Over the last few weeks, several readers have written to me asking about the value of hiring a life coach. Usually, these people are struggling with a major life decision or finding it hard to break free of a steady grind that they wish to escape.
Life coaches can be incredibly useful if you find yourself in that kind of state. However, much of what a life coach can provide for you are things you can do for yourself.
Before we dig into this, let's take a look at what a life coach actually provides. From Wikipedia:
Life coaching draws upon a variety of tools and techniques from other disciplines such as sociology, psychology, positive adult development and career counseling with an aim towards helping people identify and achieve personal goals.
You can pull two useful and clear statements out of that.
Life coaching helps people identify personal goals. If you're finding yourself directionless and uncertain about the future, a life coach can help you figure out goals for the future, giving you something to work towards.
Life coaching helps people achieve personal goals. You may have a goal, but you are struggling to get there. A life coach can help you develop a plan for achieving that goal, whatever it may be. A life coach can also give you a bit of a push in terms of moving toward that goal.
In both of these cases, a life coach is helping you work through an introspective process. They provide some direction and structure and motivation for internal matters that may be lacking in all of those areas.
The catch? You can provide much of that direction and structure and motivation for yourself.
Here are fourteen practices you can use to become your own life coach, providing much of the same kind of direction and structure and motivation that a life coach would provide. Following these steps will often bring personal goals and strategies for improving your life right to the forefront.
These practices won't replace a life coach for some people, but for many, these tools will provide the kind of deep digging that they need, which both avoids the need and expense of a life coach while also putting your life on a valuable new path.
Practice #1 - Start a Journal
This is always my first recommendation for anyone who is struggling to figure out what's next in their lives. Keeping a daily journal where you spend some time writing down and thinking about whatever's on your mind does so much to help organize those feelings in a coherent fashion.
I've kept a journal (almost) every day since I was in seventh grade. Each day, I try to answer three things.
What's good about today? This is essentially a "gratitude journal." Sometimes I write about little things. Sometimes I write about big things. The goal is to remind myself that my life isn't a disaster and is actually pretty good, no matter how I'm feeling at the moment.
What's bad about today? At the same time, no day is perfect. I try to reflect on the things that aren't going well at all. I don't generally expect that these things will lead to immediate action. Instead, what I often do is look back over the last few weeks of entries and see if the same things keep popping up - that's a sign of something that I should be focusing on.
What's on my mind? Most of the time, I have one big area (or two) of my life that's taking up my thoughts. Whatever that is, I try to explain exactly what I'm thinking about with regard to that area. This process is really useful in helping me figure out what's going on in my life as it almost always reveals something useful about my life that I wasn't directly seeing before.
Practice #2 - Watch Your Emotional Responses
Humans are really good at hiding thoughts and feelings. We often have elements of our life that we don't like, yet we bury those feelings so deeply that we're often confused as to why we're generally unhappy with big areas of our life.
Again and again, the surest sign of those underlying feelings and thoughts comes from that flash of feeling you get in response to an unexpected event. When those happen, they're well worth digging into.
Do you feel guilty when you see a particular name on your phone? Why? How can you get rid of that guilt? Do you sense a bit of anger when you get an email from someone? Do you feel sad for a bit when you finish eating a fast food sandwich?
Those emotions are invaluable. They're keys to the things that will really improve your life if you dig into them, because those kinds of emotional responses that we quickly temper are signs of an internal disagreement. Resolving those internal disagreements are vital for improving your life.
Whenever you notice one of those emotional flashes, take note. Stop and write them down or even send yourself an email or a text about them. At the end of the day, spend a few moments reflecting on that emotional surge in your journal. Why did it happen? Why did you have that feeling? Dig in a little, even if it's hard.
Practice #3 - Evaluate Each of Your Significant Relationships
Who are the people that really matter in your life? How is your relationship with each of them? Are those people aware of the positive feelings and thoughts you hold for them? Do those people trigger a lot of negative feelings within you about yourself and others? Do they trigger positive feelings?
If you walk through each of the significant people in your life and ask yourself to seriously think about those questions regarding each of those people, you'll probably quickly realize that there are some deficits when it comes to the kind of connections you need.
You probably have some relationships with great people that you haven't connected with as deeply as you should. You also probably have some relationships with negative people who bring about negative feelings in your life and bring you down.
Positive relationships are some of the most powerful things we can have in our life. They are an endless font of ideas, inspiration, positive reinforcement, social engagement, and opportunity. They lift you up, directly and indirectly. Virtually every major goal in my life has been guided and helped by the positive relationships in my life; in most cases, I'd say that my goal achievement would have been impossible without those positive relationships in my life.
