Asking the right question

illustration of three different looking doorsA while back, when my shrink and I were trying to dismantle my Lack of Entitlement Issues, she had me ask myself a question repeatedly: What do I feel like doing?

Like the complaint-free bracelet or any other kind of check-in built around raising awareness, it worked like gangbusters once I focused on it for a while. Which is to say, it probably would not have moved me forward had I not made it Project Front-and-Center, but once I did, it moved me from a place of not even realizing I had stuff I wanted to ask for to what I suppose will be a long, flat plateau of asking for it outright. Still, it’s a kind of progress.

One of the tricks of forward motion, though, is learning to ask the right question. This is where the older among us usually have it all over the younger, because we’ve been in enough situations where we’ve done things right and wrong that we have a working vocabulary of questions for various conundrums.

For some reason, though, I’d never found a good question for grappling with immediate satisfaction vs. delayed gratification. I mean, I’d powered through quitting smoking and transitioning onto the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, but there were really compelling things urging me on in the moment: inability to breathe, for the former, and blood pouring out of my ass, for the latter. Once the super-compelling reason disappeared, it was much, much harder to just say “no” to tasty grains and sugar. (Fortunately for me with regard to tobacco, the stuff tastes and smells vile once you’ve been off it for a while.)

More and more ideas have been coming to me via my gut lately, possibly because there is a lot more gut lately, thanks to straying from SCD, and I’ve been better about giving them the attention to float up to me (possibly as a result of the awareness-raising from the Lack of Entitlement exercise.) And a few days ago, this came up: instead of asking myself if I really wanted this (bad thing, usually carbs), or if something else wouldn’t be better for me (duh!), or what such-and-such-inspiring-hero would do, or if this would give me more or less room/health/whatever, I should ask how I wanted to feel: right now, in five minutes, the next day, etc.

It’s worked and it’s not worked, and so it’s really too soon to say if it’s a significantly “better” question. Honestly, I find that I’m more willing to reason out the answer to any question if I’m better rested, so the truly significant gift I can probably give myself is less about the perfect set of questions and more about eight hours.

Still, I wonder: if framing has so much to do with what we do, what are the framing devices that work the best? And which of these were truly surprising to you? The “feeling” angle seems so obvious in hindsight that I figure there are probably other, even better questions out there.

So how about it? Are there questions, ways of framing a situation, a decision, that finally turned the key in the lock for you and made the tumblers fall into place? Or is it more about powering through for you?


Image by katietower via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Specific to reining in my binging habits, I found that recording calories on a spreadsheet that calculated totals for a full month really helped — and I think mostly because it framed every decision in a way that showed me how it would affect not just this moment, not just this day or week, but the entire month.

    Asking myself, “Can I afford this 5000 calorie binge and still have a good month” forced myself to recognize how much I *loved* the feeling of a “clean” month because it seemed like such a huge accomplishment. In reality, of course, that huge accomplishment was nothing more than a bunch of little decisions made along the way.

    Having fallen away from this practice, I find that I pay far less attention to the long-term effects of my short-term decisions. Obviously, one or two bad decisions don’t make for a bad month… but string a bunch of them together (easy to do when you’re not keeping track!) and all of a sudden – BOOM! – 5 pounds.

    Thanks for this post – reminds me that I *do* have some productive solutions of my persistent problems, as long as I take the time to implement and keep the issue front and center.

    1. Agreed on the stack o’ little decisions, and the externalization of said decisions. That’s how Weight Watchers works, right? Or a lot of diets: they suggest starting by carrying a notebook in which you write down *everything* you put in your mouth, to start raising awareness. And I know AA gives tokens, Toastmasters gives ribbons, etc.

      The slip point is a question mark. Again, AA has that HALT rule of thumb: when you find yourself about to fall off the wagon or indulge in other self-sabotaging behavior, you’re supposed to stop (HALT!) and ask yourself if you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. And then…? Maybe you call your sponsor? Or maybe that’s enough to stop from sliding into “bad” behavior, and if it’s not you do.

