One of the best tools in my coaching tool box can be used effectively — and for free — by anyone with access to paper and a pencil. Here’s how.
I love being a coach. I get to work with clients who want to make positive changes, whether in their work, their relationships, their emotional or physical well-being, or other aspects of their lives.
It really matters to me that my clients get the greatest possible benefit from our work together, so I make sure to use approaches and techniques that are supported by substantial research. But not all of these proven techniques actually require a coach. In fact, one of the very best is accessible to just about anyone at any time.
I’m referring to an exercise developed and tested by Dr. Laura King, who has been doing breakthrough research about well-being for more than a decade.
Participants in Dr. King’s most famous study were given the following very simple instructions.
Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.
Study participants were given twenty minutes to write, then they were dismissed for the day and instructed to write for another twenty minutes in response to the very same prompt on each of the following three days.
That was it. Twenty minutes on each of four consecutive days.
And the results? Significantly greater physical and emotional health, both in the short term and over the long run.
It’s so impressive that I’m going to say it again. Participants in this research enjoyed lasting improvements in their health and happiness as a result of writing about a very pleasant topic for a total of eighty minutes spread across four days.
Sounds like an investment worth making, doesn’t it?
Why It Works
It’s pretty easy to see why this exercise would generate good feelings it the short term. After all, thinking about life turning out as well as it possibly could seems a pleasant way to spend some time.
But why does it have long-term benefits? After all, thinking about our dreams may be enjoyable, but it doesn’t make them come true.
I’m convinced that the reason this exercise works so well is that it affects not only what we think, but what we do. Writing about what it would look like for all of our life dreams to come true:
- Encourages us to think through what our life dreams really are.
- Focuses our imagination on ways to make those dreams come true.
- Motivates us to take concrete steps toward making our vision a reality.
As with most of life, both what we think and what we do make a big difference.
What if You Don’t Like to Write?
I imagine that some of you may be thinking, “That sounds great, but I don’t like to write, so I’ll just think about the question instead of writing about it.”
I’d encourage you to try the writing even if you usually think of writing as a chore to be avoided. Here’s why. The process of writing about topics such as this has been shown to have a much more beneficial effect than just thinking – or even talking – about them. Writing causes us to think things through in a way that can be surprisingly powerful.
So how about trying it for one day, maybe even for five minutes, then seeing if you’d like to go back write some more? Maybe you’ll get to all four days and maybe you won’t, but I’d be willing to bet that you’ll see benefit from whatever time you decide to put into it.
If you’re still resisting the idea of putting pencil to paper, remember that this is just for you. No one else needs to see it. It won’t be graded, or entered into a contest, or posted online. It doesn’t need to be impressive, or well-written, or even legible. The important thing isn’t how you write it; it’s how the writing affects your clarity about your dreams, your vision of what’s possible, and the steps you can take to make it so.
Just believing in our dreams doesn’t make them come true. But gaining clarity about what we really want out of life can help us to see previously hidden paths and motivate us to take the steps necessary to actively create the lives we want to live. And this exercise – one of the very best in the coach’s toolbox — can be a great way to get started.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
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