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.
Many decades ago near the beginning of my practice, a client was sent to me from their employer, a local brewery. They were sent because they were so disorganised, the ultimate straw that broke the camel’s back was they failed to organise the office party for their employer.
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 making a mess of things; this just caused them to feel worse. They felt like they were in a deep dark hole and 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 the story, it was clear they certainly lacked some skills. I focused on teaching them the simple skills and the change was made. Relatively quickly they moved from disorganised to organised enough for them to do their job well.
Initially, they got some push back from the people in the office, in any system when a change is made to part of it, there‘ll be resistance to it. When they moved past this resistance, and people realise they were less disorganised and completing more tasks on time, then the general stress levels for the client and the office dropped. They kept their job.
The client had previously been sent on a time management course, where they received a very nice time management binder with lots of sections. This had not helped them in fact, it had made things worse.
The nature of their job was lots of tasks coming in randomly, many high priorities requiring urgent attention, a complete reorganising of what they were doing each day. Back in those days when paper was King, the PC was not long invented, making changes to any sort of diary system required a lot of writing and rubbing out. This was just adding to the client’s frustrations.
The flash of genius I had was to introduce them to the Post-it notes, at the time a new piece of technology. By putting their tasks on Post-it notes and sticking them on the wall they could see what was needed. There were no longer having to carry lots of things in their head, which were 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.
You’re properly very familiar with saying yes to often. This turns out to be a thing the brains will do on default, and you need to override it.
The client was saying yes to too many things without fully understanding the implications. Because of their stress, their anxiety and overwhelm they did not have a simple way of thinking about the new task they were taking on.
Partly by using the external Post-it notes mentioned in the first item and teaching them to have the habit of pausing before saying yes opened up the potential for them to say no, or more often yes but what would you want me to not do from this list.
A little brain science here. Long ago evolution found that it gave a survival advantage to animals that once they had found something that increased their survivability, such as a food source or a mate, would remember that and go back to doing it. This is the very same mechanism that sometimes addiction can override to pushers around. It’s powerful.
Now in the modern workplace this is not quite an ancient hunter gatherer environment. However the same mechanism at work.
You may be familiar with a good feeling you get when you finish a task. This is that reward system at work.
However it often gets overwritten and modified so instead of getting the fix from doing the task we get the fix from saying yes to somebody. So before the task is done. So there’s a real incentive in our brains to keep saying yes. It feels good.
This is a hardware system in our brains so we have to consciously suppress it to use thinking processes to make decisions before we say yes. Hence teaching the client to pause.
You may be familiar with the experience of just about all the tasks you do taking longer than you think they should. 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 get out mate then they may 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. Once again 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 before. This did mean they had to keep some sort of record of how long things had previously taken.
Note: if I saw this client today I would have taken 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 estimating effort to do a task rather than time it will take. There are plenty of books on this topic.