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Time-Limited Therapy

Therapy, counseling, and coaching can take time. But what if you only had a month to commit to therapy because of time or money constraints? What if you only had a week? How about three, two, or even one day? How about an hour? Would you even attempt to schedule an appointment? Some people probably wouldn't, and some people probably shouldn't try to accomplish their goals in short times. But most of us, if given even a small amount of time to collaborate with a trained brief therapist, could identify problems, establish goals, and outline action steps within a few short hours. This is the basic idea of brief therapy. It does not necessarily have to be shorter-term, but it can be when your life requires it.

I work by appointment and have a family life, so time is important to me. As a working parent I know what it is like to try to burn the candle at both ends just to get time enough to eat, sleep, work, and do it all over again. I know all my clients and friends also value their time, because I hear them talking about life frequently. Most of what they talk about involves either what they are doing, what they would rather be doing, or what they don't have time to do.

I am not able to expand or freeze time, and I do not think it constructive to chide already busy folks with the suggestion to "take time for yourself", because sometimes there just isn't much of that to go around. What I can do is observe and help where possible. Ironically, the biggest problems seem to arise when we have the least time to manage them. Perhaps that is because many of our problems aren't necessarily issues by themselves, but often result of our limited problem-solving the limited efforts to problem solve efficiently.

Aside from just being an efficiency to save time and financial resources, briefer therapy can also benefit clients in other ways.

Improved Client Motivation

I have noted in my practice that clients who participate in brief therapy are incredibly invested in getting things done. Who isn't, when time is of the essence? And motivation isn't all about being in a hurry, though. The practice of brief therapy is a highly collaborative process, in which the therapist and client work as a team to identify the client's goals and work together to remove obstacles to those goals. A positive side-effect: While results vary somewhat, when clients are motivated, results generally follow.

Smaller, More Digestible "Chunks"

Therapy can be emotional and physically tiring. The ability for a client to enter my office on Monday and leave on Monday with something to work on is often a point of pride for that client. I have observed that client's report feeling more hope than they have in months or years, when they can clearly identify something they accomplished in therapy, especially if we can identify some different strategies they might take home for the week. The same applies for parents and kids. While parents frequently bring their kids to me with a veritable laundry basket of complaints, working to identify one or two specific issues to begin working on is usually enough to get the ball rolling and some of that intense frustration to begin to fade away.

This is not to say that change is easy, but it is EASIER in smaller chunks. Once we get the small snowball of change started down the hill, momentum can begin to help with the heavy lifting.

As a final point about addressing concerns in smaller "chunks", I will note that doing so puts therapist and client at a distinct advantage to the starts and stops that life might impose on appointment attendance, scheduling, or on energy levels.

Hope is Contagious

I'll say it again, once the smallest of changes begins to happen, the frustration and doubt begins to ease for some clients, which can be a major blessing. A lot of individuals and families enter therapy after long periods...sometimes even years...of struggling with the same or similar issues.

It Requires Incredible Focus and Understanding

While attending a brief therapy training at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, CA, I was repeatedly exposed to the idea that clients and people, in general, don't care what you know, until they know that you care. Even though that quote has been credited to a variety of famous people, it definitely rings true for all of therapy. Really, what the therapist knows should never be the focus of a session. The focus of the session needs to be on developing an understand of what the client knows about his or her life.

This is even more important for a brief therapist, who strives to develop a clear understanding of the client's problem as efficiently as possible. This cannot be rushed, and the only way to do it is through good old empathic listening.

It Doesn't Necessarily Have to be Brief

I must emphasize that the word brief is sort of misleading, but it is the most widely-used term to describe the practice I am discussing here. Efficient therapy might be another way to describe it, when addressing the general idea. I like to use that or flexible to describe my approach. Much like the rest of the therapy and counseling world, there are a variety of theories and approaches to the briefer therapies, so it can be flexible in that manner. The best part about brief work is that it is flexible and adaptable to the client's needs.

Brief therapy approaches can be tailored to fit within time constraints pretty well, but they are really made to be customized to meet client's needs in the best way possible, period. And that is what therapy should really be all about.

Whether you want to save time, money, or you just like to get things done, consider a trained brief therapist to help you. Even if you want to spend a ton of time in therapy, wouldn't it be best, if the focus was on you, your life, and your goals?

Brock Caffee, LCMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist, licensed in California and Kansas. He has over a decade of practice experience. He has a private practice in Lawrence, KS. At home he has three children, three dogs, and a very patient wife.


Brief or Time-Limited therapy is a highly-effective form of therapy, but not all therapy for all conditions can be treated with time as a major consideration. Discuss all time constraints and other expectations with your therapist, and establish realistic goals regarding time and outcome regarding your treatment.

The views expressed in this blog are meant to help foster perspective, to entertain, to educate about the benefit of counseling, and to be fun when possible. Any intent to regard the blog as counseling or therapy constitutes misuse. Advice offered in the blog should be considered only if consistent with your family values and with advice given by your own mental health professionals. Please seek consultation with a mental health professional in your area if you experience distress or feel you are in crisis. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.


Hoyt, M. (2000). "Some Stories are Better Than Others: Doing What Works in Brief Therapy." Philidelphia: Brunner/Mazel.

Slive, A & Bobele, M. (2011). "When One Hour is All You Have: Effective Therapy for Walk-In Clients." Phoenix: Zeig, Tucker, and Theissen.

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