If you want to focus on achieving your goals, take action that will help you fulfill your potential, and ditch destructive and distracting emotions, one of the best and easiest ways is to ask yourself questions. These 5 questions will get you started on the path to laser-like focus, increased productivity and emotional balance.
One of my go-to methods for helping myself and my clients focus better, move steadily toward reaching our goals, and not get sidelined by distractions is simply to ask questions. Certain kinds of questions phrased in certain ways.
When we hit a roadblock, or feel a strong but unproductive emotion, or give in to distracting behavior, we often don’t see a clear way out. So instead of figuring out how to productively move forward, we wallow in the emotion or continue with the distraction (Facebook, anyone?). Or we otherwise throw up our hands and ask why this is happening to us, or why it can’t be easier.
The downside of wallowing in negative emotions and continuing to engage in unproductive behavior is obvious. Asking why this is happening, or declaring “this always happens to me!” is an equally unhelpful distraction that almost always leads to victimhood rather than empowerment. Asking yourself the right questions instead can help you quickly turn the corner.
5 Questions (and then 5 more) to a Better Life
The kinds of questions we can ask ourselves that lead to focusing on and finding solutions generally fall into two categories.
“Why” questions (as in "Why is this happening to me?) can be transformed into “what” or “how” questions, as will be discussed in more detail later. The other type of question that can help you get back on track is an open-ended “allowing” question, which is most useful when you are being derailed by a destructive emotion.
Try any or all of these 5 questions on yourself for a week and watch how quickly you can become empowered, productive and focused. Next week, I’ll give you 5 more that will further narrow the gap between you and what you want to accomplish.
1. What would happen if I let this go?
This is my go-to question to deal with a difficult emotion or ruminative thinking. Let’s say you’re trying to work on a project, or study, or just pay attention to the conversation you are trying to have with a loved one. But you’re not getting very far because you can’t stop being angry at someone who wronged you a few days ago, or thinking about some problem or another over and over and over.
Trying to push the thoughts or emotions away hardly ever works. Instead, take a slow, deep breath and ask yourself what would happen if you let the thought or emotion go. You don’t need to come up with a specific answer. Just keep breathing and ask yourself this open-ended question, several times if needed. Or the flip side of this question is, "What am I holding on to?"
You’ll quickly feel the grip of the thought or emotion loosen. Rather than trying to let go, you are simply asking open-endedly what would happen “if” you let go. And paradoxically, without feeling the need to try, you’ll begin to let go.
2. How does this thought/emotion/action serve me?
If you’re still feeling distracted, next try to get more specific. How does whatever you’re thinking, feeling or doing serve you? Is it moving you toward your goal? Is it helping in any way? Is it accomplishing anything? The answer is almost always no, and verbalizing this to yourself makes it easier to let go of it. Who wants to deliberately hold on to something that they’ve just told themselves isn’t helping them and is getting in the way?
3. Will this matter in a year?
If you still are obsessing about the person who wronged you, or the low-impact task you are convinced you must do now rather than work on something important, ask yourself if it will matter in a year, or even a month or a week. If the answer is no, it becomes easier to let it go.
4. If I am asking why, how can I ask what instead?
You already know that “why” questions are not helpful. So if you catch yourself asking a “why” question, ask yourself instead how you can turn it into a “what” question. If instead of asking “why is this happening,” you ask some version of “what can I do about this” or “what value does this challenge have” or “what can I do to improve this situation,” you are now on your way to having constructive tools with which you can move forward.
5. What would happen if I did X instead?
Letting go of unhelpful thoughts, feelings or emotions is only the first step. The next step is to identify an action you can take that aligns with your goals. Instead of continuing to feel angry or complain that something has made your life more difficult or persist in doing what isn’t getting you anywhere, identify a specific and productive action you could take and then ask yourself what would happen if you took that action.
Note the open-ended nature of the question. When you say to yourself some version of “I must do X,” you create resistance. By asking yourself in an open-ended way ‘what would happen if,” you bypass the resistance and focus instead on the solution.
Pick one of these questions, or several, that seem most manageable. Write it down and then keep posing the question to yourself whenever the going gets rough. You’ll have made enough progress in the course of a week in managing emotions and taking positive action to start asking yourself the next 5 questions I’ll be exploring in next week’s article – questions that will help you beat procrastination, avoid distracting temptations and identify those actions that will take you most quickly toward your goals.