A Coaching Power Tool By Audrey Bolo, Career Coach, KENYA
Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do. John Wooden
Where Do We Start? – Momentum vs. Lethargy
In physics, momentum is the relationship between speed, mass, and direction. The greater the momentum an object has the more force is required to stop it. This is true in our lives as well. Once you start moving and pick up speed in your day-to-day tasks or long-term goals, you can feel like you are “on a roll” and that it is not easy to be stopped.
Psychological momentum (PM) plays a critical role in goal pursuit and achievement. Research suggests that the main psychological processes that underpin momentum are confidence, perceived competence (self-belief), and internal attributions (e.g. personal skill). Based upon related research, it is hypothesized that PM starts as a conscious process but subsequently becomes a major facilitator of nonconscious automatic execution of human behavior and performance. This is important to note because one of the most fundamental characteristics of humans is our desire for success, especially given how competitive our societies tend to be.
Having momentum can be a wonderful feeling but it is not a fixed state. The other end of the pendulum can be described as operating in a state of lethargy. At an emotional, mental, and/or physical low. Similar to momentum, feeling lethargic does not have to last forever.
Momentum vs. Lethargy Explanation – What Are These Perspectives?
Momentum: the impetus (force or energy) gained by a moving object.
PM can be experienced in almost any activity in life. Cleaning your home, responding to emails, building a house, or trading stocks. Success in the activity is likely to lead to subsequent or future success but this is only true if your initial success gives rise to the psychological process of momentum. In addition, the longer the momentum lasts, the more efficient and better your performance is likely to be.
A client might experience momentum as they start to take action on a plan created after a coaching session, as they start to accomplish some of their desired goals. Every step they take, every positive conversation or interaction that takes them closer to their goal can be described as psychological momentum. Another client might experience this momentum as they build or reinforce a habit like writing in a daily gratitude journal, working out weekly, or ending work on time every weekday. Each time they accomplish their desired habit, it reinforces their success and makes it easier to repeat the action.
PM matters because motivation is not enough to achieve success. Motivation is your why whereas momentum is your how. You might be motivated to achieve your coaching certification because you want to serve your community or to inspire and encourage others (you’re why) but to get certified, you need to attend every class, every lab, and complete each practical assignment (you’re how). It is important to focus on both the why and the how-to achieve success and this same approach should be used when working with clients.
Lethargy: a lack of energy and enthusiasm.
Lethargy is a state of fatigue often characterized by a lack of energy, desire, or motivation for physical and mental activities. A person with lethargy may feel indifferent towards their daily tasks and they might describe it as a feeling of being “stuck” or being in a “mental rut”, “brain fog” or “walking around in a haze”. Lethargy is a subjective symptom, meaning that individual people will measure and describe it differently but in most cases, it involves a lack of momentum. Some of its causes are overexertion, stress, burnout, injury, lack of exercise, too much or too little sleep, drug or alcohol use, medications, and other underlying conditions or treatments.
Lethargy is generally not desirable as you are unlikely to feel or perform at your best. It may occur continuously, over some time, or in phases throughout your day, week or month. It interrupts task performance and these interruptions mean that performance has to be started again from the beginning, which slows or stops achieving success. The act of stopping and starting actions consumes energy. Gaining positive momentum often means task performance is perceived as easier and smoother, but when the task has to be restarted it becomes more demanding and difficult, often leading to negative emotions.
Momentum vs. Lethargy Application – What Can We Do?
Like many things, evoking awareness and holding space for reflection is key to coaching a client who is in a state of lethargy. Let us assume that after your first session with a new client, you observe that they might be trying to navigate through lethargy. Here are nine techniques that you can consider.
Coaching your client to evoke awareness about their lethargic state is an important place to start. They may not necessarily land on the word “lethargy” and if they don’t, you might share your observation or summarize what they are describing as lethargy. Once they can name it, they are one step closer to deciding what they want to do next. From there, it’s important that they not blame themselves for feeling this way (e.g. “I am lazy”, “I don’t have self-discipline”). Instead, consider asking them any of these questions:
- “How might you use this awareness?”
- “How can you move forward?”
- “What is the next step you want to take?”
- “What can you do now?”
Reflect on Past Momentum
Consider bringing their awareness to a time in their past when they had momentum so that they can use that past example to help them navigate their present situation. Acknowledge that past momentum and remember to celebrate any quick wins that might follow. Also, make sure any win can be attributed in some way to the client’s direct actions and not luck or another external factor.
