Having practiced as a life coach for more than two decades, I’ve helped many clients change their lives for the better. Now I’d like to help you do for yourself some of what I do with my clients — by teaching you the art of self-coaching.
One secret I’ll share straight away: I help my clients achieve their goals not so much by giving them brilliant advice as by encouraging them to ask the right questions — questions that help them shift their perspectives in transformative, empowering ways.
The coaching relationship, and the process of making sustainable, positive change, is all about inquiry followed by action. Inquiry involves considering what you want, what’s working and what’s not, what’s getting in the way, and what you’re willing to do about it. Action, of course, involves doing those things.
If you know the right questions to ask and when to ask them, and if you’re willing to adjust your actions to reflect your own answers, you can achieve your goals and change your life in the direction of your dreams. I’ve seen this work over and over again in my coaching practice, for men and women, young and old — and I’m going to teach you to make it work for you, too.
Questions are a powerful, effective tool for goal setting and achievement. Why? Because to make lasting change, you need to approach the process from a different perspective than you have in the past. Seeking answers to questions you’ve never asked before cues your brain to perceive the world differently. You begin to see it in a new way, which changes beliefs — and when beliefs change, so do behaviors.
Working with a skilled coaching professional has some distinct advantages, but you can replicate many of them on your own, if you know a few tricks of the trade.
On the following pages, I’ll share my proven methodology. It’s a self-coaching system I call “Think, Choose, Act, Win!” and it’s a great way to start living your own best choices — decisions that align with your highest values and priorities. Begin now and you’ll be well prepared to launch 2012 with a bang, and to achieve your most important and meaningful goals as the year evolves.
In the Think stage, you’ll reflect on the changes you want to make. You’ll also reflect on how you think and feel about the prospect of making those changes, because how you think and feel about the process will influence your beliefs, and your beliefs will influence your actions and willingness to make change.
The Think stage is all about building a solid foundation, and that starts with choosing your goal wisely. Whether your goal is to save more money or reach a healthy weight, you want to be sure that the goal you choose is personally meaningful to you, not just desirable to someone else. So if the dream to go to law school is your mom’s, not yours, scrap it!
Choose a goal that lights you up — one that is energizing and challenging, but not impossible, to attain. Studies have shown that when goals stretch and challenge us, we will work harder and make more of an effort to achieve them.
Consider, too, that the best goals are those that meet your intrinsic needs for autonomy, competence and connectedness. If your goal relates to one of those needs, you will be happier and more satisfied when you reach it. (For more on the specifics of goal setting, see “Succeed.”)
Once you’ve chosen your goal, it’s essential to frame it in a positive way. My clients often start out saying, “Here’s what I want to stop doing,” or “Here’s what I want to avoid.” They think about all the things they’re running from and pushing away, instead of all the places they want to go and how they want to be.
But change through aspiration is more effective than change through desperation. Fear is a poor motivator, and the sad, scary stories we tell ourselves tend to cause more anxiety and paralysis than forward momentum.
Positive “where I’m headed” stories, on the other hand, are much more compelling. They help us form a clear mental picture of our destination. And we need to know our desired point of arrival before we can plot our course.
To create a clear, positive mental destination for your goals in 2012, ask yourself these questions:
- What is my goal? If I know what I don’t want (or what I want to stop doing or lose or let go of), what is the opposite of that?
- What do I want to change about what I’m doing or experiencing?
- How will my life be better when I change this?
- What makes this the time to change?
- What do I think and feel about the prospect of making this change now? What are my hopes and fears?
- How will I know when I’ve accomplished this goal?
- What will my life look and feel like when I’ve accomplished this goal?
- What do I want to be able to say is true about how I’m being and living at the end of 2012?
Take your time reflecting on these questions, and write down your answers. You’ll find that they begin to describe an empowering statement of intent and a big-picture vision.
If you don’t feel called to writing, find or create an image or a piece of music that helps articulate your vision. Or make a vision-board collage. With a clear, positive vision emblazoned on your brain, your path ahead will become more inviting. Disempowering choices will become much less tempting.
The Choose stage is when you fully commit to your goal. It’s the moment when you deepen your commitment to change by paying attention to your current behavior, setting intentions and making the decision to act.
