January and that New Year Resolution Jazz

We somehow appear to be over halfway through January. How’s your month going so far? Did you make New Year resolutions? And if you did, how far have you stuck with them?

Last week I came across a quote that said “January is the Monday of the year”. The analogy is fitting, I suppose, for that (often reluctant) return to work after an extended break – starting the engine from cold; pulling out the choke; jump starting the battery. Excuse the motoring metaphors; I’ve currently got my next car on the brain (the Suzuki Jimny, in Kinetic Yellow, but I digress).

You may have read the research that tells us why January, despite its standard 31 days, always feels like the longest month of the year. Yes, science has spoken. That, plus January’s often the longest month between paydays. So not only are you cold and grumpy, but now, to add insult to injury, you also don’t have any money.

RozChast©Roz Chast, The New Yorker

It’s interesting, therefore, that for that final January flourish, lots of us then place ourselves under pressure by setting resolutions that are unsustainable, not fully thought through, insufficiently specific, or have the wrong focus. You’re going to lose ten pounds, save more money, eat less sugar, stop drinking, and argue less with your partner. You’ll start with the best of intentions, and burn brightly for two weeks before life catches up. Indeed, some research conducted by Strava discovered that in 2018, 12 January was the day that most New Year resolutions ended up slinking guiltily into the shadows.

Where did my motivation go?

So what happened? According to Dr Raj Persaud in his book The Motivated Mind, the science of self-motivation helps us understand that there are only three reasons why people don’t achieve what they want: resource depletion, inadequate tracking, and goal conflict.

‘Resource depletion’ occurs when your resources are insufficient for the task. That might be in practical terms (for instance a genuine lack of time, or not enough funds), but more often than not it’s physical or emotional (lack of energy, low mood).

‘Inadequate tracking’ refers to when you fail to adequately monitor progress towards attaining your goal. Because steps towards goal achievement are often gradual and incremental, measuring your progress provides valuable feedback on how effectively you’re working and how close you are to your target. If you don’t know where you are, it’s difficult to see how to get to where you want to be.

Finally: ‘goal conflict’. This occurs when a goal that you set is incompatible with one or more other things that you set out to do. Maybe the last time you resolved to participate in Dry January, you lasted 10 days because you wanted to kick back and relax the weekend after returning to work. Often the conflict is between longer-term goals and shorter-term desires – psychological experiments have repeatedly shown that we have a predilection for valuable outcomes sooner rather than later.

Our inbuilt preference for earlier gratification means that we’re battling our biology every time we try to focus on that distant reward. And the thing about willpower is that generally it is quite an unreliable beast, so thinking that you’ll be strong enough to stick to your goals this time is, unfortunately, not a particularly effective strategy.

What to do?

Firstly, don’t abandon the desire for self-improvement; having New Year resolutions isn’t in itself a problem. The problem that lots of us have, even before we come to the question of motivation, is that we don’t set the right goals. Sometimes, in fact, we might not even really be ready for change.

Are you stuck in chronic contemplation?

TTM(The Transtheoretical Model of Change, Prochaska and DiClemente)

Studies of change have found that people move through a series of stages when intentionally modifying their behaviour. Change, in other words, is something that unfolds over time. I think the most pertinent stage to talk about here is that of Contemplation, where people intend to change, but aren’t quite ready – they know what the advantages of change will be, but they’re also highly aware of the drawbacks. This can produce significant ambivalence and procrastination, which often means that people stay stuck.

No surprise then that most resolutions, apparently, are repeated five years in a row!

If you’re stuck in chronic contemplation or are otherwise getting in your own way, you need to tackle this first. This is where psychological coaching can be really valuable, helping you to understand and modify unhelpful beliefs, tackle underlying cognitive rules and assumptions, and learn to develop greater self-belief and self-acceptance. For now, though, I’m going to assume that you’re ready for action.

Goal set, game on

Here’s where it all starts to happen. How do you set satisfying and achievable goals? When I work with my coaching clients on this, we go through a process that includes goal clarification, prioritisation, and design. The kinds of questions we might explore at each stage look somewhat like this:

Clarification: What’s the overarching goal? Why do I want this? How does it align with my needs and values? Is this goal short-term in nature or does it require motivation to be sustained over a longer period?

Prioritisation: How high a priority am I placing on this goal? Where does it sit in my overall goal hierarchy? How does it align with my other goals? How can I address any goal conflict?

