the latest on each of your biggest work areas. Some ideas might be:
    – how each of the people you support are doing and how they are feeling about your support (as you are still fairly new to these people, also helpful in these first months to write down what you learn about what they need–e.g. Susie needs every detail laid out to feel secure; Robert wants consolidated messages of only things he needs to take action on)
    – for each of the recurring deadlines, did everything go out on time and if not why? (e.g. expense reports submitted two days late because Jim forgot his receipts; put a reminder on his calendar 3 days before)
    – on anything ongoing, what did you do this week and what’s happening next (e.g. submitted check request for new printer; Sally will respond by May 5)

    This too just gets stuff out of your head and onto paper, and creates an automatic system for you to manage things up to your colleagues.

  29. AP*

    Okay, I JUST had this exact same situation in my office. Friend of CEO, admin job, smart girl, but she just did not possess the unique skills necessary for this particular job.

    On paper, she had experience with a good amount of the stuff we needed, but no “extras” or “would be nice” skills and her interests were not really in the area that we work in – she just needed a job very badly and the CEO wanted to help. I was responsible for her output and, let me tell you, it took a real toll on me and everyone else around us. I won’t go into details on why she wasn’t right for the job, but it was just a disaster from start to finish.

    I wrote to Allison to ask what to do and she very nicely responded that I needed to make a case to the CEO that she was not right for this job. I did, but he just wouldn’t listen and kept putting pressure on me to recheck her work, re-train, basically do the job for her if I had to. It lasted for 7 months, and I eventually came to terms with “this is now part of my job, do I still want it? The whole thing finally fell apart when the CEO assigned her some particular project that he would work on with her, she blew 7 different deadlines, and he realized for himself what everyone else had been dealing with and let her go. Replacing her it was like a breath of fresh air and he realized we had all sort of been held hostage by the situation for months, and I don’t think he’ll be hiring any more admins on his own any time soon.

    I don’t know what my point is here, really, just wanted to give you a co-worker’s perspective. Be really honest with yourself, try to get objective feedback from whoever is directly supervising you (don’t ask your friend, they won’t be as straightforward as you need them to be), and unless there’s a change, start looking for a new situation. Be proactive and don’t let it get out of hand – if you can be upfront you might be able to leave with a good reference, and still remain friends with the person who got you the job.

    If you want some tools to help you – I like Evernote for Business, coupled with Azendoo for task management, but everyone has a different set of things that work for them.

  30. A Noni Mouse*

    I feel SO MUCH BETTER. I just started my first post-college job as an administrative assistant at a small (and understaffed) non-profit. I’ve been here for 3 weeks and it has been so overwhelming. The advice here has been hugely helpful and I’m so relieved to hear that I’m not alone! I’m bookmarking this post so that I can read all of the comments later.

  31. pidgeonpenelope*

    It takes about 6 months (at least) to feel comfortable in any position. Do you otherwise enjoy your job? If you do, there is some great advice that I’ve already read about how to keep on top of your tasks. Eventually, you’ll get better. If you hate the job and it is causing you excess stress, then it is time for you to look elsewhere.

    1. HR Pufnstuf*

      ^ Agree with above. Need to be there at least 6 months and then evaluate. You may not feel you have it all down but at least you’ll know your on the way.

  32. Rose*

    This is most definitely something you can improve on! Even if it doesnt come naturally. The fact that you are admitting that this is an area you want to work on, both for your current job, and future opportunities, says a lot about your character. Also, I have been an admin before and I feel like it can be one of the most challenging positions in an 0rganization. Y0u are expected to do 10 things at once, never say no, never complain, and often times can be the catch all for the stuff that others in the office dont want to do or dont have the time for. Squeezing everything in can be quite a challenge, at least for me it was, but I was really good at it… not right away of course, but I worked at it. That being said, it is so extremely important to prioritize and be organized. You could start out by just sitting down and writing down the areas that give you the most trouble, then coming up with a plan to be more organized or more efficient at each task. Set aside time for specific activities on a daily basis so you never get behind. Use Outlook to it’s full potential to schedule reminders and appointments. It also might be beneficial to take a class. You may even be able to get your employer to pay for it. Every organization is different but where I work we pay for a lot of continuing education for our employees. Also, as a manager, it looks really good to me when employees have a genuine desire to improve. Good luck with everything!

