Asking simple questions

How many times have we decided to pursue something we know will make our lives better but we did not follow through? Although we have been exposed to thousands of tools and methods by a plethora of self-help books, many of these will not work with us.  In fact, some of them will not work with a lot of people. After reading many books and trying many techniques and strategies, I found certain tools work for me better than others. In this post, I recommend trying some of these tools and giving them a chance. The only thing to lose is a minimum amount of time, but in exchange you will gain valuable insight into your different emotional states and the workings of your brain.  You will also eliminate what does not work for you.

Through the years, I found certain tools really helped in promoting motivation and creativity. When I read  One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Way by Robert Maurer, Ph.D.  recommended by my wife, I was totally amazed by the simplicity of the advice.  Knowing Sara (my wife) and her analytical ability to understand me, I was sure that the book would be a great recommendation.  Frankly, the book exceeded all of my expectations. What a great recommendation!

Dr. Maurer’s book describes the Kaizen method of taking small and comfortable steps toward improvement. The improvements, with these tiny steps, might seem very trivial. For example, steps like doing jumping jacks five times for one minute for seven days a week could become the beginnings of a great exercise program!  The small simple steps, taken in an effortless way, have a better chance to  make you exercise. Dr. Maurer used these methods on his patients with astounding success. One of his patients was able to march in place in front of the TV for one minute a day instead of the normal advice: exercise for 30 minutes 3 times a week. The patient, surprised by the simplicity of the advice, did not mind following through.  After a week, she worked out for one minute in front of the TV for one week. What was amazing about the patient is that her attitude had changed. Instead of complaining and getting discouraged by failing so many times, she moved happily to the next step. Eventually these small steps turned into bigger steps and bigger steps usually lead to change. The secret of the Kaizen transformation is in doing small steps for improvement that over time amount to a greater change. The subtle alterations or the small actions can help the human mind to move around the fear that blocks success by developing an alternate route of neurocircuits. Doing these small actions continuously developed a desire for this new behavior, resulting in developing new habits: exercising, dieting, cleaning their desks, and spending quality time with loved ones.  According to Dr. Maurer, Kaizen thinking has six strategies – any of them or several of them might be enough to change our lives.

  • Writing at least five simple questions to end fears and promote creativity.
  • Spending a short amount of time (ten minutes) to think about skills and habits—without doing any physical effort.
  • Adopting small actions, and I mean small actions, that will lead you to a higher possibility of success.
  • Choosing to solve small problems rather than big ones.
  • Rewarding yourself or others even if the results are small.
  • Paying attention to small and important moments that everyone else might ignore.

Reading these simple questions on a daily or weekly basis did have an effect on me.

Asking small and simple questions: Our mind is constantly asking us a lot of questions. If the questions are big and meaningless, they will trigger fear, causing a negative impact on our mental state. When I was a teenager, I asked myself very big and confusing questions: why do we need to breathe?  How can I stop time?  In fact, writing these questions until now triggers feelings of fear and desperation.  I was not seeking scientific answers, I was not smart enough or interested in this at that time. I just liked to challenge the status quo of living. Diving into negativity was the right path for these questions. It takes only one or two thoughts to lead you to this destructive thinking.  After living in these scary thoughts for so many years, I realized that small positive questions might have the same effect after reading the book.  I learned from experience that thinking about specific small positive and inspiring  questions will really have a great impact on me. The two questions which I usually ask myself before I start working in the morning are:

  • What is the simplest thing I will do today that will have the greatest impact for the rest of the day?
  • What is the most efficient thing I can do now?

I love the simplicity of these questions.  They usually set the day for me and help me to move forward and be productive. One of the things I once stumbled upon while I was reading the blog “Life” is what a graduate student calls the 1-3-5 productivity tool. He plans the day by doing the following:

  • One important thing to do for the day.
  • Three moderately important things to do for the day.
  • Five small things for the day – usually e-mails.