Design: Am I setting dead person’s goals? How can my overarching goal be broken down into achievable steps?

During the process, we also pause to reflect on a few important things.

First things first: What the heck are dead person’s goals?

Well, simply put, they’re goals a dead person can achieve better than you.

Language is really important when it comes to goal-setting. Goals like “I want to stop drinking”, “I want to eat less sugar” or “I want to argue less with my partner” are all about doing less of something or stopping something (let’s face it, the dead person’s got that in the bag, and he’s way ahead of you).

Instead, think about how you can turn that around to aim for positive action. What you focus on you tend to create, so focus on the things you want, not the things you want to get rid of. Ask yourself: So if I stop this, or do less of this – how are things going to change? What will I start doing, or do more of? How will I behave differently?

Vagueness is not a goal-setting virtue

Remember inadequate tracking? It’s hard to know how close you are to your destination if you don’t know where you are – but even before that, it might have been Seneca who said “if a person doesn’t know to which port they sail, no wind is favourable”.

So be clear about what you want your end result to be. Be specific about what, how, and by when, and make sure too that what you’re aiming at is realistic and achievable within the parameters you’ve set yourself. And then don’t forget to check in with yourself on a regular basis to assess your progress and recalibrate if you’ve gone off-track. 

Daily commitment to action and consistency are key

Let’s assume you’ve set a great goal. You have a vision of what you want your end point to be. Now what? How do you get from here to there?

Here’s where we come to talk about a systems mindset. To read more about this, I highly recommend you pick up Scott Adams’ book How to Lose At Everything And Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. In Adams’ words: “For our purposes, let’s say a goalis a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”

Having a systems mindset means that, rather than being end-state and future-oriented, you become process and present-oriented. You can see the longer-term vision, but what you’re doing today is the thing that matters most. If your goal’s to run a marathon in September, and you start training now, you’re not going to see any difference tomorrow. But follow that training plan week in, week out, and come the marathon, you’ll be ready. You may not be able to tick that overarching goal off your list until September, but if you commit to consistent daily action, you’ll be winning each and every day.

So start breaking down that overarching goal into small, achievable daily ways of being that you can sustain over the longer term. Think micro-resolutions – commitment to a limited, specific and measurable change in behaviour or attitude that produces a tangible and immediate benefit. It taps into that predilection for immediate gratification and the positive feedback keeps us encouraged. And you know what else? One of the best cures for lack of motivation is taking action. Just do it.

And that’s it – I do like it when a plan comes together. One final parting thought before I go. You can do all this at any time. You don’t need to wait for a new year, a new month or even a new week to start working towards the change you want to see. So if you abandoned your 2019 New Year resolutions last week, here’s your next chance. It starts now. You’ve got this.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Swallow the toad

IMG_0837The famously witty French writer Nicolas Chamfort reportedly said: “All literatures might be ransacked in vain for a more repulsive saying than this, that a man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be quite sure of finding nothing more disgusting still for the rest of the day.” Mark Twain, meanwhile, is (wrongly) credited with the version of the saying that talks about eating the frog.

Either way, the sentiment is the same. Got an unpleasant task to do? JFDI and get on with your day. The longer you leave it, the more horrible it will look.

And if you have two toads? Swallow the bigger, more disgusting one first.

That’s your life advice today from Quiet Space Coaching.

Walking in the rain

rainroom_sharjahThis is a photo of the Rain Room in Sharjah, taken by my friend Laura. This previously touring installation by Random International has found a permanent home in the desert and is a space of pouring rainfall that lets you experience up close and personal the sounds, humidity and visual experience of rainfall – except you don’t get wet. I’ve never experienced it personally – alas! – as I missed the exhibition, but I absolutely love the concept.

You may have heard the saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”. Have you ever gone out in the pouring rain? You probably didn’t possess the wizardry required to walk through it without any protective clothing, keeping utterly dry and untouched. So perhaps you let yourself get drenched. Perhaps you changed your plans to avoid it. More likely, you groaned a bit and wished you could stop the rain, but then you got out your wellies and jacket or umbrella and got on with your day. Maybe you factored in a bit more time to get the bus instead of walking, or changed your route to a more sheltered one. In other words, you altered how you acted in relation to the rain.

