Marshall Goldsmith and the power of daily questions

We might spend hours planning a vacation or researching the purchase of a new TV, but how much time do we invest in contemplating the direction of our life?

Recently, I’ve developed a fascination with systems, or simple frameworks we can use to better our lives. (If that sounds excruciatingly boring, hang with me for just a moment.) I’ll admit that on the one hand, such structures may feel beneath us; but on the other, there is no disputing that happy, successful people are masters of the little things. (As they say, God is in the details.)

One of my favorite systems was introduced to me in Triggers: Creating Behavior that Lasts — Becoming the Person You Want to Be, by Marshall Goldsmith. Of all of the “happiness hacks” I’ve experimented with or read about, this may be two of the most powerful minutes I spend each day. Here’s how it works (I’m paraphrasing):

Suppose you want to focus on becoming happier; you might begin with the simple, daily question of “did I try my best to be happy today?” Each day, you rate yourself (Marshall uses a scale of 1-10; I use a scale of 1-5) and keep track of the answers (I use and love the Strides app, but you could also put together a simple spreadsheet in Excel, for example).

What’s the big deal, you might be wondering? It sounds so simple, childish even. Yet there are several critical benefits.

First, the routine of answering the questions enhances my daily, moment-by-moment awareness of what I have decided is really important to me. I was surprised to see how quickly these criteria began to work their way into my thoughts. Knowing that I will own up to my mistakes this evening occasionally makes the all the difference in a decision or reaction.

Second, the answers highlight both consistent effort and a consistent lack of effort. It’s easy to appreciate good work when you can follow its arc in front of you (“wow, I’ve been doing this for three weeks already!”); it’s also easy to recognize bad work (“I said that eating well was important to me, but clearly it’s not”).

Finally, many significant changes simply take time. Daily questions help to make these changes feel manageable, directing focus to the moment-by-moment effort required for success, as opposed to a larger, seemingly faraway result.

Many of our most significant failures in life really are death by a thousand tiny, almost imperceptible cuts. Truthfully answering your personal, daily active questions makes these cuts much harder to ignore.

One final note: Marshall notes that he originally asked “passive” questions of himself, for example “was I happy today?” However, he eventually made an important adjustment.

Note the distinction between “was I happy today?” and “did I try my best to be happy today?” This is huge because failure to do the first is easily justified (“no, I wasn’t happy, because so-and-so was a real jerk or because this unfortunate thing occurred”), whereas you cannot justify your lack of effort. Effort, by definition, is independent of external circumstance; no one and nothing can rob us of our effort.

For reference, here are my current daily questions. Note that the last four are simple yes/no questions, where no rating of effort is required; I either did it, or I didn’t.

  • Did I try my best to be kind, compassionate and loving with Toni? (My wife.)
  • Did I try my best to be kind, compassionate and loving with Ethan and Sienna? (My children.)
  • Did I try my best to remain non-reactive, non-judgmental and compassionate toward other people when something frustrated me?
  • Did I try my best to be happy in each moment?
  • Did I try my best to find meaning in each moment?
  • Did I try my best to eat mindfully and consume healthy food?
  • Did I try my best to AIWATT? (Also from Triggers: “Am I Willing, At This Time, to make the investment required, to make a positive difference, on this topic?”)
  • Did I meditate?
  • Did I pray?
  • Did I work out?
  • Did I write 1,000 words?

I encourage you to begin your own practice of asking and answering your personal daily questions, starting today! What are some areas of your life that you would most like to focus on? Take a few minutes to set up a spreadsheet or download your free trial copy of Strides, then set a daily reminder in your phone (I use 9pm). I hope you will be surprised to discover how much of a difference these two minutes a day can make!

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.