For some reason it takes me two and a half hours to email my life coach. I write “email life coach guy” on my to-do list. I have a really long shower. I riffle through a stack of unopened New Yorkers, and pretend I am either going to read them, or leave them in my building’s lobby for my neighbours to claim, and in the end I do neither. I watch a 20-minute YouTube video about Amir Khan’s boxing career (“The legendary speed of Amir Khan!”), then check Wikipedia to see how he fared in the fight the video was trailing (an embarrassing knockout). I send three tweets and scroll Instagram. I stand at the fridge and eat some hummus with a plain cracker for no reason at all. Finally, I sit and write the email. It is 36 words long. Tomas, the life coach, writes back almost immediately. That was the absolute last thing I wanted.
The pandemic was broadly fine for me. I worked at home anyway, so I didn’t have any shock adjustment to make. I didn’t (and still don’t) have any children to look after, so there wasn’t any particular agony with my many lives layering on top of each other in a confined space. My girlfriend, Hannah, and I did the usual things to stay sane when confronted with seemingly endless periods of time and no real social life: jigsaws, taking too long to cook dinner, a Sopranos rewatch.
But then something started to creep in, and it didn’t creep out again even when life began to reopen. What was it? Inertia, I suppose. It will be hard to measure the full impact of all this – lockdown ennui, that month where people tried to wash Amazon packages before opening them, and the complete erasure of a normal social life – but the early signs aren’t great. A February study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found a link between the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in Lombardy, Italy, and cases of PTSD among health workers there. And it’s fair to say that everyone, frontline or not, had a weird year mentally.
For me, it started in bed one morning when I realised I hadn’t had an original thought for about two months. Sitting at my desk felt agonising, and not sitting at my desk caused a nagging background hum of anxiety. My first book, an underappreciated-in-its-time masterpiece that will be critically rediscovered once I am dead, came out in 2019. I was meant to pitch the second book about two years and 11 months ago. So far, all I have to show for it is a lot of notes on my phone, some sticky-notes that I am pretty sure would be important if only I could read my own handwriting, and trouble sleeping. I am in a motivational hinterland. I need someone to shake me by the shoulders and tell me to wake up! Wake up, idiot! Wake up!
I am not the only person suffering from some nameless malaise. Tomas Svitorka is a 38-year-old life coach with eight years of experience, who doesn’t trust me, yet. One of his red flags is when a third party emails him on someone else’s behalf, as my editor at the Guardian did for me. When we meet over Zoom for our opening “discovery session” (essentially, a chat to see if we get on), he explains how that normally pans out: “Around once a month a wife or a husband or a parent gets in touch with me and says, ‘Hey, this person needs some help.’ And I reply and say, ‘Yep, yep, I’m happy to speak with them, but they have to reach out to me themselves.’ And they never do.”
Behind him, I see a carefully curated domestic vista: a guitar on its stand, a healthy fern, daylight through a high-rise corner window. Tomas himself – in his uniform black polo, and clearly looking at multiple screens – gives the impression of an IT guy you are surprised to discover is actually quite funny while he removes a virus from your computer. We both decide that we get along.
Life coaching is, strangely, misunderstood. Adjacent to the world of self-help (an industry filled with as many blockbuster personal development techniques that genuinely enrich lives as flimsy platitudes and, let’s be honest, straight-up scams), and a curious cousin to traditional therapy, life coaching is sometimes wielded as a stick with which to beat someone, or an ultimatum: “Go and get life coached or we’re breaking up!” It’s easy to look down at people on the lower rungs of the life coaching ladder – if you’ve watched as much Peep Show as I have, you’ll remember the season eight storyline where Jez prints off a certificate and calls himself one – but Tomas has a degree in psychology. Pricing-wise, he is at the upper end of the industry – his eight-week blitz starts at £3,000 – but there are more affordable options out there for people with as little budget as they have drive. Think of it as like hiring a personal trainer: you could get the guy who gets Gwyneth into shape, sure, but sometimes you just need a bloke you found on Gumtree to yell at you.
Tomas’s initial email reads: “Bring with you something to write with, an open mind, and a positive attitude.” I have two pens, but neither of the other things. Over the course of our first hour and a half together, Tomas tells me what he expects: “All I need to know is that you’re going to put in the effort.” I nod and assure him that, yes, I can try at things, but part of me clunks with fear. I hate trying at things. That’s what got me into this mess in the first place. What if I don’t try hard enough? Is it … is it possible to fail life coaching? What happens then?
