Three Problems With Life Coaching

Do you you remember Stuart Smalley, the character played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live? He looked in a mirror and recited an affirmation:  I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and — doggone it — people like me.

I hear a little of Stuart’s voice in life coaches who advocate affirmations, tout the law of attraction, or lead you in a guided visualization (ignoring recent research about this practice). Even goal-setting — a major focus in life coaching — has its own issues.

Going deeper, I find three reasons to question life coaching as a path to behavior change.

Lack of certification

If you want to call yourself a life coach, you can do that today. There’s no formal certification process and no widely accepted definition of life coaching.

Lack of specialization

There’s a common assumption that you can work with a life coach to meet any goal or acquire any skill — even if the coach has never met that particular goal or developed that particular skill. I’d prefer to get coaching from someone with demonstrated competence in achieving a specific outcome.

Lack of training in mental health diagnosis

Many life coaches make a clear distinction between coaching and psychotherapy. In practice, however, this distinction is hard to maintain.

Conditions such as depression and anxiety can be subtle and difficult to diagnose. How can a life coach without training in mental health diagnosis know when to refer you to a psychotherapist?

What to ask a life coach

I worked with a life coach briefly. At first, it was exhilarating. The conversation centered unconditionally on me. I launched into a passionate and unfocused soliloquy that went on for weeks.

In the end, nothing much about my behavior actually changed.

OK, so I take responsibility for that. But in retrospect, I wish I’d started life coaching by asking a few questions:

  • How did you become a life coach?
  • What kinds of outcomes can I expect from life coaching — and what outcomes can I not expect?
  • What kind of process will we use, and how do you know that process works?

If I ever work with a life coach again, these items will lead the agenda.

To learn more: What Can Coaches Do For You? from the Harvard Business Review.

Joe Hanson on Crap-Detecting Science News

Joe Hanson, host of It’s OK To Be Smart, posted this useful video. Please view it before claiming that your next article, book, blog post, or presentation is “based on science.”

Joe cautions us to watch out for:

  • Headlines that consist of a question.
  • Headlines that include quotation marks.
  • Words that reveal uncertainty, such as link, association, correlation, suggest, and baffled.
  • The word breakthrough: True breakthroughs are rare.
  • The word controversial: Controversy does not always mean accuracy.
  • Articles that reinforce stereotypes.
  • Articles that appear on sites with lots of advertising: You could be reading “churnalism” or “click bait.”

In addition:

  • Distinguish between press releases (marketing material) and good journalism (fact-checked and balanced).
  • Read to find out if the article was peer-reviewed and published — or simply presented at a conference.
  • Read closely to determine whether the reporter talked to the main researcher.
  • Remember that “shit flows uphill”: misinformation spreads like wildfire, especially online.
  • Don’t claim that science “proves” anything: Findings are based on current data and can be revised when new data emerges.

Bottom line: Blend curiosity with skepticism. Keep an open mind — but so open that your brains fall out.

To Engage Readers, Make Your Core Messages Easy to Find

What readers ultimately take away from a non-fiction, “how-to” book is one big idea and five to ten supporting ideas that lead to positive behavior change. Let’s structure our books so that readers find those ideas without friction.

Here we can take a cue from good newspapers, which place key messages in predictable places — headlines and lead paragraphs. We can do something like this in a book manuscript.

The key is to remember where readers will go first and craft those sections with care.

1. Write a table of contents that sells your book

When considering whether to buy and read your book, many people will flip to the table of contents. Reel them in by giving them something of substance here. In addition to chapter titles, list the subheadings within each chapter as well.

Also write titles and subheadings that truly inform. Peter Bregman does this in 4 seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want. So do Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in Rework and Remote.

For more inspiration, study the headlines in good news sources such as the New York Times and BBC. Copyblogger offers some excellent guidance on headlines as well.

2. Make the first few pages shine

After scanning the table of contents, people are likely to land on the first few pages of text — the introduction or first chapter. This is arguably the most important part of your book.

If you wrote a compelling proposal for your book, then draw on the work you’ve already done. Look in particular at the overview section of the proposal. This makes the case that you have an original and effective solution to an urgent problem that readers face.

3. End with a bang

Close each chapter or part of your book with a list of key take-aways. The folks from 99u do this well in their books, including Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business.

End your book as whole with another summary. Round it out by suggesting concrete ways for readers to act on your ideas:

  • Guide readers to define projects and next actions.
  • List Tiny Habits for readers to adopt.
  • Provide scripts — examples of what readers could say in a conversation or write in an email.