I really like this as a metaphor for difficult thoughts or emotions, or the scary stories we tell ourselves. Do you ever have problems achieving your goals because your mind is keeping you stuck? Maybe you tell yourself I can’t do it. Or I’m freaking out. Or I’m going to fail spectacularly. Pick your own favourite. 

If this strikes a chord with you, try this short exercise (adapted from Blonna, 2010).

  1. Imagine you’re about to go out but it’s just started pouring with rain. You don’t want to change your plans, but neither do you want to get drenched, and you know you can’t control the rain. So you get out your umbrella and your wellies, and you head out, and you get to where you need to be and do what you need to do. All the while the rain keeps falling, but it’s ok, because you’re shielded and the rain is bouncing off your umbrella and puddling around your boots.
  2. Now imagine that the thoughts that your mind is giving you about this task are just like the rain. You feel the drops starting and you say to yourself, I’d better get out my umbrella and my wellies.
  3. You open your umbrella and instantly you are protected from these thoughts. Like the raindrops, they bounce off your umbrella and wellies, and don’t interfere with your doing what you need to do.
  4. As you continue ‘walking in the rain’, tell yourself: Just as I can use an umbrella to shield me from the rain, I can use my metaphorical umbrella to help me live the life I want even though I am experiencing unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

The fact is, most of us would prefer to live our lives without having to walk in rainstorms. Unfortunately, life will be full of lots of bad weather, which we cannot control or get rid of. All we can really do is accept it and be willing to live our lives in the middle of it. And just like we do with the rain, we can move forward with our difficult thoughts, observing and accepting that they are there, and that that’s normal.

Here’s some rain. Here’s some fear. There’s no need to judge it or control it. You can be, and do, despite.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Blonna, R. (2010). Maximize your coaching effectiveness with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Lemons, lemons, lemons

IMG_0238

Are you ever really mean to yourself? Do you judge yourself with words like ‘useless’, ‘fat’, ‘stupid’, ‘bad mother’, etc.?

Here’s an idea for today. Pick a simple word – the classic is ‘lemon’ (Titchener, 1916). Say the word out loud once or twice, and notice what happens in your mind when you say it – thoughts, images, memories.

Now repeat the word over and over again, *out loud*, as fast as possible, for thirty seconds, until it becomes just a sound. Do this now before reading on.
.
.
.
.
.
.
Now run through the exercise again with the word or short phrase you judge yourself with the most.
.
.
.
.
.
.
What did you notice? Most people find the word or phrase becomes meaningless within about thirty seconds. Those judgements? They’re just words. That’s all they are – just words we decide to imbue with so much negative meaning. Once you can expose that ugly word for what it really is – simply a sound, a movement of your mouth and tongue – you begin to be able to separate yourself from it. This isn’t you.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Big I/Little i

Have you come across the big I/little i? The big ‘I’ stands for the self, and the little ‘i’s are everything about you that you could potentially rate (your looks, career, relationship status, level of fitness, how well-read you are, your education level, your weight, etc.).

The key mistake lots of people make is to equate the little ‘i’s with their complex self – “I failed that test; I’m the stupidest one in the class”, or “I can’t hold down a relationship; I am unlovable”, or “I put on 5 pounds; I’m disgusting”.

You start to see the absurdity of this if you flip the situation around and say “I came first in the test; I am superior to everyone else”, or saying that giving money to the homeless makes you a virtuous person (even if the next day you cheat on your partner).

You don’t rate yourself globally based on your ‘good’ behaviour, so why do it on the basis of your ‘bad’? When you focus on the big ‘I’, you are often in attack mode. When you focus on the little ‘i’s, knowing that none of them in themselves define you, self-acceptance is teaching you how to recognise and improve upon your shortcomings without labelling yourself and that label becoming your identity.

That inner critic? That label? That thing you think you did badly yesterday? That’s not you.

Big I/little i diagram from Neenan and Dryden, Life Coaching: A cognitive behavioural approach.

Card from the ACT deck, Timothy Gordon.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Leave your ego at the door

2018-06-09 14.15.42-2

A little while ago I attended a webinar on coaching leaders ‘beyond their ego’. The material was based on the premise that IQ and EI are not sufficient for 21st century leadership, and that values, purpose, instinct, intuition and ethics are crucial in enabling one to operate beyond self-interest in order to become a truly radical, ethical, authentic and successful leader.

My summary: “Leave your ego at the door.”