Don’t, however, confuse the decision to act with taking action. Action will come soon enough! Think of the Choose stage as being “on deck” in a baseball game. You’re warming up for your turn at the plate, still doing the reflective, internal and skill-building work that will help you hit a homerun. (For more on how lasting change occurs, search for “The Stages of Change.”)
One of the essential elements at the Choose stage is building a sense of confidence — the knowledge that you can, with effort, make the change you hope to make. A lot of people get stalled here and don’t go any further, because they simply don’t believe in their ability to make the change.
One way to build confidence is to get more information about the change you’re hoping to make. This helps demystify the process and bring it into the realm of the doable. Read articles and books, take classes, ask people who have made this change about their experience and what the change required. Gather any necessary equipment or supplies you will need to be successful.
Using a mantra is another great way to build confidence. Repeat to yourself one of the following several times a day: “I choose to change” or “I get to change” or “I can do this.”
The next step is assessing where you’re at right now as it relates to your goal. Simply notice and pay attention to your daily behaviors and ask yourself these questions:
- What choices or behaviors in my daily life do I currently engage in that support my goal or get me closer to my goal? Even if it’s a single, tiny thing, take note of it.
- What behaviors in my daily life do I currently engage in that detract from my goal? Again, which situations or experiences trigger me to engage in self-sabotaging behavior, or to make a disempowering choice?
- How well do the choices I currently make in my daily life serve me?
- What information do I still need to learn about the change I want to make? What information do I already have?
The answers to these questions will give you a clear picture of where you’re starting from. This information is critical for accomplishing the next two steps in this stage: creating an action plan and setting appropriate benchmarks for measuring your progress.
An action plan is what turns your good intentions into something concrete and executable. Benchmarks are what allow you to see the progress you’re making or where you’re getting stuck. To create an action plan with benchmarks, ask yourself the following questions. Make your answers as specific as possible:
- Who/what can be a resource as I prepare to make this change?
- Where else will I find support?
- When will I begin to make this change?
- What will my first step be?
- What will my next step be?
- Who will support me as I make this change?
- Who might (intentionally or unintentionally) sabotage me?
- What boundaries will I have to set with people?
- What will I have to give up to make this change?
- How can I change my environment to support my new goal?
- What other preparations or shifts can I make to support my new goal?
- How will I measure my progress?
- What small wins in my daily life will signify that I’m making progress?
- How often will I measure my progress? How will I measure it?
- How will I reward myself when I’ve accomplished this goal? How will I notice and acknowledge meaningful progress?
The answers to these questions are the building blocks for your action plan. When you’ve answered them, you will be ready to move into action with gusto!
The Act stage, of course, is all about action. And action is where the real magic happens. I used to call this model “Think, Choose, Win.” Then I realized that people can think about a change and even choose it but still not act. There’s a real distinction between good intentions and great execution.
No matter how great your commitment to the Think and Choose stages, it’s just not enough to say, “I’m going to do X, Y or Z.” At some point (gulp), you have to get down to doing those things for real.
One key to success in the action stage is prioritizing your commitments to yourself. Let’s say you commit to working out during your lunch hour. You pack your workout gear in the morning. But then your coworkers say, “Hey, we’re all gonna go out for lunch! You wanna come?” That’s a tempting offer.
How can you prioritize your commitment to yourself (working out) when you’re hungry and tempted?
When you have to make a quick decision, use an abbreviated version of the questions in the Think stage. Answering these questions will remind you of the compelling reasons behind your decision to change, and boost your commitment to change on your list of priorities. You should be able to move through the questions quickly, taking no more than 60 seconds:
- What is my goal?
- How will this change improve my life?
- What makes this the time to change?
- How will I know when I’ve accomplished this goal?
- What will my life look and feel like when I’ve accomplished this goal?
Three powerful additional questions can also help in the moment of decision:
- In an hour, what will I be more happy/pleased/proud that I did?
- What choice would lead to the least amount of regret?
- What would the person I aspire to be choose right now?
If those strategies don’t work as well as you’d like, keep experimenting with different ways to be successful. In this scenario, for example, you could tell your coworkers about your new commitment. Or you could leave a few minutes
earlier than your coworkers generally do to avoid future tempting invitations.
Another approach is to identify your competing commitments and then make a purposeful choice to prioritize one for the moment.
