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Nothing Prevents You From Asking Questions

Nothing Prevents You From Asking Questions
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… so much as thinking that you already have the answer.

For the life of me, I can’t remember where I read that. It sounds like something from the kind of book I used to read about 20 years ago… but truth to tell, I’ve found it to be quite useful advice. I’ve spent over two decades as a university researcher, and this quote has proved its worth over and over again when the research wasn’t making progress—almost inevitably, it turned out that we were asking the wrong questions.

And the reason we were asking the wrong questions is because (you guessed it) we thought we already had the answers for them.

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I currently work in training , and this is a piece of advice that I find myself giving to my clients over and over again. Typically it’s in a context where they’re trying to change something, such as a job, but have hit a roadblock—generally, this is because they’re making assumptions; either about what they know, or about what they can and can’t do.

Now, I’m no great philosophical thinker, and I can’t promise that this sequence of questions will change your life: all I can say is that it’s a sequence of questions I’ve learned to ask myself whenever I hit a dead end—all based upon the idea that nothing stops you asking questions quite so much as having answers for them already.

Where do I want to go?

What I mean by that is that I need to be very clear about what it is I’m trying to achieve. Often it’s not so much the immediate question of “what am I trying to do?”, but “why am I trying to do it?” All too often, I forget about the bigger picture and end up head-butting something to try and make it work when it would be a  lot easier to go around the problem and figure out a different way to achieve the same end.

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For example, I recently spent five minutes trying to get a jammed drawer to open to get to the spare batteries inside it, forgetting that I had spare batteries in another place altogether. Sure I needed to come back and un-jam the drawer at some point, but it didn’t have to be now, when people were waiting for the new batteries. I’d forgotten to ask myself what I was trying to achieve, and concentrated instead on what I was trying to do.

Where am I now?

This is a question that can only be answered in relation to the first. What I’m getting at is asking how far I am from where I want to be. Sometimes we concentrate so much on the things we haven’t done, attained, achieved, etc. that we forget to take stock and look at what we have.

A friend of mine recently spent a long time suffering angst about the growth of his company because he hadn’t quite reached the expansion targets he’d set for himself and the company. Okay, targets are (often) good, but he’d forgotten to ask himself why he set those targets.  As it turns out, he’d set them not because they were important in their own right, but as proxies for what he really wanted—to be able to have a good quality of life for his family. As soon as he thought about it, he realized he already had that.  In fact, worrying about not achieving his expansion targets for his company was the main (almost the only!) reason his family’s quality of life wasn’t what he wanted it to be!

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He’d forgotten to ask himself the questions about why he was doing what he was doing.

What resources do I have?

All too often, we don’t stop to consider what we can do and the friends we can ask for help.  Asking yourself questions in a semi-formal way can bring to mind the staggering resources and support that can often be brought to bear with a problem.

I spent most of yesterday trying to solve a WordPress problem on one of my own blogs when, if I’d stopped to ask myself what resources I really had, I would have remembered that I can email someone who writes WordPress plugins for a living. I’d implicitly begun to assume the resources I saw (me) were the resources I had.

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To quote a certain yellow cartoon character, “D’oh!”

Featured photo credit:  Many raised fingers in class at university via Shutterstock

 

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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