Coaching: An under-appreciated strategy among effective altruists

by acristia14 min read5th Dec 20208 comments

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In this post, I explain what coaching is, and argue that effective altruists should consider at least trying out free coaching sessions. I also make recommendations for current coaches serving the EA community, and others who may want to do so. I'm grateful to Lynette Bye, Daniel Kestenholz, Angela María Aristizábal, and Shiva Pauer for feedback on a previous version; Anne Wissemann for the idea of writing this up; and two more people who agreed to meet to talk about this. The responsibility for the contents of this post is all mine.

What is coaching?

A coach aims to facilitate the client's goal-setting, and goal-achievement. Aside from this definition, there is tremendous variation in terms of what kinds of goals and processes individual coaches propose (including in terms of the evidential basis). Regarding goals, someone who identifies as a productivity coach may help you increase your work output while avoiding burn-out, whereas a life coach may be ideal to help you achieve better work-life balance. These are just two examples, and many coaches have unique approaches as diverse as helping you think about the philosophical issues behind your life choices and gaining and maintaining healthy eating habits. For examples of definitions by coaches currently serving the EA community, see here and here.

There is a limit to this broad coverage: Most coaches state they do not do psychological therapy, and therefore they cannot help you with clinical depression, anxiety, and other acute disorders. However, many would be happy to help you put into effect recommendations from your therapist. Many coaches also avoid the terms "consultant", which implies that they would give you direct advice, and "trainer/teacher", which indicate that they would teach you content. For many, coaching is an art, and good coaches need to learn to balance question-asking, summarizing what the client has said, and other techniques that allow sessions to become periods of self-discovery; times between sessions are used for self-experimentation or self-observation based on the insights gained. Finally, coaching is not the same as mentoring: Mentors are often volunteers who share their individual experience and thoughts, whereas coaching is a profession, with many coaches frowning upon the provision of personal experience bits.

Coaching can be done in groups. This is particularly useful for increasing productivity and communication at the team level, but also when multiple unrelated individuals attend group coaching to learn from each other's experience. Sometimes, this type of coaching can be less costly than one-on-one coaching.

Finally, individuals and organizations can set up peer coaching systems. In this setting, dyads or small groups meet regularly and each member attempts to reproduce some behaviors that coaches use, such as asking questions to help gain clarity on the goal, and to devise actionable plans to attain them (example from my lab here). Peer coaching systems can be a great deal less costly even than group coaching, but the literature on their effectiveness is very sparse, and there are no clear indications for making them more effective (see e.g. this scoping review). Similarly, intervention studies on team coaching tend not to reveal performance boosts (although there may be other positive effects reported by team members, according to this other review).

What types of coaching are available to effective altruists specifically?

I have directly talked to 5 coaches, but there is a longer list compiled initially by Anne Wissemann (converted into a spreadsheet here). Based on this review, it appears that most coaches offer one-on-one coaching, but some do work with groups and can facilitate peer coaching. The scope of goals covered is quite broad, as obvious from Anne Wissemann's list.

Why should effective altruists consider coaching?

A meta-analysis including 8 randomized control trials (RCTs) and 10 other studies estimated an overall effect size of Hedges' g=.66 (in RCTs specifically, effects were g=.48; for a review of systematic reviews see this chapter). This is very impressive when compared to effects observed in psychology (figure, full; if it's helpful, this effect size is similar to the gain in height American girls experience between 14 and 18 years of age). Moreover, benefits are seen not only in things like work performance (g=.6, self-assessed or assessed by others), but also in psychological skills associated with long-term resilience (e.g., coping g=.43 and the ability to regulate oneself when working towards goals g=.74).

One may argue that these effects may not translate to effective altruists, who are more educated and reflexive than the average person, and who therefore may have already reaped all the benefits in goal-setting and achievement that can be achieved via reading and thinking (see also the next section). Within the EA community, there has been one person who self-identifies as a productivity coach and who has served collected data on the effects of coaching from her EA clients. In her report, Lynette Bye estimates that clients gained on average 16 extra productive hours a month (nearly half doing only 4 sessions, with only 16% going beyond 12 sessions), which roughly means that the 4-12 hours that those individuals spent on coaching are more than made up for the multiplicative effect of increased productivity.

If you find personal stories convincing, see the PS for my own.

