Breakthrough Coaching Conversations: recent turning points with life coaching clients

A “Show, Don’t Tell” Demonstration of How Life Coaching Works

Bill Can’t Get Motivated to Meet His Goal — Studying for his Ph.D.

Bill is a graduate student at a large university. He says his problem is that while he’s excited about his program, he hasn’t been studying. He has done poorly on the exams he’s taken so far and he’s worried he’ll get kicked out of the program if he doesn’t develop some study habits. Here is an edited, greatly abbreviated excerpt of our initial, free conversation. The goal is to give you a flavor of Bill’s breakthrough coaching challenge and just some of a coach’s questions and approaches to a quick solution.

Bill (via email): I am having difficulty focusing on my school work and studying. I have always had very poor study skills and those bad habits have caught up with me. I am already failing my classes and without some quick changes to my routine I will flunk out of school. I don’t have much discipline and little actual support to keep me motivated.

Cameron (on phone): What are you doing instead of studying?

Bill: I study for 40 to 90 minutes at a time, then I take a break, then maybe get a snack, and then I turn on the TV, and hopefully go back to studying. I love to study on sunny days, outside, but I’m worthless on a cloudy day.

Cameron: So you are doing some studying.

Bill: Yeah, but I can’t seem to retain anything. I read it over and by the next time I look at it I don’t recall much. I can’t regurgitate it back during the tests. And I’ve never had essay tests before.

Cameron: What you read isn’t sticking, huh? What have the results been?

Bill: In one of my classes I did very poorly on the first test. In the other, I had to do a presentation and I wasn’t prepared for that either. It went pretty badly.

Cameron: What’s next?

Bill: I’m only taking two classes right now. But the amount of studying I need to do is huge. There are 11 chapters on the mid-term I have on Monday, and I have another mid-term on Wednesday.

Cameron: When you watch TV, what to do you watch?

Bill: Nothing important, that’s for sure. PBS mainly. MTV. That sort of thing. I’ve got a great deal on HBO, Showtime.

Cameron: Okay. You’ve got one test in three days and another in five. What do you think you need to do?

Bill: Study, I guess.

Cameron: Do you want a suggestion?

Bill: Please.

Cameron: Assuming you’re equally prepared for both and they’re both equally hard — and you’re a better judge of that — I’d recommend you spend two-thirds to three-quarters of your time until the first test studying for it, and the rest studying for the second test. You need to study a little for the second test now just to get it into medium-term memory, not just the short-term memory of cramming. After the first exam is over, of course you spend full-time on the second.

Bill: Right.

Cameron: This is not strictly coaching now. I’m giving advice, which is a last resort when the client has run out of ideas of their own, just so you understand.

Bill: Okay.

Cameron: There are three parts to your day. The part between breakfast and lunch, when you study. The part between lunch and dinner, when you study. And the part between dinner and bedtime. When you study. You take breaks to exercise. You’ve got to be in finals mode. It’s no fun.

Bill: I’m only allowed two Cs in the entire program. I’ve got to do something.

Cameron: Next thing. What can you do about your TV?

Bill: Watch it less?

Cameron: That hasn’t been working, right? Can you turn off your cable TV subscription?

Bill: I’m not sure I can. It comes with the Internet access and I need the Internet. I can’t cut off the TV without losing the Internet cable.

Cameron: Who’s your provider?

Bill: Comcast.

Cameron: Comcast gives you a cheaper price if you bundle. But they don’t require that you do it. Will you look into it?

Bill: Yeah, but the problem is that I’m in a one-year deal.

Cameron: No problem. Call them up and tell them, “I’ll keep paying you what I owe you, but you’ve got to stop sending me this crack cocaine. Turn off my cable TV. At least the movie channels.” Or at least put your TV in a closet. On the TV stand, it’s like an impulse item in the supermarket checkout aisle: too easy to turn on. It needs to be harder. Sure, you can go into the closet and pull it out and hook it all up again, but you’ll have to think about it. It won’t be automatic and painless.

Bill: I’ll at least do that. [That day, Bill took his cable box off his TV and put it in the trunk of his car]. But how can I retain what I’m studying?

Cameron: What do you do while you study? Just read? Do you use a pen or anything?

Bill: Yeah. I highlight stuff.

Cameron: That may be too passive. Try something new. Can you get in a study group?

Bill: I think it’s too late for that. I really don’t have any relationships with my classmates. I think I tend to try to be provocative and I offend them. I don’t really have any friends here.

Cameron: That’s definitely something for the next session. And if you can get into a study group later, you can kill two birds with one stone, studying and socializing. What about a study partner? Maybe just one person? Or go to the library.

Bill: Too crowded.

Cameron: So for now you may study solo. Fine. Lock yourself in. And don’t just read. Memory is jarred by the unusual; you need to do unusual things to make things impress themselves in your memory, and be active. In law school we used four-color pens to clearly delineate what we were reading. Red for facts, blue for the legal issue, green for the judge’s opinion, etc. Are you better at remembering what you hear?

Bill: Better. I’m pretty good if I hear the stuff in a lecture.

Cameron: People absorb information differently. Why be a visual studier when you might be someone who gets their info aurally — through your ears? If you get a study partner, recite to each other. Teach chapters to each other. You learn best when you teach. If you’re alone, set your book on a lectern and deliver the information to an imaginary audience. Walk around your apartment, even if you feel silly, with your book in hand and declaim aloud. Try a British accent. Make the words yours. By the time you get to the test, you’ll remember what you were studying and you’ll only have to write down what you remember saying.

Bill: It’s worth a try.

Cameron: What else can you do?

Bill: I could go to the the campus test repository, or call some classmates, and get copies of old exams.

Cameron: That’s a good idea. Email or IM me over the weekend, let me know if you’re still on track. We’ll talk about social life next week.

[In later sessions, Cameron would question Bill’s assertion that getting a Ph.D. in his particular course of study was really what Bill wanted to do, given the clear preferences expressed by his inaction. Several weeks into the coaching, Bill narrowly pulled his academic semester out of its nosedive, and, better yet, affirmed for himself the clarity that he would not be returning to beat himself up in the same graduate program. He’d found another that he liked better, criminal justice psychology, a progsram that, as his coach pointed out, seemed more in alignment with his real interests, news and politics.]


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