It made me start thinking about my own ego in coaching. The role of the coach is to hold the reflective space and create a catalysing environment within which the coachee can gain greater awareness and be appropriately challenged in order to learn and grow. It’s not about the coach – the coachee creates the agenda, and is their own expert problem-solver.

When I was first training as a coach, I frequently found myself getting in the way. I was anxious about coaching well, but the paradox of this is that the more determined you are to be a good coach, the worse you get. What often happens is that you start listening with an ear to speak, in order to plan an incisive and profound question – just the one that will make your coachee have an ‘aha!’ moment. Of course, that means you stop actually listening to your coachee, and start following your own agenda rather than theirs. Oops!

I have learnt a great deal as a coach over the past seven years, but we all need reminders every now and again. In reflecting on my coaching sessions over the past few months I can see that I have been my clients’ best coach at precisely those times when I have left my ego at the door, with no attachment to the outcome.

I like that about yoga and mindfulness too – inhabiting a space without judgement, with compassion, in the present, full of heart. That’s the kind of coach I continually strive to be.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

What is forgiveness?

Forgiveness

A little while ago, I had a coaching session in which a key theme was reconciliation. We talked about forgiveness and what that really meant. What was the motivation in seeking reconciliation? What outcomes were desired? Was it for the other person to apologise and admit they had been in the wrong? Or to say I value your friendship and I would very much like to make things ok between us again. Can we talk?

This is what I think forgiveness is about. You can’t control how other people will act, and if you allow their actions to dictate your responses, you can end up becoming resentful and bitter.

I think forgiveness is for your own peace, to allow yourself to move forward. If it’s conditional on the other person being sorry, what happens if they aren’t? If you make forgiveness a contract, you bind yourself to only being able to give if the other person does their bit. It doesn’t need to be reciprocal. It is, I think, fundamentally about saying: “I send you peace. I let go of this pain.”

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Quiet space

IMG_9259

I wanted to share with you why Quiet Space is called Quiet Space.

If you’ve read the Quiet Space blurb you’ll have read this: “Quiet Space is all about that space in our heads that we need for equilibrium and some preservation of sanity, and evaluation of the things that really matter to us. Quiet Space Coaching creates that space so you have room to think, talk, be listened to and understood.”

Inner space and stillness is an incredibly important element in our wellbeing. Yet so many of us spend our lives rushing from place to place, filling our days with busyness. And then social media often fills the gaps that remain in our schedules. Everything is always on the ‘on’ setting – and it’s exhausting.

In coaching, it is often in the spaces in between – the silences – where the real power resides. It’s where the magic often happens: the space of the ‘aha’ moments; the space in between words and thoughts. In those moments the tumblers of the lock fall into place and what may have been just out of reach suddenly takes on a marvellous clarity.

Wishing you calm, quiet space and amazing clarity of thought today.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Psychological coaching

2018-09-11 20.27.34

I’ve been at the British Psychological Society over the past couple of days with the Centre for Coaching, doing a CPD course in cognitive behavioural approaches to performance coaching. It’s been excellent so far and I’ve got so many takeaways to integrate into client work. Some really important insights into my emotional boundaries as a coach too. Plus bonus points for these beautiful images outside the training room.

“Psychology is about what people (think, feel and do,) sometimes all at the same time. (…) Psychology is also about how we make sense of life. In this no two people are the same.”

Looking forward to the full cert in psychological coaching in November!

Procrastination and perfectionism

Earlier this week I read an article on BBC News, which reported on a recent study that had provided physiological evidence of how the emotional centres of the brain can overwhelm a person’s ability for self-regulation (such as when you’re trying to keep on task), and how procrastination is a problem much more to do with managing emotions than it is to do with managing time. (Lots more information on this is available at procrastination.ca.)

I’m no scientist, but here’s a highly-simplified representation of your brain, so if you’re also a non-scientist you can visualise what I (hope I know I) am talking about.

three-brainsOne thing I found particularly interesting about the article was that the study showed that the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and deals with motivation and emotion, was larger in procrastinators. It also showed that in these individuals, the connections between the amygdala and another part of the brain, the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), weren’t as good as in the non-procrastinators. (The ACC, which sits in between the ’emotional’ limbic system and the ‘cognitive’ prefrontal cortex (part of the neocortex), takes information from the amygdala and uses this to decide what action the body will take as a result. It helps keep us on task and on track by enabling us to filter out emotions and distractions.)