When we guide readers from ideas to action, we create a legacy that will outlast our words.

Organizing 11,000 Ideas — Here’s How Robert Pirsig Did It

One of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Less well known is Pirsig’s second book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, which was published 17 years after Zen.

During those years, Pirsig took notes for Lila on small slips of paper. He used them like index cards, writing one idea on each slip and filing all the slips in a big box. (Many people — including Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday — still prefer this method.)

Pirsig ended up with over 11,000 slips. Most of these fell logically into various categories. But many did not.

To save his sanity, Pirsig created five special categories for rogue ideas. Consider using these categories whenever you organize any large body of notes:

  • Unassimilated is a holding zone for recent notes that still need to be reviewed and filed.
  • Program is for instructions about what to do with the rest of your notes. If Pirsig had visions for a whole new set of categories, for example, he filed those ideas here.
  • Crit slips describe all the notes you want to destroy and the reasons for destroying them. Often these ideas came to Pirsig in moments of despair. Rather than immediately trashing his notes, however, he simply noted his first thoughts and filed them here to review later.
  • Tough is for important notes that don’t fit in any existing category.
  • Junk is for notes that initially seemed important but now look useless. “Most of the slips died there but some reincarnated,” Pirsig wrote, “and some of these reincarnated slips were the most important ones he had.”

The beauty of these categories is that they allow you to keep notes organized while your ideas are still incubating. In particular, you’ll make room for the “junk” ideas that later emerge as shining gems.

Readers Will Tweak Our Instructions — And That’s OK

Idea entrepreneurs sometimes labor for years to create step-based processes. These authors load their books with methods, tips, strategies, applications, and action plans. Yet the inevitable fact is that people will tweak our precious processes to fit their personal style.

Instead of berating our audiences for “corrupting” our content, let’s let go of our attachments and allow for individual differences.

As a case in point, consider David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Avoid an “us versus them” mindset

Like many best-sellers, GTD (the acronym for David’s book and the method it presents) inspires zealots and heretics.

Some people swear by GTD and describe it as the Bible for productivity.

Others berate the GTD community as a cult and dismiss the method as hopelessly complex.

(To see what they’re talking about, get a GTD overview.)

Such polarizing reactions are unnecessary. Underlying them is an all-or-nothing, love-it-or-leave-it mentality: either take an author’s ideas in toto as absolutes. Or, reject them entirely.

What’s most reasonable and realistic is a middle ground. I, for example, count myself as a GTD enthusiast. Yet there are many suggestions in David’s book that I don’t implement. They just don’t make a difference for me. I adhere to the spirit rather than the letter of his ideas.

Clarify core distinctions

Seth Godin notes that the core content in any business book — he calls it the “recipe” — can usually be reduced to 2 or 3 pages. The rest of the book is the “sell” — persuading you to actually do something differently.

The recipe often boils down to a small list of concepts that are truly original, uniquely presented, or especially useful. When it comes to GTD, for instance, here’s what I ultimately take away:

  • Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. To keep your head clear, capture ideas as they occur to you and put them in writing, even when you’re on the run. Jot them down on index cards or “sticky notes” and toss them into your in basket. Another option is to open up a plain text file on your smart phone, tablet, or computer and make a quick note.
  • Use the “three D’s” to clear out your in basket. Take each item, one at a time, and choose wether to delete it, do it now, or defer it to a later time. Note deferred items on your calendar or a list. (Some people add a fourth “D” — delegate.)
  • Distinguish between projects and next actions. Projects are outcomes that require more than one action to achieve. Next actions are physical and visible — things that you can actually do today, such as making a phone call, running an errand, or sending an email.
  • Do a weekly review. Keep a list of all the active projects in your life and then ask: What is the very next action I will take to move each project forward? (David recommends that you keep many lists, but projects and next actions are the only ones I use.)

Your content has a center of gravity, an irreducible essence. What is it? Put that recipe in writing, and keep it short. Then do your readers a favor by placing it in prominently in your book — as an introduction, summary, or both.

Encourage readers to experiment

Four crucial words are missing from most instructions that I read — your mileage may vary (YMMV). The larger and more complex your method, the more these words apply.

The Tiny Habits program from BJ Fogg perfectly embodies this message while delivering a powerful and focused set of instructions. BJ offers a tested recipe for creating a new habit. He also cautions that you may go through several tries before settling on a behavior that actually sticks.

This is the kind of message that readers can run with. Our goal is a balance of rigor and permission. Achieving it is no small feat.