This strategy is simple and useful. In fact, asking these small questions forces your mind to focus on small practical things without causing it to feel overwhelmed and fearful. If you notice, the questions should not be demanding or scary. The exercise should be fun. When you ask big questions, your amygdala (that part of the brain sometimes called the lizard brain or fear brain) will wake up and awaken your fear. Dr. Maurer says,  “Shh…Don’t wake the Amygdala!”  If you develop the habit of asking yourself simple specific questions, you will be able to approach big problems in a very simple way. For example, when you find someone resistant to an idea, you might ask,  “How can I make this person more receptive?” The answer might be talking to her during lunch, far away from the office.  Another example, if you start having a lot of meetings at work and you are overwhelmed, you might ask, “How can I turn these meetings to fun?” Addressing this question helped me lately at work. I started asking people if they wanted to take a walk during our meeting. Doing this allowed me to turn the meeting into a great time to exercise and conduct business. Steve Jobs was very famous in these walking meetings with his engineers.

Small questions can also defuse fears, such as the fear of starting a new job, becoming poor, not finding a job, or the fear of being alone.  For example, how can I enjoy the first three weeks of starting a new job?  How can I save $200 this month?  How can I join a social club? How can I meet interesting people?  How can I meet people in my field who might have some leads to better jobs?  It is really amazing how these small specific questions can move your mental state to a more positive frame of mind.

Mind sculpturing (training your mind to do the work first): Maybe this is the most studied method you will find in the literature.  Mind sculpturing is the technique that allows athletes to imagine their minds to control the game action.  I used this method the most when I was in graduate school.  I planned my experiments for three days, and for 15 minutes I envisioned myself doing the experiment flawlessly.  I was stunned by the results; my experiments went very smoothly.  Now, I use this technique to prepare for presentations and meetings, including working on big projects. Practicing this mental and deliberate imagining has helped me to deliver better talks, better job interviews, and better conversations with my boss and my employees.

Taking small actions but be persistent  Small actions are at the heart of Kaizen. By taking steps so tiny that they seem trivial or even laughable, you will sail calmly pass obstacles that have defeated you before.  Slowly– but painlessly! — you will cultivate an appetite for continued success and lay down a permanent new route to change.”  Dr. Maurer.

It does not matter how small your questions are because you will enter the arena of action. If your goal is to be more creative, you will need to ask questions about creativity and creative people.  If your question is about losing weight, you need to walk around the house for five minutes. If your question is how to save money and get out of debt, you need to cut spending by $20.  Small actions, triggered by small questions, take very little time and effort. They can trick the brain into thinking of doing things in a way that is less burdensome without the fear of failure.

It is really amazing that the launch of Google and Facebook was a reaction to solving small questions.  Google was a simple solution for delivering precise and focused Internet searches in a very short time.  I still remember a conversation with my boss when I told him that I was not going to use the Internet anymore. He asked me why. I told him that I could not find anything, and that it did not matter what you typed into search engines.  It seemed as if you would first get five or six ads (often of a pornographic nature) and the rest was nonsense.   It was not until I read in a business magazine about Google’s search engine that I was really relieved.  I was so happy that I went directly to my boss and told him about the website.  The whole concept of Google was very simple: they copied the internet in their server and used search commands of people to rank the relationships between the search commands and the results (Yahoo was doing this manually by hiring a big division of people who ranked the websites manually after each search).  You wonder why Yahoo did not come up with this.  In fact, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Paige tried to sell the technology to Yahoo. Yahoo snubbed them.  Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, was only trying to answer a question of increasing social communication among Harvard University students. He was overwhelmed when the popularity of his site crashed Harvard’s server. He was not trying to build an internet company.  He realized this idea (small action) might have more weight than he thought. 60 Minutes interviewed Zuckerberg when Facebook was newly established and again when Facebook became a public company.  The difference in Zuckerberg’s confidence between the two interviews was very noticeable.

The bottom line is: in order for us to change our mental state and get into action, we need to ask ourselves simple questions and do small simple actions.  From experience, I can assure you it works.

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