I’m forgetful and disorganized — and I’m a project manager — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

I’ve always been a forgetful, disorganized person and my bad stress avoidance skills means I tend to procrastinate on my most urgent tasks. Put shortly, I have an awful habit of missing deadlines.

I am aware this is not an insignificant issue in a professional setting. There doesn’t exist a job where punctuality isn’t a priority. This is something I need to fix about myself. I recognize this, and I am working to try to overcome it. I’ve been seeing a therapist for the past two years to try to address the issues with stress avoidance, and I’ve been reading books like Atomic Habits to try to help with my organization.

My question ties to my current job as a project manager, which I’ve had for the past three years. I think I must be in one of the worst fields for a person with my issues. Not only do I need to manage my own timelines, I need to manage other people’s as well. On any given day, I have dozens of projects at varying degrees of completion that I need to keep top of mind.

When I first realized how at odds my work requirements are with my shortcomings, I had hoped that working in this field would finally make me address my tendency to procrastinate and lack of proper organizational skills. I saw myself as one of those people who move to a new country and have no choice but to learn a new language ASAP. I’d have to sink or swim.

That was three years ago, and I’m sinking like a stone.

Make no mistake, I am much better at those things now than I was when I started. One benefit of this field is that everyone in it stupendously organized and happy to share their tips. I have no doubt that the differences between me when I started this job and me now are night and day. This job is indeed making me address my shortcomings faster than anything else in my life has, but it’s not enough. I’m better, but I’m still not good.

I’m still consistently behind on projects and receive low marks on performance reviews. I know I would be better and happier in another job where my weaknesses aren’t so pronounced. But again, what job exists where punctuality isn’t important? I can’t quiet the little voice in the back of my head that says I need to keep working at it, and the best place to do so is at the job that already taught me so much.

I would love to know what you recommend.

I wrote back and asked, “What did you do professionally before this job? And how do you think your manager would assess your work overall currently?”

This is my first full “adult” job. After graduating college, I bounced around doing about a half dozen contract jobs. Not one really cared about my development like my current job and team do, but I think I left a better impression on them, since my lack of organization didn’t really have a chance to catch up with me in the six months or a year I was at them.

I don’t need to imagine how my manager would rate my work overall, as I just went through my annual review, a factor that prompted my letter: Overall, I am a delight to work with. I show a desire to learn, and I approach problems with creativity and a calm demeanor (a necessity in this field). When I show up to my job, I’m good at it. But I still received “needs improvement” across the board, as other teams consistently reported they need to follow up with me to ensure work is getting done. I’m on an improvement plan, with work being done to improve my organization and follow up skills, and will reassess in three months.


Given that additional information, I think the question posed in your letter needs to be purely theoretical.

If you received “needs improvement” ratings across the board and you’re on an improvement plan, there is a very high chance that you could be let go at the end of it, and so you need to be actively job searching. I’m sorry!

That’s not to say that improvement plans are always a prelude to firing the person but … well, often they are. And even when they’re not, they’re intended as a clear signal that things may not work out and that the period to figure that out is nearing an end. Your manager is telling you that your job is very much in jeopardy.

You should still work to improve on the measures laid out in the improvement plan — if nothing else, it will reflect well on you that you were clearly making an effort (and in some cases, but not all, that effort could even buy you extra time) — but start actively applying to other jobs.

As for what those other jobs should be: I would avoid more project management roles!

It’s one thing to target jobs that would be somewhat of a stretch, which can challenge you in a good way and help build your skills. But project management is a field where organization and meeting deadlines are crucial, fundamental traits for the work to go well. Taking a job where the thing you need to be extraordinarily good at is the thing you most struggle with is … well, it’s awfully mean to yourself! It’s sort of the definition of setting yourself up for failure. Why do that to yourself?

My sense from your letter is that you might feel there’s some inherent virtue in struggling until you get better at something. And sure, persisting at something that’s hard can be valuable. But when something is this much of a struggle and you haven’t made it to “good” after years of effort, there’s no special virtue in continuing to torture yourself — especially when it’s the thing you depend on for income.

You’re right that punctuality, organization, and follow-through will be important in most jobs. But it doesn’t make sense to take a job where they’re so central and fundamental to the success you will have in the role. By all means, decide it’s something you want to keep working at. But cut yourself a break; you don’t need to take a job where the things you struggle with are center stage.

There are jobs that would play to your strengths rather than your weaknesses. I don’t know specifically what they are for you because that’s not the focus of your letter, but there are jobs where timelines are looser and more flexible, or where you only work on one or two things at a time, or where someone else provides the structure for you to work within (rather than your job being to provide that structure for others).

It’s okay to decide something is not your strength and to instead focus on things that are, and it’s so much kinder to yourself.

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