“This mess” is a bizarrely accurate way of describing my life, which on the surface is fine. During lockdown, it was also “fine”. But after months of it, I began to lose my lustre. That’s the problem Tomas quickly diagnoses – I’ve been treading water when it comes to my career, social life and self-discipline, and I’ve not noticed, because my life hasn’t been terrible. Instead, I am wallowing in what Tomas calls the Zone of Tolerable Discomfort. “OK is not enough” is one of his mantras.
We talk about what my life looks like when I am thriving: I happily take on more work, I have extra ideas, my office is tidier, I read more books, I am not constantly gnawed at by a distant feeling of dread. “You talk faster when you’re excited about something,” Tomas says in one session, when I tell him about a new idea I’ve had for a script. He has a Google doc open on our shared screen, building a diagnostic for my better mood that I can replay in times of lower ebb. “Talks faster,” he writes in one cell, “makes more hand gestures.” “Yeah, I mean, I guess,” I say, tousling my fringe out of my face. “Plays with hair,” he types.
The longest working relationship Tomas has had with a client is approaching the four-year mark, and for most people the coaching is something they dip in and out of, as and when goals come up. For my part, we’re doing the eight-week blitz, a series of weekly sessions that works as the metaphorical kick up the backside, but I can see how I might need to stock up on motivation when the initial buzz starts to wear off.
The pandemic has been good for the life-coaching trade – I’m not the first person Tomas has met who looks ashen-faced and lost this year – and he gets a fairly even split of men and women. What most people need, it turns out, is a bit of discipline and a fair amount of accountability. When I haven’t achieved a goal I set out to do in the previous week’s session, I feel as if I’m sheepishly admitting to a teacher that I didn’t do my homework.
One week in and I am thriving. We have decided to work on a couple of big projects – I’m trying to improve my health, because I am 34, so we set a goal of running 100km over the course of one month; I want to pitch my second book, and finish a TV project that’s been idling on my desktop for, ooh, a year – but there are a lot of little building blocks involved as well. I tell Tomas offhandedly that I’d like to fix my weird work-life balance anxiety. I am freelance, and that should mean a lordly life of long lunches in cafes, but what happens instead is I sit at my desk from 9am to 5pm five days a week and get baffled when I don’t really get anything done. “What days do you do the most work?” he asks me, and I answer, “Probably Wednesdays.” I tell him I suppose I could take Thursday afternoons off: my work is normally finished by about 10am on those days, so I could use that time to not, like, worry. He smiles. One of Tomas’s tricks is to ask an open-ended question and let me find my own answer. The penny drops. The next day I take my girlfriend out for a sandwich and a coffee, and don’t feel bad about it at all.
“This is nice,” she says.
“It’s a life coaching thing,” I tell her.
The point is, we still had fun.
I start to think of Tomas as not the angel, nor the devil, but the to-do list on my shoulder. He takes my number so that he can keep me accountable at all hours, and adds me to an online group of other clients who are all updating on the progress of their goals. (I daren’t join in – one guy is developing an app; another woman just won a tech industry award. I don’t want to admit that the reason I’m here is because “sometimes sending emails is difficult”.) I run 6km and remember I need to impress someone other than myself, so push an extra thousand metres just to send Tomas the screenshot as proof.
“What would make your work easier?” he asks me during one session, and I explain that a new laptop to replace my eight-year-old machine is something affordable that would improve my working life. He looks at me for exactly long enough for me to register what I just said. “Write ‘get a new laptop’ on the spreadsheet please, Tomas,” I say, then send him a photo of me at the Apple store the next day, which a very baffled employee has to take for me.
One of the mini-goals of my health kick is “book my first doctor’s appointment in nine years”, something I have somehow failed to do since last week’s session. “What happened?” Tomas probes, gently. “Well, I … I mean, I’m not a big fan of phone calls?” He looks at another screen in an uninterested way. “Eh, that’s a bullshit excuse,” he says. After I get off the call, I phone the GP. The receptionist is actually nice, and I book the appointment within three minutes. I text Tomas to say as much. He sends me an encouraging gif of the Robert Redford nodding meme.