So what does this all mean? If your amygdala’s more active, and your brain isn’t filtering that information out effectively, your decision-making and task-management ability can suffer. In sum, how our brains are wired can determine whether we’re more likely to get on with a task or continually put it off.

All this made me start reflecting on the work I’ve done with clients who have wanted help with time management. Inevitably, the core issue has not in fact been to do with time management. Instead, the difficulty of completing tasks has been interwoven with feelings of overwhelm and not being good enough; avoidance of tasks that trigger feelings of anxiety; and a deep-seated fear of what the client views as failure. A lot of this often has its roots in patterns learnt in childhood – enter the loud inner critic and the continual need to prove oneself through doing everything well.

In job interviews, when asked to talk about one’s weaknesses, one answer that often gets used is “I’m a real perfectionist and have high standards, and this can mean I spend more time than necessary getting things just right.” The idea, of course, is to present a weakness that you don’t actually see as a weakness. The trouble with this (apart from the cliched answer – which I don’t recommend, by the way) is that I don’t think perfectionism really has anything to do with standards and with getting things right. Rather, it’s an inability to be happy with what you have achieved because there is always room for more improvement: “Good, better, best; never let it rest. Till your good is better, and your better best.” It’s not a pursuit of excellence, it’s an endless cycle of nothing you do ever being adequate. It’s the constant, unhappy refrain of “if I don’t do a stellar job then I am not good enough”. Perfectionism and low self-esteem are a great double-act, and have been shown to be associated with anxiety and depression. 

For the perfectionist, working drafts are often anathema – you want things to be just right straightaway. You dislike being a beginner; if you’re going to do something you want to be good at it from the get-go. You get bogged down in the details, crafting and re-crafting something to try and get it just-so. Instead of relaxing into and enjoying the process of learning and growth, you are constantly assessing your performance. You think you’ve failed if you haven’t driven yourself to deliver anything less than perfect.

The constant need to live up to what are actually quite unrealistic and unfair expectations of yourself can be an exhausting struggle. Far easier to avoid doing something, because then you also avoid the negative emotions associated with it. And that is precisely what happens: you put off doing things because they trigger your anxiety about inadequacy in some way. I can’t face that right now. There’s too much to think about. I need to have time to do it properly. Over time, this can lead to complete overwhelm.

How do you break this cycle? Let’s first be clear – like anything else that takes a lifetime to build up, these negative patterns will take time to fix. But the important thing is to recognise that they can be changed. I believe that that change starts with learning self-compassion. In self-compassion, acceptance is key: accepting what is, what was, who you are and how you think and feel, without judgment. I think an important aspect of self-compassion is also self-forgiveness – learning to let go of not just the past and its regrets, but also all the future possible somebodies or somebody elses you may feel you need to become, in order to allow yourself to come fully into the present.

I’ve written several previous posts about mindfulness and meditation and thoroughly recommend this as a valuable partner in the journey towards being kind to yourself. Briefly back to the science – research has shown that mindfulness meditation is related to shrinkage of the amygdala and expansion of the prefrontal cortex. Learning to love yourself, in other words, literally changes your brain.

If this article has struck a chord with you, and you’re looking for support in your journey, coaching can help. Do get in touch. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some short-term practical assistance: there are tools out there that can help you get to grips with tasks when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. I often use this action-priority matrix with clients:

Copy of Action-priority matrix-2

You may well have seen something similar – a common one is the ‘urgent vs. important’ matrix – but this particular rendition is a PICK chart (Plan-Implement-Consider-Kick Out) and the idea is that you categorise your tasks in terms of their relative impact vs. effort. So:

  • Low effort, high impact: Quick wins, go do them now. A complementary exercise I often use with clients is what I call “What One Thing (are you going to do today)?”   
  • Low effort, low impact: These are ‘time-fillers’ – consider doing them if you want to, but they shouldn’t be your go-to pile all the time.
  • High effort, low impact: (Don’t. Unless you have an actual obligation to do so.)
  • High effort, high impact: This is often where the procrastination comes in and, together with the Implement quadrant, is where clients typically need to focus. These are tasks that you need to do but can’t be done in one sitting. They require planning, and benefit from task breakdowns and micro-resolutions (small, achievable goals).

I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have, why not subscribe to my mailing list so you don’t miss future updates?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd