Co.Design

Before You Abandon Those Resolutions, Read This

Reframing your New Year's resolutions as questions could help you stick to your guns, writes A More Beautiful Question author Warren Berger. Here are four tips.

Now that we're a little over a week removed from New Year's, you may be starting to feel guilty about those resolutions you announced, wrote down—but haven’t yet acted upon. You may not have abandoned them just yet, but your resolve is wavering.

Let me suggest an easy experiment—a minor tweak that can be applied to those languishing resolutions. By adding a few words, you can turn a resolution statement or command into a question—resulting in what I hereby dub the "questolution." Okay, the term is a bit clunky, but the idea is irresistibly simple: a questolution is a resolution worded in the form of a question. And just by putting it in that form, you may be increasing the likelihood you’ll actually do it.

Let’s say your resolution is, I will drink more water this year. As a questolution, that becomes something like, How might I get myself to drink more water this year? Similarly, I will make some new friends becomes How might I make some new friends?

Could a simple word change really make a difference in helping you change behavior? According to a University of Illinois study (which I learned about in Oliver Burkeman’s terrific psychology column in the Guardian, "This Column Will Change Your Life"), when people are trying to motivate themselves to do something, questions do seem to work better than statements or commands. In other words, asking "Will I do X?" is more motivating than declaring "I will do X!"

Why might questions motivate us more than statements? To quote the study’s authors, "self-posed questions about a future behavior may inspire thoughts about autonomous or intrinsically motivated reasons to pursue a goal, leading a person to form corresponding intentions and ultimately to perform the behavior." In plain English, the researchers are saying that a question has the effect of getting you to immediately start thinking about a task or challenge—about why you should actually do this thing, or how you might begin to go about it.

It doesn’t surprise me that a question can do this. The humble question can actually do lots of powerful things, as I’ve learned in the research for my book A More Beautiful Question. Specifically, here are four things questioning can do to help us take action on resolutions or challenges.

Questioning allows us to proceed in the face of uncertainty and doubt.
The question is a fundamental tool of scientists, designers, business innovators, and explorers of all kinds because it enables us to "organize our thinking around what we don’t know," explains Steve Quatrano of the nonprofit Right Question Institute, which studies and teaches questioning methodologies. Now think about this in terms of resolutions: A resolution is something you want to do—but you may not be sure you can do it, might not know exactly how to do it, where to begin, and so forth. You need to find a way to proceed in the face of uncertainty and doubt. And just by raising that question, How might I get myself to drink more water this year? you’ve taken a first step—because you’ve laid out the challenge in a way that gets your mind working on it, right away. Which brings us to the second point.

Questions engage the mind and fire the imagination.
A question is a puzzle: once it has been raised, the mind almost can’t help trying to solve/answer it. That initial question (How might I drink more water?) is apt to spark all kinds of follow-up questions and speculative ideas: What if I connect drinking water to certain triggers—e.g. taking a swig of water every time I check my email? What if I put a desired amount of water in a bottle each day, and then have to show the empty bottle to my spouse at day’s end? And so forth. The various What if and How questions can help you arrive at a concrete plan, as opposed to a vague intention.

Questions are less intimidating than resolutions.
They put less pressure on you. And while we may think we need the pressure of hard-and-fast commands to get ourselves to act, most of us know from experience that this self-imposed pressure rarely works. It usually yields frustration, which, in turn, may cause us to abandon resolutions too quickly. A question, on the other hand, offers a bit more leeway. It doesn’t necessarily have to be answered right away or definitively—we can be working on the question, figuring it out, taking steps, and making progress toward an answer.

Questions tend to be more shareable than statements.
No one really wants to hear your declarations of all the wonderful things you’re promising to do. But when you share a question with others ("I wonder how I could do a better job of X", or "How might I improve Y?"), it can have the effect of inviting people to think about that question themselves; they may have suggestions for you, or might even offer their help.

With these four points in mind, if you’re up for re-tooling some of your resolutions to turn them into questolutions, here’s a practical tip: Try starting your questions with the words "How might I"—a favorite phrase among innovators and change-makers. Ideo’s David Kelley and Tom Kelley point out in their excellent new book Creative Confidence that starting questions with "How might we…" has been a staple of Ideo problem-solving discussions for years (before Ideo, Google, and others adopted it, the phrase was being used at Procter & Gamble back in the 1970s and, before that, at the Creative Problem Solving Institute in the 1960s). How might we, or the singular How might I, works well because it encourages you to think in a practical, yet open and expansive, way about a challenge.

So take that list of resolutions out of the drawer you’ve already stashed it in, and add some How might I’s (and maybe a What if or two) onto those declarative statements. The engaging questions that are formed will at least get you thinking—which is a lot better than ignoring, avoiding, or abandoning.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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