Over the last month, I’ve mentioned a technique I call “the five whys” two or three times. The technique itself is simple: when you see something in your life that’s not working like you want it to, you start asking “why” until you come to something where you can’t say “why” any more. When you find it, you’ve diagnosed the core problem – and, quite often, the solution to that problem is surprisingly simple.
In order to illustrate this, I thought I’d use three real examples from my own life recently, as I’ve been using “the five whys” more and more lately to uncover the roots of some of the problems in my life.
Example 1: Crunching the Numbers
I usually calculate my net worth in a spreadsheet because I like the layout and the reports, but I don’t update it as often as I might like.
Why? It takes quite a lot of time to dig out all of those numbers.
Why? They’re stored in a lot of different databases and on a lot of different websites, which I have to visit individually to extract the numbers.
As a result, I’ve decided to give Quicken a shot again. In the past, I used Microsoft Money for about a year until I found that I didn’t like the reports it generated – I preferred what I had in my own spreadsheet. Quicken may be able to provide better reports (it looks like it will from the reviews I’ve read) and, even if it doesn’t, it’ll make it easier to retrieve the numbers I want to see. (And, yes, I’ll be posting a review of it in the near future.)
Example 2: Broken Exercise Routine
During the final push to complete my book, I abandoned my regular daily exercise routine because I needed absolutely every spare minute. Since I finished it, I’ve been having difficulty getting back into that exercise routine.
Why? Every morning, I feel fairly pressured to write content for The Simple Dollar instead of exercising.
Why? I have (post-book) writer’s block and my usual protection against it (unpublished posts that I have in reserve) isn’t there any more, because I used many of those in the final push to finish the book and the few days afterward when I simply needed to do something besides write.
Why? I’m lacking the “idea juice” I usually have and without it, my entire daily routine is disrupted.
So, my solution is to find ways to reinvigorate my creativity. Over the last few days, I’ve been spending time on brainstorming exercises, simple writing exercises, and so on, as well as just reading a lot – all of that while avoiding the keyboard. It’s really starting to help. Then, as I get back in the flow, I’ll be able to build up a backlog of articles again, enabling me to feel free to exercise in the mornings.
Example 3: Laundry Backup
We often wind up with a large backup of laundry, then find ourselves doing several loads on a single weekend day.
Why? Our laundry routine doesn’t work.
Why? One big problem is that our laundry room is literally as far as possible in our home from our bedrooms, plus the laundry room is back in the corner near the guest bedroom. Out of sight, out of mind. As a result, we often don’t even think about the laundry until the evening, when we’re just about ready for bed. Then, in the morning rush, we walk right by it.
Why? It’s more convenient to just ignore it in the morning and we’re too tired to deal with it in the evening.
A solution presents itself. Fill up a laundry basket in our bedroom in the evening and place it right in front of the door so that we’ll trip over it in the morning if we don’t deal with it. Then, when we go downstairs in the morning, we carry the basket down and we’re pretty much ready to drop in a load of laundry on our way out the door. I’ve started doing this and it actually really works.
Why It Works: The Path of Least Resistance
In the normal routine of our lives, we almost constantly take the path of least resistance when it comes to choosing what to do. What’s the path of least resistance to get from where we are now to where we want to be? We do this over and over and over again.
The only problem is that when we choose this “path of least resistance,” we often aren’t choosing the best path. If only we would choose to take some extra effort right now to remove some of that resistance, we might find a much more effective path to get where we want to go.
For example, the “path of least resistance” for me to figure out my finances was to use a spreadsheet because Microsoft Money didn’t do what I wanted. Of course, as I found out, the spreadsheet itself had significant resistance, so now I’m trying to use Quicken along with my spreadsheet (and maybe not even with my spreadsheet) to reduce that resistance, making the whole thing much more usable.
Another example: the “path of least resistance” for doing laundry was to just let it build up then do a bunch at once. The only problem was that we essentially would devote an entire day to laundry (usually Saturday was laundry day). I can reduce that big resistance by just filling up a basket before bed (a tiny resistance) and then carrying it down in the morning (another tiny resistance).
When you do the “five whys,” you’ll eventually find your way to the resistances in your life that are keeping you from what you want to be doing. When you dig into those resistances and find ways to break them, you make it much easier to go down the path you want to go down.
Why do you spend so much money each month? You might dig down and find that certain places tempt you, so just by avoiding them, you don’t spend as much. You might find that certain friends convince you to spend more, so focus on spending more time with your other friends.
Why aren’t you succeeding at work? You might dig down and find that it’s because you’re afraid to volunteer for projects, so you might overcome that by simply resolving to take the plunge on the next project that comes through. You might find that the politics of your workplace encourage you to avoid stepping up or that the entire company is poisoned, which might indicate it’s time to move on in your career.
You can use “the five whys” in every aspect of your life. If you spend some time thinking through the problems in your life in this way, you’ll almost always dig down from something that seems insurmountable to something that you can fix. That fix might lead to the big change you want or it might not, but no matter what, it’ll almost always change the dynamics of your life for the better.