Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The pros and cons of being SMART

What are SMART goals? And are they always the right answer?

Everyone's familiar with SMART goal setting, right? Specific, measurable, etc? You should be. In corporate world, it's extremely popular. Some coaches would insist your whole life is supposed to be SMART. And then there are others who think SMART is the work of Satan!

Before I continue, let's recap the acronym:

S for specific.
Be specific about what the desired outcome is. For instance, "I want to be 80 kilos by Christmas" is more specific than "I want to lose weight".

M for measurable.
Agree the measures for how on-track or off-track the goal is.

A for action oriented.
In SMART, if there's no action plan, it's a wish, not a goal.

R for realistic.
Agree realistic targets and time scales, not unrealistic ones.

T for time based.
Agree the time scale and relevant mile stone dates.

(Please note there are variations such as specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time based, however all the variations amount to the same set of ideas.)

Look, there's a lot to be said for SMART when it is used for the right reasons. It's especially useful when your goals are in some way 'contractual' between you and someone else, as corporate goals often are. If my bonus depended on achieving the goals I agree with my manager, would I want them to be specific, measurable, realistic, etc? You bet I would!

When it comes to personal life goals, SMART can still be useful but it can also have downsides.

"You can't have that goal, it's not SMART!"

I once watched someone coach a client till the goal that once made the client's eyes light up had become totally dreary, but SMART. It wasn't a happy sight. The coach thought it was good coaching because he'd made the goal SMART. Personally, I can't call any work of coaching good if it takes a client who was inspired and sends them away uninspired.

One potential problem with SMART is the edict to make your goals 'realistic'. It can be really useful to get someone to be more realistic sometimes, but not always. Sometimes, this condition can demote your goals from what you really want to what you think you can have: from inspirational to "meh".

Besides, realistic according to who?

What would you say to a kid who dreams of being captain of the England football team? "Have you ever considered a career as an insurance clerk, son?"

It's said the measure of your life's goals isn't whether you achieved them but whether they made you come alive: that the real purpose of a goal is to inspire you.

To this end, some coaches promulgate that life's big goals should be uncompromisingly unrealistic as long as they inspire and there's ecology built in at all levels.

The trouble with deadlines

It's often said, "A goal without a deadline is just a dream." Well, I'm not sure when having a dream became such a bad thing.

A deadline often focuses the mind, which is the intended effect. Some writers really come alive when the deadline looms. There's no time for analysis paralysis, you just gotta get copy out.

The thing is, for a deadline to work, there has to be something real about it. Not getting the newspaper to press in time is real. Not being ready for your exams is real. Not reaching your financial goals by July next year is not. I mean, what's really going to happen if you haven't reached your financial goals by July? Nothing!

You could make the deadline more real by telling yourself you'll be worthless if you fail. Y'know, give yourself something painful to move away from. If that brings you joy and gets you achieving your goals, fair play to you, but what if it doesn't? What if it doesn't get you achieving your goals? What if it only leaves you kicking and berating yourself?

That's the trouble with fake deadlines.

Having a deadline has become one of the rules of goal setting and it seems predicated on the (false) notion that everyone needs a deadline to get motivated. Actually, not everyone does. If you really want something, you don't need a deadline to get you off your bottom. Some people are actually turned off by deadlines, not turned on. Some people shrink under them, rather than grow. Some people die off, rather than come alive. I know some people who got active on their goals just because they were following their inspiration.

Perhaps it's not deadlines we need but more inspirational goals.

Some of the greatest goals in history weren't SMART

Was Kennedy's 1961 dream of putting a man on the moon by 1969 realistic? Well, in hindsight, evidently it was, but would you have thought that at the time you were setting the goal?

Was Churchill's goal of defeating Germany in World War II specific, measurable, realistic and time based? It was probably none, but still worth going after.

What would you have said if Martin Luther King had come to you in 1960 for coaching in the goal of a racially integrated America?

Should we turn people away from a lifetime's campaign to cure cancer because curing cancer isn't SMART? A motivated, creative, inspired, compassionate life forged in the reach towards a world without cancer may result not only in great things but also personal fulfilment, even if the end goal is not realistically achievable in one's life time.

When do you use a tool? When it's the one that works!

Lest you think this is an attack on deadlines and the SMART model, it absolutely isn't. Deadlines are one of the motivational tools we have available to us, and it can be a really good one in the right circumstances. SMART is an excellent way to structure goals in certain contexts and i;s an excellent antidote to certain problems.

I'll tell you one context where deadlines are a great idea: when you're so inspired that unless you set yourself a strict stop time, you'll just keep going indefinitely. (That's not using a deadline as a motivational tool so much as a 'stop yourself going on endlessly' tool.)

My objection is SMART and deadlines being framed as always the right tool, especially when it's trivial to demonstrate examples where it is not.

