Oxford United's new boss Gary Waddock admitted the task he faces at the Kassam Stadium is bigger than he expected after he saw the U's fall to a third successive defeat, going down 2-0 to fourth-placed Fleetwood Town.
United, who were top as recently as December, have been in freefall since February, and have managed just one win in 10 games.
A goal in each half from David Ball and Antoni Sarcevic, both from set-pieces, brought Fleetwood a comfortable win as they closed the gap on third-placed Chesterfield.
Waddock has had a baptism of fire since he was appointed head coach last month.
He said: "It's a harder job than I imagined, when I see how much the confidence has drained from the players.
"I'm bitterly disappointed with the result.
"At the moment, losing has become a habit and we have to turn that around as quickly as possible.
"They score and it just deflated us.
"We were quite happy with the way we played in the first 25 minutes and went toe to toe with them.
"But when they scored you could see what little confidence we had drain out of us.
"We have to be mentally stronger than that. And we haven't got a lot of time to do it.
"We have to be more positive in possession, in our decision-making, and getting up the field.
"How many times have we worked the goalkeeper in the last few games? It really isn't very many."
But Waddock does hope that dropping out of the play-offs may at least take some of the pressure off his new team.
"Possibly the players have been looking over their shoulders, now we can see the teams above and chase them down," he added.
Fleetwood boss Graham Alexander was delighted with the manner of the win.
He said: "I thought first half especially we bossed it, and we could have scored before we did.
"We would have liked a second goal before half-time that we probably deserved
"It was a great strike from Sarcevic for the second goal. We constantly encourage Sarc to get in those positions, he always puts himself on the line, and he's a goalscorer.
"It's a great three points for us, and a clean sheet as well."
It was Fleetwood's 23rd clean sheet of the season, and they have lost just one of their last 10 matches.
Alexander said: "All these clean sheets are not just down to the keeper and defence, it's the workrate from the forwards and midfielders as well.
"We've got five games to go, we're at the business end now and the players are focussed.
"We want to get into that top three, and this is a small step to getting in that top three.
"We know that if we get the results, someone up there will drop points."
Ball's opening goal was a far-post tap in from Sarcevic's deep cross, following a corner.
Sarcevic then wrapped up a comprehensive win by driving in a 20-yard shot from a well-worked free-kick seven minutes into the second half.