How to ask (and answer) powerful questions
New Year’s Resolutions for people who hate doing New Year’s Resolutions #2
Last week, I published a big article about New Year’s resolutions.
If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, the article is about an exercise I designed, to do resolutions in a way that leaves you feeling great about yourself and your business.
The article describes how I then did the exercise myself, and wrote about it. It shows the processes I went through, the insights I found and the commitments I made to start the year.
It was a great experiment. I felt wonderful after completing the exercise and I am in exactly the right frame of mind now to tackle my commitments for the year with enthusiasm and energy.
Today I will give you the background of the whole exercise. Why did I ask those questions and not others, for example? What kind of questions might you ask instead? And how can you modify this exercise to suit you and suit you at different times and in different circumstances?
You can also download a worksheet with the 6 Questions and space to answer them for yourself here.
These were the 6 Questions I asked myself:
- In what specific ways does my business and life look different now, from a year ago?
- What am I most pleased or proud of for the past year?
- What am I worried about for the year ahead?
- What would I like this year to be about?
- What are the big challenges I’ll likely be facing?
- How am I going to meet those challenges?
Asking big, powerful questions and committing to answering them thoroughly, fully, especially in writing, often leads to great clarity and deep insight.
It certainly did so for me, and if you haven’t done so yet, I encourage you to make yourself a cup of tea, turn your phone off and read the article in full. It is a long piece of writing but that’s intentional. There is an aspect to the exercise I think of as a journey or an adventure. I believe all change processes are journeys and adventures. Change can never happen in an instant at the flick of a switch.
And all change processes are individual. So what I hope you’ll note as you read the article is not so much the specific insights and actions I come to (after all those insights are really about me at this time in my life, and have little to do with you or your life). The questions and the journey that follows from them are what is interesting. Focus on how I arrived at the answers, not the actual answers.
So first off, let me explain the thoughts behind each of the 6 questions:
1. In what specific ways do my business and life look different now, from a year ago?
It’s a really good idea to get clear about how your life has shaped itself over the past year. Often things have changed a lot more than you realise. That was certainly the case for me when doing the exercise. We tend not to notice the changes when they happen, and we rarely appreciate their cumulative effect.
2. What am I most pleased or proud of for the past year?
Most of us don’t spend anywhere near enough time acknowledging ourselves for the stuff we’ve done, the things we’ve made happen. Patting ourselves on the back for specific achievements is actually really hard and can be quite affirming (as opposed to general and generic “Look at yourself in the mirror and learn to love yourself” self-help nonsense).
In my case, doing the exercise, I realised I did a lot of really good things last year, and it set me up well to continue with the exercise.
3. What am I worried about for the year ahead?
Voicing your worries is also something quite powerful. We often try to avoid giving air to our worries, because we think we’ll jinx ourselves or open ourselves up to negative energy (more self-help, pop-psychology nonsense). I believe exactly the opposite. Looking our worries and fears in the eye generally removes the negative energy from those worries instead. Our worries are generally worse than reality. Take it from me because I’m a worrier.
There’s a nice concept that I believe either comes from the Stoics or from Zen Buddhism or both. It goes like this:
- Are you worried about a problem or situation?
- Can you do something about this problem?
- If yes… Don’t worry (go and fix the problem instead)
- If No… Don’t worry (It won’t make the slightest bit of difference anyway)
In my case, when I wrote down all the stuff I was worried about, I realised that a lot of my worries were about things I had little control over, or they were about things I’ve worried about my whole life already. Now at age 64, I can say that I’ve managed to avoid all the disastrous outcomes I’ve worried about my whole life and there’s no reason to assume I won’t be able to do so again this year.
4. What would I like this year to be about?
Now we start looking ahead. Let’s do some free-ranging visioning. Let your imagination roam free and imagine what a year from now could really look like for you.
The three previous questions prepare your mind for this question though. Without answering those questions first, your mind is likely to put the brakes on. It will stop you from really opening up. I believe the first three questions create a safe space for your brain, as it were. Without that safe space, it’s likely that the “little voice on your shoulder” will go rampant and convince you not to step too far out of your comfort zone.
In my case, the first three questions led me to feel great about where I got to already. That gave me the courage to say I didn’t need to achieve anything particularly big or new or earth-shattering. Not so much to rest on my laurels, but rather to be happy with where I’m at.
5. What are the big challenges I’ll likely be facing?
There will be stuff that gets in the way of your big picture for the year. Obviously, you can’t know all of the things that might get in the way, but you can probably guess at a lot of them. Let’s list them. Having a list of all the likely challenges in front of you will make it a lot clearer where to put your focus. I found a lot of unexpected clarity in exploring this question. It made a big difference in how I finished the exercise in question 6.
6. How am I going to meet those challenges?
The final question gets the rubber on the road because now we’re talking about specific actions, and nothing will ever be achieved by thinking only. All thoughts and plans must be translated into concrete realistic physical actions before anything will change or be achieved.
A favourite teacher and mentor of mine used to say: “Salvation wears running shoes”, or in other words, nothing happens or changes until we do some stuff.
I certainly felt after answering question 6 that I ended up with a useful set of actions and strategies for the year ahead and I’ve already started implementing them.
The flow is the key
So, that’s why I asked those particular questions, and not others. Obviously, you can change the wording of the questions to suit how you speak and think, but the key is in the progression, the flow of the questions:
- Reflect on the changes that have taken place in a given time period.
- Reflect on the role you’ve played in those changes, and acknowledge your achievements.
- Reflect on the things that most worry you at the moment.
- Reflect on what you want the next time period to be about, and what your vision for this time period is.
- Reflect on the hurdles, and what might get in the way of achieving that vision.
- Create simple practical actions to meet those challenges and maximise the opportunities.
As I said, only the last question gets the rubber on the road and leads to forward movement and change, but if you try to answer the last question on its own, you’re unlikely to come up with meaningful answers and actions. And the same goes for the other 5 questions. One follows from the previous and you lead your brain along to arrive at the insights and conclusions that are most meaningful for you.
Space and time for your brain
That’s also why it is important to answer the questions in complete sentences and paragraphs. Your thinking develops as you write and answer. I’m no neuroscientist, so I won’t even try to explain how this stuff works. But I have had a variety of very clever people explain some of it to me over the past 20 years in trainings and in books and it has to do with brain states and various types of brain waves and how the brain makes meaning of things. What I know for a fact though is that it works. If you give your brain the space and time to develop its thinking, it will arrive at meaning and insight far more efficiently than if you don’t. I would not have arrived at the insights and commitments I did without going through the whole exercise from beginning to end.
Finally, I think it’s useful to point out that this exercise is just as valuable on the 23rd of May or the 12th of September as it is at the start of the year. As a matter of fact, I would encourage you to set aside time in your diary to go through this exercise every quarter or every 6 months or whenever you feel you’re a bit stuck and not sure you’re focusing on the right things in your life and business.
Obviously, you can use a different time frame as well. Focusing on a calendar year is an arbitrary choice. You could focus on the last three months in your reflections and set plans for the next three months, or you could make the exercise about the past 5 years and plan for the next 5. As long as you use a specific time frame. As another mentor of mine once said: “A Goal without a date is a dream.”
But there is one thing you can absolutely trust me on: Setting aside time to do nothing but think (and write) is never wasted.
Have a go yourself
I have created a simple worksheet in PDF that you can download to do the exercise in yourself in freehand (there’s a lot to be said for actually writing things out longhand with a pen and paper). Feel free to download the 6 Question worksheet here.
Alternatively create your own questions following the structure I outline above. In any case… Have fun with it, and let me know how you go.