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To do and not to do, that is the suggestion

November 17, 2011
by Thomas M. Greaney, MEd, LADC, CCDP
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Having lists as a clinician can set a positive example for clients

A clean slate, a fresh start and perhaps, for many of our clients, the challenge of having to face down continued struggles with active addiction. As our clients and we prepare to usher in 2012, I suggest getting rid of the tradition of verbalizing, writing down or otherwise making a raft of New Year's resolutions. And in the process, we might become even stronger advocates for our clients and their success.

You see, resolutions are not only overrated, most Americans do not successfully achieve them. Statistics from Opinion Corporation of Princeton, N.J. reveal dismal results: 92 percent of us do not succeed in resolving to do X, Y and Z in a given year, and 24 percent fail every single year (, Dec. 29, 2009). Typical pre-New Year's banter amongst colleagues and loved ones might sound like this: “I resolve to get a gym membership and go at least three times a week to lose the weight I've gained since 1991.”

Thomas M. Greaney, MEd, LADC, CCDP
Thomas M. Greaney, MEd, LADC, CCDP


This scenario of unfulfilled intentions reminds me of a conversation at a Wi-Fi equipped coffeehouse in a typical New England town. I was sitting in the Perks on Church coffeehouse in Guilford, Conn., chatting up my best friend Dave while he tapped away on the keys of his laptop. As I was whiling away the time on that Saturday afternoon, feeling very unproductive, I droned on about nothing of particular import. Obviously sensing this as I prattled on, Dave said, “Don't talk to me,” as he tried to concentrate on the task literally at his fingertips.

“I'll show him,” I thought, putting my iPod on and inserting my earphones. The first song up was Sugarland's “All I Want to Do.” I was struck by how lead singer Jennifer Nettles wanted to while away her hours by going back to bed and blowing off work. “I've got better things to do than my to-do list anyway,” she intoned. On that overcast fall day, when I also wanted to sleep in, I just couldn't let the irony of my lack of ambition to work on my to-do list go by. So I wrote down the lyrics and slid the paper over to Dave, who responded, “I'm going through my to-do list right now.”

Coincidence? I think not. It created a domino effect as I reflected on a lesson learned more than a dozen years ago.

Putting out fires, preserving a reputation

Working as a corporate media relations manager for a Fortune 50 health insurance company, I experienced workdays as unpredictable as the roller coaster ride the stock market took investors on this year. My co-workers and I found we were faced with putting out one afternoon news “fire” after another. Reporters working on a tight deadline were looking for comment on why the procedure for the dying child wasn't covered, or a response to rumored staff layoffs. It wasn't until after I put that 10-year suit-and-tie stint in the rearview mirror that I realized an important component was missing from our approach to our expected daily dose of having to “protect the franchise” from reporters with an ax to grind. My approach to each day in corporate America had been reactive instead of proactive.

My former boss, Sal Foti, and I have kept in touch over the intervening years. During one conversation as we reminisced about the challenges and fun we had, he provided me with an approach to each day, which I have since shared with my clients. I wish I could portray the method as some type of grand revelation, but it's not. It's a good old-fashioned “to-do list,” to which I have added a recovery-focused twist.

Sal said the lesson he learned was particularly important because his workday, especially during the health care reform debate of the Clinton administration's first term, was consistently inconsistent. The day would invariably progress in the afternoon to him having to be in a “protect the corporate reputation mode.” So every morning when he came to work he had a plan: He would assess the day's priorities and between 7 and 10 a.m. he would address and accomplish the three most important things on his to-do list. In this manner he had the satisfaction of completing the must-do on his to-do!

Daily discipline, successful structure

My therapist and mentor, David Eaton, has gone so far as to suggest that I plot out my entire day hour by hour. And it is by bringing such structure and self-discipline into our daily lives that we as clinicians can suggest to our clients that having a daily plan and working it will provide them with the best opportunity to achieve their desired results. It would be detrimental to the therapeutic relationship were we to be seen as yet another example of that time-worn, dysfunctional axiom: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

At the same time, I regularly convey to my clients during group assignments that there is no right answer to the challenge at hand. There is only the individual's understanding of him or herself and the effort to embrace and enact change he/she deems necessary and beneficial. And when I inform clients that I need their feedback for an article I'm contemplating, they are more than happy to grace me with input. A recent “To Do and Not to Do” therapy group yielded some recovery gold.