How To Use Questions To Get Unstuck

Image courtesy of Milos Milosevic

Image courtesy of Milos Milosevic

How are your New Year resolutions going?

Are you making progress, or are they stalled?

Most people express their resolutions as statements:

  • to lose weight
  • go to the gym three times a week
  • to learn Spanish

Even if it’s not New Year, you probably have a list of tasks you want to do, for example: I want to write this article to make it in time for my next newsletter.

In my to-do list it is expressed as: “write newsletter article”.

It’s a simple, straightforward description of what I need to do and it even has an action verb at the start to help propel me into … er … action.

Unfortunately this task has been languishing on my to-do list for most of this week. Sometimes, these things are easier said than done.

Ironically, this article is about helping you get moving on your resolutions and to-do lists. So I’m pleased to be writing this as a result of the wonderfully simple technique described in the article.

Ask me a question

How did I get moving on the write the newsletter article task.

Simple, I turned the write the newsletter article statement into this question.

How can I write the newsletter article?

This simple change seems to make the task much easier to think about, and to do.

The advantages of questions

How can turning a statement into a question make a difference?

1. It’s an easy first step

When you have a task to do such as Learn Spanish, lose weight, write an article, etc, it might be difficult to know where to start. You have described the end goal but not necessarily figured out the steps to get from here to there.

In the face of that uncertainty asking the question “How can I … ?” invites your mind to start organising its thinking around what to do next. It’s the essential first step on the (long) journey to getting where you want to go.

It is also a very easy first step to take because it’s just a question, right?

Once you have taken the first step it’s very easy to take the next and the one after that, and so on.

2. Questions are irresistible

There is something about a question that is hard to resist. If I ask you “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” your brain probably provided the answer the moment you got to the question mark in the sentence.

We humans are suckers for questions, once we’ve been asked we can’t help looking for answers.

Framing the task or goal as a question invites the mind to start to come up with answers. Questions easily engage our imagination and abilities to plan for a future that hasn’t happened yet.

3. Questions can be gentle

If you have been attempting to force yourself to stick to task, diet, lessons, etc you may be familiar with the inner tension that that can cause; the inner resistance to doing what you want to do but struggle to do.

For example: “How can I write this article?” probably has a very different tone to “Write that article (or else)!”

By asking questions we can take the pressure off, if the pressure is off the imagination has room to breathe and there is much less for us to rebel against.

How To Ask The Right Question

What kinds of questions can I use to get the best results?

There are two classes of question that may be helpful.

How can I … ?

The “how” questions are an invitation to the imagination to come up with solutions to problems.

Using my Write the article task as an example.

How can I [write the article]?

This is the simplest, most direct form. There are two possible sorts of answers to this question: one comes from your imagination, the other from your anxiety.

When you ask the “How can I …?” question your imagination will probably get to work coming up with solutions and possibilities. Ways to get from where you are now to where you want to be. This may be accompanied by a rush of energy and excitement as you see a way forward and you can start to get going.

Or, when you ask the How can I …? question, the anxious part of your mind answers back but, I can’t … and the mind is as blank and as stressed as it was before.

In the second case you can soften the question by asking:

How could I [write this article]?

Note that “could” instead of “can” makes the question more hypothetical, your imagination can roam free because you don’t need to go along with whatever comes up.

This can be enough to free up the imagination and give you a little more room to manoeuvre.

Still having problems?

Back the question up to make things easier:

  • How could I make this easier for myself?
  • How could I divide this into more manageable pieces?

At some point you will get to a place you can start from.

What if I … ?

The second class of questions are useful for putting the answers to the “How can I …?” questions to the test. When you come up with plans of actions it’s useful to be able to try out these plans in an imaginary future to test their worthiness.

Asking the question: “What if I search in the dark for the gas leak with a lighted candle?” would soon lead you to understand that this was probably a bad idea.

In the less hazardous example of writing this article, one of the ideas I had was to use the example of writing the article as a way to explain the process.

Asking the question: What if I use writing the article as an example of this process?

Led me to think of all the ways that would make the article easier to write and make the explanations more concrete for the reader.

Once you have some ideas from the How can I …? question, apply the What if I …? question to those answers to flesh out, modify or eliminate those possibilities.

Modifiers

Sometimes your questions may contain hidden snags.

When I first asked myself “How can I write this article?” the question came out in my mind as:

  • How can I force myself to write this article?
  • How can I make myself write this article?

Can you spot the problem?

I mentioned at the beginning that I was struggling to write the article, that it had languished on my to-do list for a couple of days. If I am having to “force myself” or “make myself” write the article then it’s not surprising there is some resistance, if force is required then there must be some reluctance to write it.

If I asked the questions as they first occurred to me then I am asking myself to come up with new and imaginative ways to perpetuate the problem.

What if I change the question to something a little more inviting?

  • How can I enjoy writing this article?
  • How can I enthusiastically write this article?

That’s different, isn’t it?

Lets call the bit between the “How can I” and the “task/goal” the modifier.

How can I [modifier] [task/goal]?

When you ask yourself your “How can I …?” question is there a modifier?

If there is, does it help, or cause stress?

  • How can I force myself to lose weight?
  • How can I make myself go to the gym?
  • How can I survive learning Spanish?

If such modifiers appear in your questions I suggest swapping them for something more useful, and if you don’t have any unhelpful modifiers you might like to include some helpful ones to create questions like:

  • How can I enjoy losing weight?
  • How can I be enthusiastic about going to the gym?
  • How can I love learning Spanish?

Which kinds of questions would you prefer?

Try this

Here’s a little experiment to try this out for yourself.

  1. Take your to-do list or resolution list (if you have one), then choose three items.
  2. Take one of them and evaluate how you feel about it and how easy it has been to make progress with it
  3. Ask yourself “How can I …?”, modifying or adding modifiers as necessary.
  4. When you have come up with some possibilities, apply the “What if I …?” question to them.
  5. Repeat the process for the other tasks.
  6. How do you feel about this task now? How much more likely are you to do it?

You will probably find that task seems more doable or appealing.

This article was inspired by an article called Before You Abandon Those Resolutions, Read This by Warren Berger.

(After a week of dithering about writing this article, the first (1400 word) draft was completed in less than 1 hour)

Practical Wellbeing Newsletter

The Practical Wellbeing Newsletter is a twice monthly email newsletter about personal change, self-acceptance, self-sabotage and psychological EFT.

This newsletter is for you if you are suspicious of miracle cures and pat answers to difficult questions. If you are looking for a quick fix, this would be the wrong place to look.

My experience is that personal change happens over time and usually takes some effort. This newsletter is for you if you are willing to engage with your own experience and try things out.

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