The Importance Of How And Why

From Cal Newport

The Age of Productivity began its decline around the time Mann, its Prometheus, turned his back on it. We are now in a new age, one in which the big picture trumps the small.

What matters in this new age is your work philosophy — not your systems.

Over the past few months and years, bloggers like Leo Babauta and Merlin Mann have moved away from the tips and tricks aspects of productivity, causing some to question the importance of focusing on how we get things done. I can’t help but feel that it is more a matter of those writers evolving rather than it is a question of the inherent value of examining how we can do a better job of getting things done1.

“Why” is damn important. And while many approach things backwards, starting out with what they can do and then figuring out what they want, you inevitably need to focus in on your skills. There is little doubt that “why” matters most, but “how” is always the thing that gets you where you want to go.

Just as you can’t will yourself to know what you want in life, the skills you will need to get there are equally unlikely to appear on their own (unless you are one of those naturally gifted people, and if you are, screw you). You can’t just achieve your vision through clarity and will alone. Drive and focus go a long way, but anything even mildly ambitious is going to take a trusted system and a few new skills.

I don’t think guys like Merlin and Leo moving on is an indication of some kind of post-productivity world. It’s just the result of our better thinkers, those who are farther along on the path, helping us to aspire to bigger things (while reminding us not to obsess on the little ones). There will be and there should be a new wave of writers to take their place, those that figure out how to best use the tools at hand to achieve the ambitious.

Sure, some have gotten what they need and their system might even be complete. But I’m still working this all out and while figuring out the bigger picture of what I want to do is key, I’m not going to get much done at all if I don’t pick up a few new tricks (or more accurately, if I don’t get my crap together).

There is no doubt that it is possible (if not probable) to go overboard. There is no doubt that productivity porn exists. And there is no doubt that it is easier to work on how you do things rather than actually doing them. But oftentimes, going through those motions gives you the courage and the structure to aim higher.

It’s easy to get skeptical. It’s easy to look at a space where toothpaste preservation is somehow considered a lifehack and write it off entirely, but I still believe the “how” has as much value as the “why” (as long as it doesn’t keep us from it). Especially when you put yourself in the shoes of someone who is just getting started.

There is a lot of fluff and noise out there, but there are also several tools, tactics and people that can completely change your game.

  1. Then again I could be crap rationalizing…  

22 Responses to The Importance Of How And Why

  1. I used to be interested in Merlin Mann but lately he seems like a dingbat on drugs. Maybe he’s cursed by a name to which no mortal can measure?

  2. Hi Michael, at the risk of sounding like a name-dropper, I was involved with Leo and some of the other “Productivity Bloggers” back in the day and my assessment of the situation is that most of us learned what we needed to know, shared it with our audiences, then moved on to other things.

    Do I still tinker with my “System”? Yes. Just not as often. Do I still share tips and tricks? Yes. Just not as often.

    There is an enormous amount of information out there now that simply didn’t exist four to six years ago when the “Productivity Movement” took off in earnest. Back then a large group of interesting people took the ideas of David Allen, Mark Forster, Stephen Covey (and others) and worked them over like dogs with bones to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

    You are right on the money with this – “And there is no doubt that it is easier to work on how you do things rather than actually doing them. But oftentimes, going through those motions gives you the courage and the structure to aim higher.”

    I believe that Cal is half-wrong. Your philosophy is more important than your systems, but your systems do matter. Tremendously so. And those of us in the original movement created some amazing systems and practices that are practical, everyday basics now. The difference is that the technology has changed by an order of magnitude or two, which in a way has made some of the systems that were so important five years ago essentially invisible.

    Email synced across multiple devices: automatic today. Capture via voice, note, or image: ubiquitous on every phone today. Digital information/audio/video available wherever you are: so normal as to be almost boring.

    The onus is no longer on creating a trusted system so that we can be productive, it is to filter out the “other stuff”, stand on the foundation of our system and get amazing things done.

    Thanks for letting me take up so much space.


    • I appreciate you taking up so much space, there is a lot of great stuff here.

      While they’ve certainly evolved, I don’t know that they’ve moved on. Just reprioritized (and deprioritized for that matter). You still see guys like Leo and like Merlin talking tricks and tips, but they talk about it in perspective. I think this very much goes to your “just not as often” point. There is a lot of truth in what Cal was saying, just didn’t really agree with the extent that he takes it. His point holds true for someone who has a decent foundation for productivity, but someone starting out on the path needs that core system. Even when (if not especially when) you consider all the technology available to us. It bridged a lot of gaps, but I think the fact that people are starting to treat it as invisible limits what they can accomplish.

      If I was simply worried about my notes being in all places or my email being everywhere the basics would be enough, but I’m naturally disorganized and need a method for weaving the myriad of mediums required to accomplish my workload together. It’s not just about email, but how to get an email into a task list for follow up and where files that come from email go so that they aren’t difficult to grab when you need them. That same ease creates quite a few of its own unique challenges. The change in magnitude of the technology is dwarfed by the sheer volume of content it handles (or at least for a disorganized mess such as myself).

      I still think the onus is just as great when it comes to creating the system, it’s just not the only onus. It’s just a lot easier for us when you consider how you guys had to build it from scratch. We get to build on what you guys started and leverage some exceptional tech, but we also have to figure out all the new bumps in the road.

      What I think has changed or needs to change that it needs to be 50/50 at the onset. As much thought needs to go into what you want to do as how you plan to do it. Focus on one and not the other and you will just end up spinning your wheels (unless you are one of those naturally organized people, but I doubt they read this :) )

      Thanks for the great food for thought. Bet it was fun working alongside several of those guys.