Negative relationships are almost the exact opposite of what I've written above. They criticize you, limit you, and drag you down. They prevent you from achieving goals and, often, keep you from even trying them. Negative relationships - those that leave you with a negative feeling when you consider their current state - should be removed from your life.
Sometimes, in my journal, I'll make a list of the thirty or so most important people to me and give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to each one of them expressing my sense of the health of that relationship. Is it a positive one for both of us? Then it gets a thumbs up. If it's a negative one for either one of us, it gets a thumbs down.
Over time, I try to devote more time to relationships that I've given a thumbs up to and less time to relationships that I've given a thumbs down to.
Practice #4 - Cultivate New Relationships
If you find that your number of "thumbs up" relationships is pretty small, then it's incredibly worthwhile to devote some time to cultivating new relationships in your life.
Why? As I mentioned earlier, the more thumbs up relationships you have, the more positive reinforcement you have in your life. The more relationships you try to develop, the more thumbs-up relationships you're going to have. Thus, it's almost always a good idea to try to cultivate new relationships and stick with the ones that bring positive things into your life.
The easiest way to cultivate new relationships is to actively seek out people in your community with similar interests. If you like playing games, go to the game shop. If you like reading, go to the library or the book store. There's usually a place - a store or a community organization or a civic service - related to at least some of your interests. When there, ask around for clubs or organizations or programs related to your interest. Check out the bulletin boards. Check out websites like meetup.com, too.
Once you've found some like-minded people and organizations, get involved. Go to the meetings. Dig into their activities. Talk to the people there - it's easy because you're there due to a shared interest, so let that shared interest be a conversation starter. Don't be afraid to eventually swap contact information with the more interesting people you meet and spend time with them outside of that group.
Over time, you'll start cultivating a lot of great new relationships. As I mentioned above, those relationships are an endless font of assistance, inspiration, positive reinforcement, and social enjoyment.
Practice #5 - Walk Through Each Fear You Have
Often, people already know what their big goals are, but they're held back from those goals consciously or unconsciously by their fears. They're afraid of something - often multiple things.
Perhaps they're afraid of endangering a relationship. Maybe they're afraid of endangering their job. They might be afraid that they're going to lose something they enjoy.
Those fears are often misplaced. They become easy excuses to prevent you from doing something great in your life.
When you think about a big change you'd like to make in your life or a big challenge you'd like to take on, don't list all of the reasons that you should be doing it. You already know those.
Instead, make a list of all of the reasons you're not doing it. What things are you afraid of regarding that big challenge? Why aren't you taking it on right now?
Then, walk through that list. What can you do to make each of those things less relevant? Can you juggle your schedule? Can you find a way to push that problem out of the picture? Can you ask for help? Is this a real fear or just an excuse?
I find that these are great things to work through in my journal. I'll take on a fear each night, turning it around in my mind and figuring out how I can get rid of that fear.
Practice #6 - Dig Through Your Interests
In my own experience - and in the experience of many others that have shared their experiences with me - one of the biggest sources of malaise in life is losing track of the things you care the most about. Your interests and passions become clouded by momentary distractions and other life obligations, eventually leaving you with a life that feels directionless.
One incredibly powerful way of digging through all of this is to keep a time diary. Whenever you spend more than a minute or two doing something, whether it's completing a job task or surfing the web or watching television or commuting, record it in some fashion. Do this for a week or two.
Then sit down and tabulate them. Estimate how much time you spent on all of those things over the past few weeks.
Are there items you feel like you spent too much time on? Are there items you didn't spend enough time on? Almost everyone will find a few of both.
Over the next few weeks, consciously make that switch. Increase your time on the things you feel are underappreciated and decrease your time spent on your time sinks (where you can).
I might reduce my time web surfing and increase my time reading books, for example. I might reduce my time watching television and increase my time exercising. I might reduce my time playing computer games and increase my time working on my novel.
Practice #7 - Try Lots of New Things
Simply decreasing your time spent on less important things and bumping up time on your underappreciated things isn't quite enough, though. It doesn't help you even a little bit with the areas of your life left unexplored.
Devote some time each week to digging into something you've always wanted to try. Perhaps you've always wanted to learn how to play the piano or the guitar. Maybe you've always wanted to read the great works of philosophy. Maybe you've wanted to try out gardening or computer programming.
