The economy entered a recession and some people are putting off getting their carpets cleaned. And then yesterday, one of his credit card companies dropped a bomb on him: They are raising the minimum monthly payment. He will suddenly owe more per month on his credit cards than he is able to pay.
He has some decisions to make, but first he needs to get his mind to calm down so he can think. His first instinct is to panic. This is a disaster. This is a catastrophe!
Charlie is going to have to do something. But the most important element in his response to his problem is how he thinks about it. The way he thinks about it will determine what he does and how well he does it. The way he thinks about it will determine whether he takes his time and thinks it through or panics and does something stupid. The way he thinks about it makes all the difference.
And when I say “think” I mean “talking to himself.” I know visualizing things is also called thinking, but that’s a kind of thinking for another book. This book is about how we talk to ourselves, because the clearest, easiest and most definite way to direct your mind is by talking to yourself.
So what is the best way to talk to yourself? What’s the best way to direct your mind so it works for you rather than against you? What kind of thinking is going to help Charlie deal with his problem?
There are a number of different ways to talk to yourself, and some are better than others. For example, Charlie could reassure himself. He could tell himself, “It’s going to be fine. It’ll turn out okay.”
Another way he could talk to himself is to give himself advice or instructions. He could tell himself, “Okay, just stay calm and don’t do anything rash. Let’s just think about this.”
Another possible way to talk to himself would be to put himself down. “I’m such a loser. I can’t believe I was stupid enough to get into this mess.”
Or he could ask himself a question. “How do I want this all to turn out?”
Of all the possible ways to talk to yourself, asking yourself a question is the most powerful. Questions direct your mind and set trains of thought into motion. Questions are generative. They generate thought. And because they are so powerful it really makes a difference to pay attention to the questions you ask yourself and make sure they are good questions.
Charlie could ask himself a bad question, such as, “Why is this happening to me?” Or, “How could I have been so stupid?” Or, “What if I have to declare bankruptcy? What if I can’t start another business because I have no credit?”
Those are unproductive questions. What-if questions and “why” questions put the mind in a spin and don’t help. “Why am I such a loser?” “Why does stuff like this always happen to me?” “Why can’t I ever get anything right?” These questions are poor quality.
What makes a high-quality question? What makes a question a good question? The answer is simple. A good question leads to a good result. It focuses your attention on something that makes you effective. It directs your mind to something that helps you successfully handle the situation. A question is good if it leads to a good outcome.
Bad question: What if they don’t like me?
Better question: What is something I could do right now that would make me more likable?
Bad question: What if I fail to accomplish my goal?
Better question: What’s the most important thing I could do to accomplish my goal?
Bad question: What if I go bankrupt?
Better question: What do I need to know before I make a decision?
A high-quality question is one that produces an end-result you desire. To come up with a good question, ask yourself, “What result do I want?” That’s the root question, and should always be the first question you ask in any situation. What do you want?
And when you decide on a result you want, ask yourself, “What question can I ponder that would help me achieve that result?”
Don’t settle for the first thing that pops into your head! Think about it. Make a list on paper. Force yourself to come up with ten or more possible questions. Then choose what you think is the best question — the one you think will produce the best result — and practice asking yourself that question. Literally practice. Ask the question many times. Get used to asking it. Make it familiar and comfortable and automatic.
I’ve experimented a lot with questions. In the chapters that follow, I will share with you some of the best questions to use. You can and should, of course, come up with your own questions. But when you don’t know what question to use, try one of mine. They have already proven themselves. But before I share those questions, I want you to be sure you know what to do with them, or with any questions you use.
First decide what result you want. Then ask, “What question can I ponder that might help me achieve that result?”
There are certain times, certain situations, when it would help to ask yourself a particular question. So practice asking your question at those times.
For example, when Katie is preparing for an interview, she doesn’t want her mind to be occupied by the questions that naturally come to her: “What if they don’t want me?” and “What if I make a fool of myself in the interview?” She is fully aware that those questions don’t put her in the best frame of mind to have a successful interview.
She decides a good question to have in mind is, “How can I help these people?” That’ll put her in just the right attitude for an interview. That’s a question that might produce a good result.
