To Follow Your Heart

I posted the image above on my social media accounts a while ago and was amazed to find how much it resonated with people. Maybe you’re not tired, maybe you’re just doing too little of what makes you come alive. It’s a theme that has kept cropping up in my coaching sessions and in random conversations with people over these last couple of months, as well as something that has been particularly close to my heart this past year.  

I don’t know about you, but my energy typically comes in bursts – often in moments of palpable connection and chemistry when I find a kindred spirit, when I’m talking about things I care about a great deal, or when I’m completely absorbed in making a project that matters to me happen. It’s also a running joke in my family about my ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, and for rudely long periods. There are days when I’ve simply had no energy for anything at all, yet also others when I’ve been on fire. 

You have, most likely, experienced what it feels like to just get by in a job, your work environment or just life in general – your energy levels dip, motivation wanes and productivity suffers. I hope, however, that you will also have had moments of alchemy when everything seemed to be working out – when you believed yourself to be happy, you were surrounded by the hope of possibility, and your energy levels and motivation were correspondingly high. 

There’s a complex relationship between energy, motivation, productivity and happiness. I’ve written before about motivation and how we’re all driven to achieve three things: autonomy (the ability to behave with a sense of volition, endorsement, willingness and choice), competence (mastery of our environment), and relatedness through purpose (the ability to care about and connect to others and to a bigger cause). When those three conditions of autonomy, competence and purpose are in place, there’s a much higher chance that you’ll be able to find yourself in the zone of what positive psychologists call ‘flow’: the mental state of being completely immersed in what you’re doing, where your skill is equal to the challenge and you are enveloped in the focus of the present moment – a space for you to be more productive, creative, and yes, happy. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (credited with having popularised the concept of Flow) has described it thus:

(Flow is) being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” (Wired interview, 1996)

You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

You’ll see from the images above that Flow has a number of key characteristics, but I like a bit of simplification, so where all these concepts come together for me is in recognition of this one thing: tapping into what, for you, is the meaning that makes life worth living. 

Meaning, I think, is the ultimate intrinsic motivator.  We catalyse our own happiness when we have meaningful goals that challenge us, yet are within our grasp, and when we’re able to direct and control our own actions in pursuit of those goals. 

In coaching I sometimes find that people feel happiness to be quite elusive, mainly because they’re looking for it anywhere but right here, right now. The thing about the energy of happiness, however, is that – unlike many of the events and things around us – harnessing this energy is very much within our control.1 Rather than expending energy on places, people and things that drain us, we can choose to direct our energy and presence into the optimal experience and ease of pursuing mastery of an area we care deeply about.

So where do you start? When working with my coaching clients we often look at the question of values pretty early on. ‘Values’, in straightforward terms, are the things that we stand for and how we want to behave as we move through life – they’re not something to be achieved, but rather what we want our lives to be about. Your set of values is individual to you, and when you connect with and set goals based on those values, you become able to take your life in meaningful directions even when the going gets tough. 

It’s helpful to think of them as a compass, giving you direction and keeping you on track as you go through life, setting and achieving goals along the way. Or perhaps like a lighthouse, guiding you on your way – your goal never being to obtain the lighthouse itself. Valuing is about the process and the journey, rather than the destination. 

There are plenty of tools and techniques to help people identify and clarify values. With my clients I like working with values card sort exercises (e.g. Carriochi and Bailey’s (2008) Survey of Life Principles) and questionnaires like Crace and Brown’s (2002) Life Values Inventory, but you can also do this old-school with a pen and paper, thinking about what matters to you in your life – you can split your life into as many areas as you like, or you may want to keep it simple with just a few key domains: work and education, love and relationships, health and wellbeing, and leisure and recreation. The values you identify might be obvious to others, or deeply personal to you, and there are no right or wrong answers. Perhaps your list might contain connecting with nature or having a life filled with adventure, or being self-sufficient, working with your hands, and making a lasting contribution to this earth. And then, perhaps the trickiest part: once you’ve clarified your values, it’s time to take a good close look at them and think about whether the life you’re leading is one that aligns with what you care about. 

What really matters to me, deep down?
What kind of person do I want to be?
What personal strengths or qualities do I want to develop?
What legacy would I like to leave?
And what am I going to do with these answers?

Plenty of people think of success in terms of goal achievement. If you do, I invite you now to consider an alternative to this, and see how it changes your thinking: success is living by your values. No matter how far your goals reach into the future (and no matter whether you ever achieve them), just like how happiness can be right here for you in this moment, so too can you have success right now – all that is required of you is that you choose to commit to your values, and start to work in the service of what really matters to you.2

This isn’t always going to be easy. You may have heard the adage that ‘fear and desire are two sides of the same coin’. If something really matters to you, when there’s a lot riding on something, the more it also matters if you don’t get what you want: what you desire is also what you fear to lose. 

British theologian John Henry Newman said, “Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.” So ask yourself this question: Are you willing to face whatever comes when you’re heading in the direction you desire? Self-doubt, distress and anxiety are common when we’re seeking meaning. Willingness takes strength, but if you summon the strength to say ‘yes’ to overcome your fears, there is a whole world beyond what you think you already know, filled with possibility.   

And finally, that image I posted at the top of the article? This was the accompanying caption.

Life is fleeting. One day you may look back and see how you let time march on inexorably, passing you by. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Happiness doesn’t only come about through grand gestures; it is in the moment of unguarded laughter, finally learning to be who you are, the willingness to be vulnerable, the seeing of joy in the mundane, the purpose in the pain, and living out what really matters to you. Go big or small, as long as you go. 