  2. I should probably start by explaining that for many years, I had a rule that went like this: if the idea of doing what I ought to do makes me want to cry, I should think up an alternative. I had this rule because I needed it to keep myself from sacrificing my well-being to my long-term goals — or, put another way, because obligation was such a driving force in my life. So for me, for now, pushing forward isn’t really a good option.

    One question that’s been useful to me lately is “how would I want someone else to treat me about this?” Would a beloved friend tell me that now is a time to lighten up, or would she remind me that another choice supports my long-term goals? Somehow, imagining that I’m someone else helps me find a better balance between the immediate and the long-term.

    Also, I just read this yesterday, and it seems a propos:

    1. SUCH a good point about treating yourself the way you would want someone else to. I’m reminded that I often get myself off of a bad path of self-criticism by asking myself if this is how I’d speak to a friend who was going through the same thing.

      Thanks for the SA link, too. Looks good, from a cursory glance.

  3. I have often participated in the guilt game, as in, “I should go to so and so’s party” despite having not slept, exercised or eaten well for the past who knows how long, and then after having gone, regretted not putting my needs first. I am getting better at asking myself what I need now, to be happy tomorrow. Besides, I’m always a total drag for everyone else when I go somewhere I don’t really want to be and it turns out your friends respect you when you learn how to take care of yourself.

    1. Ugh. That’s a perpetual dilemma for me. As a longtime L.A. resident who was raised in the honest Midwest, I’m super-sensitive to the Flake Factor. Yet to show up when one can’t without casting a shadow on the event in question—crapping on other folks’ good time—isn’t a great alternative.

      I’ve worked hard to become more realistic about what I can and can’t do in a day/week/etc. And occasionally, I’ve been wrong in the good/fun way: I go to something dreading it, but it turns out to be a great pick-me-up.

      My new thing there is negotiating the time I spend, or the food/drink indulgence I allow myself: I’ll go for one hour, one drink, etc.

      And I agree 100% on respecting the other party who flakes—or at least, 99% of the time. Possibly because I’ve worked hard to rid my life of assholes. :-)

  4. I have to ask myself on a regular basis what it is I want to do. Problem is that even if you go ahead and do what you want, sometimes it’s like layers of an onion, and you realize that you are so far from doing what you want that you don’t know that much about it. That opens the door to new worlds that you have to survey, and try to discover the path that’s right for you. Unless you’re independently wealthy you still have to figure out a way to subsidize all this, so for me it’s always been a compromise of finding my path near a way that will make me a living. I studied with a Japanese guy once that told me about a term they have, I think it’s called Shinshu? Anyway it means don’t forget what you started out to do. I see that happening a lot. People are passionate but they have to make a living so they go the way of making the most bucks they can. That often leads to going astray from their passion. I’ve also known folks that have tossed all obligations overboard to pursue their interests. If you’re prone to guilt and remorse you will battle with it no matter what you do. I think sometimes in creative endeavors there is a goal or a vision that must be attained. If you can get there you can release yourself from the driving passion because you fulfilled that need.

    1. I hadn’t thought of how this asking thing relates to long-long-term goals like life’s work, but of course, it totally does.

      Easy to let a few questionable decisions, or ill-thought responses to obstacles, derail a big life plan. One of my favorite movies, Fat City, is about that. (Come to think of it, a lot of my favorite art is about that—Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore leaps to mind.)

      The other tricky bit of this is often times, we set out to do one thing and then find out it’s not what we were really interested in, but the journey revealed the heart of what it is we really wanted to do. The profession of acting is rife with examples, but I’m sure there are many other pursuits that are similar.

      Kind of an offshoot, but I wonder if passions aren’t like partners: more likely that there are many manifestations of suitable work, not just one perfect soulmate-job.

  5. Well, much to my surprise, I decided to stop drinking for a few weeks, and even though I rarely drank more than one or two glasses of wine or beer an evening, I would drive home from work dreading the emptiness I feared would trail me through an evening without the alcohol. I bought three different kinds of herbal teas, and three clear glass pitchers, and drank those icy cold in a wine glass when I came home from work. What surprised me was how comforting the beverages were. No fuzzy head – no eating more than I should – with energy to walk the dog farther, attend various neighborhood or civic functions that needed my help, and tackle projects like mowing the yard, arranging my home office, etc. The connection between my energy and optimism level and alcohol became very evident.

