Change Proliferating Questions into Answers

Course Correction, Thinking Tools

Sometimes when you “think on paper,” you don’t get paragraphs of clarity, but paragraphs of questions. The questions proliferate in all directions as you see more and more things you don’t know and feel you need to know to make any progress.

Questions proliferating in all directions are the hallmark of confusion. When you’re confused, you’re overloaded, and it’s hard to see what direction to go. But you can get clear on where you are and possible next steps with a technique such as the 3-pass review.

The 3-pass review is:

  1. Gather data
  2. Challenge first thoughts
  3. Sum up and identify next steps.

It is precisely because you’re confused that you need to separate gathering your thoughts from challenging them and finding mistaken assumptions. When you’re confused, quick judgments are not sufficient to untangle the issue. So you gather the thoughts you have, without judging them, then evaluate during a second pass. The key is separating the judging from the collecting.

But what if the questions keep proliferating?

The three overview questions I recommend for gathering data about confusion are:

  1. What do I know?
  2. What do I need to know?
  3. What else is relevant?

Sometimes people answer these questions with more questions — asking about all the things they feel they need to know or they feel might be relevant.

Here’s the solution: Turn those questions into statements. You cannot judge questions. But there is always a thought behind that question. If the question is:

“What happens if I can’t finish in time?”

the thought behind it is:

“I need to know what happens if I can’t finish in time,”

or “I want to know what happens if I can’t finish in time,”

or “I can’t move forward unless I know what happens if I can’t finish in time.”

The appropriate thought captures the urgency behind the question and fully articulates it. Once articulated, you can evaluate it. Is it true that you need to know? Or would it just be nice?

When you’re confused, these distinctions matter. If questions proliferate, you are getting ahead of yourself by asking questions before you have laid a base. To get clear of confusion, you need to get clear on the one question you can and should tackle first. By converting questions into statements, you give yourself a leg up on that.

Converting questions into statements like this can be challenging if you aren’t sure the statements are true. It is easy to write down the question. It is not so easy to write down a definite statement of “I need to know XYZ,” when that may not be literally true.

But when you are confused, you need to write down the thoughts you actually have now, and wait for a second pass to test them. The “gather data” pass is not a test. It is a chance to lasso the ideas swimming around in your head so you can make sense of them in a second pass.

But that only works if you are willing to write down the thoughts, as statements, so you can test them.

For the question, “what do I know?” you may be tempted to only write what you really know. But this drops the context. When you’re confused, you know that you don’t know. And asking, “what do I know?” is a trigger for thoughts of what you think you know — some of which are true, and some of which are not true. Then by using the 3-pass review, you are deliberately giving yourself the mental space to sort out truth and falsehood on a second pass.

When you’re having trouble on a thinking task, you need to be willing to dig around and collect ideas from the periphery of your knowledge where they won’t be ironclad. Some people make the mistake of never validating such ideas; others make the mistake of never investigating them. The 3-pass technique empowers you to both investigate and test your ideas so you can resolve confusion on the topics that are most important to you.

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