The Five Whys and the Power of Analyzing Your Life

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.

Three Examples
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 I have (post-book) writer’s block and my usual protection against it (unpublished posts that I have in reserve) isn’t there any more, because I used many of those in the final push to finish the book and the few days afterward when I simply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.

If you enjoyed reading this, sign up for free updates!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. brad says:

    i have no idea why its called ‘the FIVE whys’

    Why?

    im not sure, i counted, and the examples only used two and three whys, never once did i see 5 whys.

    Why?

    because i didnt write the article.

    Why?

    …..because….because its not my website?

    Why?

    ….because i lack drive, creativity, and determination?

    Why?

    because i’m a loser.

    HEY!!! it does work!!!

  2. brad says:

    uh-oh! i think my last post got deleted! let me try again.

    why is it called ‘the five whys’? where did the five come from?

  3. Stefanie says:

    If having your laundry room “so far” from your bedrooms is the worst of your problems in doing laundry, I hope you know how lucky you are, Trent.

  4. SMG says:

    @#1 Brad – that was mean (:

  5. Daniel says:

    Sometimes, taking the easy route isn’t always the best way. Sure the path of least resistance is great for small tasks, but for larger ones, it can create roadblocks.

    You talk about the path of least resistance but you also say that sometimes you need to take the plunge.

  6. Cheryl says:

    Stefanie, do you have dramatic, nearly insurmountable problems in doing laundry?

    I think it was just an illustrative example of a common housekeeping hurdle. Trent doesn’t seem to be asking for any kind of sympathy here, just using a few situations in his own life to outline how to get to the root of a source of stress or dissatisfaction in life. Useful technique if you ask me.

  7. George says:

    It may have been mean, but it wasn’t racist!

  8. Kevin M says:

    @Trent – just out of curiosity, which Quicken are you using – Deluxe or Premiere? I’m going to upgrade (my 2006 is no longer supported) but from what I’ve read I can’t tell if Deluxe supports tracking investments, which I need to do.

  9. Michelle says:

    Just an idea, I have one day a week for laundry (Monday) and all the laundry gets done that day. It all gets washed, dryed, folded, and put away. It doesn’t matter if the basket is full, I just wash everything that’s there. It works really well for us, and I get a lot done while the loads are going. I usually fold an put away while watching TV after dinner. Might work for you guys! Just an idea!

  10. chacha1 says:

    I thought Brad’s first comment was funny … ?

    I like “the five whys.” Gonna try to use that when I find myself resisting change. Will introduce it to DH, too, who resists change a lot more than you’d expect from someone who grew up in San Francisco. :-)

  11. K says:

    @Brad – The 5 Why’s are an example of “Root Cause Analysis”. 5 is a suggested number, but you may have to use fewer or more to get to your root cause, which Trent did mention in his post.

    I do find his examples interesting, as they draw out some of the criticisms that have been leveled at the 5 Why’s system. In the first example, it would seem to me that he skipped ahead a bit… he went straight from “they’re stored in lots of different places” to Quicken, without investigating Why they’re stored in different places. It may be that different root causes might have appeared if he’d taken that step.

    In the second example, there’s a perfect example of a different criticism – that this type of analysis is not repeatable with similar outcomes. Different people, faced with the same dilemma, would likely follow different causative paths. If I found myself in that situation, I might find a solution that was more organized around my time management (as that is often a root cause of cutting out exercise for me). It’s not to say that either response is more “right” than the other, but that different people face a problem looking through the lens of their own personal experience. They may not come up with the best solution if they rely only on their own experiences as they analyze root causes.

    That said, I find the 5 Why’s to be a great first step when I’m faced with a frustration in my own life, and have passed it along to others who have found it valuable as well. Just make sure you are aware of its limitations as well as its strengths.

  12. shannon says:

    I know it’s a pain to fit in, but exercising always helps me w/any kind of mental or creative block. Even a quick walk might help the post writer’s block. :) My head always gets clear and new ideas pop up!

  13. Russ says:

    I used to do laundry twice a week. One day I decided to do it only once a week. To my surprise it lowered my water bill by $30.

  14. Courtney says:

    I start a load of laundry first thing every morning, then reboot as needed at lunch time and after dinner. If I didn’t do at least one load a day, our house would be swallowed up by a mountain of dirty clothes by the end of the week.

  15. Scott says:

    Let me make your Quicken review a lot easier. I use Quicken online and it’s great. I’ve tried Mint and a couple others but Quicken is the only one that consistently links to all my accounts and provides reliable information.

  16. Bill says:

    Trent,

    Get a small tape recorder and tape your ideas while your on the treadmill!

    Ok now for my laundry…

  17. Susan says:

    If you do all your laundry in batches one after the other, your dryer will get warmed up and it will take less time to get done. I must admit that I like to do a load a day if I can manage it.

    I find that there is a BIG 3 of household chores, three things which must be done every day; cooking, dishes and laundry. If you do each of those at least once each day then you will be in much better (domestic)shape on the weekend. Honestly though, I have three teenage boys who are well over 5 feet each, completing laundry is as nebulous as trying to catch the wind. :)

    When my kids were little and could not read, I had their clothes in plastic bins under their beds. At the end of each bin was a picture of what belonged in each bin along with the word. It encouraged them to learn how to put away their clothes. By the time they are in junior high (it may seem like a long time from now but it isn’t) they should be able to do all their own laundry. It is an important life skill to have. One of the goals of parenting is to in some respects work yourself out of a job. By having your kids help from a very young age, they accept participation in household chores as a natural part of living. My sons may not always see what needs to be done (their dad doesn’t) but they help with chores willingly as teenagers. My mantra is ‘pick up after yourself’. If everyone does this, it makes life much easier. Your kids are still at an age where they are very dependent on you for everything but this will all come.

  18. Holly says:

    “a technique I call “the five whys” two or three times.”
    You’re not the only one to call it that. The five whys have been around for many years. It’s a problem-solving technique created by the guys behind Toyota.

    I was taught it as part of a “quality learning tools’ seminar for my professional development as a teacher. It’s been in Australian schools for over a decade.

  19. I really enjoy these “philosophical” approaches to life’s problems.

    It really allows you to get to the core of the problem and finally viablle solutions.

    Who cares if this concept has been taught before (as one commenter commented)? I had never heard it before and will certainly adopt it into my life

  20. Dishes And Laundry says:

    I’m with Shannon on this one. Getting back to the exercise is likely to make EVERYTHING else flow better… the writing, the laundry, everything. And it reduces the stress of the things you can’t control.

    And I found out the (very) hard way that taking care of your body is not something you can just push off till later.

  21. CathyG says:

    Yeah, I learned it as part of the Ishikawa diagram, invented by Kaoru Ishikawa, one of those guys behind the Total Quality movement in Japan.

    Instead of just asking “why”, you put the whys in 4 categories and keep asking why for each category until you come to a root cause and/or an actionable improvement. The categories:
    Materials, Equipment or machines, Processes or work methods, Measurement.

  22. marilyn says:

    Thanks for this article Trent! I like seeing how other people apply somewhat abstract concepts into action. Good examples. We started to set a schedule for ourselves with laundry, mornings are much smoother with clean clothes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>