My personal recommendation

SMART is most at home as a model for goals which are in some way contractual between you and another party. It makes sure you're both share the same expectations, ensures the goal is fair and sets up agreed measures to avoid arguments later.

I think SMART can also be good for what you might call 'incremental', step-wise goals within the big dream. It depends on the person and the goal.

SMART is not a good model for the big dream itself; or those inspired life campaigns like ridding the world of hunger or ridding the world of cancer.

SMART is not the same as NLP well-formed outcomes

It surprises me how many people think the S, the M, the A, the R and the T represent the five well-formedness conditions for outcomes in NLP. That's getting things mixed up.

Remember, the classic NLP well-formed outcome is about building desired states and desired patterns of feelings and behaviours, not external goals per se; and the conditions are:

It is stated in the positive.
It's what you do want, not what you don't.

It is initiated and maintained by the individual.
You can own maintaining the desired state.

It is contextualised for ecology
You are clear where and when the new state or behaviour is desired and useful; and where and when it is not.

It preserves the positive by-products on the present state.
So there isn't a part of you that needs to resist and self-sabotage the change.

It is testable (some say 'specified') in sensory experience.
You can build a see-hear-feel map of what the desired state is and check for success against that.

SMART is for representing a goal on paper. It's specified in data: it's digital.

The well-formed outcomes model is to frame and represent a goal such that it can be installed into one's unconscious to "directionalize" the brain. That's why it's specified in sensory experience rather than data. Notice there's no 'deadline' condition for well-formed outcomes, though I find it is often useful to put some sense of time in to the sensory map.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Tuesday, 13 November 2018

It’s okay to be okay: the sea change that’s happening in coaching

The shift from achieving in to become happy to achieving because we are happy

When I first trained as a coach, it was in a corporate programme. The emphasis was on goals, action and motivation. The bigger the goal and the action required to achieve it, the better. The goals were mostly material and the process seemed predicated on the idea that however you were, it was't okay. It couldn't be. Not yet. Not until you'd achieved your goal.

Then, of course, you still couldn't be okay, because now you needed an even bigger goal.

It started to look like an endless game of having to get somewhere else other than here and you had to perceive lack in your life to be motivated to play it. The gurus talked about creating massive pain to get you motivated.

Then people started to realise that very paradigm was making people miserable. I chose not to become a coach. Not to do that. There seems to have been a sea change in coaching in recent years, though. It was probably always there, but it's more to the fore these days.

It's not that people don't have goals any more, because they do.

It's not that there is no action or motivation, because there is.

Still want what you want and totally go for it.

Just don't kid yourself you need to feel pain to do it.

Don't kid yourself you need it before you can feel happy or well.

Know that it's okay to be okay right now!

A lot of great coaches are teaching people how to be okay again; how to be happy even though you maybe don't yet have everything you want; how to be happy even if things don't always go great at work; how to really want and go after things, but not feel the pain of neediness while you're still working on it; how to be driven by joy rather than pain; how to get active because you're connected with your essence, not flagellated by deadlines.

This sea change isn't new, of course, it's been developing a while. I just really think it's arrived now. And, personally, I think it's what we really need to flourish.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Monday, 12 November 2018

What if you didn’t need motivational techniques?

What's even better than having a motivational technique is not needing one!

I chatted to a guy once who wanted to create some inspiring workshops. I asked him what his plan was and he said, "First, I'm going to spend two weeks in a retreat re-reading all the books I have about how to build my motivation."

That answer surprised me. He seemed inspired enough and last time I checked, reading books didn't create workshops. It actually sounded like a procrastination strategy: let's keep putting things off in the name of the myth of motivation.

Sound familiar?

The thing about motivation is that motivation is not a thing. We just fall for the illusion that it is, because of the way we speak. It becomes something we can gain, lose, find and, as in this case, something we think we need to stockpile.

It's funny how we fall for the illusions of language.

An inside-out understanding of motivation

How do you build up enough motivation to go and buy a bottle of milk?

If that sounds like a daft question, it's probably because you don't need to go through any kind of motivational ritual to go and get a bottle of milk. The chances are you just go.

The misunderstanding is that demotivated is our default state. It isn't.

Think of it like this. There is you at your true default state. That's a pure you: a you before any thinking comes along to change how you feel. It's you at peace, in flow, unhindered by thinking. That's the you who tends to go get the milk.

In your true default state, you just do what comes up for you to do.

But, we do think. We think about how much we have to do. We think about how much effort things will take. We think about the responsibility, what people might think of us, what will happen if it goes pear shaped and what might happen if we get stuck half way through.

Suddenly we're not at our default state and that's where demotivated feelings come from. Then our thoughts can go on to ways of distracting ourselves from the uncomfortable feeling.