    1. I love your externalization of the thought chain you went through, as well as your very creative solutions and honest assessment of cause and effect. Inspirational, and something I’m going to reflect on as I think of my own challenges. Thank you!

  6. I have been working on my love of buying stuff by asking myself 1) if I really NEED it, and 2) how many hours did my poor husband have to work as a waiter to earn the equivilent dollar amount. Not sure if this would work for eating choices, but that’s next on my list (after “finish school” and “paint the bedroom”). Also, Colleen, I’m assuming that “Lack of Entitlement” means not feeling entitled enough, right? Since I’m an Aries, maybe this is beyond my comprehension…

    1. The hours-for-dollars equation is sobering; thanks for bringing this up.

      And yes, Lack of Entitlement Issue has to do with never feeling entitled to whatever: one’s opinions being valid, one’s comfort being considered—you name it. As I understand it, it’s more of an issue for women than men (at least, as raised in our culture and time). My own problems with it were compounded by well-meaning parents trying to cultivate a sensitivity for the problems of others (which really is a great thing to cultivate—more narcissists should do it!), and the chaotic effects of a dysfunctional household.

      (The Aries comment is priceless.)

  7. I have been grappling with the same sort of thing – when I feel like crap, I tend to make decisions that get me back to feeling good. And when I feel good? Cue the sugar and wine.

    I’m always forgetting (or avoiding) the question in the moment of decision. When it comes to choosing things that will or won’t leave me with a crunchy sugar hangover — sometimes I like to ask how I’d be eating if it was my birthday. Because even though I try to believe I’m allowed to eat anything I want anytime, I really do believe it on birthdays. And usually I want to have a happy day, full of delicious things, including energy and lightness and just a nibble of a treat.

    Now I’m wondering how else could I use this question idea in other decision-making moments…

    1. Wait—so on your birthday, you just want a nibble? Or it’s a free-for-all day?

      I think you should flesh this out and make a blog post about it and report back to the troops!

  8. As it happens, Dan Ariely discusses this very topic on a videocast I just listened to on

    (You can download this on itunes. It’s a really enjoyable, TED-style talk, highly recommended.)

    One of the points he makes is that being properly incentivized is important, and there’s a big difference between short-term and long-term incentives. Exercise has a long-term payoff, but not necessarily a short-term one.

    I’ve told you that the last thing I do before I go to bed each night is wash my dishes and clean the kitchen. This is a key to ensuring that the next day gets off to a productive start. But avoiding an unproductive day is not nearly sufficient incentive for me, despite the huge benefits that I experience daily from this habit. What I do instead is stream the previous day’s episode of The Daily Show while i do the dishes. This is a great incentive for me — there are nights when I can’t wait to do the dishes! The Daily Show has been on vacation for the last two weeks, though. How consistent do you think I’ve been in doing the dishes in the last two weeks? [Here the author places head in hands.] In general, as a blackbelt-level procrastinator, I’ve found that cleverly and persistently incentivizing myself to do things I hate is the key to getting them done, and failure usually results from operating in an incentive-poor environment.

    This isn’t to say that asking good questions is not useful. I think it’s essential as part of any kind of self-reflective process, and often the essential first step in changing old habits or starting new ones. No questioning = no change.

    1. I am ALL about the treats, my brother. My Nei Kung habit got much more consistent when my teacher said I could watch the news while I did it. (I don’t—I watch old Quincy eps on Netflix, or some other episodic tv on DVD, but whatever.)

      Thanks for the Ariely link, and the download-on-iTunes tip. Love his accent!

  9. I find the big secret for me is not to think too much. This is particularly true with respect to the things I need to do but don’t feel like doing. For example, I hate making phone calls. So, now, each day I make a list of the phone calls I need to make and I tackle them, in the order noted, without THINKING about it. If I start to think about it, I may decide I don’t feel like doing them. But if I just DO them, no problem! Don’t know why this works so well for me, but it does.

    1. Interesting. That seems like another way of framing Brian Tracy’s frog-eating tactic: just eat that big sucker first.

      I wonder if you’re really not thinking, or if there’s a LOT of thinking that’s been compacted so densely, it seems like there’s no thinking.