Why may effective altruists not be considering coaching now?

Coaching is seldom discussed in the forum, so I may be wrong about whether effective altruists are considering coaching, but my impression is that many of you are not. These are some of the reasons that may be behind that:

Reason 0. I never heard of coaching, or the potential benefits from it.

Counterargument 0. I think this is quite likely the top reason for many in the EA community. I'm hoping this post will help, but it's probably not enough. My recommendation for coaches serving the EA community is to try to make themselves more accessible, and to help people learn about what they do and when it may be good. For instance, I suggested putting out a regular podcast in which they take turns providing a sample session (e.g., coach A "plays" the client and Coach B plays the coach). They could also organize events that are displayed on the EA International calendar, such as free group coaching or a free one-on-one "coaching sampler". Some of the coaches I suggested this to countered that effective altruists do not like anything that sounds like advertising -- so doing this may have negative effects. Given that people could benefit from the free advice in the podcasts or the events, I think it may be worth asking around to see whether the negative effects of being viewed as advertising may not be countered by the positive effects on members and the community at large, as the members become more productive and improve their quality of life.

Reason 1. I don't have time to do it. 

Counterargument 1. Given the potential gains of working with a productivity coach, this argument doesn't make sense. I think it is almost certain that you will "get your hours back" in the process via increased productivity. Gains for other types of coaching may be harder to quantify, but one advantage of coaching is that it's a field that is defined by results (unlike e.g. therapy or consulting), so you can stop at any time if you feel it's not going well.

Reason 2. I don't have money for it.

Counterargument 2. Many of the coaches I talked to could offer steep discounts to effective altruists they thought they could help, sometimes by applying for grants from CEA. If you are in a company or other type of organization, you may be able to apply for a coach (or something similar, like peer groups or mentorship systems) within your institution. If they are good, they'll be able to accompany you through whichever goals you bring to the session. And if they are not good - see Counterargument 1.

Reason 3. It's all woowoo.

Counterargument 3. There is some truth to this: Many life coaches work in ways that are virtually indistinguishable from those of shamans. However, if shamanism is your thing and it works for you - then such a coach can help you; and if shamanism is not your thing, then there are other coaches who are scientifically-oriented and evidence-based (see e.g. this primer on coaching research). I'd also advise you to look out for manipulators (in the coaching world, but in any other position of power, such as mentors, therapists, etc.; if you're not sure what the signs are for coaches, this contains a list). Fortunately, coaches typically provide an initial meeting for free. During that meeting, you can just ask your prospective coach about their method and their values, and you'll be able to tell quite quickly if this aligns with your needs and beliefs, and working together is likely to be effective for you. Some people wonder whether they should only see coaches who have a certificate. My own reading of the world of certification is that, despite the fact that e.g. the big certification agency ICF has a code of ethics requiring its coaches to be ethical and incorporate research insights, an ICF certificate is neither sufficient nor necessary to be effective and ethical.

Reason 4. I don't know if it'll work for me. 

Counterargument 4. As in the previous point, you can get an impression of whether a given coach is a good fit for you during your initial (free) call, and you can have many of these calls until you find someone with whom you click. That said, there is discussion in the coaching world about "uncoachable clients" -- people who do not benefit from coaching (see e.g., here, and here). Although scientific studies on this are missing, some themes recur, suggesting you are uncoachable if you are:

  • unwilling to self-reflect -- I think this is unlikely among effective altruists, self-reflection is in part what got us to EA in the first place
  • unwilling to blame self -- same here, we are quite ready to think about our role in the construction of the future
  • unwilling to take action -- same here, we are action-oriented
  • sport an expert's mindset (i.e., they already know everything) -- same here, I think most of us are quite humble and open to being proven wrong by reality
  • unwilling to be vulnerable -- this is a possibility for some of us: coaching involves discussing your failures as well as your successes so you do need to be open to discussing your limitations; however, a good coach should make you feel empowered, by helping you in a self-discovery process that makes you more productive, resilient, self-efficacious, and self-confident
  • focusing on what should be rather than what is -- this one is also hard, so if you find yourself getting stuck on "but it shouldn't be like that" a lot, then look out for signs of whether your coaching sessions aren't working because you've gotten all you could from this coach or whether you are crippled to inaction by your "should attitude".

