QTAs: A Dead-Simple Way to Steadily Make Progress in the Face of Challenge

by Nicky Hajal

You’ve experienced this, right?

You’re excited about a new project and start planning it out in your head. You feel pretty confident but there are a few parts that seem difficult or push your comfort zone.

Somehow it’s those parts, the tough ones, that your mind locks onto and refuses to let go. You become a deer in the headlights – you see what’s coming and feel completely stuck.

I’ve been there and discovered a way out.

I experienced this enormously as I developed ActionAlly – it was the first app I’ve ever built for OSX and I had no clue how to get started. Even once I began, every time I was making progress I’d get stuck trying to do something that should have been simple.

It turned out that being repeatedly stuck was actually an incredible opportunity: I had to find a strategy to make progress despite rarely knowing how to do what I wanted to do.

The solution I found is so insanely simple but really was primarily responsible for the rapid progress I made (building my first OS X app alone in just 6 weeks).

QTAs: What they are and how to use them.

Here’s what I did:

I always kept my notebook by my side as I worked. Anytime I encountered a problem that was freezing me up, I would write it down in the form of a question.

“How do I detect when a user has been inactive?”
“How do I know when the computer has woken up from being a sleep?”
“How do I capture and respond to key presses?”

My first QTAs ever - notice using numbers to prioritize importance.
My first QTAs ever – notice using numbers to prioritize importance.

I had question after question and instead of letting them clog up my brain, I would get them all out in the form of Questions To Answer (QTAs).

At first, this was just a cute little thing I was giving a try but pretty soon I realized it was the secret weapon that was allowing things to continue forward so smoothly. Now it’s been several months and I’ve been using the same technique across all the work I do from programming to design to writing.

Here’s a complete breakdown of QTAs, why they’re so powerful and how to use them in your work:

QTAs Shine Light on the Phantoms So You Don’t Quit Before You Start

Normally when we have challenges that are holding us back, we just let them float around in our brains making us feel crappy and “demotivated”. It’s rare to take the time to shine a light on them and see what they’re made of.

Some very general examples of these sorts of challenges might be: 

  • “I don’t think I have time to write a book – I’m already so busy with my work and the kids.”
  • “I’m not well connected enough to start a podcast people would want to listen to.”
  • “I want to build a website but I don’t even understand how the process works.”

These are the sorts of phantom thoughts that hover in your brain and prevent you from even having the confidence to get started – but the truth is that they have no substance. 

Watch this – the power of a question mark is incredible:

If you just rewrite each of those sentences in the form of a question – either on your computer or on paper – and re-read them a few times, the weight will start to lift. Those phantoms begin to evaporate.

  • “How can I write a book even though I’m already busy with work and the kids?”
  • “Do I know enough people to host an interesting podcast?“
  • “How can I understand the process of how building a website works?”

A period feels like the end, like a blocked wall. A question mark creates the expectation for an answer and invites you to keep thinking and making progress.

QTAs Prevent You from Becoming a Deer in the Headlights and Help You Define the Problem

The truth is, those questions still suck. A QTA needs to be specific. That way, when you find an answer, you’ve made real progress that builds your momentum.

Before you wrote those problems down, they were amorphous blobs holding you back. Now you can see them for what they are and it’s time to mold them into something more defined and useful.

If you’re trying to figure out how to write a book even though you’re busy with work and the kids you may be able to ask these more specific questions: 

  • “How can I go to sleep earlier so that I have 20 minutes to write in the morning before everyone wakes up?”
  • “How can I make my office more quiet so I’m able to focus even as the kids are playing?”
  • “What app can I use to write from my phone during my commute?”

These are questions that, once solved, give you real action steps to move forward with. You’ve gone from not even being able to imagine starting to being a few google searches away from real progress, all by asking the right questions.

QTAs Allow You to Cope with Uncertainty and Make Progress Elsewhere

Now, you should just keep writing down every problem you can in the form of a question until you have all the problems you’re aware of outside of your brain. This is such a relieving process because once you see that there is a limited set of things to figure out, your goal suddenly feels a lot more approachable.

You think, “Woah, I just need to figure these questions out – that’s it!

Even better, having the full list in front of you allows you to see that you don’t need to answer all – or even most – of them to get started.

You can ask see the lay of the land and focus on the single major issue holding you back. Just answer that one question and you’ve made massive progress.

Let’s say you started with: “Do I know enough people to start an interesting podcast?” and refined that into: “What can I do to meet people that would be good guests on my podcast?”

Then, you continued turning all your challenges starting a podcast into questions.

  • “What equipment do I need to record a high-quality podcast?”
  • “How do I find listeners?”
  • “How can I figure out a theme that attracts people?”
  • “How can I structure an episode to keep readers interested?”
  • “Who can I get to do a first experimental episode with me?”

Looking at this list, you start to see a clear progression. 1) Focus on finding a theme 2) Focus on a structure 3) Focus on a first guest 4) Focus on equipment 5) Find listeners

The uncertainty of Step 3 was preventing you from getting to Step 1 but once you have all the issues externalized as a QTA, you can manage that uncertainty and make progress anyway.

QTAs Engage Your Brain Even When You’re Not Working

Here’s the icing on the cake:

Have you ever been facing a problem that seems impossible to resolve? You’re getting tired but forcing yourself to keep working just a bit more in hopes that you’ll get things figured out. Finally you decide to get some sleep and the next morning something funny happens:

The answer suddenly seems obvious!

