Ask why 5 times

I’d much rather be doing this.

I’m Bill Murphy Jr. Welcome to Understandably, my new regularly published email about “the story behind other stories.” I hope you will consider subscribing!

This is one of those deceptively simple, problem-solving, life-hacking things that seems too good to be true--until it actually makes sense and pays off.

It has its roots in the management practices at Toyota, and it's examined in a book called Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg of The New York Times called

The crux of the idea is a system called "the Five Whys." As Duhigg explained in 2016:

In the 1980s, the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota opened its first American plant in Fremont, Calif. The factory was guided by a management philosophy known as the Toyota Production System, which at its core holds that even the most complex problems have simple causes - if you know how to look for them.

Mainly, you look for them by asking "why" enough times.

Here's an easy example--Duhigg said he and his wife had identified a problem they wanted to solve: Why did it seem they never got to eat dinner with their children? So they asked the five questions:

1. Why didn't they ever seem to eat dinner with their kids?

Duhigg answered: "Because my wife and I always got home later than we expected."

2. Okay, why did they get home so late?

Answer: Despite good intentions, they always found they had tons of things to do toward the end of the workday--and thus they couldn't leave.

3. Why did they have so many things to do at the end of the day?

Answer: Each day, they'd intend to get in early, but they'd arrive rushed and hurried, usually with a meeting or big task that they had to begin right then.

4. So, why did they always arrive so late in the morning?

Answer: They always hoped to get to work on time, but it usually took about 20 minutes longer than it should to get the kids ready for school.

5. Finally, why did it take longer than it should to get the kids ready for school?

Answer: Mainly because it took so long to find the kids' clothes and get them dressed.

Connecting the dots between two things that didn't really seem related at first—

  1. the kids taking too long to find their clothes in the morning, and

  2. Duhigg and his wife getting home from work late, 10 or 11 hours later

—ultimately revealed a simple solution.

By pushing their kids to choose their clothes the night before, and put them out for the morning, they reduced chaos in the morning, got to work on time, and made it home more often in time to eat dinner. Problem solved.

Of course, many problems are much harder to solve than this. Entire treatises have been written on the "5 Whys" theory.

However, you can imagine how it might help any of us get through a problem.

For example, suppose you find yourself getting to work late every day. You might find yourself going through an exercise like this:

1. Why do I get to work late every day?

Answer: Because I have a hard time getting out of bed.

2. Why do I have a hard time getting out of bed?

Answer: Because I'd rather be asleep than go to work.

3. Why don't you like going to work?

Answer: Because the work I do doesn't really use my most valuable skills and the things I enjoy.

4. Why do you engage in work that doesn't require your best skills?

Answer: Because I've already spent years studying the things required to succeed in school, and made some progress in my profession (even though I don't like it much).

5. Why do you care that you've already made progress if you don't want to be in that field?

Answer: Because I'm afraid of admitting to my family and peers that I made a mistake.

Okay. You're going to work late because you chose the wrong career (and maybe you need to think about doing something else). 

That one hit a little close to home. To be honest, it’s basically, “Bill Murphy, 2002 edition,” when I was still practicing law.

I’d much rather be doing this.

version of this article originally appeared in my column on