This describes my recent experience of taken on a mentor-like role in regard to executive function skills, to assist my little brother (and myself!) after my dad passed away.
I was extremely determined to be clear, unconfusing and leader-like so that my little brother Felix’s* confusion could not merge with my confusion; to outline a step-by-step path and side-step his (and mine) natural tendency to drown in details.
So I launched my raw ideas as if they were already planned out and definite tasks on the agenda.
The hardest part was to behave like I had a plan right from the start when I had no plan and was overwhelmed and confused myself, but the vague ideas did slowly evolve into real meaningful strategies:
- Teach/illustrate basic problem solving organisation – the basic principle of breaking tasks into sub-tasks and then sub-sub-tasks to make them solvable
- Introduce him to Todoist (the task management system I use to manage my everyday life) and help him set up his own Todoist account. Then make a shared folder to manage the problem solving process and delegate tasks, so that we could work together on the probate process and I could help where needed
- Create a master Work Plan for farm tasks that needed to be done on the farm over the year (the outdoor tasks, not the admin process)
- Make a trouble shooting guide with typical problems he’ll encounter on an everyday basis, and quick solutions plus who to call in case he can not solve them
- Ensure he has a contact list with phone numbers to call when he needs help, once he is all by himself on the farm. Go and talk with some neighbours to enlist them as helpers/emergency contacts as well (because they live nearby)
I mentioned these strategies early and often. It really did sound like there was a Plan from the start, so I guess in a sense there was.
Basic everyday structure
I started out by asking about the usual routines: what time dad would usually wake him up (midday… dad started and ended his days early, but I guess that’s as far as he got with Felix), when where the meal times, what time period they usually worked in the fields, what they did (examples), what they did in the evenings. Then I tried to stick to those routines so as to minimise unnecessary change, except when I asked him when I should wake him up, he chose 10 am (he rarely got up before mid day though).
Problem solving tree structure
At an early stage, I drew a basic problem solving tree structure on a piece of paper and explained that’s the basics of Todoist and of any problem solving process – the way to get things to happen:
I explained that the way to solve any complex problem or task it to think through and list every task that needs to be done first in order to do the task; list them as “branches” (sub-tasks) on the “tree”, where the main problem it the “stem”. Every barrier to get started on a task, such as: “I can’t do the task because [whatever] needs to happen first”, or “I need [whatever] information first”, or “I don’t know how to do [whatever]”, is a prompt to split that task into new branches (sub-sub-tasks), until reaching the first steps in the process: the ones that can be done now, or at a scheduled time.
Then gradually, systematically work up through the branches from right to left in the drawing and cross each task off as it is done, until eventually the Task is done and can be crossed off (and celebrated!)
(If the explanation above sounds complicated, then just skip it and look at the drawing – it is really self-explanatory).
Todoist is an electronic version of the problem solving tree structure with some advanced fancy features to give a neat overview, ease problem-navigation, and make it more fun. The below advertisement** and the system’s slogan: “You Can Do It.” – captures the system’s core philosophy quite well:
Todoist Scheduling – iPad from Doist on Vimeo.
The gist of the advertisement is that: work is finite, and planning what needs done gives a clear sense of when a day’s work is completed, so the rest of the day is free to enjoy (also, the ad is very calming).
I described Todoist’s basic features and set-up in Todoist: Massively Helpful Executive Function App and I Did All the Work! Executive Function Win!, but since I wrote those posts, the app has evolved and now offers collaborative functionality; which is what Felix and I mainly used.
First, I showed Felix my Todoist set-up to give an idea of how advanced it can be. Then he set up a free account for himself, so we could share a folder for the problem solving that needed to be done in regard to the probate process. We then made 3 sub-folders, one for each “department” of tasks, and shared them so we both had them in our systems.
Below is an anonymised and simplified mock-version I use for some experimentation (a free fake account). In reality there were many more tasks of course, but the structure of the “Special Problem Solving” folder was the same: Probate process management, Accounting, Farm work.
Adding and organising new tasks was and is of course an ongoing process, since from the beginning there were a sea of problems we knew would need to be solved somehow, but nobody had any overview.
Task allocation is done with a click, so I could allocate tasks or sub-tasks that I knew only I could do to myself (that removed them from Felix’ screen), and select suitable tasks to Felix. Initially I would ask him to start on a task, but soon he worked proactively, managed his work independently, asked comment-questions on shared tasks, and sometimes allocated tasks to me.