Here's what I suggest. Devote half of a weekend day for the next three months to really learning one of those things you're interested in. Dig in and actually do that thing and give it enough time to figure out if it's actually something that's going to have lasting meaning for you. Take a class on the subject.
At the end of those three months - thirteen half-days, in other words - spend some time reflecting on it. Was it something that deeply resonated with you? Or was it something cool but not particularly life-changing?
If it's not life-changing, move on to something else. Start a new thirteen week project and let the "cool but not life-changing" thing fall by the wayside.
In the best case here, you'll find something that truly changes your life for the better. In the worst case, you're now familiar with something that you didn't really understand before.
Practice #8 - Accentuate the Positives, Minimize the Negatives
This is an easy one. Remember Practice #1, where I suggested listing a few things that are good about each day and a few things that are bad? Make it a practice in your life to increase the presence of those positive things. At the same time, you should work to decrease the presence of the negative things.
As I mentioned earlier, the best way to do this is to look for patterns. Are there things that show up frequently in your "good things" list? If so, you should actively strive to include more of those things in your life. Are there things that show up frequently in your "bad things" list? If so, you should actively strive to reduce those things in your life.
This simple practice often forms incredibly powerful life goals for you. It might require a long-term project to enable you to have more of a particular positive thing in your life - and it might also require a big project to reduce a negative thing in your life.
Practice #9 - Learn How to Counter Internal Negativity
Many of us have a doubting voice inside of us, one that tells us over and over again that we can't do something or that we're not good enough to be involved. I have a pretty strong negative voice myself and it sometimes keeps me from talking to people in social situations or taking on challenging projects. Here are five strategies that work for me.
One, I visualize the worst case scenario. Most of the time, failure means that you wind up right back where you started. At worst, someone thinks you're a little odd ... but the truth is that they probably already think you're a little odd if you're acting nervous. Failing at an exercise attempt? No one cares. Failing at a social attempt? Doesn't matter.
Two, I try to recognize that negative voice. When I can tell that I'm willing myself to make the "easy" but "wrong" choice - not exercising, not communicating - it becomes much easier to simply not do it. Recognizing your negative voice at work is often enough to cause that voice to lose power.
Three, I talk to my wife. I'm really not afraid to tell her when I feel a lack of confidence about doing something. She's incredibly good at taking the opposite approach and finds reasons why I should be doing it, and that often pumps me up. If you don't have a spouse you can rely on for this, seek out a close friend to talk to.
Four, I visualize my wife, too. When she's not around, I try to picture what she'd say about my crisis of confidence. She'd usually list a bunch of reasons why I should do it anyway. Using a visualization of her gives that positive perspective a powerful voice.
Finally, I imagine a really good outcome. I picture how great things would be with a good outcome from whatever it is that I'm feeling negative about. I might make a great friend. I might come back feeling really good about things. Sitting here just guarantees that I won't have those things, so I might as well get up and give it a shot. A chance at a new friendship is better than nothing at all.
Practice #10 - Identify Three Major Goals
Out of the rich topsoil of the first nine practices, you'll begin to see some patterns emerging in your life. I find that big goals grow naturally when the right foundations are in place - a joyful life with a lot of different experiences and different healthy relationships.
In my life, I've found the most success when I focus deeply on just two or three goals at once. If I have too many goals, I don't have adequate time to really accomplish those goals. If I have only one goal, I often burn out on that goal before it really comes to fruition.
Good goals accomplish three things.
One, they describe some way in which you wish your life could be better. If you wish you were in better physical shape, an exercise goal might be appropriate. If you wish you weighed less, a diet goal might work better. You might dream of being an author, so a writing goal might be the thing for you. If you accomplish that goal, it's going to indicate an improvement in your life.
Two, they describe an activity that you achieve. Rather than something like "I want to lose weight," a much better goal is something like "I will keep my eating to 1,200 calories during 250 days of the coming year." The two goals achieve the same thing, but the second goal makes it very clear what you should actually be doing each day. You can do the same thing for any big goal you might have - the goal itself shouldn't specify the outcome, but instead should specify what daily action you'll take to achieve the thing you want to achieve. The desired outcome - losing some weight, writing a book - is a nice byproduct of your goal.
Three, they give you some breathing room. Life is going to intervene sometimes. You're going to have a sick child or an emergency flight to Atlanta due to a family member passing. Some days, your goal just gets pushed aside by life. That's not failure, of course, but it can mean failure to an overzealous goal. That's why your goal should have a little breathing room in there. I've come to really like the "250 days in a year" or "300 days in a year" goals. For example, if you commit to writing 500 words on your novel for 300 days in this year, you'll have a 150,000 word novel at the end of the year.
