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Day #5: The 3 Why's
To know what to say no to, It's wise to know your whys.
Welcome to Day #5.
I appreciate today’s post is hitting your inbox on a Sunday, so you might be catching up on all of this week’s posts in one chunk, or maybe even bookmarking today’s post for tomorrow morning when you’re back at your desk. Whatever the case, today’s post is longer than usual and a good time to revise what we’ve already covered —and if you’re just joining today, you can catch up on the previous posts in the header above.
You know that feeling you get…
…when you get a call with some terrible news that someone close to you has died, and suddenly everything else you were stressed about 5 minutes earlier immediately becomes irrelevant? It’s as if every priority you had just fell into a vacuum and now suddenly you have a singular focus on this one thing.
That’s a pretty extreme scenario, but it’s illustrative of the mindset available to us if we ruthlessly assess what we spend our precious minutes on while we’re here. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutiae of daily life, in the spiral of hedonic adaptation, and the bottomless list of things we ‘ought’ to be doing. Oliver Burkeman writes about this in his book, Four Thousand Weeks. It’s a very normal, human thing to do, but it doesn’t have to be the way you spend the rest of your days.
You hear about people who have near-death experiences who end up turning their life around because they’ve realized just how precious life is, and how they’ve been wasting so much time. Guess what? You don’t have to have a near-death experience to do this.
“It’s not that we were given too little time to live,
it’s that we wasted too much of it.”
How do you decide what to say no to?
Marie Kondo would tell you it’s anything that doesn’t spark joy. But we’re not sorting clothes and keepsakes here: we’re doing the important work of figuring out what exactly it is you should be spending your very finite time on this Earth doing. It’s harder than it sounds, but there is one very reliable tool that will help you figure it out, and it comes in the form of 3 questions:
Why? -> Why? -> Why?
The 3 Whys. This is a tool I use regularly to step back and ask myself exactly why I’m doing the thing I’m doing— especially when it feels like it isn’t important in the big scheme of things. If it doesn’t add up, I say no to it. As James Clear puts it; “The most invisible form of wasted time is doing a good job on an unimportant task.”
But, how do you know if it’s unimportant?
First: Figure out your Big WHY: What is your big picture? Why do you do anything in this world? What is the reason you are putting time and effort into anything? What brings you more joy and satisfaction than anything else?
For example: Your Big WHY might be, “To build the best life for my family, for my children and/or my community.” or “To give what I can for the purpose of helping others.”
Once you have your big WHY, you can move on to The 3 Whys.
Here’s how The 3 Whys works:
Ask simply, “Why am I doing this?”
If the answer is unsatisfactory, find a way to say no to it, and excise it from your to-do list then and there. If the answer sounds legit enough, proceed to:
Ask, “Okay. But, why that?”
If this answer is unsatisfactory, find a way to say no to it, and excise it from your to-do list then and there. If the answer sounds legit enough, proceed to:
Ask, “Aaaaand, why that?”
If this answer is unsatisfactory and doesn’t fit your Big WHY, find a way to say no to it, and excise it from your to-do list then and there. If the answer sounds legit enough, keep doing it. If it does align with your Big WHY, then it is something worth your time, energy, and effort.
For example: Your Big WHY might be that you want to be a good role model for your kids, so they can go on to lead successful, fulfilling lives of their own.
You might be working on something you were asked to do by someone: Let’s say it’s a series of drawings of a bunch of owls for a friend who needs them for an independent film they’re making. It’s taking you hours and hours of work. They’re paying you $30, and you’re spending time on it because you said yes to it to be nice. You’re using time that could otherwise be spent with your partner or your kids to get this thing done.
“Why am I doing this?”
Answer: Because the friend asked me to do it, and I already said yes, and I don’t want to disappoint them.
“Okay. Why that?”
Because I know they need me to do this for their student film, and I don’t want to let them down. I also don’t want to seem like a bad friend, or a flake by telling them No after I said Yes. I really shouldn’t go back on my word.
“Aaaaand, why that?”
Well, to be honest, I don’t want them to not like me. I don’t want my friend to get angry at me. I wonder if my kids might think I’m a bad person for letting down my friend.
Reality check: If your friend is going to get mad at you for not drawing owls for them for $30, you might need to reassess that friendship. If you tell them you just can’t afford the time to get this done for them, they’ll understand. Your kids and partner will be happy you have the time to spend with them. They won’t see you as a bad example: they’ll see you as someone who can responsibly decide what is truly important and will learn the wisdom of knowing when to stop doing something that doesn’t serve you just because you’re too scared of what might happen if you say No.
Remember: If the answer still fits your Big WHY, keep at it. If not, you know what to do…
Run this in as many scenarios as you can: if you can’t get to a Big WHY, keep going. Sometimes you might need to go 5 Whys Deep. The realities of a job that seems inescapable can take a while to reverse engineer.
Q: Why am I doing this task?
A: Because my boss told me to and it’s my job.
Q: Why did she tell me to and why is it my job?
A: Because her boss told her to, and it’s within the job description of the job I applied for.
Q: Why did you apply for this job?
A: This is the job I chose to make money, so I can pay my bills and provide a home, food, and education for my kids.
TBH if that fits your Big WHY, that’s a pretty good reason to keep doing the thing.
If the job is crushing your soul, and the task has nothing to do with your Big WHY, you might need to go deeper and figure out when it makes no sense and make an appropriate change. (And yes, I’ve heard the famous Why Bit.)
Again, telling your friend NO is simple, but not easy.
Again, telling your boss NO is simple, but not easy.
Enduring peer pressure is simple, but not easy.
Baby steps. NO takes practice. Start small, and work your way up.
This coming week we’ll work through:
Example scripts you can use to help you say No in different scenarios,
Limiting what you give your attention to, so you can make clear decisions and prioritize the important things.
Learn about the number #1 regret of the dying. (Spoiler alert: It has to do with not saying No to people.)
Feel free to download the image above and print it out. Stick it above your desk. Or make it your iPhone wallpaper for No-vember. I’d highly encourage you to subscribe to James Clear’s Thursday newsletter which has the most practical and concise advice on what we discussed above of any resource I’ve ever found.