It was massively helpful to share a visual, dynamic overview over all the tasks there were to be done as they were added, and how they were divided into sub-tasks with the details in the comments whenever there was an obstacle and a solution had to be delayed.
Good Karma helps too (this is mine, so it doesn’t match the mock-version of Todoist shown before)
We worked alongside each other in my dad’s office as if we were colleagues in a work place. To start with, the challenge ahead seemed like a chaotic mountain of paperwork, unanswered questions and complicated legal rules. The farm, being a farm (even though a small one) still had to go on even though it was a one man business without that one man: the crops continue to grow in the fields, pests continue to want to invade, the bees were still producing honey, and so on. It is illegal to reduce the value of the Estate by neglect while the probate process is in progress; so it is illegal, for example, to not treat or harvest the fields on time, or let the bees die or abandon the farm (not that we would anyway).
Luckily, the neighbouring machinery station was willing to look after the fields. And luckily, my dad was a very orderly person, so all documents were perfectly in order in well labelled binders – a saving grace in the midst of all the uncertainty.
My side-agenda was to help Felix decode the adult world and learn tools to plan & execute tasks. I pushed in that direction whenever I had the chance: for example talked about details in the “Field Book 2014” binder to show how the numbers tell stories about relevant events in the very real fields outside.
Amongst the many admin tasks, we had to cancel heaps of subscriptions to cut unnecessary costs and minimise the in-flow of bills (since the funds to pay with are frozen). There were also unclear points in regard to the plantations where the land was my dad’s and he maintained the plantations, but ownership of the trees was more complicated due to a mix of subsidies and some joint venture-like relations, and we needed to find out if we were allowed to sell the bees, or otherwise how to take care of them (it was not popular amongst my little brothers to venture near the bees). So there were many phone calls to make to unknown offices, and emails to write.
I sensed that Felix wasn’t keen to do phone calls, and sneakily assigned some to him one by one so that I could observe if that is a particular barrier. Phone calls require social initiative, overview over a problem, and planning skills, and I figured none of that was Felix’ cup of tea. I scribbled a phone script and gave it to him, and mentioned casually that I often write a script when I need to make a call, as if that’s the normal thing to do anyway. He didn’t use the script, but I think it helped incept the idea that a phone call is just a task with sub-tasks to get through just like any other work.
He prepared for the first call for hours because he read through all the potentially relevant documents first. He sounded quite worked up and shaken when he finally called, and I could almost hear his heart beats in the room***. He did the call well, and wrote follow-up task notes in Todoist. He did more phone calls later in the weeks, and seemed gradually more relaxed about it. I don’t think he likes phone calls at all, but what matters is that fear of phone calls or not knowing what to do don’t create massive barriers to adult independence – like job search and interviews, solving admin problems, and getting desired things to happen in general.
I had mentioned from the start that we, as part of the Plan, would walk through the fields and list and describe the work there is to do on the farm – except from the agriculture part which the neighbouring machinery station had taken over. The purpose of the report was twofold: to give Felix an overview over the work required by the farm, and to give the rest of us a better idea about the burden put on Felix’ shoulders (and its dangers).
So we walked through all the land and listed every future work item, such as piles of wood tile and firewood, brooks that need maintenance, fences that need repair, and so on. I numbered the notes and added the note numbers onto the photocopied field map we had with us, and Felix took photos with his mobile phone and numbered the photos with the same note numbers, so it was all one orderly system that linked each note to an exact location.
For every work “item”, I asked heaps of quantitative questions, like
- what is the purpose of this?
- how often does the work need to be done?
- when does it need to be done next?
- what equipment is needed? (big or small tractor, big or small trailer, what else?)
- how dangerous is it – can it safely be done by one person?
- what is the exact work procedure step by step?
- when it is brought home on the farm, what happens to it next?
- what problems may arise in the work process?
Later in the week, Felix wrote a report based on the notes organised under headlines like “Heat production”, “Fences”, “Maintenance of waterflows” et.c. (roughly translated). I sat next to him and interpreted my notes, and he added details and wrote work flow and equipment descriptions. He added in the photos next to the relevant notes, and we scanned and attached the field map that had the notes on (to link the descriptions to the exact locations where the actions needed to happen).
The end product was a neat, pretty, well organised report, that gave an excellent overview over what is to be done on the farm over the months and why; and aspects such as the dynamics between the plantation and the heat production. When my uncle visited later to pick up some photos and memorabilia, he read the report and asked to get a copy. I asked why, and he said “because it is very interesting to read!”