  33. OP*

    Hello. This is the original poster. Thank you all for the advice on how to make the multitasking more manageable.

    I do have a follow-up question, though, though. If this job is in a field that I don’t see myself long-term, does that make a difference on how I should I approach it? For example, if I’m an administrative assistant at a doctor’s office, and I have no desire to be a doctor, nurse, medical technician, etc.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I think this is the key to answering your question. It is very hard to do ANY job when you have no long term goal for the job.

      If you have not done so already- figure out where you would like to be and what steps are necessary to get there.

      For now, my two thoughts are these:
      1) Always do any job I have to the best of my ability. Allow the job to teach me. Many lessons are transferable.
      2) If I am not constantly working toward where I want to be in life- that becomes the biggest let-down there is. No one can let me down worse than I let myself down.

      And yes, OP, when you are heading in the direction you want to be, these types of hurdles will vanish (almost). You will find that you suddenly can learn stuff you never could before and you can develop tools to help yourself through the rough patches.

      As far as long term goals- I used personal long term goals to keep me on track at one job. I had goals A, B, C and D. It took me a few years but gradually I nailed all those goals. And happily it was enough to keep me showing up for work and to keep learning to do my job better.

    2. Leslie Yep*

      If it were me, the only thing that would change was the kinds of stretch projects I sought out. Instead of having ones that mostly demonstrated the skills key to the company I’m currently working for (e.g. ability to manage and make more efficient a specific kind of process related to medicine), I’d seek out opportunities to demonstrate skills that are more easily widely applicable (e.g. supporting some kind of event or creating a shared database with protocol). Does that make sense? Basically, if you’re looking at next steps NOT in your current field, you’ll just want to develop yourself/ask for development with your preferred next steps in mind, or with thought toward how you’ll describe the skills you’ve developed in terms of another industry.

      Even though there are jobs where there are not so many little details flying at you at once, the area where you’re trying to develop–managing lots of areas of work with rapidly changing priorities–is going to apply to most jobs, so you’re going to run into this problem until you’re more confident with these skills. Unless you really hate this job specifically, I’d suggest that you stick with it and try to develop in these areas.

    3. Chinook*

      OP, just because you don’t want to be a medical professional doesn’t mean you can’t act professionally. I would focus on being an “office professional” which is a skill set that is VERY transferrable. Look at what you can do to help others do their job well and what you can do to make their patients more satisfied. As their office person, you will be dealing with details that the medical professionals may not realize exist (until something goes wrong).

      As for goals, you could focus on creating a more efficient office environment.

      AAM also has a recent column where we all discussed that there is nothing wrong with having a job that allows you to pay for what you enjoy doing after hours. Being the “office monkey” can allow you to do that because, unlike your coworkers, you will be able to leave your work at your office.

    4. Sydney Bristow*

      There was a comment above about taking advantage of any opportunity to learn software tricks. Becoming awesome at Word, Excel, etc can serve you well in any field.

      Learning an organizational structure, likewise, will be helpful no matter where you go.

    5. Chloe*

      OP – I’m going to tell you something I wish I’d been told 15 years ago. If you take only one thing from your current job, one single thing, make it your reference. Do the best job you can and if you get a good reference it will have been worth it. A real bonus will be learning some transferrable skills for your next job, which will hopefully be in a field you are actually interested in.

      Having someone say you showed up to work, did a good job, got along with people, understood workplace conventions, and can be relied upon, is GOLD. Make the most of this opportunity and look at it as the door to your next job.

  34. Kerr*

    (The poster formerly known as TL here; there seems to be another TL, so I’m changing my handle.)

