Ways to Finally Change Your Life for the Better
Advice from Allison Task, a life and career coach and author of Personal (R)evolution
Allison Task, author of the fine new book, Personal (R)evolution: How to Be Happy, Change Your Life and Do That Thing You’ve Always Wanted to Do, calls herself a "coaching geek." But the Montclair, N.J.-based career and life coach changed her own life quite a few times to get where she is today — including a stint working for Martha Stewart. I recently met with Task, 46, in her office to hear her advice on how people in their 50s and 60s can change their lives for the better.
(Full disclosure: I worked with her husband, Aaron Task, a few years ago when he was editor in chief of Yahoo Finance and I was front page finance editor for Yahoo.com. But I hadn’t met his wife until the interview.)
After getting her degree in human development and family studies at Cornell, Allison Task began her career in the ‘90s working in marketing and sales at a few Internet startups. “I had a front row seat to the revolution,” she told me.
Task then decided she wanted to teach women how to cook, so she got a certificate in culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education, became a TV segment chef for Martha Stewart, a food stylist at The Food Network, an on-air host of Discovery’s Food Made Simple and Lifetime’s Cook Yourself Thin and, “through sheer force of will and desire,” founder of The Wooden Spoon cooking school. Along the way, she wrote two cookbooks: You Can Trust a Skinny Cook and Lighten Up, America!
“Cooking in people’s homes, I got into intense conversations with them about life,” she said. “I was invited into life-coaching conversations without the equipment to do it." So she enrolled in a life coaching program at NYU, got a coaching certificate and, in 2005, launched Allison Task Career & Life Coaching. Most of her coaching sessions are in person; some are by phone or over the Internet.
Highlights from our conversation:
Next Avenue: Why did you want to write this book?
Allison Task: Coaching is very expensive. I wanted to be able to give people the experience without having to meet me.
Who is the book for?
People who want to make a significant change in their life. One third of my clients come to me in the year of their 50 birthday.
At 50, there’s sometimes a disconnect between where we are and where we expected to be. Maybe someone's own expectations — the ‘shoulds’ they hear — are unsettling for them. Or they may like where they are and want that 'legacy move' in that final act of their career and want to do it intentionally. Sometimes they’re coming because they want to make a big change and haven’t been able to do it on their own or they want to make it faster and fun and collaborative.
They come for their career; they can rationalize the expense of that visit because they lost their job or they hate their job at 50, and then the conversation quickly transitions into other things.
What do you do to help people as a life coach?
Coaching isn’t therapy, but it is therapeutic. I tell people I’m definitely not a therapist. But I’m going to ask some intense questions to help you think about what’s the best way to meet your needs in line with your values. Part of my job is clearing out your brain to think exquisitely and clear out the emotions.
Some people in their 50s and 60s think it’s too late for them to make a life change. What do you say?
If you’re 50, you may live to 80 or 90. That’s a considerable amount of time. You can’t change what you’ve done, but you can change what you’d like to use those years to do.
I had a client who’s 62 and divorced and came to me last month. He worked in cancer research and had three years left in his career. He loved the work, but he hated the company. He was commuting three hours a day and had kids to put through college. He started talking about how amazing his retirement would be if he moved to Oregon and bought a house there. He was thinking: ‘How can I retire sooner?’ Then he was terminated and it became ‘I’m free! Cool! Now, how can I do this?’ So he shifted his investments and bought that house immediately. He said: ‘Let’s see if my son likes the Oregon [colleges]. Maybe I can reduce my costs. And I’ll start seeing about consulting opportunities.’
A year later, he was traveling with his son in China for his son’s gap year. The man has more consulting work than he expected and he said, ‘The only problem with my financial plan is it’s built for me to live to 90 and at this rate, I’ll live way past 90. I’m healthier and happier. This is awesome!’
He looks five to eight years younger. He’s glowing. He had given himself permission to think creatively and turned back time in his own biology. That’s the kind of change you can make happen in your 50s or 60s.
What’s the benefit of changing your life and making a Personal Revolution?
Just doing it is its own reward. You’ll live a fuller life. What’s the alternative? Procrastinating and complaining? Regret and delayed gratification? I don’t see any alternative that works.
You write about the importance of what you call 'Smart Goal Setting.' What do you mean by that?
Smart is an acronym. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound goals.