Writing as Spiritual Practice — Insights from Haruki Murakami

Murakami_Haruki_(2009)Like yoga, writing can be a spiritual path. By “spiritual,” I mean the experience of unity — when mind and body work together.

If you don’t like spiritual, then say integrative instead. Either word describes a daily practice that fuses physical movement and creativity.

My inspiration comes from novelist Haruki Murakami, who knows this territory well. When interviewed for The Paris Review, he said:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

(For more details, see The Running Novelist, Murakami’s article for the The New Yorker.)

I used to think of exercise as a break from the work day. Murakami reminds me to see physical movement as part of the creative process.

Image:, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

Robert Greene On Thinking and Writing Well

330px-Robert_Greene_B&WRobert Greene wrote several best-selling books, including Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 50th Law (with 50 Cent). Though I have qualms about the Machavellian philosophy in several of these, I am fascinated by Robert’s writing process.

“What I learned is that willpower, the intensity of desire, and practice can take us to levels of performance we never thought possible,” Robert writes. He suggests the following strategies.


Like Haruki Murakami, Robert compares writing books to running a marathon. There’s nothing glamorous about the process, which can involve periods of physical and mental depletion.

To prevent this, says Greene, develop a rigorous exercise routine. Avoid boredom by alternating between several activities, such as running and biking.

Gradually increase the intensity of your daily exercise. If you reach a point where you feel sustained tiredness, then back off a little. The goal is a plateau of activity that gives you more energy throughout the day.


Robert does at least 30 minutes of Zen meditation daily. This increases his ability to concentrate and let unexpected insights emerge.

Research to discover an original structure for your ideas

To research a new book, Robert reads 200 to 300 existing books on his topic. This takes about a year.

He takes notes in an old-school way, writing by hand on index cards:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes (called marginalia) on the side.

After I’m done reading I’ll often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards. A good book will generate 20 to 30 notecards, while a bad book will generate two or three notecards.

Essentially, Robert deconstructs existing books into smaller pieces and looks for new relationships between them. Eventually the table of contents for his next book is born.

Cultivate “negative capability”

Negative capability — a concept from the poet John Keats — means tolerating uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox. This prods us to think in new ways that resolve apparent contradictions.

To practice negative capability, develop a habit of observing people without judging them. Try to see the world from their point of view.

Also, as you begin a writing project, list your current assumptions about the topic. Then throw out or suspend as many as possible.

Think like an outsider

If you have training in a field that’s not directly related to your project, then use this as an advantage. What concepts from this field can you “import”? The answers will help you ask new questions and find novel connections between ideas.

Subvert your current patterns of thinking

Seek out facts and theories that contradict your current conclusions. Then ask why and how they can exist. When studying an event, ask yourself how it could have unfolded in a different way.

Use active imagination

For example, Henry Ford imagined workers standing still and working with auto parts that came to them. Result: the assembly line.

Use notebooks, drawings, and diagrams to visualize new ideas. Translate ideas into predictions and even physical models that you can test. Iterate and see what works — even if it takes you in a surprising direction.

In short, think of creativity as fusing two entities within you:

  • The child, who explores the world with few assumptions and thinks in fluid, flexible ways
  • The adult, who uses knowledge, experience, and observation to refine first thoughts into working theories

Note: For more about how Robert works, go to my sources for this post:

The Art of Relaxed Productivity — Four Ideas from Jay Parini

JayParini-052212-0021-crop.jpgI read a wonderful memoir — The Art of Teaching by Jay Parini, professor of English at Middlebury College. Besides reflecting on the challenges of teaching college students, Parini sprinkles the book with gems about ways to get a lot of writing done.

This man is prolific. He has written 20 books and many articles. And he’s done this in the midst of a daily grind — lectures, seminars, advising, meetings, and the other minutiae of academic and family life.

How does Parini do it? By trashing several assumptions — for example, that productivity requires ascetic self-discipline, large blocks of time, sustained concentration, and large daily outputs. He’s replaced those ideas with options that sound a lot more practical and fun.

Cultivate a studied laziness

Most of us—including myself—waste vast amounts of time. I don’t actually mind that, I should add. Like Robert Frost, I believe that laziness is essential to creativity; I get a lot done because I have time to burn. I tell myself over and over that there is so much time, so little to do.

Seize small chunks of time

As a graduate student at St. Andrews, I watched a few of my more prolific mentors carefully. One of them, an extremely productive and original scholar of Greek literature, culture, and language, was Sir Kenneth Dover…. I once asked him the secret of his productivity and he said, without hesitation: “I’ve learned how to use the odd gaps of 20 minutes or so that occur at various points during the day”…. I suspect that most of us fail to use the hours of the day properly. We imagine, foolishly, that huge quantities of time are needed to settle into a project, to reactivate the engines of thought.

