Active Questions and Productivity

Wednesday, May 17, 2023
How active are your questions?

One of my favorite newsletters is Sarai Mitnick’s Making Time. Making Time is her year-long experiment on making time to be creative. Sarai isn’t all about getting up an hour early to write or creating lengthy to-do lists. Instead, she focuses on creativity and getting to creative endeavors because they make her happy. 

In her last newsletter, she encouraged her readers to use active questions to make time for the things they want to do. What’s an active question? It’s easier just to show you. First we’ll start with questions that are not active. 

Let’s say that your goal is to write 10 pages a day. At the end of each day, you may ask yourself, “Did I write 10 pages?” Then you answer YES or NO. Or you may ask yourself, “How many pages did I write?” The answer might be 2 pages or 10 pages or something specific like 3.75 pages. I don’t know about you, but when I don’t meet my goal, I often get specific about what I did accomplish. 

Both of these questions are passive. One of the things that makes them problematic is that you can easily make an excuse if you didn’t accomplish your goal. “I would have done it, but— 

--the kids were home sick from school. 

--I had to deal with the insurance company. 

--Mom had a doctor’s appointment. 

--my husband asked me to watch Downton Abby with him. 

You would have gotten to it, but you were the victim of circumstances. 

To avoid this way of thinking, ask yourself a question about your intentions. In this case, you might ask, “How hard did I try to meet my goal?” Then you rate your effort on a scale of 1 to 10. You may have accomplished nothing towards your goal although you sat down to work four different times. You scored a 10 because you tried to get it done. 

Scoring your intentions can be very revealing. My to-do list is a frightening beast. Every week, I have a list of three columns. Things I need to do by X date. Things I need to work on by some vague future date. And things I want to do. I seldom accomplish more than a handful of the things on this list. 

So last week I looked at my goals as active questions. “How hard did I try to (fill in the blank).” Not only did I not revise my essay, work on my site, outline my cozy, or (and the list goes on and on), I had given most of the tasks on my list very little thought. There were just too many. My numbers for how hard I had tried were low across the board. I was just too scattered. 

By the end of the week, I decided to focus on one non-paid writing task a week. That means I could choose anything that is not under contract. I focused on one book and in just two days I managed to accomplish more than I had done in the previous month. Why? Because I focused my efforts. I may not have had hours and hours to work, but I only had one prioritized project. It was a lot like Renee’s editing sprint (see her post here). I focused and got something done. 

Give active questions a try. Look beyond what you accomplish to where you put your best intentions. This can help you shift your focus and make progress on what matters most. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 35 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on June 5, 2023).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins June 5, 2023) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins June 5, 2023).


Renee Roberson said...

Hmm . . . this sounds like an interesting concept! I also get too scattered with all the non-paid things I want to do and end up doing none of them. This week has been abysmal and next week is a podcast week, so I think I'll focus on moving the needle each day on my novel and podcast script and nothing else and see how it goes.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

You'll have to let me know how it works!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Well, I think I've got this one, y'all. :-) I've whittled my To Do list to just what I want to do (I may have mentioned that in my last post on just wanting to write!)...and then it's a mad dash to the deadlines on other stuff!

Good luck, Sue!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I'll get the other things done if it helps me avoid submitting my non-deadline work. What does that say? I loathe the slush pile?

Angela Mackintosh said...

I can only focus on one project at a time because I can't multitask. But that means I usually knock out paid work and deadlines before I get to my creative projects, and by then I'm too burnt out to write anything brilliant. So I try to work on my creative projects first thing in the morning, but I can't concentrate because deadlines are looming. A catch-22. Maybe this active question exercise will work. How do you do it? Write in a journal at the end of every day?

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I keep a bulleted journal to keep track of various assignments and projects. I just make notes in my weekly schedule. Honestly, I worry that adding a new journaling project would make it seem like homework!

But I also understand your Catch-22. I think that we've all been there.

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

Interesting concept, SueBE ... but I think for me, I need to point back to something I can measure concretely -- i.e., I said I would write XX number of words, and by God, there's my word count in black and white. I feel like otherwise, I would seek out a squishy answer if I asked myself about my intention, rather than measuring my output.

Kelly Sgroi said...

I love this concept! Why have I never thought of this? Definitely going to give this a try! Thanks Sue!

Nicole Pyles said...

I love this approach! I haven't been sending out stories any more because I want to get a fresh look at all of them. And finally last weekend, I reserved a day to really take a fresh look at one of my stories and made great progress. I hope to do that at least once a week! I just need to get my butt in gear. But looking at it from the perspective of, "How hard did I try?" is a great way of really taking a look at my efforts closely.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I understand completely! I suspect that, for me anyway, it is a matter of needing different types of goals at different times. When a more concrete, measurable goal goes unmet week after week, I need to look at why.

Let us know how it works for you!

Sometimes it is 100% essential to set aside a single day each week for a task you tend to put off. A friend of mine used to have "marketing Monday" which was the day to query and send manuscripts out.

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