Tips from the Pros: How to Be Your Own Life Coach

You can make wise choices and improve yourself—by yourself. Just use these experts’ techniques for self-coaching.
February 5, 2015

Orange is the new black, 40 is the new 30, and life and career coaches are the new personal trainers. From Fortune 500 CEOs to Hollywood starlets to Oprah, people are performing better, making smarter decisions and reaching new heights in areas such as work, finance, relationships and health, all thanks to coaches.

Executive coaching is defined by the International Coach Federation as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” But it can be pricey—as much as $3,500 an hour, with a median hourly fee of $500, according to Harvard Business Review’s “What Can Coaches Do for You?” research report.

Unfortunately, many people don’t have the money to work with a life coach. A 2013 study by Stanford University and The Miles Group shows that two-thirds of CEOs are not receiving coaching from sources outside their companies, and 100 percent of participants wish they were.

What’s the average hardworking American to do? Consider this: Many people want to work with a personal trainer but, unable to afford one, they take matters into their own hands. And if it’s possible to move training out of the gym and under your own roof, does that mean it’s possible to bring other coaching in-house, so to speak, and go it alone?

Many experts say yes. Self-coaching, by applying professional coaching techniques to your own goals and experiences, is not only viable but the ultimate goal that coaches help clients achieve. It takes discipline and dedication, but it can be done.

“Most people won’t have a professional coach for most of their lives,” says Marshall Goldsmith, Ph.D., globally renowned leadership coach and best-selling author. “I typically work with people for a year to a year and a half. So being your own coach is a great idea.”

Adds Martha Beck, who trains life coaches worldwide and has written three New York Times best-sellers: “Self-coaching is what I teach coaches and clients to do. That’s the goal. We each have the ability to learn wisdom, and as we learn wisdom, we become our own counselor, and we start using experience as our teacher. And then we’re home free.”

When to Self-Coach

First things first: How do you know when it’s the right time to put on your coaching hat?

Beck, whom USA Today has called “the best-known life coach in the country,” says the primary reason clients seek coaching is change. “Either they’re in the middle of change and don’t know what to expect, or they need to change and can’t make it happen,” Beck says. Common scenarios of the former include receiving a promotion, taking on a challenging new project or moving cross-country, whereas situations involving the latter include making a career change, losing weight, quitting smoking, etc.

If you feel anxious, unsupported or depressed about a particular part of your life, these are signs that coaching could be needed. “There’s no shortage of symptoms, because the way your true self signifies it needs support is to create unhappiness and discontent,” Beck says.

Identify Areas for Improvement

Once you’ve established that you need to make changes in your life, the next step is identifying which areas to target: career, health, finances, etc.

Beck recommends that you first focus on “the area of least satisfaction…. If a person has a good life, but there are some things that aren’t great, work on the stuff that’s not great. If you have a terrible life, work on what’s most terrible. It is in the place of most suffering where there is potential to create the most improvement.”

She places great importance on the body compass, which is made up of “physical sensations that happen when you turn toward something that’s good for you or something that’s not good for you. If you do nothing more than follow the sensations of liberation and release versus contracting and tension in the body, you’ll make very good instinctive decisions.”

David Rock, Ph.D., director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, suggests looking at your thought patterns: “Anytime you find yourself thinking the same thought over and over—I wish I could (fill in the blank). I wish I could get more organized. I wish I could build a social life—if you don’t change things, you probably will not change the situation.”

Even if you identify myriad areas needing improvement, experts caution that you should tackle them one at a time, working on each for three months to a year or until you’re satisfied.

Set Manageable Goals

Rock, author of the best-seller Your Brain at Work, says research supports goals that are short and to the point: “A goal that is three to seven words is fantastic. If you can’t remember something, it doesn’t live in your world. It’s got to be embedded in your brain.”

He says it’s also crucial that the goal is expressed positively: “It’s approach goals versus avoidance goals. You’re moving toward a positive instead of staying away from a negative. The way the brain works, we try to move toward something, and goals are about having more of something.” So if your goal is to be calmer, you’ll notice calm in your life. But if your goal is to be less stressed, you’ll notice stress, because that’s what your brain is focused on.

“Research shows that people achieve their goals in half the time and more sustainably if they’re approach goals,” Rock says.