Welcome the structure provided by other commitments

I don’t care what they say: it is possible to write and teach and the same time. In fact, I have a hard time writing without teaching…. Teaching organizes my life, gives a structure to my week, puts before me certain goals: classes to conduct, books to reread, papers to grade, meetings to attend. I move from event to event, having a clear picture in my head of what I must do next.

Work in bursts

Most good work gets done in short stretches. It isn’t really possible to concentrate for more than half an hour without a solid break…. Even when I have the whole day to work, I stop every 20 minutes to make a cup of tea, eat a cookie, call a friend, do a little yoga or a few stomach crunches, shower, or take a short walk.

P.S. One of Parini’s inspirations is John Updike, who wrote 50 books and won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and other honors. And what was Updike’s daily output? Two pages. I’m a schmuck but that sounds totally do-able.

Avoiding Stories That Undermine Your Credibility

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”

Though it’s not exactly a warm fuzzy, Hemingway’s insight can save your reputation.

One place that crap easily enters our thinking is the odd anecdote that’s inaccurate or simply untrue. Consider the following examples.

The infamous boiling frog

You’ve probably heard this one — an anecdote that’s often told to illustrate the dangers of ignoring gradual change. Though countless versions exist, the key points are these:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail — to their peril — to notice subtle and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

In Next Time, What Say We Boil A Consultant, the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company quotes two biologists who say that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot enough, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The Fast Company folks verified this by running their own experiment:

We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.

Those legendary earners from Yale

Equally infamous is the “Yale Goal Study.” Again, there are many variations. The main events are these:

  • In 1953 (or 1933, or 1943, depending on the storyteller) researchers interviewed members of Yale’s graduating class, asking the students whether they had written down any goals for the rest of their lives.
  • Twenty years later, researchers tracked down the same group of graduates.
  • The 3 per cent of graduates who had written goals accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined.

This is such a compelling story. We just want it to be true.

“There is just one small problem,” notes Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. “As far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place.”

The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit, which also tried to verify this story, confirms Wiseman on this point.

The moral of this story

Only tell stories that you can verify based on:

  • Direct personal experiences (preferably with objective witnesses involved)
  • Interviews with credible experts that confirm each other
  • Publications from credible sources that you can cite in an accepted format

Image courtesy of Free Nature Pictures

Writing Self-Help That Actually Helps People — Three Lessons From David Allen

iuI recently bought the new edition of Getting Things Done by David Allen and was delighted to see a foreword by James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and GTD enthusiast. (GTD is the acronym for Getting Things Done.)

Writing about the benefits of GTD, Fallows makes several points that writers of business and self-help books cannot afford to ignore. To begin:

Book catalogs are full of listings for volumes that offer advice on how to improve your work habits, your health, your productivity, and your overall success in life.

Some of what they say is typically dressed-up common sense. A fraction of it is baloney. Much of it is worth reading one time, if that, and is forgettable hours or days after you have put the book down.

What sets GTD apart, says Fallows, are the following three features. Let’s bake these into our own publications and presentations as well.

A flexible and forgiving approach

Many authors offer a multi-step program with the assumption that you will complete all the steps in the suggested order. In some cases — as with people who do the Twelve Steps as part of their recovery from addiction — this is the norm.

In most cases, however, readers will balk at wholesale implementation of a “one size fits all” program. As Fallows notes, “approaches that are incremental and forgiving of error are more likely to pay off in the long run.”

Whenever possible, present a program that still offers benefits even when it is applied piece by piece.

A timelessness that is tool-agnostic

David Allen revised Getting Things Done, in part, because the first edition referred to obsolete technology such as Palm Pilots and Filofaxes. With the second edition, he removes these references and offers suggestions that do not depend on specific products. People can implement GTD methods with software, with paper-based tools, or a combination of both.

At bottom, GTD is a way to think clearly about your commitments and choose the very next action to move each of them forward. What counts is the underlying principles — not the specific tools that you use.

Authenticity and integrity

As a personal friend of David Allen, James Fallows can attest that David actually lives by the ideas that he teaches. This is key for authors of how-to books: They lead by their example as well as their words. Our credibility is undermined when readers sense a disconnect between what we say and what we do.

Ask yourself: Do I actually use the ideas that I recommend? And am I getting the desired results? If the answer to either question is no, then you’ve got a problem. It’s time to tweak your program, change your behavior, or do a little of both.