Asking questions

Should you ask questions, not make a to-do list?
Sarah | 01.08.16

The technique is simple: when tackling a problem or embarking on a task, phrase everything in questions rather than compiling a to-do list.

It’s something I’ve been doing for a while now, but reading this article made it more of a conscious act, and made me think about it’s wider relevance.

It’s a great tool to improve productivity when you’re being creative.

Why are questions better?

Good question. Asking questions is a more helpful way to phase what needs to be done because it helps you structure how you're going to do it, as well as identifying what needs to be done.

As the professor Tina Seelig from Stanford University says,

"Questions are the frames into which the answers fall."

So, for example, if you ask yourself, ‘Why is the text not aligning correctly in Safari?’, rather than commanding yourself to ‘align the text correctly in Safari’ you have a clearer way forward. From that base you can ask other questions, ‘Why does it work on the other browsers? Is that method of alignment not supported? Is there some extraneous piece of code that’s stopping it from rendering properly?’.

You can continue asking questions, until eventually it’s broken down enough that a very simple question, ‘does it work if I remove the padding?’ can be answered with that magic word ‘yes’ and the task is complete.

Work is answering questions

Any piece of work can be regarded as a lot of unanswered questions. Large or small. From starting up a company, ‘What should be the focus of my company be?’, to getting your haircut, ‘Where should I get my hair cut?’. Until you’ve answered enough questions, you won’t be able to move forward.

Let’s take the simpler example of getting your hair cut. Once you’ve defined where and when you can get your haircut, (‘When am I free? Where are there appointments?’), the task is essential resolved. You’re probably on the phone to someone who can book an appointment! Before you've answered those questions though, nothing much is likely to happen.

Stress is unanswered questions

If work is answering questions, then it’s unsurprising perhaps that unanswered questions are stressful. Some of the most frustrating times come from trying to be productive when you haven’t answered all the relevant questions. You’re fighting with yourself. Essentially, you're trying to do something without clearly knowing what you're doing. Only when you sort out adequate answers will you really be able to move forward.

There is hope though! Sometimes the simple physical act of writing down a question can take you into a different mind set. And work becomes so much easier when you have all the answers!

I’m always amazed when I write down several seemingly impossible to answer questions, struggling to even frame the question, only to find they have simple answers a few hours or days later.

So, next time you’re struggling to know how to go forward, write down a question! Let me know how you get on.

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