Try to define three goals that use these guidelines. If you have a rich, positive life, you'll see a number of goals that might potentially work, but choose three that really matter to you. They don't have to be the most important goals - they just have to be ones that you're excited about achieving. In fact, I usually think it's a pretty good idea to have one that's completely devoted to a personal interest or hobby.
Practice #11 - Construct Coherent Plans for Each Goal
If you've defined a goal well, you've probably already got a coherent plan in place, but sometimes you need just a little bit more to make that goal part of your daily life.
Whenever I'm trying to change something about my daily routine, I usually incorporate three things.
First, if the activity I need to do today isn't absolutely clear, I keep massaging the goal until it is. To me, a goal is useless if it doesn't tell me something that I need to do today. If it doesn't tell me that, then the goal needs to be re-thought. That's the single most powerful litmus test for a goal. If you find you just can't define your goal in that way, think of a different goal that achieves the same ends. For example, if your goal is to get a job, maybe your goal instead should be to have five positive contacts with employers each day.
Second, I try to set up a trigger. This means that I have something that forces me to think about that goal at key moments in the day. I'll have a flashing message on my computer reminding me to do something or I'll have a new item on today's to-do list.
Third, I try to "chain" my accomplishments. If my goal is to write 1,000 words of fiction a day, I'll take out a blank calendar page and mark a big X on the first day that I do it. The next day, if I do it again, I'll mark a big X on that day, too. Soon, I have a chain of X's. I keep that calendar page out in a place where I can see it and eventually not breaking that chain becomes its own motivator.
Practice #12 - Re-evaluate and Mark Your Progress Weekly (If Not More Often)
Once a week, I spend some time thinking about the progress I've made toward my goal and how things are going with it. Am I getting value out of the daily steps? Can I see real progress toward the things I want in life?
I don't spend too much time on it - a few minutes or so. However, I find that time spent to be some of the most valuable time of all during my week.
It lets me see the big picture. I see how my little choices are a part of something bigger. I'm actually making real progress on a book, for example, or I'm actually able to run more than I was a week or two ago.
It motivates me. A simple review makes me realize that the little daily activities I'm doing are really adding up to something bigger. That makes me excited to keep going.
It lets me correct little problems before they become big ones. If there's something wrong with my daily activities and they're not really leading me to results, that weekly check can help me see that there's a problem before it develops into a goal-crushing crisis of confidence.
I spend maybe fifteen minutes a week - usually on Saturdays - thinking about my ongoing goals and how they're doing. That little blip of time keeps me on track mentally and ensures that my efforts are actually building toward the big things that I want.
Practice #13 - Don't Be Afraid to Drop Goals, But Keep Going on the Ones That Matter
Sometimes, when you're working on achieving a goal, you'll find that the goal isn't all it was cracked up to be. When you find that you are no longer interested in the main objectives of that goal, it's probably time to set that goal aside.
This happens to me quite often. I'll be very excited about some major task, but as I begin to work toward it, I find that it's not what I had hoped for. I'll write half of a novel only to find that I don't like the characters. I'll start a new exercise routine only to find that it's actually just building a few weird muscles and not building the energy I want.
Don't be afraid to walk away from a goal. Often, the core reason behind that goal is still something you want, but the goal itself doesn't work for you. Spend some time thinking about why that happened. You might find that a new goal rises from the ashes like a phoenix.
Practice #14 - Start Again from the Top
This isn't a checklist of things to do that you can just run through once. Instead, it's a process.
I like to think of this as a never-ending upward spiral. As long as you keep moving through these steps, your life will continue to get better and better. There is no peak that you'll eventually reach - there is only improvement.
When you've achieved a goal, it's not time to just sit back on that peak. It's time to look around at the horizon for the next peak to climb to make things even better.
Why? Isn't there ever a finishing point? I've come to find that the best part of any success is the journey. A life where every month is better than the one before it or every year is better than the one before it is a life that's constantly worth living.
The only way to get there is to truly relish the journey. Don't find pleasure in achieving a big singular goal. Instead, be proud of a life that's better than before.
The psychological and motivational tools described throughout this post are a big part of what a life coach can provide for you. For some people, these tactics will be enough to set them on a much stronger path through their life. For others, a real life coach might still be useful.
If nothing else, it's worth trying out these tactics. They're not going to harm you or cause negative results, but you might just find that they help you in many different ways without the expense of life coaching.
Good luck in wherever your life leads you.