So after she makes an appointment for the interview, she ponders the question. And on the day of the interview, while she’s getting dressed for it, she asks herself that question. She ponders it. When her mind wanders, she comes back to her chosen question. And in the car, on the way to the interview, she thinks about it some more, trying to think of ways she can help her future employers if they hire her.
Whenever her mind drifts to her worries, she asks herself, “But how can I help these people?” And even walking into the interview, she is wondering how she can help them.
What do you think would be the difference between Katie sitting down for an interview wondering, “What if they don’t want me?” versus sitting down wondering, “How can I help these people?” What kind of difference would she have in her attitude? In her demeanor? In her level of stress hormones? In her focus — outward versus inward?
I think you can see it would be a large and visibly obvious difference. The second question would make her more effective in the interview. The second question is more likely to lead to a good result.
You can also practice questions for certain situations in your imagination. If Charlie is having a difficulty with Jed, his 16 year-old son, for example, and he keeps losing his temper, he can decide he wants to stay calm and reasonable. Then the question is, what question can he ponder that would help him stay calm and reasonable?
How about this one: “What does Jed really want?” Charlie wants that question to be going through his mind next time he’s in an argument with Jed. So he practices his question. He imagines talking to Jed, and then asks that question to himself while he pictures the scene. This associates the question with that circumstance.
Charlie can also remember previous arguments, and while he is remembering, he can ask his question, “What does Jed really want?”
With a little practice, the next time Charlie is talking to Jed, the question will automatically come to Charlie’s mind, and will help lead to a good result – hopefully, it will lead to Charlie staying calm and reasonable in the conversation.
If the question does not lead to the result you want, what should you do? Come up with a better question, of course.
The reason questions are so useful is that they drive your mind to produce answers, and often that drive, that power, can be used to do a tremendous amount of good.
It is especially useful to replace bad questions you are already asking with good questions. For example, a typical question people ask when bad stuff happens is, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” It is a question that doesn’t lead to a good result, yet there are plenty of questions you could ask in those circumstances that would benefit you.
The quality of the questions you ask makes a tremendous difference. Ask yourself over and over, “What is wrong with me?” and your mind will search for answers, finding one after another. Because our brains are driven to answer questions, if you ask this question, you will come up with answers. Do the answers help you?
Compare that question with this one: “How can I prevent this from ever happening again?” Someone who ponders this question will get much more productive answers and won’t create anywhere close to the same amount of negative emotion.
The principle is simple: Ask yourself a good question. That’s how to direct your mind so it works for you rather than against you.
Think about the questions you ask, and come up with good ones. And when you ask a good question, keep asking it. Any answer you get is only one possible answer. Keep asking and you’ll keep getting new answers. The more answers you have to a good question, the better.
If it’s a good question, it’s a good thought to practice. Make that good question familiar and comfortable so it comes to mind easily and often.
One of the advantages of asking questions is the lack of force in it. You are not trying. You’re not making yourself “be positive.” You are simply pondering a question honestly. And it has a real impact.
Asking yourself a question is the best way to direct your mind. Of the many ways to talk to yourself, asking a question is the most powerful. Now we’re going to investigate some good questions.
You will probably create your own questions tailored to your specific circumstances and your personality. But when you want a good question you can start using without having to think up one, use one of the following twenty-five questions to ask yourself:
- What am I grateful for?
- If I was happy about this, what would I be thinking about it?
- What did I do right today?
- What CAN I change?
- Does this help my goal?
- What does life expect from me?
- How can I prevent this from ever happening again?
- What is the best use of my time right now?
- How can I use this to accomplish my goal?
- What’s good about this?
- What is my goal here?
- What is another way to look at this?
- What else?
- What memory makes me feel good?
- Ask questions to find out more about the situation.
- What if it really happened?
- What am I good at?
- What is one healthy thing I could do today to feel better?
- What needs to be done next?
- What good have I been ignoring?
- How can I look at this as a good thing?
- What could I do to make some progress on my goal?
- Could I just do part of it for now?
- What would be a more reasonable explanation?
- What emotion am I aiming for?
The above is the introduction to a book by Adam Khan. See it on Amazon here: Direct Your Mind: How to Steer Your Mind to Work For You Rather Than Against You.