Turns out, your brain was working on it all night as you slept and had the solution ready for you the next day.

What I love about QTAs is that this happens all the time.

When a phantom problem is trapped inside you, it grinds your brain to a halt. When you turn it into a QTA, the exact opposite happens. Not only do you start making progress on your single focus but in addition your brain starts going to work on the other questions without you realizing it.

I love reviewing my old QTA lists and seeing that I’d found answers to a ton of questions without even realizing it.

QTAs put more of your brain power at work for you.

Here’s How You Can Start Using QTAs Right Now

I initially started my list of QTAs in the notebook I take with me everywhere but as I started using them more, I moved to Evernote.

You can use whatever you like – a notebook, Evernote, Trello – anything that nicely stores a list will work. Create a list there called ‘QTAs’.

Now, no matter what you’re working on or want to be working on you can probably think of some challenges ahead that are preventing you from getting started or at the very least needlessly sucking up some of your valuable brain power.

Turn each of those issues into a specific question that, when answered, will resolve the issue.

Remember that these shouldn’t be broad! They will probably start with something like:
* “How can I…?”
* “How do I…?”
* “What do I need to…?”
* “Where can I find…?”

When it comes to QTAs, be careful of “Why?” questions. In this context, “Why?” tends to examine the problem without providing a solution. Asking why can make you feel like a victim instead of inspiring you to forge ahead.

Let’t take our earlier examples and ask them in the form of “Why?”

  • “Why don’t I have enough time to work on my book and take care of the kids?”
  • “Why aren’t I well-connected enough to start a podcast?”

These may be valuable questions to ask and answer but in the context of QTAs, they’re best to avoid.

Once you’ve got your list started (it’s never finished because you’re constantly clearing your mind by turning phantom problems into QTAs) go through your list and think about what question is really holding you back right now.

Identify the issue that once resolved will make all the others easier or get you to the next check-point in your project. When you’ve got it, ignore all the others and focus 100% on figuring that out.

I told you it was simple!

That’s really all there is to QTAs. Here it is one more time:

  • Turn your problems into specific, actionable questions
  • Review your list of questions and identify the one that the primary bottle-neck for your project
  • Focus 100% of your effort on resolving that issue. (If you get frustrated, here’s how to make progress anyway

Get Started Now

Don’t just nod your head and then forget about this article. Take action now.

In the comments below share what you’re working on and turn some of your current challenges into QTAs.

Photo by Charles “Skip” Martin

  • http://mynameisbreanne.com/ Breanne Dyck

    Love it, Nicky. I was just working on my 2015 planning earlier today, and had wanted to include a section about “what I don’t know what I’ll need to learn or figure out over the course of the year, to stay on track.” This is exactly the context I needed to be able to set the right tone to make that an incredibly powerful and useful section, now and throughout the coming year 🙂

    • http://blog.tumbledesign.com/ Nicky Hajal

      So awesome!

      You should write about your process for planning your year, I’d love to read about it 🙂

      • http://mynameisbreanne.com/ Breanne Dyck

        I was actually thinking about that (sharing it, I mean) as I was working on it. So, I just might — and I’ll letcha know if I do!

      • http://creativewebbiz.com/ Yamile Yemoonyah

        She did! That’s how I ended up here 🙂 Thanks Breanne!

  • http://www.joanotto.com/ Joan Otto

    Oh, this is great. My big project right now is related to pursuing a grad degree for a potential career change. (Like, I might go to med school… I might pursue a master’s in public health… I might, I might, I might.) The problem is it’s so big that I can’t seem to figure out what to do. I dabble at pieces, like researching schools, or seeing what training or educational experience I might need for certain jobs, or half-studying for the MCAT and/or GRE, or considering taking some courses as prerequisites, but I don’t really have an action plan, and I’m not getting anywhere. This is really helpful as I start to ask myself “What are the top three jobs I could see myself doing?” “What is the educational experience I need for those jobs?” “What schools could I consider that offer that education if needed?” etc. etc.

    • http://blog.tumbledesign.com/ Nicky Hajal


      “What do I need to be happy in a particular job/role?”
      “Do I know anyone who I can talk to who has experience in the field?”
      “How can I try out a particular role before committing to it long-term?”

      Questions give so many paths to explore!

  • Daniel Richardson

    Here’s mine. Just hammering them out so they’re out of my brain.

    GeekyGlassesTV Stuff:
    What do I need to do to find an audience for my youtube channel?
    What other content could I produce to enhance it?
    What needs to be done in preparation for filming 24/7 series?
    What purchases need to be made with regards to equipment?
    What purchases need to be made with regards to capture hardware?
    What purchases need to be made with regards to requests?
    How do I better optimise my setup for recording game footage on older systems?
    How do I better optimise my setup for recording game footage on the newest systems?
    How do I better optimise my setup for recording game footage on PC? What software can I use outside of Fraps?

    Work Stuff:
    How many E-Learning Templates do I need to make?
    What sub-categories of templates should I have?
    What kind of motion graphics and animations can I produce?
    How many variations of background do I need?
    How many variations of player do I need?
    How many can I realistically do in the next 10 days?

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