Thinking your way to an impossible goal

I have been a ‘user’ of self-help since I started my independent research lab in 2010. I’ve read books on time and people management; business and marketing, influence and selling, healthy living and peak performance, brain function and disfunction... All the books were great, but none prompted the lasting change I was looking for, and with each year the sense of impending doom grew. I felt I wasn’t growing fast enough to meet what was required of me. Luckily, things started to change in 2016 when I first got coached, I coached myself and most recently when I committed to coach training (more about that in future blogs). But coaches talk about setting goals a lot; something I’d always avoided because I didn’t want the disappointment of failure. Coaches also talk about doing whatever it is that presents the biggest obstacle and/or scares you the most. So, my 2020 goal was to become ‘accountable’. Not necessarily to other people, but I did want to learn how to keep my own word to myself. I resolved to become someone-

· with a functional relationship with organisation: time, projects and things

· who has a calendar and uses it

· who schedules action based on priority

· who uses food to fuel health and energy not comfort

· who recognises when she’s moved her own goalposts and celebrates accordingly

The longer the list got, the more impossible and unrealistic the goal seemed. Which was the point.

Whichever self-help philosophy you study, there is always a connection between what you think, feel and do and the outcome you get. For example, in cognitive behavioural therapy, thoughts, behaviours and emotions are linked so that you create change by tinkering at any point in the triad. In the life-coaching approach that I study, the schema is that we have conscious and unconscious thoughts about circumstances and that these thoughts generate feelings that influence everything we do. Although the circumstances in our lives are always neutral, our thoughts about them are not. Often, they’re the product of well-worn societal, family and personal programming rather than any rational deliberation. Irrespective of whether the thoughts are positive or negative, they generate feelings that drive our actions and results. But long-term, negative thoughts don’t lead to positive results, so however hard we try, being mean to ourselves won’t make us thinner, smarter or more accountable.

I wanted the results that come with accountability. According to the coaching model, to get to the action of accountability, I’d need to practice thinking thoughts that support the emotional state necessary to drive it. Needless to say, I was resistant (regrettably, this is a default setting for many of us). Despite accumulated evidence, having clearly benefitted from coaching and a its daily practices, I found it impossible to really believe that my thoughts created my results. Yes, it’s easy to believe that taking the time to write out gratitudes in your journal each morning makes you feel more abundant throughout the day; but real, big and scary goals? No!

That’s where the impossible goal comes in. The theory is that you set one to practice thoughts you don’t believe in the possibility of yet, but that these practice-thoughts give rise to the feelings and actions that move you form impossibility to possibility, to likely, and with much practice, eventually to a feeling of inevitability.

When I set the goal to become accountable in 2020, I could easily point to friends for whom I thought it was possible, but I did not believe it to be possible for me. But a friend had recently said ‘Traude, sometimes it’s quicker and easier just to follow the instructions’, so I did. It’s pointless to repeat a mantra that your brain just rejects as untrue (eg., ‘I am a totally accountable person’) so it started with writing bridge-thoughts in my journal that did feel believable.

‘I’m open to believing that I can learn to follow my calendar faithfully’

‘I’m learning to be a person who follows through on her word to herself’

‘It’s possible that ‘I’m so disorganised’ is an internalised thought that feels important but isn’t’

‘I know I can handle the discomfort of learning hard things’

These thoughts felt believable enough to induce action-oriented feelings like curiosity, credibility, commitment and determination; feelings that could fuel accountability. Of course, I failed a lot. Some days I failed because I didn’t even write down a bridge-thought, sometimes it was because I’d set a ridiculously ambitious schedule, sometimes I just went through the motions of writing it down but didn’t follow through because I got distracted, sometimes I just blamed the dumpster-fire that was 2020... But by November it was clear that some things had shifted, I had a solid calendaring habit (for the first time in my life), I’d lost more weight than I’d gained in lockdown and I’d addressed some longstanding health issues. Accountability doesn’t make it to all areas of my life yet and probably never will, but I’m at the stage where I believe that if I make a decision and it’s on my calendar, its as good as done. I’ll be accountable to my own word, and that feels exhilarating.

So, having proved (to my brain at least) that thoughts can create results, my impossible goal for 2021 is to become a person who loves writing. For whom its easy and enjoyable. Right now, I don’t believe that that is a possibility for me. I have stories around writing that I’ve been telling for a very long time. They legitimise procrastination and create self-imposed career barriers. So, I’m starting this blog (about my coaching journey), to practice the action of communication through the written word. The thoughts I’ll be practising in 2021 to support that action will be along the lines of:

‘It’s possible that communicating ideas with words could be as fun as chatting with friends’ (something I truly love!)

‘I’m open to learning to become a fluent writer’

(where being open doesn’t mean I need to know how yet)

‘It’s possible that ‘I’m no good at writing’ is a childhood thought-loop that’s not even true’

(kin thoughts to ‘I’m too dumb for school/Uni/PhD/post-doc/group-leader/ etc’)

‘I can handle discomfort’

(true for everyone who has succeeded through school/Uni/PhD/post-doc/group-leader/ let alone having children)

At the end of 2021 I’ll assess the goal by reflecting on this blog and other writings. The impossible will have been achieved if I can say ‘in 2021 I learned to love the process of writing’ and it feels authentic. And if it doesn’t? Well, at least there will have been the side-benefit of lots of writing, and we all know that practice makes permanent.

I hope I’ve inspired you to set your own impossible goal for 2021 and that you’ll join me here for a weekly digest of coach-related approaches to clear real and imagined work/life barriers.

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