When I conduct my first coaching session with writers, I introduce them to the ACT approach that I have integrated into the Focused Flow model. ACT is a collaborative coaching intervention that was developed by Professor Steven Hayes as he struggled to overcome his own personal challenges following his divorce. Previously a highly competent public speaker and lecturer, Steven found himself freezing up when he went to speak and experiencing panic attacks which quickly developed into a full-blown panic disorder. As a psychologist, he tried all the standard approaches to deal with his condition, but none seemed to resolve his problems entirely. You can read more about how he struggled to overcome his problems and how this led him to develop the ACT approach here.
The ACT approach is based on a six staged process that is represented by the hexaflex.
I came across this approach after training in the more traditional mindfulness-based approaches of MBSR and MBCT, both of which require a regular meditation practice. While studying at the Centre for Mindfulness Practice and Research at the University of Wales, I found out that many of my peers had difficulties maintaining a meditation practice due to a lack of time, heavy workloads, and family responsibilities, meaning they often found these approaches difficult to follow. I was drawn to ACT, because while the approach teaches mindfulness skills that develop a greater awareness of how the human mind works, it does not require a meditation practice. That’s right- no meditation is involved! In fact, ACT exercises teach us how to develop mindfulness on the move, during the ordinary activities of everyday life. This alone aroused my interest, so I took an experiential training programme that required trainees to apply ACT to their everyday experience. After we were presented with the hexaflex and the theory was introduced we began stage one of the process called ‘front loading your values’.
When looking at the hexaflex above, it might be difficult to imagine how this approach could be applied to the writing process to help overcome blockages and optimise productivity. At first, this wasn’t my intention at all. It was only after working with a coaching client who had been trying to finish her PhD thesis for twelve years that I discovered how useful ACT could be for overcoming obstacles encountered during the writing process. I simply took my client through the six staged process with a focus on the importance of writing in her life with fantastic results. She then went on to finish her thesis in nine months!
The first stage involved front loading her values. As is often the case, she was unclear about what her values actually were, especially the values that were driving her writing goals. Values and goals are different. Goals are milestones of achievement while values steer the direction we want our lives to take. So, if we’re unclear about our values, we’re not sure where we’re heading, and so we’re much less likely to get there. Often, when my clients complete the values clarification exercises, they discover that the values that had been steering their life so far had never been their own values, but had been adopted from another source, such as parents, teachers, their partner, or even the accepted conventions of society as a whole. Russ Harris illustrates the difference between a values-focused life versus a goals-focused life in this short video below.
For those people struggling to complete a long-term writing project, understanding which values are driving their writing goals is crucial. It’s also important to understand if writing is associated with a lack of fulfilment of other values and how both sides of the coin interfere with the writing process. I’ll give you an example to illustrate what I mean.
Let’s return to my previous who had struggled to complete her PhD thesis for almost twelve years. When she started clarifying her values, she realised that despite the importance of the values of creativity, learning and adventure that steered her PhD research, she also associated spending extended time on her writing with a lack of time with her partner doing things they enjoyed such as travelling together, sharing leisure activities and seeing friends. She discovered that subconsciously she was associating writing with relationship problems, social isolation, and even the loss of her partner to a less boring academic type! So, when we were front loading her values, we also had to reframe her writing in terms of her valued relationships, and unravel the association between writing and neglecting her partner and social connections.
As we did so, she realised to her surprise that her inability to focus on writing was at the core of some her problems with her partner, as her frustration was affecting her mood, energy levels and enjoyment of shared activities. She felt hunted by a sense of guilt and failure, and this was being expressed in her relationships in all kinds of indirect ways. Her partner was becoming associated with her inability to focus and write, although all her partner ever did was try to encourage her! Quite soon, we were able to reframe her writing as support to having a healthier relationship, as she saw how her reluctance to set boundaries to dedicate time to writing up her thesis was undermining her ability to be fully present to her partner and enjoy their time together.
In this case, front loading her values set her on a path to unlocking the time she needed to dedicate to writing, while she used mindfulness skills to detach from the guilt inducing inner commentary that would often arise when she made time away from her relationship to sit down and write. She established some values driven writing goals in the short, medium, and long term that enabled her to achieve a greater sense of fulfilment in other areas of her life. Once she had clarified the values driving her writing process, she was clear about where she was heading and could map out how to get there. This is the territory I cover with my clients in their first two coaching sessions using the Focused Flow workbook as a guide.
In the next post, I’ll explain how the mindfulness exercise of cognitive defusion helps establish the focus needed to drop into the flow state when we face obstacles with productivity even when we have plenty of time to write. Overcoming our inner obstacles to the writing process can be our greatest challenge. The Focused Flow model is especially designed to identify and uproot inner blockages to establishing the flow state, a vital and creative state of mind that is key to optimising productivity.
I look forward to any comments on this post.