I recently ran into a former coworker, a science teacher on the cusp of change. He was starting a family and considering a switch to administration. We started talking about how we solve dilemmas. An analytical thinker, he uses a matrix system that involves multiplication and lots of rows and rankings. I found this mystifying and asked him to sketch it on a scrap of paper.
As he explained his logic, I wondered what he’d think of my methods. I rely primarily on gut instinct and leaps of faith, but I also try to consult people who will challenge my thinking. The last time I was stuck, I called a friend while shopping for groceries. I knew he would raise a series of tough questions, and he didn’t disappoint. By the time I had a full cart, he had guided me to a decision.
It turns out my friend was modeling an effective approach. The key to solving a problem, notes Leah Fessler in Quartz, is to ask yourself “why” five different times. She uses this example: You’ve just given a PowerPoint presentation, and it went overtime. The client had to leave and didn’t hear the full proposal, so you begin asking the five whys:
“Why didn’t the client hear our full proposal?” Because I ran out of time.
“Why did I run out of time?” Because I was too long-winded.
“Why was I too long-winded?” Because I didn’t practice.
“Why didn’t I practice?” Because I was doing other things and hanging out with a friend.
“Why wasn’t I focusing on my work the day before a big presentation?”
The answer to that last question, Fessler notes, will vary depending on the individual. Maybe you had trouble sorting out your priorities, or self-sabotaged because of nerves. Bottom line: if you want to resolve the issue before your next presentation, you need to understand the underlying motives.
I decided to test this out with a middle school student who was upset about earning a low grade on a test. The conversation went like this:
“Why did you get a low grade?” Because the test was unfair.
“Why was the test unfair?” Because the teacher didn’t teach any of it.
“Why didn’t she teach the material?” Well, she might have, but I don’t think she did.
“Why don’t you know for sure whether or not she taught the material?” Because I was out a few days before the test and didn’t have a chance to see her to find out what I missed.
“Why didn’t you have a chance to find out what you missed?” Because I wanted to catch up on other stuff instead.
We then got to the heart of the matter. He hadn’t prioritized this class, and he paid the price. We talked about what he could do differently next time so he would be happier with the outcome. Inundating him with questions wasn’t my usual style, and it felt a little accusatory. The process also can expose some uncomfortable truths. However, that’s why it works; it forces you to understand a problem before attempting to solve it.
I tried it on myself when I was feeling unproductive. This was my self-talk:
“I feel like I’m getting nothing done.”
“Why am I getting nothing done?” Because there’s so much to do and I don’t know where to start.
“Why don’t I know where to start?” Because I usually like to do the fun stuff first, and none of it is fun.
“Why isn’t it fun?” Because I’m too overwhelmed to actually enjoy the stuff I normally love.
“Why am I too overwhelmed?” Because I took on too many assignments with deadlines thinking they would be fun, and now I feel a lot of pressure.
“Why did I take on too many assignments?”
The answer to that last one was complicated. I was tackling a list of projects that each were appealing in isolation, but cumulatively were killing me. The volume of work was taking a toll. I needed to learn how to press the pause button before saying yes, even if the request seemed super cool and exciting. This might be easy for some, but not for me. So from now on, I’ll add this new method to my repertoire. I’ll figure out what drives me by acting like a toddler, asking “why” until I run out of steam.