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Themes from "Secrets of Productive People": Questioning

Sue writes:

I purchased your book recently and although only a short way through, have been able to make some extremely good changes to my way of working. Thank you!

Where I feel I have stalled so far is understanding exactly what the intelligent questions might be to ask myself when starting out on a new project. I appreciate that this is something you feel people should work out for themselves and I can understand that; everyone is different, works in a different way, has different needs, etc. And we need to think for ourselves!

However, I feel it might help me to start if you could explore this area a little more, possibly give the odd example (I have already read the appropriate chapters.) My ‘work’ is now my old hobby, as I am retired; I am working as a textile artist. Any insights you have would be most welcome.

Questioning is at the heart of everything in the book so it’s important to get it right. Obviously as Sue says everyone is different, but neverthless the simpler one makes this process the more effectively it is going to flow into one’s work in a productive way.

Remember that the purpose of questioning is not so much to produce a list of good ideas, but to motivate and engage your brain in the work. The good ideas will certainly come, but they will come as a result of your greater engagement.

So let’s have a look at how this might work. I’ll give an example of how being appointed Marketing Officer for the local chapter of a national social and networking organisation might work. Although I shall fictionalize the details that is exactly what has just happened to me in real life!

I use Evernote for this exercise (though anything will do), and I have a Notebook in it called “Questioning”. What sort of questions do I need to ask myself about Marketing?

I shortcut that whole discussion by just opening a note with the heading “Marketing?”

Then I used my favourite questioning method, which is to list the five best ideas I can think of off the top of my head. My first day’s list went as follows (I’ve expanded the entries so they make sense to other people):

Issue personal invitations to suitable people
Members invite personal guests to events (chapter pays)
Design a decent leaflet
Publicize events in local newsletters
Subsidized events

Now I left this for 24 hours (can be less) and opened another “Marketing?” note without looking at the first one. It doesn’t matter whether some of the points are the same as in previous days or are completely different. In this case they were all different.

The national magazine should be a marketing resource
Marketers job is to sell the organization to a certain group of people
Stress benefits to prospective’s members own organizations
Articles of wider interest
Letter to Editor of national magazine

 It was this stage that the ideas started generating some action, particulary about the national magazine. This is exactly what should be happening.  You are not making a list of actions to tick off. Writing the lists should generate the desire to take action on the ideas that catch your fancy.

So I now put it away for another 24 hours and repeat the process. I do this every day for as long as I feel I’m getting benefit from it.

After a week or so I might read back over the lists to see whether there are any ideas which could be taken further, but it’s important not to keep looking back at old lists. If you become reliant on the lists, your creativity will nosedive.

You may of course find that your question raises issues which need a question of their own. In that case just start a note with the subject plus a question mark, e.g. “National Magazine?”


If you’d like your question about “Secrets of Productive People” answered, please sent it to me using the “Contact” tab in the Top Menu.

Reader Comments (4)


Hah! The Five Best Ideas Questioning Method. Shall we call it the FBI questioning method? Or does that imply too much interrogation? ;-)

It all seriousness, I'll call it the Best Ideas method here so as to not attach it to the context surrounding the FBI.

I find it interesting to note that the BI method you mention here does not describe asking any questions in particular. Yet, it is evident that "best ideas" must be the product of some line of observational questioning. I like this approach - it takes the focus off of finding the right questions to ask, and puts the focus on finding the right answers.

It calls to mind a method of Progressive Revision you proposed a while back (and forgive me, I don't recall if your original post called it Progressive Revision or not. I've searched, but I can't find the original article. I'm probably using the wrong keywords.) I want to say that the post was up on this site around the time you were working on SFv3... Anyway, in this method, you write something then put it away. The next day you revise what you wrote the previous day (presumably adding to it if you think of more to add), then put it away again. The next day - repeat, and so on.

PR continues what you did the previous day and delves deeper. In my experience using it, the regular and spaced revision keeps the mind engaged as you say any Questioning will do, but the nature of the PR method leads me toward better defined and more discreet action.

BI may or may not continue what you came up with the previous day, allowing for further definition OR expansion. Though I have not tried it yet, I imagine this would provide the same motive impetus due to regularly engaging the mind, but the nature of the BI method would lead toward a broader perspective in a wider context, allowing for making better connections, and providing better "workaround" problem solving, while not taking away the option of deeper definition.

But it seems that it would not matter which method you used, so long as you keep at it with regularity, it should keep you mind sufficiently engaged, thus prompting further action.

Thanks for the example Mark! I'll put it to use to see how it goes!
February 4, 2016 at 15:09 | Unregistered CommenterMiracle

Both techniques are excellent, but I use them for different things.

The "Best Ideas" method (as you call it) is purely intended to get the mind working on the problem with the result that action gets initiated. The list is ephemeral and it wouldn't matter if you shredded it immediately after writing it. I do however prefer to keep them so I can check occasionally whether there were any good leads I didn't follow up at the time.

The "Progressive Revision" method (as you call it) is used where the list needs to be permanent. A typical example of this is where you are gathering ideas for a book or report. I'll probably write a blog post on this as part of the series.

I think the article you were looking for is this one:
February 4, 2016 at 15:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Yes Sir, that's the article I was looking for! Thanks!

Reading it again, I see you called it Continuous Revision, and you proposed it to expand on an idea. I've been using it all these years to expand on the idea of a given project. It has served me well as a mental prybar to unstick a stuck project. It's penchant for unearthing discreet and detailed actions helps me "Little and Often" my way out of the rut.

I'm excited to see if the Best Ideas method helps me see more of the forest instead of the trees, and allows me to navigate around getting stuck in the first place! I understand the ephemeral nature of the BI list - the primary difference between it and Continuous Revision. That's the beauty of it! You only continue a given idea if your mind keeps going down that vein on it's own! Plus, each iteration you try to come up with your "Best" ideas, lending toward general improvement in quality from iteration to iteration. Compared to the Continuous Revision which tends toward an improvement in refinement and detail. It seems the two methods would work well in tandem - BI for strategic planning, and CR for tactical execution.

Thanks again for your tip, and for sharing all the work you do!
February 4, 2016 at 17:29 | Unregistered CommenterMiracle
“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.”
Francis Bacon
August 4, 2016 at 20:17 | Unregistered Commentermichael

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