Names, and details of people and organisations have been changed to maintain their privacy. The case studies below will will go into details of how these transformations occurred.
Early on in my practice, many decades ago I saw a client who’d been sent by their employer, a local brewery. They’d been sent because they were so disorganised; in fact the last straw literally was their failure to organise the office party.
When I talked with them, they were very stressed and anxious, almost panicking about losing their job. They knew they were in a difficult place; they knew they were making a mess of things, and this just caused them to feel even worse. They felt as if they were in a deep dark hole and just digging deeper. They could not see a way out.
The traditional therapy approach would be to get them to deal with the anxiety and stress; perhaps relaxation and the like. However, when I heard their story it was clear that they lacked some essential skills. I focused on teaching them these simple skills and the change was made – relatively quickly they moved from disorganised to organised enough for them to do their job well.
Initially, there was some resistance from others in the office; this is typical of any established system when a change is made to part of it. When they moved past this resistance, and their colleagues realised that my client was less disorganised and able to complete more tasks on time, then the general stress levels for both my client and for the office as a whole dropped. My client kept their job.
So what did I teach this client?
1. Get it out of your head
The client had previously been sent on a time management course, where they received a very nice binder with lots of sections. This had not helped them; in fact it had made things worse.
The nature of their job was such that lots of tasks came in randomly, with many high priorities suddenly requiring urgent attention, causing a complete reorganising of what they were doing each day. Back in those days when paper was King, making changes to any sort of diary system required a lot of writing, erasing and rewriting, which was just adding to my client’s frustration.
The flash of genius I had was to introduce them to sticky notes, at the time a new piece of technology! By putting their tasks on Post-Its and sticking them on the wall they could see at a glance exactly what was needed instead of having to carry lots of things in their head, getting jumbled up, too numerous to remember and almost impossible to prioritise.
Today, I still strongly recommend my clients use Post-it notes for a whole variety of reasons.
2. Saying yes less often
You’re probably very familiar with saying Yes too often. It turns out that this is something your brain will do by default, and you need to work to consciously override it.
My client was saying Yes to too many things without fully understanding the implications. Because of their stress, anxiety and overwhelm they did not have a simple way of thinking about the new task they were taking on.
As well as using the external sticky notes mentioned in the first item, we got them into the habit of pausing before saying Yes. This opened up the potential for them to say No, or more often “Yes, but which of the items on this list do you want me not to do instead?”
A little brain science here. Long ago evolution found that it gave a survival advantage to animals if, once they had found something that increased their survivability, such as a food source or a mate, they could remember that and go back to keep doing it. This is a very powerful mechanism that can still push us around today.
The modern workplace is not quite the ancient hunter/gatherer environment, but we can see the same mechanism at work. You may be familiar with the good feeling you get when you complete a task – this is your reward system at work. However it often gets overwritten and modified so instead of getting the buzz from doing the task, we get the buzz from saying Yes to somebody, even before the task is done. So there’s a real incentive in our brains to keep saying Yes; it feels good.
This is a hard-wired system in our brains, so we have to consciously suppress it in order to be able to use thinking processes to make decisions before we say Yes. This is why it’s important to teach the client to pause.
3. Things always take longer than we think
You probably noticed that just about all the tasks you plan to do end up taking longer than you expect. This is especially true for tasks that you have not done before.
Once again, this is actually a brain mechanism. If our ancient ancestors really knew how much effort was going to be needed to get that food or find a mate then they might have been discouraged! So in a very real sense our brain deludes us into thinking these things are going to be easier than they are; it’s a natural process.
What I did with this client was to get them to estimate the time required to do the task based on similar tasks they’d done before. This required them to keep some sort of record of how long things had previously taken.
Now, if I saw this client today I would take a slightly different strategy. I would have taught them one of the simple project methodologies like Scrum or personal Kanban. Both these systems rely on estimating effort rather than time. It turns out that we are better at estimating the effort required for a task rather than time it will take. There are plenty of books on this topic.