Specific means: get really, really clear about your goal. ‘I want to be happier’ is not a smart goal. ‘I want to lose 30 pounds by November 1’ is a smart goal, but it’s probably not achievable if you’re starting in June!
Measurable: ‘I want to be happier’ is too vague. ‘I want to wake up with a smile and not snap at my children, and I want to indulge myself with two hours of fun activities a day’ — that’s measurable.
Attainable: Is this something I can do? Losing 30 pounds in two months? No. Shift your goal until it is attainable.
Relevant: It matters to you.
Time-bound: You need a time to check in with yourself regularly.
So what would be an example of a Smart Goal for someone in his or her 50s or 60s?
If you’re two years from retirement it could be: 'By the time I retire on X date, I want to have achieved the following' — and then you set specific things as goals. Your 50s and 60s are a great time to assess how life has happened and reassess things for the final third of your career.
You say that too many people thinking about a life change focus on their resumé-self instead of their epitaph-self. What’s the difference?
That’s a concept from David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character. We think a lot about our accomplishments — that’s our resumé — but not our character and values — that’s our epitaph.
One exercise I like is to ask yourself: What values do I want to bring to the fore today? Is it steadiness? Loyalty? Accountability? That’s your epitaph-self.
You tell people to use what you call the ‘Whole Life’ model of life change and rank the various parts of your life based on how much satisfaction they’re bringing you and their importance to you. Then you subtract your scores for satisfaction from your scores for importance. Why?
If you go to my website, Allisontask.com, I give away a free assessment to do this. It helps you identify the areas of your life you need to shift. There may be some things in your life that you’re tolerating and you don’t realize how much energy they’re leaking.
Can you talk about connecting values to a goal?
I’ll do that by talking about my husband, Aaron, who’s 50. He loves leading teams — hiring a team, motivating them and having a big impact. He had been a journalist for 25 years and wanted to minimize his commute time and his social media time and the newsroom frenzy. It was draining. But he needed a certain amount of money, with our four kids.
So he looked at what was important to him — being closer to his family and more involved with his children. He thought through his job change and now with his current job [editor in chief at Experian Consumer Services], he’s more aligned with his family’s needs.
Where does networking fit into making a life change and how do you think people can network better?
It’s important. At 50, you have years of human connections, so reach out to them. When you want to make a job shift, think of the favorite people you used to work with and find them on LinkedIn or Facebook. Reach back to people who’ll be excited to hear from you.
The other half of networking is making new connections. Ask a friend to make an introduction. You’ll be giving your friend a huge opportunity to help your career, which will make him feel good if it works out.
What do you tell people in their 50s and 60s about age discrimination if they want to change careers?
I say: ‘Yes, some people are ageist. Some are racist. Some are sexist.’ If you run into age discrimination, go to the next door. You just need one job. Age discrimination may be there, but it’s not everywhere.
Some people have trouble making a life change because they’re thinking only about making a big change. You say people should think about inch pebbles and not just milestones. What’s an inch pebble?
It’s a small thing. ‘What’s the one small thing I can do for my goal? Write a list of 50 people who can help me and call one every day?’ Inch pebbles turn into an avalanche very quickly.
Take one action for your goal today. The next day, take two actions. The next day, take three actions.
And you also talk about something called a QuestionBurst. What’s that?
I love QuestionBursts. This is an idea from an IT leadership lab at MIT I went to for a coaching conference. It takes two minutes. You ask yourself all the questions you need answers to for your goal. Next week, you can start the research to get answers.
You also write about a word I’d never heard before: eustress. What is that?
Break it down: Eu is for euphoria; it’s positive. We know what stress is. So eustress is positive stress. It’s your body signaling that what you’re doing is impactful and important. Sometimes the heart palpitations are for a good reason; you’re about to grow. With eustress, you don’t shy away from the discomfort when you’re making a major change. There will be discomfort. See it for what it is: a growing pain. Your body is getting amped up to perform. Take a breath. Own it. When you have a stress opportunity, don’t resist it. Welcome it.
Do you have any life changes you still want to make?
Ask my husband! I’m insufferable when it comes to goal setting.
My husband and I set resolutions for one another on our birthdays. I’m currently actively deciding whether or not I want to ratchet up my career and potentially be the lead breadwinner and work more, or continue what I’ve designed and work two-thirds of the time, so I can be with my children. Where do I want to spend my time?
But I’m on hiatus from other goal-setting this summer. I’ll be going to all the people who helped me with my book and saying: Thank you.