Should you become a coach for effective altruists?

One of the people I interviewed told me they get someone contacting them about potentially becoming a coach every month, and most of the time these people do not follow through. 

If you are considering coaching, one thing to bear in mind is that it is extremely slow to build up a client base in general, and the EA community will probably not be an exception. In fact, perhaps it will be worse than with a broader client base because there are already a few more established coaches, and it will be hard for you to carve out your own clientele. Moreover, you also become better and have a more unique contribution with practice, and thus it may take a while for you to be able to successfully facilitate most or all of your clients' goals. 

That said, based also on the interviews I carried out, I believe it would be beneficial to have more:

a) coaches who aim to charge very little (perhaps because they are based in the global South and given current exchange rates, they charge what they would have charged anyway in their country). One could argue that then everyone would want to work with these coaches because they are "cheaper" - but I doubt that will be the case, particularly in the EA community: altruists who can afford the more expensive coaches would know that by choosing the less expensive coach, they'd be crowding out those with fewer resources. Additionally, the coaches charging less could turn down coachees they know can afford more expensive services.

b) coaches who specialize on current minorities in the effective altruism movement (women, people of color, older individuals than the typical EA demographic, non-native English speakers)

I myself considered offering coaching for effective altruists as a form of volunteering. However, after interviewing with several coaches serving the community, my impression is that many of them could take on more clients (i.e., this may not be neglected). Moreover, since I would do it as a form of volunteering, this may create a relative disadvantage for current coaches, which could have a negative impact on their incomes. Since I cannot be sure that I'd continue volunteering, this could eventually result in less coaching time available to the EA community. Thus, I decided that it is likely not beneficial to the community for me to offer coaching. I do think I may be particularly useful to very specific profiles (e.g., full-time researchers), so I'll keep my website up until July 2021 and re-assess then.

Final thoughts

I think the community, and a majority of individual members, could benefit from undertaking some form of coaching. One-on-one coaching appears to be most effective based on hearsay and smattering of literature, but the community could experiment with group and peer coaching in the future, as a way of improving productivity and well-being with lower per-individual costs.. 

PS: My personal story with coaching

I've been interested in productivity for as long as I remember, and by 2017 I was considered as "the most productive researcher I know" by many local colleagues (who told me this unasked!) Nonetheless, in 2019 I felt exhausted, I had a hard time leading the team I had fought to create (first single-researcher female-led team in my lab), and I simply had no idea how I was going to achieve all the goals I had set myself for that year, which included co-leading a 4-week hackathon in Canada followed by a month of fieldwork in PNG and taking on the directorship of my lab (akin to a department) upon my return, all the while sticking to my goal of not working more than 50 hours a week. 

Therefore, I signed up for the NFCDD Faculty Summer Bootcamp, which involves watching a video each week and doing the homework recommended there, checking in every day to set goals and tag them as done or not, and attending a weekly group accountability phone call -- all of which took me about 3h per week for 14 weeks. I had one of my grants pay for the ~3k US$ it cost at the time (it is now more expensive). After the 14 weeks were over (and I returned from my field work), I set up my own peer-coaching group with two colleagues. Now I invest ~2h a week, 1h with my accountability group, 30 minutes for weekly planning, 2 minutes x 5 days for filling in a daily check-in form, and 30 minutes for re-prioritizing every 4 weeks.

Since doing the bootcamp, I've maintained stable my paper publication rate and the quantity of time I devote to teaching and service but increased my paper submission rate  -- even after deciding to reduce my work week to 45 hours a few months ago. Most astounding are the gains in terms of how good my weeks can be and how at ease I am about not only leading my team (12-20 people) but also directing my lab (60-80 people). The weekly peer-group meeting allows me to have a space to reflect on short- and long-term planning and leadership, and to only do this on that schedule, to make sure I don't procrastinate by over-planning or stress about the fact that I may be under-planning.

The system worked so well for me that I imposed peer groups on my team for 4 weeks starting December 2019, and made presence optional afterwards. There were 4 groups of 4-5 people, all of which worked great according to participant reports (and the fact that nobody bowed out from the groups). Participants said the groups were crucial in helping them through the lockdown, which lasted 2 months here, and the subsequent period in which access to the lab continued to be discouraged and stressful for many. As Paris went back to lockdown recently, I'm now trying to implement them at the level of my lab (10+ groups of 4-5 people). I'm seeing a coach regularly mainly as a way to learn about coaching itself, but I am conscious that the biggest gains I draw are from my weekly peer-group meeting.

