how to adjust to a more demanding job

A reader writes:

I start a new job at the end of the month (thanks in part to your wonderful advice). It’s going to be a lot more work than my current job and a lot more visibility. My current company has thousands of people here and the people I work for don’t really notice me much (the head of my dept didn’t realize I was out for two weeks on a vacation). The new place is small (only 25 in our office, nine people in my department) and I will be very visible. This new job is very exciting, but I’m also very nervous that I don’t have the skills or drive to do the work.

I’m brushing up on the technical knowledge I will need, so I’m not too worried about that part. But I worry that it will be hard to put in an “honest 40” (or more) at this new job when I’ve so long been at a job where minimal effort got me through the day (at my current job, I have ample time to mess around on the computer during the day, take long lunch breaks, leave early, etc. and still get all of my work done at a high level). I don’t enjoy having this much down time during the day and is one of the reasons I’m switching jobs. But I worry I can’t focus for as long as I’ll need to and won’t be as organized as I should be to handle multiple projects. Do you have any tips for transferring into a higher pressure job? Or just some more general tips on to stay organized and start a new job on the right foot?

You’re smart to be thinking about this ahead of time! Too often, people don’t and instead they carry old work habits with them to the new job and take a while to realize that those work habits aren’t going to fly anymore.

Some advice:

Accept that things are different, and that what worked for you in the past now needs to change. One of the biggest mistakes people make in this situation to assume that they can keep operating the way they used to, even as they’re feeling an increasing crunch. So they go on working the same hours, at the same pace, with the same sorts of work habits, and then feel incredibly stressed out and overextended when they’re at work. But when you move into a more demanding role, you’ve got to reassess your habits. In your last job, you might have been perfectly capable of reading the news during the day or leaving right at 5:30 and still excelling. That might not be the case anymore. (And of course, with time, you might find yourself able to skim the news from work again – but it might take you a while to become strong enough at your new job that you have room for that.)

Reset your family’s expectations if needed. If your family or friends are used to texting with you during the day or regularly meeting up for early happy hour, let them know you’re not able to do that in your new job. Being very clear with people when things like this have changed for you can help you enlist them in being supports to you rather than temptations – and they’re highly likely to be temptations without realizing it if you don’t reset what they expect of you.

Watch the work habits of people in similar roles who are excelling. One of the worst parts of struggling in a new role can be feeling isolated, like you’re on your own Island of Struggle. Take a look around you and see if you can identify people who are doing similar work or facing similar challenges but excelling, and watch how they operate. If you notice that they all work 12-hour days and never look up from their computers, that’s important data to have; you might need to decide if you want that lifestyle or not (and better to know that that’s what it takes so you can decide if it’s for you, than to keep struggling and not realize that). But you might notice more constructive work habits that you can adopt – such as how they organize their time, meetings or projects they say no to, and what they prioritize.

Ask for advice. Asking for help isn’t a weakness; it can actually help you look stronger. There’s nothing wrong with saying to your boss or to new colleagues, “I’m working on adjusting to the workload in this role. What have you seen work well for people in the past to manage the ___ (high flow of email/quickly shifting priorities/pace of client requests/or whatever you’re struggling with most)?”

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Jeanne

    I understand about the bad work habits. This goes along with bad boss habits, where you’re used to working with a bad boss. I think in the end this could be easier than you’re worried about. Every new job has a learning curve. You’ll be busy learning your new job duties and apparently new technical skills. At the end of the first few weeks, you’ll be amazed how focused you’ve been. Good luck!

  2. AnonAcademic

    I went through this trying to finish my Ph.D. after spending years in a lab with minimal oversight and freedom to work as much or as little as I wanted. What helped me was the pomodoro/marinara technique of timing both breaks and work periods, along with using a spreadsheet to set very clear productivity goals and track progress towards meeting those goals. I was able to finish and submit my Ph.D. on time this way. I am about to move into a more visible and challenging research position and am hoping that these techniques will help me there as well.

    1. AnonymousaurusRex

      Same thing happened to me! I only finished my Ph.D. by using the pomodoro technique! I haven’t tried using it in an office setting though. It might be helpful on days like today where I am feeling very easily distracted and having trouble staying on task.

    2. Carly

      I’ve heard great things about Pomodoro, but am unsure how to use it during a workday in the office that contains meetings and lots of distractions. It seems more suited for work-from-home days.

