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02/14/2014 09:31 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2014

Dr. Phil: The One Question You Need To Ask To Get What You Really Want

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By Dr. Phil

When I was growing up, my family was often dirt poor. At times we were living hand-to-mouth, so I understood from a very early age that I would need to earn a paycheck to carry my weight and help us meet our most basic needs. I knew there was always an end game: survival.

When you're that close to the edge, you become very results driven. Any time there was a choice to be made, I had to make the one that would actually work. It didn't matter if I had the best intentions or big plans for the future -- all that mattered was the outcome. We even used to say, "You can't eat intentions, only results." Guess I really wanted to eat!

I suppose that's how I came up with one of my favorite questions: "How's that working for you?" When I ask that, I genuinely mean it. How is what you're doing working for you? Are you getting what you really want and need?

As you began the New Year, you probably made resolutions designed to improve your career, your relationships, your health. I'm a big fan of setting goals, so good for you -- I think we should do it a lot more often than once a year! But ask yourself whether you had basically the same list in January 2013. If that's the case, then it's safe to say that what you've been doing isn't working.

Life is about choices. If you decide to spend more time on your career, your family may suffer. If you decide to spend more time with your family, your career may suffer. The choice is yours, but you must choose. Even not choosing is a choice.

Again, if you're not getting the outcome you want, your motivation doesn't matter. Have you punished your teenager to keep her from hanging with the wrong crowd only to discover that she's been sneaking out to do drugs? You may have the right intentions, but what you're doing isn't working. Maybe you're a tyrannical boss who demands perfection, but you can't keep good employees. That's not working either.

Imagine seeing someone facing a wall and just banging his head against it, over and over. The wall isn't moving, and his head is turning into hamburger, but he keeps on banging. You'd think he was nuts, right? That's exactly what you're doing when you make bad choices and then keep making them because...well, just because. You don't need a year of therapy to figure this out: If you're not getting more of what you want and less of what you don't, then it's not working.

If you're resistant to taking a good look at yourself, it's possible that you're a "right fighter": one of those people who spend far too much energy convincing the rest of the world that they're right. They're right as parents, they're right at work, they're right in their relationships, they're right about politics -- and they are all too ready to fight about just how right they are. These insecure people are too fragile to ask themselves how things are working for them, because they might not like the answer one bit. It might mean making a change or admitting they've been (dare I say it?) wrong.

Doing what works requires insight and courage; it's easier to keep doing exactly what you've done before. Getting out of your comfort zone can be frightening, even if your comfort zone isn't really so comfortable. But if you want something different, then you have to do something different.

You can choose to be right...or you can choose to be happy. I vote for the latter -- but hey, it's your call. The next time you get frustrated with your results, though, look in the mirror and ask yourself, "How's that working for you?"

Dr. Phillip C. McGraw's daily talk show is in its 12th season. He has written seven best-selling books; his latest is Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World (Bird Street).

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