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

References

Carriochi, J. & Bailey, A. (2008). A CBT practitioner’s guide to ACT: How to bridge the gap between cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Crace, R. K., & Brown, D. (2002). Life Values Inventory. Williamsburg, VA: Applied Psychology Resources. 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

How long is forever

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“How long is forever?” asked Alice. “Sometimes, just one second.” replied the White Rabbit.

There are dreams lasting but a moment in which everything is suspended in eternity.

Get more of those moments. Don’t be afraid to dive deep with someone. Love intensely. Make that connection, take that leap, embrace the now. It’s all we have – the past is gone, and the future is promised to no one.

Finisterre

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I took this photo yesterday on the beach and it made me think of ‘Finisterre’ by David Whyte: https://onbeing.org/poetry/finisterre/

“but because now, you would find a different way to tread, / and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on, / no matter how, over the waves.”

If you’re looking for something to read that makes you say yes! that’s exactly it, you just put into words exactly how I felt – have a look at Whyte’s poetry.

One of my other favourites is ‘Sweet Darkness’.

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you”.

Your world is so big and blue and beautiful. Go explore.

Come, let us go and try it – why dream about it?

Fyodor Dostoevsky quote

As we look ahead to Monday, and as you take on whatever challenges and journeys this week brings, I want you to remember this. Don’t be someone who looks back at the end of their life, wistful that they never took a chance and never followed their dreams, and is filled with regret for wasted potential and opportunity.

You want it, go and get it. Make it a priority. Support is vital – you don’t have to do it on your own. But you have to do it.

Come, let us go and try it – why dream about it?

Ambition: When you don’t want what they’ve got

This month I’ve written a guest article for clouds+dirt, an online platform that seeks to ‘redefine spirituality for the modern woman’. The article may ostensibly be written for women, but there is a message for everyone in there. If you’ve ever felt an unravelling of the path you’ve hitherto been following, and realised how vital it was for you to re-evaluate what matters to you in your life and career, then have a read – and let me know what you think.

http://www.cloudsanddirt.co/ambition/

The Johari Window

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Last week, I got some totally unexpected, utterly lovely feedback from two of my colleagues: that I had something about me that made people happy to see me coming and that I was one of their favourite people at work. It was so apropos of nothing that I asked them suspiciously what they wanted. Ha!

They also told me that I was really good at persuading people to do things they didn’t want to do. We had a good laugh about that – I don’t think I’ve ever thought about myself in that way before.

Reflecting on the encounter, it occurred to me that the Johari Window might be quite useful in illustrating these different awareness spaces and perspectives.

The Open space is the part of ourselves accessible both to us and to others. Our Blind space contains the things that others see but we are unaware of, at least consciously. We keep certain aspects Hidden from others. And finally, there are, as Rumsfeld opined, the unknown unknowns – the Unconscious parts of us that neither ourselves nor others may realise are there.

There are, I think, some interesting discussions to be had around how it may benefit us to bring things across from the Hidden space to the Open arena. How much of a role does transparency and authenticity play in the trust that people are willing to place in us?

And on the other side of the window – our blind spot might contain some happy revelations, but also some unpalatable truths. How can, or should, we profitably use others’ honest opinions of us?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

The joy of new experiences

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In January I joined the Royal Leamington Spa Bach Choir despite not ever having had any classical choral experience. If you were following me at the time you may remember that by the time I got to the break in my first rehearsal I was all OMG WERE YOU THINKING YOU COULD SING YOU ARE TOTALLY DELUDED.

Well. Turns out I stuck with it and passed my audition, so I can’t have been that bad, and tomorrow we perform Haydn’s Theresienmesse and Mozart’s Requiem. And I can hit all the high notes and manage the vocal gymnastics that sent fear down my spine at the beginning.

So: try out new things, even if you don’t think you’re going to be any good at them. And then if you’re awful, keep going. Because you’re going to learn from the things you get wrong, and you’re going to get better. And the better you get, the more it will motivate you. And then you’ll look back and realise how much progress you’ve made, and you’re going to bloody love it.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Do you love the life you’re living?

I was messaging one of my best friends last week and he asked me what my purpose in life was. I thought for a little while, and then I wrote: “Making life a little better for every person I come into contact with, whether it’s for a moment or for the long haul. Helping people to believe in themselves. This life has got to be about something bigger than yourself – working towards a greater purpose. Maybe that sounds a little worthy? I feel very strongly about it though.”

I’ve been thinking about that today as I reflect on the past few weeks. Why do you do the work that you do? Do you love the life you’re living?

What is your driving purpose – that particular thread that pulls everything together for you? Some people want to make a difference through the execution of their vision for a better world – social change, environmental work etc. None of that floats my boat much. My driver is wanting to touch people’s hearts and build them up at an individual level.

Some people are perfectly happy just being – in some ways that is the ultimate goal, finding perfect happiness in this moment. But that needn’t detract from searching for what it is that will give this life meaning and fulfilment.

If you’re searching, then you need to understand your values and how to turn those into something worth pursuing. You also need to understand your motivated strengths: the things you’re not only good at, but actually like doing.

While continual introspection without action is pointless, action without understanding why can be counter-productive. How do you expect to end up where you want to be if you don’t know where you need to be heading?

Those of you who have attended some of my workshops or have been coached by me will know that I love using cards as a coaching resource – used well they can really facilitate discovery of key strengths, skills, values etc., and they also make a great self-coaching tool.
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These are from Barefoot Coaching Cards (the Coaching Cards for Every Day pack, which I’ve been sorting through today while chatting with a dear friend about purpose and direction). Perhaps one or more of these questions will find impact with you this week.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

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