It really is a beautiful report, and I noticed that in every piece of work Felix was trusted with, he was very meticulous and conscientious about getting all details right; he worked slowly and did good quality work.
The plan was to set up all the work items as recurring tasks in Todoist according to the frequency we had outlined (along with small everyday tasks like feeding the cats). He did that all by himself – when I asked him to do it, he had already done it.
Trouble shooting plan
It was (and is) a concern that the farm has a lot of little everyday flaws and problems which my dad used to fix in a rather patchy way. These issues include episodic supply failure of electricity and water, leaks e.t.c. I told Felix early on that we would make a problem solving sheet and list typical everyday issues he would encounter on the farm such as electricity failure and leaks, and then brains storm and list potential solutions plus an “if everything fails” option with a phone number for each problem – someone to call who can fix it if DYI solutions don’t work.
The purpose wasn’t really only to make the sheet, but also to explore the issues and try to figure the causes of as many as possible (and for the remaining, incept the awareness of their existence, in order to prepare mentally). Therefore, going through the issues involved climbing on the roof and opening dusty closets with big pipes in the attic to notice where there are strategically placed buckets (a sure sign of recurring leaks).
Below is just a brief snippet to show the principle of the trouble shooting table that came out of it with the solution A, B, and C principle.
| Electricity vanishes
|– Fuses go
|| fuse goes if: [list] are on in the same time
|| – See description
– keep stock of fuses
|| Call electrician [phone number]
| – Wet power points
|| When raining heavily, some outdoor power points can be flooded
|| Cover outdoor power points, e.g. with plastic
||– Switch off some circuits
– Drain water
|| Call electrician [phone number]
| – Electricity company stops delivering electricity
|| No electricity due to e.g. unpaid bills, supply failure, or maintenance
|| – pay bills on time. (use Todoist to remember to pay bills on time)
|| – Call electricity company
– pay bill if unpaid
|| [Call the electricity company again?]
The trouble shooting table didn’t end up being perfect – there were some “tba”s (“to be advised”) blanks, and perhaps the DYI solutions weren’t realistic in all situations.
However, I hope it serves as a template showing that the problems are predictable, they have been thought about and even if some are missed, they can be added into the system, and the action to take if simple DIY solutions don’t work is not to despair but to call a professional.
People contact list
The last point of the agenda was to make a telephone list with people Felix could call if he needed help. He made most of the list himself, and most of the contacts where of course family whose numbers were already available. We also included key professionals, such as the machinery station and the electrician. I didn’t focus much on the list, so I’m not sure precisely what was on it.
The aspects I was involved with, was Neighbour-contacts. Neighbours are important emergency contacts in case Felix need urgent help, because they live nearby and on farms / countryside properties – the latter means that they are capable of understanding farm problems and helping out in a hands-on sense.
The plan was to visit a few selected neighbours, recruit them as emergency contacts, and secure their phone numbers. To achieve that, the plan was to bring the 2 big frozen “kringler” (big Scandinavian pastries) we had in the freezer – some of the many left-over cakes from the funeral – and offer them to the selected neighbours, and then subtly (I emphasised that) inform them about the current situation on the farm, arrange for them to be Felix’ emergency contacts, and get their phone numbers. Felix seemed a bit sceptical of my idea this time, which in hindsight I fully understand.
On the way down the road, we “lost” one of the pastries by giving it to a neighbour who chatted us up and talked for 20 minutes. It seemed wrong to bypass him with the pastry after that to give it to another neighbour. We didn’t get his phone number, but he is the farm’s closest neighbour and will definitely be helpful, and he got a full update of the situation, so we agreed that was a “win” although not in the planned way.
The key neighbour we had in mind lived by the end of the road. They were selected because I had a good impression of the lady directly and through Felix’s mom, their property was very orderly, and the have the same furnace type as he farm so they can help with that if required, and vice versa. They also have a big, happy, well cared for dog; which I considered a cue of stability and trustworthiness. While we walked there, I again emphasised the importance of being casual and subtle and focus on their perspective and needs – for chatting, for example: we were not going to just bluntly ask for peoples’ phone numbers, and jokingly scenario planned examples of how to not do it.
When we finally reached the stage of knocking on their door, having been body-blocked by their big friendly dog (asking for pats) most of the way through their driveway, it wasn’t the friendly lady but her husband who was home and opened the door. In bafflement, Felix just took the frozen pastry up from the plastic bag and reached it to the man, who glanced sceptically at it and said “No Thanks!”, then quickly closed the door.
I don’t remember how we got past that akward situation, but we managed to explain that it was Felix from the farm and me the oldest daughter, and the man apologised and said he thought we were Jehohvas’ Witnesses when we reached the pastry to him. I think he was happy to be updated directly about the situation on the farm and told directly how he could help. All the neighbours did of course already know that dad had died, and that Felix was alone on the farm; so this was an opportunity for them to get direct information.
He then took the pastry with thanks, and invited us into the kitchen for some tea and coffee. A long talk followed, where he told about his adult kids and other things, and showed us photographs. Felix explained what the purpose of out visit was and asked for his phone number and he was very positive, but kept talking for a while.
I did what I most often do in such situations: I observed and reflected about the whole set-up of the situation: what works well and what doesn’t, and tried to use “best practice” elements all the time.
The set-up was the best possible for me: We came 2:1, meaning that the pressure to converse was diffused on the two of us. The man, who did most of the talking, sat opposite Felix so the “line of attention” ran “past” me, not directly at me. That makes a big difference for me, enabling me to relax and make much better communication choices than when I feel under pressure to respond to people and have to process eye contact, face expressions, gestures etc in the same time. It enables me to remain present and mentally integrated most of the time, and not “zone out”****. This is what the good set-up approximately looked like:
The percentages show the estimated relative amount of talk for each person. The man talked most, and Felix much less but second most because he was asked questions. I came in with a comment or added information now and then when I found it relevant – preferably towards the end of the conversation – and felt that my presence and inputs were valued. Since I was able to observe and listen without being put “in the spotlight”, I just talked when I had something helpful to contribute, like added details or elaborating questions (my favourite type of conversation inputs). So I felt socially competent and valued.
The man said that Felix shouldn’t hesitate to call them if there was anything he needed, and we reciprocated by saying that they shouldn’t hesitate to call Felix either if Felix could help them on their property, and that Felix could take care of their dog if they went on holiday. All in all it was an exhausting, but fruitful day.
I think the executive function strategies – planning and executing problem solving – worked very well. The results we produced with them, and Felix’ and my good team work process, were also very beneficial side-effects of the sad event that was my dad’s death. The strategies quickly improved the acute situation, and may help empower in the long term too.
For me, it was a great opportunity to get to know my brother better as the adult he has become, and also share skills and problem solving “attitudes” I have built through my life. It was extremely encouraging to see the positive impact they had on Felix, and it has given me the idea that perhaps I can help some other people with some of the workarounds and mental tools I have developed to cope with my own problems.
That said, I don’t think all this is enough to solve the current situation Felix is facing, and I wish I could reach in and place a mentor next to Felix’ who could guide practically and socially through the tricky transition from childhood to adulthood.
I returned back to Australia determined to keep in contact, and initially scheduled weekly phone calls. However, the phone talks were quite awkward since neither Felix nor I actually like to talk on the phone. I still get Todoist notifications when Felix ticks off tasks in the shared folder, and we sometimes talk via the comments on task – perhaps that is enough communication, I’m not sure. Perhaps I’m unnecessarily worried. I don’t want to invade boundaries but also don’t want to let him down, and somewhere in the back of my head roams the ghost of my own isolated youth: I don’t want to project, but I also don’t want him to get mentally trapped like I was*****. So. This is not a proper ending with a neat closing line, but it is what the situation is like.
This was initially a series of two posts, where the first explained the context. Upon reconsideration, I felt the context was too personal, so I have deleted it. My apology to anyone who linked to the first post.
* Fake name.
** which isn’t much informative and shows Todoist for iPad, which I am not using
*** I couldn’t really, but when I looked at him then I sensed that his heart beats must be very loud
**** People can’t see when I’m “zoned out” (I presume), but it makes me feel very weird internally. As if I’m remote controlling myself from a distance and perceive the surroundings (all the different ambient sounds, movements, visual aspects) as separate channels… which feels like an infinitely large amount of separate realities. I can still talk and respond when zoned out, “running on autopilot” (for a while), but it is an uncomfortable and depressing state of mind to be in, and it usually accumulates so it becomes more and more difficult to keep appearing social.
***** We have very different personalities, but there are some parallels in terms of areas of difficulty, which is why I feel I can spot Felix’s challenges.