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Just a little update after coaching for a year, with a maximum of 3 clients a week (about 80h in the whole year).

My clients report benefits to themselves,  the time I spend coaching is usually a pleasure for me, and everyone likes the feeling that the money is going to effective charities. I don't think I've been stealing too much work from professional coaches because the majority of the people I have worked with have signed a promise to donate when they are better off/in a different legal situation, so they wouldn't have been able to pay someone now (or perhaps even to qualify for subsidies). And for those who have made donations already, the sum of that is greater than what I paid to be listed on a coaching site, so it is cost-effective if we don't take into account my own time.

But as an EA, I think it makes sense to take into account my own time, in which case it's not totally clear that this is the most effective thing I could do. I'll be working with a coach who specializes on academics drawn to industry for a few weeks to think through alternative "business" plans, but will probably continue coaching just as I do now for another 6 months.

I'm convinced that investing time and resources in improving productivity (especially early in your career where the gains might last for longer), including perhaps via coaching, will often be worthwhile. But when I have looked at coaching sites, they seem to be phrased in terms of addressing pre-existing issues.

E.g. from your site: "swift behavioral changes to increase productivity, decrease procrastination and anxiety, and remove paralyzing stress (if present)". I have no problems with procrastination, anxiety, or stress. I think I'm pretty productive already, I'm just hoping to get better.

Would you still recommend reaching out to coaches and having the free calls, even if 1) I'm not sure what I'd gain from their coaching, 2) I don't match up very well with some/all of the examples described on their site? Why/why not?

In your case, a run-of-the-mill productivity coach, who focuses on good habits, may not be ideal: It would take a lot of effort for small gains (due to diminishing returns). 

But you could try coaches who aim to help you in mid- and long-term planning and strategies, and/or with clarifying values and thought patterns that influence those larger decisions. To give you two examples from within the EA/rationalist community (more names here), Lynette Bye has written about how you can prioritize projects on her blog and Pamela J Hobart introduces herself as a "philosophical life coach who helps intellectuals to clarify their thinking and values". Depending on your line of work, consider looking into consultants to get radically different viewpoints on longer term planning because being extremely efficient in the small scale of hours or days won't matter if you're working towards the wrong goal (or the right one with the wrong strategy).

About your two last questions: Some people are happy to meander through existence to chance upon an interesting self-discovery. Based on your question, my guess is that you are not one of them, and therefore randomly meeting coaches will just feel like a frustrating waste of time. So if you're not sure what you'd gain from a given coach and/or you don't resonate with their public materials, this is a great way of discarding their names when doing your coach search! 

Thank you! Great points. Based on your post, this comment, and some brief additional reflection, I've booked an intro call with Lynette.

Thanks for writing this! I'm currently writing a similar blog post. In particular, I benefitted from your brief, yet useful overview of the academic landscape of coaching.

Thank you! Happy to have a chat if interested - my email is on my site ;)

This is very impressive when compared to effects observed in psychology (figure, full; if it's helpful, this effect size is similar to the gain in height American girls experience between 14 and 18 years of age).

Would you be able to share where you got this analogy from? I often  read research that deals with effect sizes like standardised mean difference, hedges G, Cohen's d and so on, but I don't have a very good intuition for what those effect sizes mean. I'd love to see more examples like this that helps to build my intuition.

If you are trying to train yourself to have an intuition on the sizes, you can use visualization tools, and there are two main ones at present:

  • this visualization tool for group differences. The tool is based on Cohen's d, and since Hedges' g is just Cohen's d with a sample size correction, the tool will help you grasp to what extent two groups overlap/differ.
  • this visualization tool for association between two variables. This tool is based on Pearson's r correlations, but you can conceptually use it to develop intuitions for other tools measuring association (like Spearman rho, R = R-squared, or eta-squared -- let me know if you'd like me to elaborate on this!)

If you want someone else to  have an intuitive grasp of the size of an effect you're discussing, you can refer to lists of benchmarks. My height example comes from Cohen (1988's Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences), but more modern examples can be found here and here.