Goldsmith practices and swears by “the daily question process” developed by Andrew Thorn, Ph.D. You start by creating a spreadsheet; in the first column, write 20 to 30 questions representing who you want to be and what you want to achieve.

“Ask yourself, What is really important in my life, and who is the person I want to become? Most of us don’t need a coach to figure that out,” Goldsmith says. Some of his personal questions include: How much do I weigh? Did I make time for my wife? How many minutes did I write?

The next seven columns in your spreadsheet are for days of the week. Fill out the same questionnaire daily—your answers must be yes, no or a number—and, by the end of the week, you will have a scorecard that “will tell you how your behavior lines up with your values,” Goldsmith says. Over time, as you reach your goals, create new goals and new questions. “It’ll help you get better in almost anything. It keeps you focused on what’s important.”

When self-coaching, a journal is also a great tool. Beck recommends recording your quality of life daily on a scale of zero to 10: Super-happy is 10, and miserable is zero. Write down a few things you did each day. “The purpose is to look back and see what you were doing on the days you felt bad,” she says. “It’s a way of looking at: Where did my happiness go? Where did I find joy?

She says this method was eye-opening when she was considering starting her own television program. Through her journal, Beck realized that all her happiest moments were outside—so it didn’t make sense to stick herself in a studio. “Because we’re so blind to our own happiness, I didn’t actually know that until I saw it in a journal,” she says.

Gather Support

Be aware that just because you’re not working with a coach, you don’t have to go through self-coaching without any external support. “Research shows that being in a support network is incredibly empowering and helpful for staying on track with goals,” Rock says. “It’s one of the reasons Alcoholics Anonymous works so well.”

He credits that, in part, to positive social pressure: When you state a goal to friends, family and colleagues, you’re more likely to stick to the goal because you don’t want to look bad. So spread the word to your circles and lean on them when times get tough.

Goldsmith says his clients learn more from the people around them than they learn from him: “Figure out who the most important people are in your life. Involve them in helping you change.”

If you want to become a better listener, ask your spouse to provide ideas for doing so. Practice those and then return to that person in two weeks for feedback and more ideas. Research shows that those who follow up on their goal progress with others enjoy huge improvement, Goldsmith says.

10 Life-Coaching Affirmations

In the companion guide to her international best-seller Finding Your Own North Star, Beck offers a list of 10 short-but-sweet affirmations to help encourage you through the sometimes-daunting transformational process that accompanies any type of coaching.

She recommends that you post these positive statements on the walls of your home, your office and elsewhere—“including the walls of your mind” if you start to feel anxious, frustrated or hopeless. “Repeat these until you believe them,” Beck writes.

1. There is more than enough wealth, love, and happiness to go around.
2. I am succeeding because of my choices, not blind luck.
3. If something goes wrong, I’ll figure out how to make it right.
4. I created this situation once, and I can create it again—and again, and again …
5. If I lost everything, lots of people would be willing to help me.
6. I can deal with my life at this moment—and that’s all I’ll ever have to do.
7. Nothing can take my destiny away from me.
8. There’s much, much more good stuff where this came from.
9. I will always have plenty.
10. I have free access to infinite richness.

Be Prepared for Setbacks

Self-coaching isn’t easy, and it’s crucial to acknowledge that from the beginning. Such understanding will help when you hit obstacles along the way—because setbacks are inevitable, and even the most successful people in the world fail. “When you fail, forgive yourself for whatever happened yesterday,” Goldsmith says. “Realize it’s a day-to-day process. If you quit, you won’t get better.”

Say you’re a golfer, and you hit a shot into a sand trap. If you get upset, your next shot will probably be worse. Instead tell yourself: What happened, happened. I’m going to start over. I’m going to hit the best shot I can.

If you constantly hit hurdles, closely examine your environment. What factors at home, in your career or in your social circle could be working against you? “If you don’t change your environment, it tends to drive you back to the same behavior,” Goldsmith says.

Beck points out that everyone reaches a point in coaching where he or she fails. When this happens, Beck recommends asking the following questions, using one’s intuition as a barometer: Is this the thing I really wanted? What have I learned from my failure? Do I want to go again? If it’s the real thing, you will want to go again, and you will persist, and you will fail, and you will fail, and you will succeed. That’s how every success ever achieved always happens.”

There are 7 reasons people fail.  Learn what they are and how to rebound from those missteps.

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