Since thinking is habitual, it's easy to fall for the illusion that this hesitant, uncomfortable feeling and the resulting yen for distraction is our default setting. It's not, but it seems like that.

Enter the motivational technique

The essence of most of the motivational techniques I've seen is to overwhelm the uncomfortable feelings with a huge force of positive feelings: to force your uncomfortable feelings in to submission, or at least drown them out.

It's not that it doesn't work. It's that it's inner civil war. How tiring.

It's also a bit like using chocolate and burgers to medicate low feelings. It works, but only temporarily and only seems necessary because you haven't noticed the low feelings had to be created in the first place.

An alternative approach

Let me re-cap this idea of the default state: the state you're in before you're feelings are skewed by thinking; the state you tend to go and buy a bottle of milk from. It's shown below, with what motivational techniques look like in this context.

Default = Things just flow as they come up

Default + Low thinking = Demotivated

Default + Low thinking + Overwhelming high thinking = Motivated

When you see it this way, the motivational technique becomes what one of my coach Michael Neill calls the "nail varnishing the shit that's covered the diamond" strategy. It's like taking your hand, dipping it in something smelly and thinking the best thing to do is spray scent on it.

It's easier to just let the low thinking pass away, which is what happens when you see how it is just thinking and you resign from fighting it. It's easier, less tiresome and clears the mind rather than double-muddying it.

Let me put it like this. Rather than try to create motivation, let go of the thinking that creates demotivation. Return to the default state and then everything is easier again.

This is why I don't want to teach kids how to use motivational techniques to overwhelm uncomfortable feelings. I'd rather teach them why its not necessary and how to return to their true default state.

A thought experiment

If you tend to "struggle with motivation", instead of going to war with your thinking, just recognize the thinking that you're feeling. See it for what it is: as thinking. See it the same way you'd see a movie if you could see the cameras, microphones and lighting rigs and realize it was something being created rather than something that's real. And, perhaps with the aid of meditative practice, let go; let the thinking move on and return to the default state.

Then you can act from the same place that getting a bottle or milk comes from.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Sunday, 11 November 2018

Life is simpler than we think

Why letting go of resistance is generally better than pushing through it

Life is simpler than we think. We are the ones who make it complicated.

More often than not, when someone tells me how something is hard, what they're really telling me is how they are making it harder than it needs to be. Unintentionally, of course. I don't mean to imply that people deliberately make things hard for themselves. We just fail to see, sometimes, that we're the ones bringing the complexity.

Often, all we need to do is let go rather than push harder against ourselves.

The gazillions of self-help articles in magazines and on-line don't help. I can show you many elaborate and contradictory plans from magazines and blogs for overcoming procrastination. However, I've never seen anything that works better than simply taking the smallest possible step and seeing if the second step follows. It mostly does. It's just that the first step gets thought into something much bigger and harder than it is.

Very often we fight to make ourselves do what we think we should. Only because we don't listen to the simple truth that actually we neither want to, nor do we actually need to.

That's not to say we don't necessarily need a little help to get ourselves to the gym, but changing direction from the path to the sofa to the path to the gym doesn't have to need an intervention of biblical proportions.

See the truth. Seek the simple path.

If it feels like you're having to wage war against the hardness, you're probably going in the wrong direction. And when you realise you are the one putting up both the army for doing something and the army for resisting it, letting go makes even more sense.

I recognise we can't always see what the truth is or what the simple path is and that's why conversation can be powerful.

The truth and simplicity is there to be seen, nevertheless.

Wishing you health and happiness,


The art of resigning your way to peace and productivity

What happens when you stop pushing your way to feeling good and getting things done

No matter how much you learn about how to create more happiness and success in your life, I guarantee you this: you will still have unhappy moments.

I have experienced more peace and well-being in recent years than I have probably since I was a kid. Even so, bad days happen. We all still have our stress triggers.

A few years ago, my answer to a bad feeling would have been to spin my feelings backwards, push pictures around in my head and force my low feelings into submission with huge force of deliberately created positive feelings. Not today, though. It's not that it doesn't work, it's that on some level, it feels at odds with something. Maybe that something is our innate nature.

What I know now runs counter to how I was taught in the you must take control of you brain! paradigm. The best way to return to well-being is to do nothing. Yes, nothing. There is an art to doing nothing, however, because we seem to have this in-built tendency to want to do something, perhaps driven by a thought that we should be doing something.

By the way, don't mistake "doing nothing" with "dwelling on the bad feeling". Dwelling on anything is still doing. Doing nothing really is about doing nothing—nothing to either maintain the old feeling or to try and force a new one.

When you resign from trying to control your experience there's a return to peace that happens all by itself. It's like the process is in-built if you don't get in the way. It's easy and there's no sense of being at odds with anything. It's not a feeling of power or ecstasy. It's a feeling of peace and clarity from which new thinking and new feeling emerges.