Even in the depths of lethargy, we can all generally get one thing done every day. Your client is the master of their life so they can choose what one thing they can commit to doing every day. This approach could be used for clients so “stuck” or “drained” that they cannot see a way forward. You might explore them doing the same one thing every day until your next session or for a week to generate small, initial momentum. Ideas of what they might commit to should be their own but they can range from making their bed, going for a run, washing the dishes, getting dressed for work, showing up on time, cooking dinner, or texting one friend each day. At your next session, you might ask:
- “How did it feel to commit to doing one thing?”
- “What did you learn about yourself?”
- “How might you use that learning moving forward?”
- “What else can you commit to?”
Generally, we are not good at multitasking. We might think we are but there is usually a cost to trying to process more than one thing at a time. Consider ways that might protect your client’s focus as they build a robust action plan. Serial processing means processing one task at a time and ideally, that focus should generate momentum, even just for the time the task is being processed. Serial processing also eliminates distractions that can interrupt task performance, thus conserving your client’s energy. For example, instead of tackling three actions, your client might consider focusing on completing one action before moving on to the next. This approach might also make their plan more manageable and sustainable.
Find Your Flow
Positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura describe flow as a state when you become fully immersed in what you are doing. To achieve a flow state, the activity needs to be not too hard or too easy but ideally something you are good at and care about. You should also be able to enjoy the present moment of the journey as you complete the activity versus only focusing on the end goal or destination. Flow state is complementary to building momentum and can support your client’s shift in perspective. Consider exploring what activities move them into a flow state especially if this might support them as they build psychological momentum.
If your client can generate some momentum but struggles to maintain it and often ends up in a lethargic state, you might consider asking them to write a list of any activities that they enjoy and they know can help them get back “on a roll” (i.e. what can ignite psychological momentum for them). For example, they might mention cleaning their house, baking some treats, or responding to emails are tasks they can lean into if they ever need to build momentum back up. It is important to create this list while they feel positive and have some momentum already so that they are ready for any future slumps. This list is a plan that their future self can thank them for and similar to finding their flow, this can increase your client’s feeling of empowerment and enthusiasm.
Breaks do not necessarily kill momentum but can energize your client for their next step. When coaching your client, it might be important for their action plan to allow for or even encourage breaks, especially if they are managing any feelings of fatigue. They should not wait to feel completely exhausted before they stop and take a break. Consider asking them how they might build the habit of taking breaks into their plan. You could also ask what taking breaks mean to them and how they could apply this to other parts of their life. Again, they should choose a frequency and activity that supports them and some examples might include adding a coffee or lunch break onto their calendar or planning their annual leave for the year, 6-12 months in advance. This allows them to:
- Take control of when they rest.
- Have something to look forward to.
- Pace themselves better as they build momentum.
Focus On Others
Consider asking your client to look outside of their situation by taking a step back and reflecting on who within their friend, family, or community circles they could support. Commitment to this type of action takes the attention off their situation and directs their actions to leave a positive impact on others. Not only can that pivot reset their perspective but it can also build up positive energy that can be used to build their psychological momentum.
Outsource a Tough Activity
This is an opportunity for creativity through role-playing. Consider asking your client to pretend to outsource an activity that might make them feel “stuck”, “depleted” or lost in a “brain fog”. Your client can imagine that someone else will do the activity on their behalf, immediately and at no cost. All they have to do is write out simple, clear instructions so that that person can take action. Then ask them what they would write. Follow-up and ask questions like:
- “What might you recommend this person prioritizes?”
- “What might get in their way?”
- “What is the most important thing they should remember when completing the activity?”
This role-play could help your client step out of their situation long enough to gain some perspective. It might be the nudge they need to realize that they can take the first step or it could help them identify what is causing them to feel lethargic.
The common theme with all these techniques can be summed up in Arthur Ashe’s quote:
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Consider how you can partner with your client to use what little they might have to move forward.
What Else Can We Consider? – Momentum vs. Lethargy
In the competitive societies we live in, there is not only a tendency to want to do everything but to do it perfectly. Building PM can be an empowering process but it should not signal that you need to do more than you have the capacity for, simply because you are “on a roll.” Building PM in the things that bring us joy or move us closer to our goals is much more important. Reflect on how to couple this targeted PM (the how) with clear motivation (the why) as you partner with your clients.
Psychological Momentum—A Key to Continued Success. Seppo E. Iso-Ahola, Charles O. Dotson
Front Psychol. 2016; 7: 1328.
Feather N. Change in confidence following success or failure as a predictor of subsequent performance. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 9, 38–46. 10.1037/h0025671
Iso-Ahola S. E., Dotson C. O. Psychological momentum: why success breeds success. Rev. Gen. Psychol. 18, 19–33. 10.1037/a0036406
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