“I get so much done when you’re here!” remarked the weary principal of a public elementary school. That comment caused me to pause and think about what she meant. She is a woman who works non-stop, carrying the workload of at least five people. And, she has been recognized as an outstanding principal in her school system. That kind of recognition doesn’t happen unless the principal is a highly competent leader and manager. In other words, she must be productive every day. So what exactly did she mean?
On reflection, I think she meant that when I’m there she is able to make herself face tasks that she would normally avoid or not get around to doing on her own. The pace and complexity of her job are such that she literally runs from one task/event/meeting to another, dropping books, papers and other printed materials in her office as she flies through her days. Her hit and run method of managing “the stuff” associated with her work eventually results in an office littered with piles of undifferentiated papers and books, each having a very negative, overwhelming energy. Over time their energy becomes not only more negative, but stagnant, making the possibility of addressing them seem like an insurmountable task. Putting out fires is always preferable to digging into piles of old papers.
Why can she tackle those piles when I work with her? First, I take the lead. She gets a break from having to be in charge. I strategically feed her items to address, going from the larger items to smaller items and single pieces of paper. That approach allows us both to immediately see progress being made.
Second, she has support and company from me while doing a task that she normally would avoid. My being there makes the work more like a social event. People in her position, at the top of the leadership ladder, often find it lonely there. Her position of perceived power makes it difficult for her to let her guard down and enjoy the company of those she supervises. I have worked with her for many years. She pays me, but I am not part of the system she manages day to day. Time and experience have proven that I am safe. She can be less guarded and formal with me. I also help ground her so that the anxiety she feels about the possibility of discovering forgotten tasks is more bearable.
Because I am in charge of the process she is free to focus on making decisions about what to keep, what to get rid of, and the priority of each “to do” item we uncover. I also help keep her focused on the task at hand by prioritizing the piles that will be reviewed. I make sure that we make the fastest progress possible.
Judith Kolberg, author of Conquering Chronic Disorganization and ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, labeled my role as “body double.” Just being in the space with my client increased the odds that dreaded tasks would be faced and completed.
When faced with boring tasks that seem overwhelming, consider finding a body double to help you. I am a paid professional body double. In that role I am fairly directive. But many people just need a non-judgmental, caring person who is willing to be present while they work. The person can assist at your request, but should not take the lead unless they have your permission. Often their presence alone, which makes the task a social event, provides support and grounds them, is enough.
As we were leaving the school following our session my client’s last words were, “Well, I feel better.” You can too! Find a good body double!