In the lunch scenario, for example, you might acknowledge that you have a strong commitment to having fun, or to building new social and professional connections at work, and you also have a strong commitment to taking care of yourself and getting exercise. Those commitments might be in conflict at this moment. Reflect on which one is most important to you currently (not necessarily forever), then commit to prioritize that one for a set period of time — a week, month or year. When the time is up, you can reevaluate your priorities and make a shift if appropriate. (For more on competing commitments, search for “How to Overcome Immunity to Change.”)
No matter what change you’re making, experimenting with different ways to be successful is essential because the first or second or third try doesn’t always take.
You have to be willing to approach the action stage as an experiment, always asking yourself, “What is working here?” and “What isn’t working?” Then you have to be willing to adjust accordingly, creatively, patiently.
Think of yourself as a detective on the hunt for the best possible solution, and you won’t stop till you solve the case. Every time you act, you get new information, new evidence about what will and won’t work for you.
In the Win stage, it’s time to begin noticing and celebrating your successes. That means the accomplishment of your goals, but also the progress you’re making as you work through this process.
When working with clients, I notice that many of them are prone to ignoring or skipping right past this stage. We’ll be talking about the actions they committed to during their previous session, and they’ll be listing off the things they got done. They’ll get to the third one — it’s a goal they’ve been trying to accomplish for six weeks — and they’ll just blow by it like it was a minor errand. So I say, “Whoa! Wait? Did you just say you succeeded at something you’ve been working toward for weeks and you’re not even going to give it 30 seconds of recognition?”
The brain is a creature of habit. It likes to think the same thoughts it always thinks and spot the patterns it always spots. Old thinking habits don’t require a lot of cognitive energy, and while the brain isn’t exactly lazy, it doesn’t always like to work hard. So even when it’s good news or a big win, your brain isn’t programmed to ruminate on it.
But it’s critically important to notice and acknowledge your successes. Whenever you have a win — even if it’s a small one — you get important information about what’s working and what isn’t. You get the feedback you need to keep on creating more successes.
So, at the end of each day, ask yourself the following questions:
- Did I accomplish one or more of my goals today? If so, how did I do that? If not, what smaller successes did I create or experience over the past 24 hours?
- If I didn’t accomplish something I’d hoped to today, was my goal too ambitious? Was there an obstacle I underestimated?
- What choices or decisions, no matter how small, did I make today that served my larger goal?
- If I didn’t take forward action toward my goal today, did I stop myself from slipping backward? Did I manage to avoid making a negative, actively destructive or
- disempowering choice?
Once you’ve identified your wins for that day, analyze them a little more deeply for important information about the nature of your patterns and progress. Ask yourself these questions:
- If I had some big or small wins today, what went right? What worked to help me achieve them?
- What obstacles did I find blocking my way or impeding my progress?
- What did I learn about myself in the process?
If you discover during this process of inquiry that hitting the gym over lunch is just too fraught with difficulty — that you tend to have more success exercising before or after work — don’t lament that. Just notice and learn.
Finally, celebrate both the wins and the things you learn from working through this process. Consciously celebrating your wins will give your brain a hit of dopamine, resulting in a supercharged, confident, upbeat feeling. Our brains are hardwired to minimize danger and maximize reward. So if your brain learns that a “win” will result in a reward, it will strive to create that win again and again!
Clients often ask me how to celebrate their successes. Marking significant accomplishments with gifts or rewards is always nice. But one of the best ways to record and reflect on your daily successes is simply to journal about them.
Journaling helps you go from jumbled, fuzzy thinking to clearly articulating your successes in concrete words. Writing also recruits different parts of the brain than just thinking the thought, so you trigger more processing and reflection. Having it written also allows you to read it and review it, which anchors that success and lets you see and hear it better.
I recommend dedicating a specific journal to your success. As you write, remember that every little thing counts: If you’re trying to criticize your partner less, and one day you don’t say even one small thing that nicks away at your relationship, it’s a win. If you’re trying to eat less sugar, and you ate a piece of cake today, but it was a smaller slice than you normally have, it’s a win.
Remember, too, that we often learn as much from not achieving our goals as we do from reaching them. If you failed dramatically on a given day, treat that experience as a source of valuable information.
Most of all, as you strive to reach your goals in 2012, believe that you can and will achieve them. Equipped with the right questions and that confidence, you are already well on your way to making 2012 your best year yet!