      Come to think of it, I wonder if the not-thinking that sometimes accompanies BAD habits—”mindless” eating leaps to mind—is also compacted thinking.

      Anyway. Clearly the “just do it” technique is working for you. My friend who kills at cold calls has a similar approach: she just does it (and with amazing results).

      I’m reflecting on how that works for me when it does work for me, and just the briefest bit of unpacking brings up: “I’ll do x and then I won’t have to worry about it” (reward, rationalizing); “I’ll just do this for x minutes” (bargaining and/or trickery, depending on the task). With cold calling, it also helped to frame it as a game rather than a despised task. This is a trick biz coach Steve Chandler uses: he has his clients go out and collect “no”s. It’s a trick, but it seems to work.

  10. Great post Colleen. I wish I had a specific approach to framing. Instead, I’ve logged wise, powerful statements or questions in my head that others have said that really stuck with me. Apply and repeat as necessary.

    One powerful one was “What is the payoff for continuing to [think, do, believe, etc.] x?” In other words, “What is the payoff for feeling like crap after eating half a cake?” Or “What is the payoff for feeling achy from lack of exercise?” Shakes you to your core because the immediate, indignant thought is “What? I’m not choosing to feel that way?” Works like a charm because we don’t believe we adore useless approaches to life.

    I also like to conjure people like, when I’m pissed, I ask myself “What would the Dalai Lama do?” Or when I’m being petty, “What would Eckhart Tolle do?” I have no clue what they’d do. But asking seems to put me on the right track.

    1. It will be a cold day in hell before I ask myself anything about Eckart Tolle, but your point is well taken. And the payoff idea is interesting—or maybe just your response to it is. (Or maybe both!) I haven’t used that one yet. Maybe I’ll give it a try on something particularly trenchant.

  11. Lately I’ve been trying a version of reverse psychology on myself. For example, when faced with the really delicious, quadruple-chocolate-300-calories-per-bite-with-41-grams-of-fat ice cream and the decision of whether or not I should eat it, if I can remember in time I’ll ask myself “what DON’T I want right now?” and then see if there is anything there that is telling. Like, I might not want to feel so sick and tired of task overwhelm. Or I might want to stop being so frigging frustrated with the horrible divorce a friend is going through. And then, just maybe, I might see that there’s something else lurking besides me thinking I just want to eat the pint of ice cream because it tastes good. And then, I can decide if I want to go ahead anyway, or find another way to take care of what’s really going on. Sometimes, this actually works. Stay tuned–more research required! But I do love your question of “how do I want to feel”, because I think it’s a question that is probably being answered subconsciously anyway, in one way or another. Making it a clear part of the decision process seems like a good tactic.

    1. Interesting variant on “What am I trying to avoid?” Does it make it feel more active, I wonder?

      I also wonder if there’s a protocol (which would have to be brief!) for coming up with the right question.

      I do like having a Wardrobe of Questions!

  12. One area where asking this question becomes murky for me is when it involves going out (with friends, to a party, to a class, etc.) Nearly every time, if I were to do what I think at the time would make me feel best, it would be staying home with a good book. This is in spite of my liking my friends or having eagerly signed up for the class). So there are times when I make myself do things that are contrary to what will make me feel better in the next five minutes.

    The funny thing is that while I may enjoy myself at the party or the class, it’s also usually true that I would have enjoyed myself just as much staying home and reading a book. The operative principle, in the end, seems to be that I know that, in the long run, being (too) solitary is not a good thing.

    But, generally, since I’ve always been the “good student,” and for someone who was born in another country, surprisingly Puritanesque (is that even a word?) about work, I don’t do a job of asking myself what I want to do and how I want to feel.

    1. Ooo, that’s such a hard—but critical—one for introverts. I generally enjoy going out, too, once I’m out…except when I don’t! Teasing apart regular, introvert-based apprehension from real exhaustion (and need to refuel the introvert) is an ongoing struggle.

      But yes, excellent point. If you’re the kind of person who defaults to “no,” a “Yes!” can be extremely powerful.

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