When You Have Too Many Options…
One of the most important roles a coach can play is helping clients sort through all the options floating around in their heads.
Each of these clients is fully capable of making decisions, of moving forward in their lives. But when they’re confronted with too many choices, they get paralyzed. And, it’s also hard to process all these options with people close to them, because those people have their own biases about what the “right” choice is (since it will likely affect them, too).
Most of the time, we humans are not very good at handling all the different things we have swimming in our heads. The first place I learned about this dynamic was from David Allen in his book, Getting Things Done (check out this podcast with Tim Ferris for an overview): our brains are only really capable of managing four pieces of information at once. But the reality is there are hundreds of things competing for our attention, especially when we’re confronting a transition.
Step 1: Download All the Things
The first step we go through in coaching is downloading – or capturing – what is on the client’s mind, even if it doesn’t seem related to our coaching work. We have to do this brain dump before we figure out what’s most important, and before we start to take action on anything.
Why? Because in this long list of things we unearth, it’s not yet clear what things deserve action, and which ones aren’t important anymore. We have to search for what matters to the client.
With career coaching, this means capturing information about the client’s current work situation (what’s working, what’s not), what’s important in their life right now (priorities and values), what they’re looking for (meaning and purpose), what they’ve already tried, what else they have going on (side gigs, job applications).
Often, as we’re going through this discovery process, clients are eager to get to action, to move forward with their career change. They want to get out of this place of feeling stuck or overwhelmed at which way to go (especially when all the possibilities seem to be out there!). So, we spend some time processing that taking action for its own sake doesn’t help them move closer to what they really want.
Step 2: Identify What to Move Toward
The second step, after capturing all this data, is to slow down and let them reflect on what it is they do want, moving forward. What’s different in their career path now from when they began? What other priorities have come up that they want to honor or make room for? How do they want to feel going to work every day? What elements will help them know if the next step feels right?
These first two steps—capturing the data, and reflecting on what they really want—can take a while. As a coach, I’m comfortable trusting the process, knowing that this gathering and reflecting will yield clarity and, eventually, an action plan. But I know my clients need some encouragement to let the process unfold, to step back from the busy-ness of life and listen.
Step 3: Narrow the Options
The third step is about sorting all of these inputs, which we do together. This is the place that having an outside, independent perspective from a coach can be critical. I’m able to notice the patterns and themes across everything they’ve shared, to feed back what emotions I’m hearing from them, and share some ideas about how their strengths and interests translate into potential opportunities to pursue.
We work together to identify a limited number of paths that they actually want to pursue. We have to slow down in order to let that picture emerge, to notice which ones feel right, and which ones to let go of, or hit pause on for now.
Because we humans can only handle so many things at once, I find it critical in a career search to choose 2-3 options to pursue at the same time. Otherwise, the cost of “task-switching” really takes its toll, especially if my client is still needing to work in their current job, and manage all their usual responsibilities.
Step 4: Focus on One Small Action
Then, the final step, once the paths are identified, is to work with my clients to create simple action plans for each of the paths. This isn’t about making an exhaustive list of to dos (that can get us back into overwhelm really quickly!). It’s about focusing on one small action they need to take this week, to move forward on each of the paths.
As they start taking those actions, it usually becomes clear that one of the paths is no longer viable, or not a priority—which means their focus can narrow to the better options.
This process of handling too many choices is just about taking the time to capture everything, to get clear on what matters most, to slow down and find the key paths, and then to take small actions until you get to a decision point.
Having a coach walk alongside you on these paths, to help you see the pitfalls and shortcuts, talk through the challenges and opportunities, and cheer you through a decision, is something I know I’ve appreciated immensely from my coaches. Sure, I could do it on my own—but the process has been so much richer (and less overwhelming) each time I’ve had a coach along for the ride.