Spring #8: Measure effort, not outcome
How to use the magic of active questions to focus on what really matters to you.
Welcome to Spring #8 of Making Time. Each week, I share a seasonal perspective on the creative process. If you’d like to follow along on this year-long experiment, you can subscribe for free.
There’s a cabinet in my house full of old journals. The oldest of these goes back to when I was 15 years old and rereading it is both painful and hilarious. I wish I could go back and talk to that poor, confused girl.
Naturally, it leads me to wonder what my 65-, 75-, or 85-year-old self will think of the journals I’m keeping now. No doubt, she’d want me to worry less and enjoy life. She’d probably tell me to appreciate all that I have, and to make more time for other people. I try to think of her often when I write about my days.
My style of journaling is far from consistent. Sometimes, I simply write about my day. If I have time, I’ll paste in some pictures from my phone (I have this photo sticker printer that makes it fast and easy) or doodle. Sometimes I’ll tackle a question that’s been on my mind, or just do a brain dump.
A few years ago, I also started incorporating some bullet-journaling type practices each month. Nothing fancy, just lists of memories that month, things I learned, sometimes a tracker for my overall well-being. I add things in that seem helpful and stop doing them when they run their course.
This month, I’m trying something new: active questions. And it’s been astonishingly helpful.
How to use active questions
The concept of asking “active questions” comes from consultant and coach Marshall Goldsmith. In his book Triggers, which is largely about adult behavioral change, he recommends the practice of asking yourself daily (or even hourly) active questions about the most important behaviors in your life.
So what is an active question? I’ll give an example to illustrate.
Let’s say you’d like to start spending 30 minutes drawing each day. To track your commitment, you decide that at the end of each day, you’ll write down whether you accomplished it. The inherent question you’re answering here is “Did I draw for 30 minutes today?” or, alternately, you might ask, “How many minutes did I spend drawing today?”
This can be helpful in many circumstances, but it is what Goldsmith calls a “passive question”. Why? Because when you track an outcome like this, it is very easy to make excuses when you fail to do it and blame your environment or circumstances.
Maybe one day you have an unexpected minor family emergency. Another day, you end up working late. These may be entirely legitimate reasons, but after a few days of this, you begin to get discouraged and think that perhaps you can’t actually make time for this in your busy life.
An active question instead looks at your effort rather than the outcome. You ask yourself, “Did I do my best to draw for 30 minutes today?”, and then rate your effort on some sort of scale (such as 1-10). Keep doing this every day to see the patterns.
This is freeing, because instead of thinking about all the things that got in your way (or didn’t), you simply turn inward and ask how much you honestly tried to make it happen. It’s also empowering because, even on days you realize your effort was low, it’s very easy to imagine fixing that with higher effort the next day.
He writes, “It is incredibly difficult for any of us to look in the mirror every day and face the reality that we didn’t even try to do what we claimed was most important in our lives.”
Another effect of this practice is that, if you do notice that you are not putting in the effort day after day, you eventually must realize that it’s not really that important to you. Otherwise, you’d at least try.
The big six questions
He recommends six specific daily questions, which you can then build on with whatever additional changes you want to make. His six questions are:
Did I do my best to increase my happiness?
Did I do my best to find meaning?
Did I do my best to be engaged?
Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
Did I do my best to set clear goals?
Did I do my best to make progress toward goal achievement?
I’ve added some simple things to my own list, such as going for a daily walk outside. I don’t include things that I already do without much trouble, like meditation or exercise.
Once I started measuring my effort each day by asking these “Did I do my best to…?” questions, I immediately became more aware of when and how I was sabotaging myself, ignoring opportunities to be happy, or acting in ways that didn’t accord with my values.
And maybe, I’m coming a little closer to what the 75-year-old Sarai would want for me.
If there’s something you’d like to build into your life, try this one out for a week or two and see if it works for you.
What I’m Making
Still working on a muslin for the Chelsea jeans I’m sewing, still working that sweater I shared last week, but the main thing I’ve been working on is this:
Preparing for several tons of gravel and compost to be delivered this week by laying down more weed barrier and installing edging around all the outer beds. I’ll also be transplanting my seedlings this week. What a crunch.
Head, Heart, Hands
Things to make us think, feel, and do.
Ok, I am so inspired by Alicia Paulson’s new self-published cookbook project! Mostly I love how excited she seems by it, the way she’s diving into all the nerdy details of publishing. I’ve always wanted to make a cookbook and, while it’s not a priority right now, I will definitely be following along.
BOOKS: I finished reading Bowling Alone this week. I’ll be honest, this book was a 500-page slog for me, but a worthwhile slog. It made me realize that the decline in community involvement in the US is absolutely not a new phenomenon we can blame on the internet, but a trend that’s been accelerating over almost the entire last century. It also made me even more committed to community building. Have you read this book?
I discovered this fancy gardening shop this week and want all the clothes. Actually, it inspired me to repurpose some clothing I already had, even better! Side note: I’ve been thinking about making some gardening pants at some point with built-in knee pads, what do you think?
Devin Kelly’s close read of Louise Clifton’s poem, Atlas.
VIDEO: Painting garden furniture with artist Tess Newall. A beautiful and super-inspiring 6-minute video.
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I worked as a gardener one summer and let me throw some ideas your way. Waterproof knee pads would be amazing! And consider overalls - no hiking-up-your-pants-every-time-you-stand necessary. I've actually got a pair of overalls on my want-to-make list for this very reason, but it's more likely I'll be loafing in them.
YES ! YES !
Gardening pants with knee pads . Love the idea.