    OP, I’m in a slightly similar situation right now: working as a temp admin in a completely unrelated field, and looking at FT admin roles (in both related and unrelated industries), just because I need a job, and I need more specialized skills in order to go after the jobs I really want.

    Have you graduated already? Is this the first job you would be leaving after such a short stay? If you’re out of school, and this is just a job that you took to pay the bills, then I’m going to tell you what I wish I’d told my younger self: go ahead and start applying to entry-level jobs in your field, and don’t worry about trying to “pay your dues” in an unrelated industry. Keep your current job, of course, but if you want something else, and you’re qualified? Start hunting. It’s too easy for industry-specific skills to stagnate, and also too easy to get cold feet about jumping in after a long while. Not that I know anything about that. :)

    In the meantime, there’s a lot of great advice here, so you can do the best you can at your current job, and build prioritizing/task management skills that will be an asset to you in *any* future position.

  35. Cassie*

    I don’t think it’s so much the traditional “multi-tasking” (which we’ve all read is not as effective/productive as people originally thought), but being able to switch from task to task, when those tasks are fairly diverse.

    I’d suggest using an electronic calendar, whether Google or Outlook or some other version. Schedule routine tasks so you won’t forget. I even have to schedule inputting my biweekly timesheet because I’ve forgotten a couple of times already.

    My job requires me to handle a bunch of different duties – everything from financial stuff to copyediting to design to data entry. Even when a new task is thrust upon me, it’s usually similar to something I handled previously, so being able to call upon my experience helps a lot. It might be the same for the OP – she may feel more comfortable with the diversity of her tasks once she’s been there longer.

    That said, I know people (one of my work friends, for example) who are not good at handling diverse tasks. She would be more suited to handle one type of task. She knows this and gets frustrated with her job. If the OP is like that, then looking for another job would be a best option.

  36. mollsbot*

    I have a similar position to the one you described, and also jumped into a lot of time-sensitive responsibility. This is what helped me:

    Outlook Tasks- It’s right there in the corner of my email telling me what I have to do every day. You can schedule reoccurring tasks or one-time tasks. Serious lifesaver.

    Daily Folders: I have 5 manila folders marked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I look at them every day and add to them when I need to. I keep them right next to me so I can access them easily.

    It was hard to get organized at first, but with the reminders right in front of me I couldn’t ignore them.

  37. W.W.A.*

    I just wanted to mention that the original poster is lucky that she can handle everything without fearing that she’s on the verge of being fired for incompetence. I don’t have any specific advice per se, but this seems like an ideal situation to try and improve the skills she feels she is lacking without the stress of desperation.

  38. Cassie*

    Something else that I thought of – checklists! Having a checklist for different situations will help the OP get “re-acquainted” with different tasks quickly. It also helps for those tasks that are uncommon but sprout up every now and then. (Plus, I really like paper forms and crossing off/checking off stuff).

  39. Anonymous*

    Lots of good advice. My 2 cents:

    – Once you know the ropes, switching topics won’t be anywhere near as taxing.

    – As you master the different tasks/information, begin to look for the “big picture.” Often, that is the key to being proactive & keeping what look like individual pieces organized with context.

    As to not being so interested in a particular field, managing an office for your boss is very transferable. Those skills will serve you in managing your own work, whatever it may be, throughout your working life.

    Best to you.

  40. Sarah Lawson*

    I think it’s great that the reader was humble enough to admit that there’s a problem. My advice is, to keep an open mind and take the time to develop skills necessary for the job. In time, everything is bound to get easier. But if the reader is really unhappy with the current situation, then he or she should look for a job that will be a better fit. No point in wasting time if he or she isn’t getting anything positive from this experience.

  41. Anonymous*

    Thank you for this thread! I felt like you were talking to me. I am in the same situation where I feel like I am failing with far too much on my plate. I started the checklists a few weeks ago and it helps. I still find myself constantly drowning in emails. I have succeeded in so many things- its just so frustrating to no be on top of it in “the real world”

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