Life's Second Task

Date: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 by GTD Times Staff

By Michael Gorsline – Community Contributor

As a Parent Coach and Family Therapist I spend a lot of time helping people everything from troubleshooting how to get kids to bed, to how to help dinner time go smoothly, to how to give an effective timeout when it is needed.  I also help with teaching principles about relationships. For instance, how to share control in areas where you don’t need it as parent so that when you really do need it, kids will be willing to follow your lead. I also help clients with common therapy related skills like developing a deeper understanding of themselves or learning some self-empathy skills. Parents get a lot out of these skills. These skills create profound changes in people’s lives, yet I discovered that there seems to be a ceiling that clients  bump up against,  limiting their growth as parents.

My supervisor in grad school, a very wise and seasoned psychologist, had a knack for capturing the essence of life and of therapy by dividing things into three “baskets”. Here was what became the most important of them to me:

We have Three Primary Tasks in Life. If we’re good at these three we are successful and happy. Here they are:

1) Get along

2) Get things done

3) Self-soothe (manage our emotions)

They sound really simple and straightforward, don’t they?  I find it amusing looking back that I had no idea as a graduate student that number two was the name of a program which was on the cusp of becoming huge and which I’d one day being blogging about.

A lot of what I did with parent coaching and family therapy boiled down to the first and the last, getting along, and self-soothing, as well as teaching kids to do those same two. Those are truly important.  And they are of course much more complex than they appear at first glance, otherwise we wouldn’t call them life tasks. What I’ve discovered over the years though is that when I do nothing but helping with getting along and self-soothing, many parents hit that ceiling I mentioned. That’s because helping them with getting things done was a gaping hole that I was missing.

Too many therapists focus exclusively, by the nature of their profession, on numbers 1 and 3. And they just expect that clients either do or do not know how to get things done. They just don’t really see getting things done-skills as a task they ought to help with. But much like there are parenting skills such as the art of sharing control that in retrospect look like just common sense, there are Getting Things Done skills that are the same. That’s how we know they’re powerful. They are effective, and once you know them and practice them you get an illusory “Hey I knew that all along” feeling. David Allen has a term for that. He calls it advanced common sense .  Social psychologists refer it as hindsight bias.

What I’ve found is that parents, and all my other clients, including kids struggling in school, benefit from learning the skills from number two basket, Getting Things Done. I’m glad to have stretched the therapy model a bit, as many other therapists are doing now, to incorporate coaching on Getting Things Done. Because I would sure hate to have missed the opportunity to see families push past that ceiling by offering practical, easy-to-use GTD skills for accomplishing life’s second, and too often, overlooked  task.

3 Responses to “Life's Second Task”

  1. David says:

    I work as a lawyer in criminal and juvenile courts and often have clients who are ordered to do parenting classes, often through the recently renamed Girls and BoysTtown in Omaha.

    I remember one client who reluctantly agreed to do this but came back to tell me it was very helpful as it taught her skills she’d never acquired nor even pursued.

    I guess it helped her both get along and manage her emotions, which in turn allowed her to get things done.

    I was lucky enough to be able to send my kids to great daycare centers which taught me a lot of skills about dealing with kids so that I wasn’t simply repeating what my parents taught me, which is what a lot of people are stuck with.

    Often in court I point out that few of us are better parents than the ones we were randomly assigned, hoping it will instill some sympathy for my client who is likely making the same mistakes she saw being made as a child.

    But, if we can teach these skills instead of expecting our values to simply appear where they weren’t planted, we can improve all three baskets, and a lot of people’s lives.


  2. Very well said. I have a post exploring a bit more what you have said here in a very nice succinct way at You’ll easily find links back here to GTDtimes from there.

    The point of the post linked above is that we, as a society, need to get to the point of seeing parenting classes and parent coaching as very commonplace events in people’s life. It would be nice for people to get the sort of skills you mentioned on the front end rather than waiting until their nostrils are barely above the waterline before being willing to give it a try. Many parents that could use the support are reluctant as they get subtle, and not so subtle messages from around them that you only get parenting help when you HAVE to.

    In my mind, the parents I see are the smart ones who are charting new territory that will one day will be well settled with most parents rather than a small number.

    It will be nice as GTD gets more widely known as it will give more families sturdy scaffolding for figuring out how to handle all they have coming at them in modern life. Many kids, as you know, get the short end of the displaced frustration and stress stick. Decreasing those stressors is pretty important.

    Thank you for your insights, and for your welcome.


  3. Well put David. Your last sentence is powerful.

    As I’ve posted elsewhere, my hope is that one day parenting classes will become very commonplace‚Äîroutine maintenance, like having your oil changed and your teeth cleaned. Parents get many subtle and not so subtle messages that you only go to a parenting class if you HAVE to. We all will be much better when most parents aren’t waiting until their nostrils are just barely above the waterline before they seek some assistance.

    As I see it, the parents who come to see me are the smartest ones who are now charting new territory that will one day become widely settled by most parents.

    It almost goes without saying that GTD becoming more widely practiced will lead to fewer kids getting the short end of the displaced parent frustration and stress stick. As parents, we’ve got to have a way to prevent that predictable spillover.

    Thanks for your insights, and for your welcome,


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