It’s 9am on a foggy November morning in north-eastern France. There’s a lot of work sitting on my desk but I’m lacing up my walking boots and shrugging on a fleecy coat. Stepping outside, I know where I’m going but I can’t see the usual landmarks of cherry trees and hedges. But it’s okay, what I’m doing now is the most important action of the day.

Remember when we used to take plane journeys? Each and every time, a member of the cabin crew or a recorded voice would exhort us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping anyone else with theirs.

This is absolutely crucial advice for earthbound coaches too. We expend huge amounts of energy every day, listening attentively and adapting constantly to our clients’ needs. In our bubbles of confidentiality, our coachees share with us their fears, vulnerabilities and frustrations, and we help them channel their energy and attention into acquiring skills and ease in the highly complex domain of language use. This is in a normal day’s work. And of course, 2020 decided to make every day more demanding and abnormal.

This year, we have all had to surf the upheaval to our own professional routines as we helped learners adapt and progress. We often had to reorient our professional offers completely and adopt new working practices. And some of us have done all of this while raising children, caring for sick relatives and trying to support family members whom we can’t see and can’t touch.

It has been difficult to respond to the present moment and, as Rachel pointed out in her BESIG talk on Black Swan events, our brains are designed to respond by predicting and evaluating the next best action in the circumstances. Our brains have been challenged this year because this situation is new and evolving and therefore highly difficult to predict. What’s more, we are busy trying to decide what is important in the tsunami of information that we receive about EVERYTHING.

There are myriad possible actions we could take at any given moment. And some of these possible actions transform easily into “should” actions. Here are some of my “shoulds” from earlier this year: keep informed about COVID-19, prepare my personal business and marketing strategies (in each a double Plan A and COVID strategy, of course) choose further professional development, produce useful content for social networks, comment on others’ useful content on social networks, eat healthily, exercise, support family members and friends …maintain, maintain, maintain! Progress, progress, progress!

You know what? I think I developed cracks in early September. Bits started to drop off.

Maybe from the outside it looked like business as COVID usual. But I noticed strong urges NOT to do things. I didn’t go on Facebook. I didn’t update my Instagram. I didn’t attend touchbases. I didn’t keep up with my German practice. I didn’t read improving books on any subject.
At first, I experienced quite a bit of guilt around my behaviour. Maybe I was letting myself and others down by not making MORE of an effort.
I also forgot to take stock of what I was doing: the reorganisation of training and coaching sessions from in-person-to online, the continuing work to update teaching materials and to improve my written and spoken French. And I didn’t allow myself to see that all this was enough to be going on with in the current situation. I fretted.

The friction between what I was doing and what I thought I should be doing for the future became too much. I was so focused on taking actions to secure an uncertain future I forgot that it’s the present on which everything resides.

My very wise nervous system decided it had had enough. For several weeks, my body sent me lots of amber warning signals about the interior friction: broken sleep, sore joints, dizziness to name but a few. My body effectively forced me to go more slowly and to rediscover my bare minimums: session preparation and administration, walking and stretching, soup making and rest. I reconsidered my workload and what I was prepared to take on. I made use of some life-coaching strategies to take care of myself. I had finally remembered to wear my own oxygen mask.
It’s 10 am on a sunny November morning in north-eastern France. My daily 60-minute walk is coming to an end. The fog has disappeared and the sun is on the remaining cherry tree leaves, setting them ablaze. Now I can tackle the “to do” list.

Here are some “pick and mix” strategies that can be useful for coaches and coachees alike.

1) Start making a TA-DAH list at the end of the day. While “to do” lists keep us focused on the future, TA-DAH lists help remind us what we have achieved on any given day. A sample “ta-dah” list could be:

a. Finished an article for the Neurolanguage Collective!
b. Had a really good conversation with a learner and he used present perfect tenses automatically and correctly!
c. Made tasty homemade soup
d. Watched an episode of Friends and laughed like a drain

2) Decide your bare minimums. What must you do to maintain your balance and peace of mind? If you are not sure whether it’s an obligation or just a should action, ask yourself what will realistically happen if you don’t do it? How do you feel about that reality?

3) When setting actions for yourself or your coachee, make use of those excellent scale questions. Ask “On a scale of 1 to 10, how easy will it be to do (or repeat) this action within the next 7 days?” If the response is less than a 9, ask how you can make the action easier to perform.

4) Focus on actions that will replenish your energy. This may be as simple as giving yourself better opportunities for a good night’s sleep every night, getting outside into natural daylight or making time to enjoy something guilt-free. Remember, as a coach and as an auto-coach, you can’t guarantee the result, but you are in charge of the process.

5) Make at least one unmissable commitment to self-care each week. It may be a tiny commitment but it’s not a should, it’s non-negotiable. I have online yoga sessions on Saturday mornings this autumn. I turn up without fail and if I need to lie in corpse pose for the entire hour, it’s okay.

6) Pay attention to any discomfort you feel around a situation, task or exchange. The discomfort can be mental – your mind keeps returning to the conversation or the situation – or it can be a physical sensation. Once you have identified the first signals, you can take action to address the cause of the stress.

I truly hope these strategies help and I would love any comments you might have.