I have started days thinking I couldn't face any of the tasks of the day. Days where I couldn't see the truth of the things I teach. When I have such days, if I's mindful enough to resign completely, peace and well-being started to return. I start to see my "problems" anew and I started to feel inspired to do things again.

I know it's not that I won't ever feel low again. It's not that the stress triggers will never fire again. It's just that the return to peace is always available.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Saturday, 10 November 2018

Fear not, your self doubt is every bit as wonderful as your confidence

You can learn to be at peace with doubting yourself

A philosophical question for you: do you think confidence means never asking yourself questions like, "Could I be making a mistake here?", or "Could there be a better way?"

I'm just curious.

When I'm in my zone, I stride very confidently in my work and that influences people. Nevertheless, whilst I stride confidently much of the time, I also have periods of self-doubt.

If that seems like a paradox, it's only because we tend to think of confidence and self-doubt as permanent, fixed personality traits. That's like thinking a person can only be happy all the time or sad all the time, but they cannot be happy some of the time and sad some of the time.

How crazy is that, right?

Confidence and self-doubt are cyclic, like the weather.

I actually think confidence and self-doubt are symbiotic, just like sleep is symbiotic with wakefulness: they're opposites but you need both to function. You can't sleep effectively if you haven't first had effective wakefulness and vice versa.

It's yin and yang, opposites making the whole.

Just as frustration and despondency can simply be one step in the larger cyclical process of getting motivated (think Serena Williams slamming her racquet down on a bad day at the office and screaming at herself, "Fuck it!! Fuck it!! Fuck it!!!"), I think self doubt is just one step in a larger process of performing confidently.

Some of the most confident stage performers also suffer the worst stage fright; and some of the best performers are also some of the worst self critics.

So fear not. Your self doubt is every bit as wonderful as your confidence.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Friday, 9 November 2018

How to leverage the Zeigarnik effect for greater productivity

Today's post is a productivity tip with a thought experiment I hope you will enjoy. It's the morning procrastination buster that shows us how we can work less hours and yet get more done. Wouldn't that be good, eh?

What is the Zeigarnik effect?

Named after Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who first published the effect in On Finished and Unfinished Tasks (1927), the Zeigarnik effect predicts that people who did not complete a task, perhaps because they were interrupted, have significantly better retention in memory for the details of the task than those who started the same task at the same time but have completed it. The suggestion is our memories 'cache' information related to incomplete tasks and a process of forgetting starts when the task is complete.

The related suggestion is that once a task is started, we are innately drawn to going back and completing it. There is a drive to close our open loops, so to speak.

This reflects something a great coach called Steve Chandler says, which points at how our relationship with motivation is the wrong way around. He says:

"Motivation isn't the requirement for taking actions. It's the result of taking actions."

What's that got to do with productivity?

When you arrive to work on Monday morning, do you get flying straight away or do you have some inertia to overcome first? Do you instantly remember where you were and what you need to do next, or do you have some remembering first?

In my experience, the ones who get flying straight away are the busiest ones, who probably have incomplete tasks on their mind.

A professional writer once told me that he used to be determined to finish his current chapter before stopping each day. This caused him to work much later into the evenings than he wanted to, eroding his relaxation and family time. When he got up the next day it took him an hour or two to get over inertia and get his writing momentum going again.

When this writer learned about Zeigarnik effect, he made it his policy to stop work each day in the middle of a sentence. Not just in the middle of a chapter, or a paragraph, but in the middle of a sentence. It reduced his late working and eliminated the inertia he had in the morning.

He worked less hours and got more done.

Other ways I've seen this applied

I once coached someone who always put his tax return off till the last minute. One June, knowing about the Zeigarnik effect, I asked him to do the smallest and simplest thing possible thing to get the task started. We decided that was simply to log in to the online submission service. Then, while he was there, to just do the next smallest and simplest thing possible, which we decided was to fill in the personal details page. I said to him to just keep doing the next smallest and simplest thing and he could leave the task unfinished any time he wanted to.

Within the next ninety minutes, P60s and various tax information strewn over his office floor, his tax return was done. Twenty minutes later, they were all nicely filed away too. It was the first year his tax return was done in June. Now that happens every year. He's also learned how to streamline the task with better filing.

I do much the same with tasks I would otherwise put off.

Professionally, unless I must finish a piece of work the same day, I do the same thing as the writer. I always leave something unfinished for the next morning.

An invitation to experiment

I would like to invite you, the reader, to experiment with this yourself. Remember, there are two parts to this:

When you think you need motivation, don't wait for it, take action first. It can be small and simple, just start. Then take the second small step; and then the third. See how far you get before motivation to complete the task kicks in.

When you take a break, always leave something mid-sentence, so to speak and see what this does for creating instant momentum on your return.

Wishing you health and happiness,