Why couldn’t I just do all this for myself? It’s a good question, and one that sadly strikes at the heart of human existence. “Because I didn’t want to” is the long and short of it, though the honest truth is that I didn’t notice my motivation and mood were slipping for as long as they did, and by the time I did, it was too late to bounce my way out of it. Now, I’ve developed small ways of nudging myself in the direction of having goals. “We want to get away from pain – physical, emotional – and towards pleasure – physical, emotional – through the path of least resistance,” Tomas explains. This is why eating a big bag of crisps is better than doing your taxes. “And so your brain is evaluating all the time: is it worth it? Is it worth the hustle? Is it worth the reward?”
To power through my book pitch, I check into a hotel, put an out-of-office on my email, and write 15,000 words in three days. “What made you do that?” Tomas asks me, and the reason is: I didn’t want to spend money on a hotel without anything to show for it. A new method emerges: weaponising my own reluctance to spend money to finally benefit myself. To make me more adept at basic human functions such as making a phone call, we work out how I behave when I’m in a bouncier mood – sitting up straight, large arm gestures, smiling – and I practise it at home whenever I need to power through the end of a writing stint. Somehow, making my body pretend I’m in a good place tricks my stupid human mind into going along with the sham.
“The human mind is very simple,” Tomas is fond of saying, which occasionally sounds like something a supervillain might say while destroying New York, but here it is right. All Tomas has really done is make me say out loud why my life has felt as if it’s been dipped in treacle since the middle of last year, soothe some of the lingering dread that came from not leaving the house for weeks on end, and establish a few mini-steps to get me out of it again.
Incrementally, things start to click: I’ve bought a special massage gun to loosen my thighs after a run. I spend two hours, during the worst hangover of my life, tidying my office so I can prove to him that I did it. I sign up to HelloFresh to make healthier meals without having to scour through recipe blogs first. (Losing weight was another of my goals, but I couldn’t face answering the question, “What shall we have for dinner?” ever again.) We spend an entire session working through a weird communication anxiety around messaging one work contact that I didn’t even know I had, and when the person in question mails me the next day, I feel a powerful new sense of control. This isn’t rocket science. And yet, and yet.
The first person Tomas life-coached was Tomas. He was young and quietly despondent in a familiar-sounding way – over in London from his native Czech Republic, and working an unfulfilling catering job in the City. One day, he learned exactly how much money one of the traders he was selling sandwiches to got as a Christmas bonus and, he says, “You can’t undo that in your head. I’m an investigative person, so I was like, ‘How do people get these kind of jobs?’ Somehow that led me to personal development – books, audiotapes, networking events, weekend courses – and I was so excited. I became obsessed with it. It just blew my mind that you could systematically improve yourself.”
You can probably figure out by now that he cracked it. His clients include CEOs, wildly ambitious YouTubers, and “almost-billionaires”, as well as journalists who are a bit sad that writing is hard. His energy is infectious: I ran 12km just to get a thumbs up from the guy on WhatsApp.
In a month, I easily achieve my goal of running a cumulative 100km. I smash my word-count target for the book pitch. I am drinking more water because Tomas says it’s good for focus. Clients I’ve known for years have been emailing to say how much better my work has been lately. I’m less crabby around the house. I occasionally go for lunch and don’t feel weirdly guilty about it. I am sleeping better. My office is tidy. I look at Instagram a more normal amount. Everyone I’ve ever been to the pub with is completely tired of hearing about how much I love life coaching.
How has this happened? “Motivation is great,” Tomas explains to me, as we finally meet in person on a 38th-floor bar in London’s Canary Wharf, which I think has been chosen to remind me how good life can be if I stop festering in my office and start learning what crypto is. “It helps. But you don’t need it for anything. You get up in the morning, you brush your teeth – you don’t feel motivated. You put your clothes on, you go to your job – you don’t feel motivated. Why? It needs to be done. When people free themselves from needing motivation, that’s half the battle. That’s why we become disciplined.” One last mind trick: he’s fooled me into thinking I am motivated, but I’ve actually just made myself a lot busier. And slightly more hydrated.
I get the train home, settle into my office, and steal 25 minutes of work before dinner is ready. I run a hot 5k and resist the urge to send Tomas a screenshot of my route. I think distantly about what “almost-billionaire” means. Suddenly, I realise, I am no longer in my funk. Sometimes all it takes is someone to nudge you in the right direction.