      Also, in the office you clearly can’t use a ticking and ringing kitchen timer. Any suggestions for alternatives?

      1. Emily, admin extraordinaire

        There are lots of apps for using the Pomodoro; I have one for Android called Pomodroido which I like a lot. Or you can just use the timer function on your phone if you don’t want to download an app. There are also extensions for Chrome, I believe.

        Pomodoro actually works great for an office with a lot of distraction, because it helps you to not focus on them– the idea is that you don’t let the distractions get to you when you’re on a pomodoro. So if you get an email, you ignore it unless it’s a drop-dead emergency, and answer it when you’re done and before you start your next one. You let the phone go to voicemail and return the call later. If you remember something you were supposed to do, you jot a note and do it later. It will get done in no more than 25 minutes, and usually that’s good enough.

        It isn’t always perfect, though; as an admin, part of my job is being available when needed, so sometimes my pomodoro gets interrupted. The way I work it is if the interruption was a minute or less I just go back to my work as if I hadn’t been interrupted; if it’s longer than that, then I consider the pomodoro lost and start over with my 25 minutes. Usually I can get several uninterrupted or nearly-uninterrupted pomodoros done in a day, which greatly improves my productivity.

      2. Daisy

        I use tomato-timer.com. If you want you can have it silent and just minimize your browser to keep an eye on it.

  3. Yet Another Allison

    One tip: Try the chrome extension “Strict Workflow” to help keep focused on the task at hand. It helps me be more disciplined about how I spend my time. It blocks a list of websites for a set period of time.

    I have it set for 45 and 15 minutes (customizable), so when I click the button the list of websites are blocked for 45 minutes. When the time is up, I get an alert that I can take a 15 minute break. Click the button to start the break and unblock the sites, and a timer will tell you when your break is up. If you still need to focus, start it all over again.

    I am an effective worker, but oh so weak-willed!

  4. TitaniumAlloy

    I have the opposite problem – I went from a job where I was mentoring new staff, running training sessions, and managing administrative projects on top of my regular duties to working a part-time internship where I stuff papers in binders, make cold calls, and barely ever need to think.

    1. Jeanne

      That sounds tough too. I would suggest finding other ways to challenge your brain during your free time. Scrabble and crossword puzzles make me happy but whatever you like.

    2. JuniorMinion

      Audiobooks!! Seriously I use audible when I have to do rote tasks and just turn off the screen of my iphone. no one knows that im listening to a book vs listening to music. I know that there are some offices where listening to music is frowned upon but if you aren’t in one of those this could be good – just be sure the book is lightish / maybe a fun beach read to make you feel like you aren’t at work

      1. Polka dot bird

        I’m quite fond of podcasts – they tend to be shorter and fit into the workday a bit easier. Something interesting but non-controversial so you don’t get too caught up in it.

    3. Yep

      This happened to me too. I used to have complete control over all bookkeeping, payroll, advertising/marketing decisions, etc. Now I answer a phone and scan back paperwork from years ago and feel I contribute nothing.

      Obviously I’m job searching and you should be too, but in the meantime, I try to focus on the perks of being in a less stressful job.

  5. Pinkie Pie Chart

    I’m having this same problem. I just left a job where I could spend the whole day doing my online homework without anyone knowing any different. I’m at a new job which I love now, but I’m working from home, which is making the transition back to effective work habits really hard.

  6. ChelseaNH

    I made a similar transition, and it wasn’t too hard because I was really engaged in the new work I was doing. A lot of the web browsing and mail checking before was a way to alleviate boredom, and I was no longer bored.

    That said, you will need to watch your energy levels. Physical activity recharges your mental batteries, so remember to get up and move around when you take a break.

    1. Partly Cloudy

      The advice to move around is great.

      My situation is sort of a cross between the OP and TitaniumAlloy; I went from a really hectic, stressful job but one where I had a lot of freedom to a much slower paced one that I’m still learning the details about. Getting up and walking around can be very helpful to me for a boost of energy or just to learn something new about what someone else is doing.

