Question Yourself to Keep Your Work on Track

By Michael Bungay Stanier

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

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Everything you do at work generally falls into three buckets: Bad Work, Good Work, and Great Work.

Bad Work doesn’t need much of an explanation. It’s anything that is mindless, pointless, or aimless.

Good Work is what keeps you productive, focused, and efficient. It’s the work outlined in your job description, the day-to-day, that needs to get done.

Your great work is the work you love, the projects or concepts that excite, challenge, and motivate you. Great Work is the reason you took the job. It’s what lights you up.

When our busy and essential Good Work takes over, it can be easy to leave our Great Work by the wayside. But it’s important to find your way back to that Great Work to focus on what really matters and generate new ideas and remember why you’re in the role you’re in.

The best way to do that is to ask yourself the hard questions that keep you on track. There’s no set script for questions like this. They vary depending on goals, time of year, and circumstances.

But here are a few questions to help you stop the busy work and start the work that matters.

Does This Move Me Closer to What Matters or Farther Away?

Neuroscientist Tina Seelig, in her book Insight Out: Get Ideas out of Your Head and into the World, talks about “envisioning a bold future” in order to move forward in an ever-changing world. And I love that because I think visualizing your own future like that is part of pursuing your Great Work.

Pick something and pursue it. Make it meaningful.

And so, when you are making choices, ask yourself: Does this move me closer to what matters or farther away? Decide on what matters and how to get there.

If I’m Saying Yes to This, What Am I Saying No To?

I often say that a yes is empty without a strong no to support it. That’s not because I think I need to take on less. It’s because I believe strategy is really about saying no in order to create a powerful yes.

I have a Steve Jobs quote taped to my computer that reminds me to say no, “[Focus] means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

It’s about saying no to the thing you really want to say yes to in order to bring a sense of focus and power to your Great Work. If you’re spread too thin, you’ll get stuck in the mediocrity of it all.

Where Am I Really Headed?

Stop. Take a breath. Think about where you are headed this year. It’s the middle of the year, and we’re all rushing toward something.

But are you rushing toward the end just for the sake of getting there? Did you make a wrong turn somewhere? Are you running toward the wrong finish line?

Ask yourself where it is you want to go. It’s never too late to change paths or start on a new quest.

As author and lecturer Sam Keen puts it, “To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.”

You’ve probably got too much on your plate, and you may feel stuck. But remember that you have a want for Great Work.

Constantly Ask Yourself

So pause and ask yourself: If you could stop only one thing, what would it be? If you could double down on one thing, what would it be? If you could start one thing, what would it be, and where would you begin?

These questions aren’t meant to bring you down. They’re meant to create an opportunity to find new insights and ways to do less Good Work and more Great Work.

I’m grateful to have people in my life who hold fire to my feet and ask me the hard questions I might not be asking myself. Sometimes I can’t answer them right away, and so they come back later and ask me again. It’s that extra accountability that keeps me on track.

When your Great Work seems a little hidden, ask yourself (or find someone to ask you) a few big questions. Vanessa Redgrave says it well, “Ask the right questions if you’re going to find the right answers.”

What Questions Do You Ask Yourself?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Michael Bungay Stanier
Michael Bungay Stanier
Author of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner and Founder of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. It is best known for its coaching programs, which give busy managers practical tools to coach in 10 minutes or less.
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