Active Questions – The Powerful Clarity Method You Need to Know

Traditional Goal-Achievement Methods

There's a generally accepted process for accomplishing something that's important to you. You might call that something a goal, a resolution, an important project, a skill you’re trying to get better at, or simply an area of your life you want to improve.


That process is to clearly define the goal, making sure it’s measurable and has a deadline, and then evaluate your progress on a regular basis.

Often, however, we forget (or conveniently ignore) the periodic checkpoints and simply use the deadline as a measure of success or failure. While it's certainly better than doing nothing, this approach can be ineffective. That’s because your evaluation of your progress allows you, and in the case of failure practically begs you, to come up with all kinds of reasons for why you didn’t succeed. Those reasons usually take the form of circumstances or external conditions that were beyond your control. A more effective approach is to use something called active questions.

The Active Questions Process

Active questions focus on your level of engagement and effort in pursuit of your stated goal. As you will see, this concept is an interesting take on the topic of personal responsibility that’s discussed in many different books like, for example, The Oz Principle. The idea is that your actions (and your inactions) define what you attract into your life, so you should take responsibility for everything that happens. That’s where the topic of today’s video, active questions, comes into play.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith is a world-renowned author, executive coach and professor at Dartmouth University. In his book Triggers, he describes a strategy that he developed with his daughter (who is also a professor, at Northwestern University). The process uses a set of six questions, which the volunteers in his studies use to test its effectiveness. They are called active questions because they address how actively you are engaged in the achievement of your objective.

Every day, for each of the six active questions, the participants are instructed to evaluate not what they accomplished or how much progress they made toward their goals, but instead their level of effort and engagement toward the stated goal. They did this by answering the question “Today, did I do my best to…”, and then fill in the blank with whatever goal you’re working toward or area of your life you want to improve in. When answering each question, you simply assign a grade for your level of engagement on that topic for the day. Dr. Goldsmith uses a 1 to 10 scale, but you can use whatever you prefer.

Your list of active questions, and your grades, should be kept private. Doing so allows you to be completely honest with yourself. Otherwise, you might subconsciously skew your grades either to impress other people or so you don't look bad. Social influence can be subtle and is extremely powerful, so you don’t want it affecting your ability to get the positive results that this strategy can produce.

Types of Active Questions

The active questions Dr. Goldsmith developed are in the areas of goals, happiness, relationships, and purpose. The specific questions aren't important, because, if you decide to use this strategy in your life, you’ll need to define the things that are important to you, particularly where you struggle with motivation. The number of active questions is a personal choice as well, and there is no right answer. I’ve found that, when trying on new habits or projects, less is more if you want a reasonable chance of success.

The questions themselves, by definition, will evolve over time. This process is simply a strategy to spur motivation and growth in areas of your life where you currently struggle. As you grow and change, some areas will become less important to you. Others will no longer need to be tracked because you either accomplished the objective or have built a strong habit supporting that goal, making the question unnecessary.

The Power of Active Questions

Dr. Goldsmith has tested his six active questions on thousands of participants in dozens of studies, with pretty incredible results. In his studies, 37% of people reported improvement in ALL SIX areas of their lives, 65% showed improvement in four or five areas, with 89% of people reporting improvement in one to three areas.

Think about that for a minute. What are the top five things in your life that you're dissatisfied with or that you would really like to improve? How would it affect your quality of life and overall happiness if you had a noticeable improvement in even two or three of those areas? Dr. Goldsmith’s experience with thousands of people indicates that applying this strategy gives you a better than 50-50 chance of that happening. I don’t know about you, but I like those odds.

Active questions identify the areas where you truly are putting forth the necessary effort. But more importantly, they help you identify the areas where you aren’t as committed as you thought you were. It also helps you to realize that, by simply changing your engagement, you can change your results. That realization gives you a feeling that you are in control of what happens in your life. Psychologists refer to this as an internal locus of control, and it greatly increases your motivation. I talk about this in another video, which you can check out below.

By measuring your engagement, you can track it over time, which allows you to identify trends and correct them. Even though the individual grades are somewhat subjective, that same subjectivity is built into all of your grades. And since the real value in this process is looking at trends and (hopefully) improvement over time, the “accuracy” of a score on any given day is much less important than the bigger picture view that the trends give you.

Applying this strategy also gives you a visible representation of your progress, which is a huge motivational boost. When you can see steady progress toward a goal, even if it's only a little bit each day, you are much more likely to sustain motivation toward that goal than if you're stagnating or simply don’t know where you stand. I’ve discussed this concept in a previous newsletter, where I talk about the story of Florence Chadwick, who was the first woman to swim the English Channel.

Honesty Is Key

At its core, the active questions process forces you to look yourself in the face every day and declare not what you did or didn’t cross off your to-do list, which you can easily explain away, but whether you really invested the time and energy into the things that you claim are important to you. This is what makes active questions so powerful. If you answer them truthfully, you will see a direct correlation between your level of engagement and your results. If you don't get the results you seek, you’ll know what to do about it.

If you aren’t honest when grading yourself, though, you'll feel cognitive dissonance between what you're telling yourself and what you know to be true. (I talk about cognitive dissonance in another video, which you can check out here) The discomfort that creates will cause you to do one of two things. Ideally, you’ll start being more truthful when grading your daily efforts, and you’ll reap the benefits. The other possibility is that you’ll just stop doing the questions so you don't have to experience the discomfort of facing that reality every day. In Dr. Goldsmith’s experience, this is the path that more than half of all people will take, and it usually happens within the first two weeks.

I’ve recently started using active questions in my life as part of my daily journaling routine. While it’s too early to know what results I’ll get, I’ve noticed that reviewing my day in this way creates a shift in perspective that helps me identify the areas where I need to reevaluate my level of commitment. It’s very easy to look at the items still left on your to-do list for the day and tell yourself that other, more urgent things got in the way, but that you’ll take care of it tomorrow. It’s another thing entirely to think about the level of effort you put into making sure that thing got done. Our days are full of tiny decisions that guide our priorities and therefore our attention from minute to minute. What we choose to do, and what we therefore CHOOSE to NOT do, is a reflection of those decisions.

I hope you like this post. I’m looking forward to seeing how this strategy affects my life, and I hope it helps you too. Please let me know by leaving a comment below.