The real question you should be asking for top productivity

LJ Earnest — №33 with Laura McClellan

There is only one question you should consider for top productivity. And it’s not what you think.

When you think productivity, do you think of methods? Of tools? Of contexts? All of these are important parts of deciding the best next thing to do, but there is an essential question that is overlooked.

This essential question should be the basis of every decision you make, and when used, can make your productivity soar.

That question is, “Why?”

A Look at the other questions

Most of the tools, methodologies, and systems focus on one of three other questions: How, What, or Where.


The earliest productivity systems focused on the “how” of time management. How do you get more done in a day? How do you prioritize tasks? How do you do something faster/better/with more quality?

“How” systems focus on the tool that you need to use, and promise success if you stick to the rules of the system.


Another generation of productivity systems focused on the “what” of selecting the next task. These might be called “most important tasks” or “next actions”, but what they focus on is what you are doing.

“What” systems focus on the task at hand, and are designed to save you from paralyzing indecision.


Later productivity systems looked at “where” you could do the task. These might be called contexts or locations, but the purpose is to only serve you the tasks that you can do with the equipment at hand.

“Where” systems limit things so that you don’t have to wade through huge lists to find something you can do where you are.

The most important question

While “how”, “what”, and “where” are important, they need to be second to the most important question, “why?”

“Why” is the essential question that should underlie every “how”, “what”, and “where”. While the “how” and “what” and “where” are important, they can all keep us down in the weeds of the minutiae of the task, rather than letting us see what exactly we are trying to accomplish.

It doesn’t matter if you have great time management if you are working on the wrong tasks. It doesn’t matter if you are prioritizing everything well if you aren’t doing the right things. It doesn’t matter what next action you pick if the overall thing you are trying to accomplish isn’t something you need or want to do. It doesn’t matter if you can find tasks to do when you are not in your office if the tasks don’t lead to a beneficial outcome. Asking “why” can solve all of those problems.

Why “why”?

“Why” allows you to see down to the real reason you are attempting to do something. “Why” can give you a way to measure your effectiveness. “Why” can also help you evaluate the trade-offs inherent in any productivity system.

“Why” gives a clarity of purpose

Knowing why you are trying to do something can help filter the tasks in front of you. When you have a sense of purpose, you can tell if you are going down the wrong track.

Suppose you are researching new marketing methods online. Keeping the “why” in the forefront of your mind (or on a sticky note) can keep you focused on your research, and not following the rabbit trails of the internet down tangential and irrelevant, although interesting, paths.

“Why” is a measuring stick

When we are sorting through the possible things that can be done in order to meet a goal, asking the “why” gives us a measuring stick to which we can hold those tasks. Some tasks may seem like they are part of the plan, but we might be able to see that they don’t move us forward to the purpose of what we are doing.

Suppose you are trying to fill your car with gas. You are putting gas in the tank so that the car will drive you to work. If you routinely check the fluids when you fill up the tank, these are nice things, but not essential to the goal of driving to work. Spending time searching for refills of wiper fluid is a nice-to-have, rather than a critical task.

“Why” lets us evaluate the trade-offs

Inherently everything we choose to do means that we are choosing not to do other things. When we can determine the “why” behind what we are doing, we can see the worth of that item against other things in our lives.

Asking “why” at the beginning of something new lets us evaluate whether or not this fits in with our overall goals. It may seem like a great thing to volunteer at the local food bank, but if it comes at the cost of a lifelong dream to get an MBA, it may not be the right thing to do right now.

How to incorporate “why” into your productivity

Using “why” as you choose what projects and tasks to do is as simple as remembering to ask yourself “why” at the start of every planning session, and before you take on new projects.

To help get yourself in the habit, you can make writing the “why” down for each project a step that you take as you are planning things. Reviewing the “why” regularly will help keep you on track.

While “how”, “what” and “where” are important aspects of productivity, “why” is the foundational question that should underlay them. Use your “why” to evaluate your trade-offs, measure possible tasks, and clarify what you are doing.

Photo: Flickr/ Infomastern CC BY 2.0

Lj earnest

LJ Earnest

LJ Earnest is a computer programmer and math teacher by day, productivity geek all the time. She writes about using productivity techniques both at home and at work at . She can also be found at Twitter as @ LJEarnest and on Facebook as WholeLifeProductivity.

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