Woman with questions

When trying to find out what people really believe, productivity gurus and therapists often use a technique called the “5 whys.” In this method, they ask the question “why” five times to uncover what’s at the root of it.

For instance, if someone says they want to be a rock star, ask them, “Why?” five times to gain something insightful about their personality. Perhaps they don’t want to be a rock star. What they really want is the adulation from the masses in which case there are many more potential satisfying career options for them.

This technique is highly powerful when used to solve problems. Here are some of the best ways you can solve your problems by simply asking “why” five times.

Short-Term Problems
In the short term, asking why often yields answers you might otherwise have overlooked. For example, if you’re stressed that you’re going to fail your university course, you might ask yourself, “Why?” The answer might be, “Because I don’t have enough time to complete my dissertation.” Ask “why” again and you may learn that it’s because you have too many other things to do this week. Ask yourself “why” again and you might say that it’s because you committed to go to Karate twice a week with your buddy.

Sounds like you need to talk to your buddy…

Note that “5” is an arbitrary number: often you’ll find an answer before you go that deep.

Problem vs SolutionLong-Term Solutions
Better yet though, asking “why” is useful for preventing problems from occurring again and for plugging leaks. This can be useful when looking retrospectively at past problems.

In a business setting, for instance, you may have lost a client. Five whys might go like this:

  • Because you handed in work late
  • Because you were waiting for the report
  • Because the printer wasn’t working
  • Because you were low on printer ink
  • Because you didn’t order enough

In this case, asking “why” five times shows that a big problem could potentially have been prevented by just ordering enough ink — a very small oversight really. Now you know to increase your budget for ink and that the overhead is worth it for the return on investment.

Next time you have a problem… just ask, “Why?” Then keep doing it!

The Journey Within: The 5 Whys for Powerful Problem-Solving
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