      • Michael, thank you for your thoughtful reply. It was fun, partially because we were learning about the fundamentals of doing our work and learning to blog and market and, and, and…and so on.

        I recommend that you check out (disclosure: I am an affiliate, but that’s not an affiliate link), Michael (that’s the developer, who has taken Productivity blogging to the next level with is doing some amazing things with it, and it works for teams too.  I may need to break down and switch from Android to iPhone so I can use it away from my laptop.

        For the most part I am a pencil-and-paper guy, but I do use the tech for the big-picture stuff: planning, organizing projects, coordinating geographically-distant teams, etc. I suppose for the most part I have completed tinkering with my system and I am now able to focus on the actual work, all of the soul-searching is done.

        I would be glad to help you with any other questions you might have, and can point you to some resources that may help. Have a great weekend!


        • I can imagine. Even though I’m late to the game and the space is very mature, I’m enjoying trying to figure those additional aspects out (and looking for fertile soil in a well tilled field is always enjoyable). Looking fowrad to checking Nozbe out. I’m pretty darn in love with Omni, but it’s always interesting to see what is out there.

          I envy you on the pencil and paper part. I’ve never been able to make it work for me, between innate natural disorganization and the joyous manual dexterity challenges that accompany my particular breed of ADHD really make it hard to read my own handwriting when I get going. I’ve really had to lean on tech for capturing and organizing. Thankfully the iPhone is proving to be a very powerful tool for me.

          May take you up on those resources and promise not to be a pest! Thanks for the time and the thoughts.

  3. I totally agree with you on the why and how. The challenge is finding a balance between the “whys” and the “hows”. On one end of the spectrum, you can have the desire and knowledge to get things done but pair that will the wrong tools or no skills and you’re being (really) inefficient. On the other end of the spectrum, you can have the right skills and tools, but with the wrong “philosophy” you could be working on the wrong things and apply things incorrectly. There needs to be a balance somewhere.

    I actually really like the “era” we are in now. With all this awesome technology available to us, we can be really productive….but only if we know how to use it properly. As someone in this industry who wants to push the technology side of it, we’re in for some exciting times.

    • Hi Thanh, This has to be one of the most interesting comment threads I have participated in for a while. I totally agree that it is vital to be conscious of the things that you are working on, it’s terrible to climb the ladder and discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall!

      Being careful and specific about defining your work and your goals will get you going in the right direction and regular, values-based reviews of your work will keep you going in the right direction.

      BTW I just checked out your site and you have some really great stuff there. I loved the entry on journaling.

      • Agreed, some really great stuff is being thrown around. I do want to play devils advocate for a second. There is no doubt that it is not ideal to end up climbing the wrong ladder. Unless part of what you need is to learn how to climb ladders. 

        You absolutely have to be careful about your goals, especially once you really start moving forward, but there comes a time (early on) where goals may be the worn thing to focus on. If you have no foundation for achieving any goal, you’re probably not quite ready to focus in on your true one. It helps to climb some smaller ladders on any wall just to get better at it. 

        It’s a stupid analogy, but someone who is 100 lbs overweight and wants to change his life should probably start by losing the weight first and then figuring out the rest. Just think about how different the big picture decisions would likely be both before and after that kind of transformation. 

        • Hehe I think we all agree to the same thought: get started and figure out along the way what the best thing to do is. For anything you want to master, you have the “inner game” (philosophy, mindsets, beliefs, etc) and “outer game” (tools, skill, etc) (as described in i.e. The Inner Game of Tennis). Ultimately you want to have both skillfully mastered, but usually it takes a person to take action on either their inner or outer part. I don’t think it matters which you do first for most things, as long as you take case. Inside-out or outside-in, both work.

          But in the time management realm you might make the case that the “outer” part is more important. Working on your “inner game” can always be dismissed as procrastination 😉

          The joke aside, in my opinion most people I’ve seen never get started on actually doing things to become more productive. So I would actually advice for most people to get started on the “outer game” and then figure out the “inner game”.

          • It’s very true, and I should note that I tend to be one of those people who loves semantic conversations (tend to learn more from them than eye opening revelations).

            Love the idea of the inner and outer game. Not a tennis guy, but might need to check out that book…

            Your summation at the end is so true to how it has gone for me. I knew I had to start by simply becoming more productive. I wasn’t hard wired with a natural sense of getting things done. If I didn’t fight that battle first, it wouldn’t matter which path I finally chose (no matter how badly I want it). Now that I’m finally starting to feel in control I see myself shifting more and more to the inner game and feel I am far better prepared for anything I choose.

    • I’m right there with you. I have a pretty firm believe that the answer to the frustration people feel about all this technology is actually more technology… just the right ones. That said, I still think there is a starting point where you need to lay some foundation. You need some essential skills and workflows that can, in theory, pretty much help with anything you want to do. 

      Not only will the process of getting your feet underneath you help, but it will also give you a confidence to make a better decision. Who I am now aims a hell of a lot higher than me who couldn’t get his life organized. Was there some waste along the way, sure. But I feel like I’m making some really big decisions lately from far firmer ground (if that makes any sense :) ).

      Balance is key, I just don’t think one works without the other. Finding the right philosophy and finding the right tools are both essential. I just think in the very early stages of getting your life together, it starts with the how until you have enough of a foundation to really give the right thought to your over arching philosophy and direction.

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