In a recent thought-provoking article in The New York Times, “No Time to Think,” Houston journalist Kate Murphy writes about how the oft-heard complaint “I’m too busy” may really be our smokescreen for trying to keep unwelcome, negative thoughts at bay with a frenzy of activity.
Murphy writes, “Human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong with their lives.”
Turns out we’ll go a long way to avoid that kind of dwelling. In fact, a series of recent psychology experiments, reported in Science magazine, found that participants reported how unpleasant it was to be left alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes, and in fact many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves to avoid reflective ruminating(!)
Our avoidance of negative thoughts, Murphy writes, produces a cognitive strain on us that leads to a range of trouble—from insomnia and anxiety to depression and addictions, not to mention car accidents when we text and drive to distract ourselves from sitting alone with our thoughts. See Louis C.K.’s recent riff on this on the Conan show.
We may feel that our use of devices and constant busyness is productive and normal, but this desire for distraction turns out to be impairing even our empathy and creativity as we cut into our time for reflection and imagining.
Are negative thoughts often unanswered questions?
Beside the meta-irony that Murphy wrote an essay that provokes thought while writing an essay about how we desperately don’t want to think, what jumped out at me was her assertion,
“What preys on our minds are the things we haven’t figured out.”
In other words, the negative thoughts we’re so afraid of—that prey on us—are often unanswered questions, the kinds of questions we have no wish to tackle, in large part because we have no idea how to.
As discussed in my book, A More Beautiful Question, most of us are not trained in effective inquiry in school; and in most workplaces, questioning is discouraged. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we’re reluctant to ask ourselves questions—especially the kind of big, scary questions that aren’t easily answered on Google.
The secret weapon for figuring things out
It may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe the way to deal with uncertainty is to ask more questions. That’s because “figuring things out” is what questions are designed to help us do.
Questioning is a powerful tool for engaging with the unknown. But it helps if you ask the right kind of questions–reframing them from the negative “How am I ever going to deal with this?” (I think I’ll check my email now) into the more approachable “How might I make one small change today that will help me begin to deal with this?”
This kind of reframing is often called “appreciative inquiry,” a popular approach developed by Case Western Reserve University professor David Cooperrider, whose line “We all live in the world our questions create” is one of my favorites and is in my quote gallery.
The main premise of appreciative inquiry is that the questions we ask tend to focus our attention in a particular direction. Positive questions, focusing on strengths and assets, tend to yield more effective results than negative questions focusing on problems or deficits. Strength-based questioning focuses on what is working in our lives—so that we can build upon that and get more out of it. (For some examples of appreciative inquiry in action, see this HBR post).
With appreciative inquiry questions, we find a way of dealing with negative situations by playing up the positives, envisioning ways things might work better in the future, constructing a plan for what could be different and putting small changes into action.
Afraid of the void? Fill it with a question
Toward the end of her Times essay, Murphy shares some expert advice on why and how we should allow “the drifting in of thoughts” in order to become more productive, energetic, and engaged. She mentions courses on mindfulness, thinking about yourself in the third person, and limiting your busyness, if possible.
I’d like to add that when you do carve out some psychic space, questions give you a constructive way of being alone with your thoughts. When negative feelings arise, you can use the empowering “Why?” “What if?” and “How?” framework (examples in this article I did for Fast Company) for confronting these thoughts and moving towards change and solutions.
Those big, scary questions aren’t going to go away on their own. But by breaking them down into smaller, more productive questions they can actually provide a window to creative breakthroughs, self-improvement strategies, and greater personal happiness.
So next time you’re alone in your car, don’t fire off a text, and don’t pull over like Louis C.K. and sob. Instead, try asking yourself a positive question: “What am I grateful for?” “How might I build on my strengths?” “What if I made one small change?” Instead of avoiding questions, put them out there—and see where they lead you.