      1. Stranger than fiction

        But she should be mindful of the new culture regarding breaks. We see so many letters here where busy body coworkers think someone is not working because they’re coming in earlier than everyone or other such nonsense I could just see someone saying “wow new girl sure takes a lot of breaks” hopefully that’s not the culture there, but I’d observe for sure whether people actually take breaks. My current job no one could give a rats behind how often I go to the bathroom etc but at ex job these things were watched

        1. Partly Cloudy

          Moving around doesn’t necessarily have to mean in the form of a break. She could go over to a Angie’s cube/office to ask a question instead of picking up the phone, ask if Larry needs help with project X, offer to deliver that stack of copies that Mary just made to Rob since it’s on her way, etc. Maybe I’m taking it for granted because walking around and being visible is part of my job, in a way (HR).

          1. Jaydee

            Heck, even if that would be too disruptive or not a natural part of the workflow, just getting a fresh cup of coffee, walking to the copier, or standing at your desk and doing a few stretches can be enough to break things up.

  7. Jillociraptor

    Timely advice! My new role is about as demanding time-wise (though the stakes are a bit higher) but where I’m really getting tripped up is in the move from a role where I basically knew everything there was to know, to one where I have to ask tons of questions to get anything done because everything is new. I’ve made some missteps in my first couple of weeks because I just didn’t take into account in my planning the need to gather so much more info, so a task that would have normally taken me a couple of hours to do is suddenly a 3-day affair. These re-sets are really smart.

  8. Jess

    I’ve been in really similar situations, moving back and forth between the two (sometimes even in the same workplace). Like you, I like being busier, but it’s still really easy to adapt to working with minimal effort in a fairly short time period.

    I didn’t employ any specific tricks when making the switch, but I tried to stay mindful of the fact that the transition would be the most difficult part, just like when you’re trying to change any habit, and that I would need to be stricter with myself to stay on track. It seemed to always take more effort to stay on the ball and on top of stuff in the beginning, and the hours would feel unreasonably long (even though they were pretty standard!). But if you really make the effort in the beginning, the new workload will soon become your routine and habit. Sometimes it’s just going in with the right mindset and being prepared to handle the discomfort you know such a transition will bring.

  9. Oryx

    This is timely — my current job is a lot like OP’s old one and I have so much downtime. But I’ve been interviewing and know that if I change jobs it’s going to be a HUGE difference.

    I can also attest to Alison’s #1 question to ask interviewers — about the difference between someone good in the job and someone great. Everyone really does perk up when I ask it.

    1. IndianSummer

      I am in the same situation at my current job and am also interviewing. I really, really hate being bored. This was a very timely article!

  10. LadyHope

    This is one of my concerns about moving on from my current role- I have so much dead time now, with occasional bursts of insanity. I want a more challenging role but I’m afraid I’m developing bad habits now that will hurt me later.

  11. kac

    I made a similar transition about a year ago (from one small company to another, but a much more visible role with much more responsibility) and I felt the same exact way you do now. I’ve come to see that those fears (while uncomfortable) are actually part of the reason I’ve been able to succeed in this new role–it’s evidence that you do care and you do have the drive!

    It will take a while until you feel like you know what you’re doing, but just keep plugging away, realize no one expects perfection, and recognize the strength and drive that you clearly already have!

    Good luck!

  12. KTB

    I’m actually going through this right now. At OldJob, I could give about 60% and still come out looking awesome. At NewJob, which is harder, better, and all around amazing, I need to be giving 100%. I’m finding that I’ve learned some pretty atrocious habits from OldJob, and I’m working hard to get rid of them. Part of it has simply been recognizing the problem.

    Another useful tool has been my naturally competitive nature. We hired an assistant coordinator, who I manage, and she’s very good at her job. I am too proud and competitive to let her get all of the laurels, so it’s motivating me to improve my own performance. Please note: I am not competing with her, or dinging her for her excellent performance. It’s simple motivating me to want to do better at my own role. It’s all in my head, which is where it belongs!!

  13. Polka Dot Bird

    Like many other commenters, I’m finding this advice very timely – starting a new job in a week! But I think that you’ll find it easier to put in the effort in a more interesting job, or one with (hopefully) fewer barriers.

  14. Yep

    Thank you so much for posting this! I am in one of those the-bare-minimum-gets-me-through-the-day kind of jobs and am actively looking for a role with more responsibilities – I too had been wondering about how to successfully navigate the transition without getting overwhelmed.

    Good luck, LW! Hopefully I’ll be following in your footsteps soon.

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