The Four Whys

I’m sure you recognize the problem. You’re nose-deep in some activity that takes ten times longer than expected, and suddenly you think, “Why on earth am I wasting my time with this nonsense?” Yes, I have that too sometimes! I had it yesterday when I was explaining to one of my customers how sales tax works in Europe. It took so long, I needed two coffee breaks.

Since a few days ago, I started asking myself four questions for most of the work that I do. This could involve things on my task list, emails that I reply to, meetings I have with people, etc. They are four simple questions, and they help me improve the way I manage my daily work.

Question 1: Why this?

This is short for, “Why am I doing this work?” I ask this question to remind myself of the purpose behind the task. Sometimes this question helps me define a new purpose that was missing. Sometimes it helps me get rid of work that was purposeful once but has devolved into a meaningless routine.

Question 2: Why me?

The second question is about reconnecting me to the work. Yes, the task could be important, but am I really the right person to do it? Can someone else do it faster, better, cheaper? The question helps me decide if something needs to be delegated. Maybe not right away, but perhaps in the near future.

Question 3: Why now?

The third question refers to the well-known urgent-versus-important thing. Is it really important to do this work now? Or is it merely something urgent that I want to get behind me? Asking myself this question can sometimes help me reschedule work to more appropriate or effective days and time slots.

Question 4: Why here?

In the previous question I reflect on time. With the last question I reflect on space. Is the work location-dependent? Do I need certain materials to do the work? Does it involve Internet access? By being aware of the physical constraints of the work I can be more effective at scheduling it.

Task List

In an earlier blog post, I described my use of Remember the Milk. With a professional task manager such as RtM you can easily convert the questions to metadata around your tasks:

The question Why this? helps me organize my tasks in lists so I can see what I do for a purpose.

The question Why me? helps me add tags to work that maybe I want to delegate to someone else.

The question Why now? helps me set priorities of the work and dates for the tasks with a deadline.

The question Why here? helps me add locations to tasks so I can filter work based on where I am.

Asking myself the four whys continuously, for work that I’m adding to the pile and work that I’m trying to do, is a great self-improvement exercise.

Here is a fifth why, that I offer just for you:

Why don’t you try the four-whys exercise as well?

image: (c) 2008 Colin Kinner, Creative Commons 2.0

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  • Jason Little

    Great advice once you’re faced with that situation! I’ve been reading “The Organized Mind” recently and the author cites David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” that describes a way to plan what is the most important things to work on by using the 4 D’s. Do, Dump, Delegate, Defer.

    I get distracted easily so I find myself asking me “Is this the most important thing you should be doing right now?” often!

    • jurgenappelo

      Yes, it seems I can make a decision in terms of the 4D’s by asking myself the 4 whys. 🙂

  • Andrzej Dobrucki

    GTD seems productivity-oriented. I’ve been practising it for over 2 years now and am still astounded with the results – that is – how much more ideas my brain has started to produce by just not having to remember about everything all the time. I still find the good old “Why” question the foundation of prioritization 🙂

    • jurgenappelo

      I agree. I’ve been using GTD for years. (See link to Remember the Milk). The 4-Whys are for me a way of making decisions about what goes where in GTD.

  • Tom Henricksen

    Jurgen these 4 simple questions can save us a lot of time. In a busy world it can be good to go back to simple questions like these and help us understand if our focus is off. I remember reading about W.I.N. long ago. What is important now? Like the four Whys it is a simple question and helps us determine if we are on the right track.



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