The worst organzing question to ask

April 6, 2012

I’m sure I’ve said it countless times.

  • Why did I do that?
  • Why did I forget to pay that bill?
  • Why did I leave that there, in such a ridiculous place that I forgot it?
  • Why can’t I keep on top of my email?
  • Why is it so hard to start my taxes?
  • Why can’t I ever catch up?

Have you ever asked yourself a Why question?

When it comes to organizing, being inquisitive and curious is a really important strategy. But why is the wrong question to ask. Here’s why:

Why makes us defensive

Say, for example, your significant other enters the room, sees something you’re working on and asks, “Why did you do it like that?”

You respond, “Like what?” Your back is up and your dander is about to fluff. “What do you mean?”

Why sounds like judgment. Why insinuates that you had a million good options to choose from and you opted for the illogical and short-sighted one. No surprise — this makes people defensive.

When you say why in your own mind, the result is the same. Defensiveness goes up, creativity goes down (along with self-esteem). Instead of solving your organizing dilemma, now you just feel stuck.

Why encourages mental machinations

Here’s the other problem with why: we can’t really know why we do anything! Our behaviors are so ingrained that they defy logic. So when you’re asking yourself why, you end up attempting to justifying random choices that are hard to pin down.

“Why did you do that?”

“Well, beeeecaaaause… I’m kind of hungry and not thinking straight and… um… I don’t really like dealing with my tax stuff? And… um… yeah.”

Why sends you into mental spirals of justifying — when there’s really nothing to justify. You’re okay! You’re doing the best you can! All that energy you spend making up reasons for your behaviors is precious energy wasted.

Why  paralysis

The reason I get so concerned about the use of why  in organizing is this: when you’re dealing with chronic disorganization, defensiveness and self-justification make you more isolated and stuck, not less.

And that just breaks my heart. Disorganized people are already in so much pain and feel so isolated, I just hate to see it compounded in any way.

What to ask instead

The moment we ask why is actually a sacred moment in time. We ask it because we suddenly woke up and noticed something wasn’t working. That is pretty awesome. You woke up! Yay!

So, instead of letting why shut you down, ask this:

What do I need here?

Since you’re already in a moment of noticing something’s out of whack, ask yourself about what your needs are. What’s missing for you?

And then really listen for what comes up inside of you.

What do I need here?

I’m constantly astonished at the relief that comes up for people when they’re asked this question. Sometimes there’s a deep intake of breath, a pregnant pause, the sounds of thinking and deep feeling.

After sitting with the question a moment, people tell me things they didn’t realize they’d been holding back — like they really need a some time out of the office, a nap, someone to help with the struggle. Sometimes there are tears.

It’s a miracle moment because they break through and realize, “I have needs!” Sometimes there are huge insights that involve poster boards and vision collages and painting parties. Other insights are quieter like, “I can’t keep producing like this. I need to find time for my art.” or “I really need a better planner book for my ideas.”

Whatever your responses are, answering What do you need here? will always give you better results than why.

Try it out

Think about an organizing problem you’ve been struggling with lately. What’s happening?

What do you need here?

Notice what comes up for you when you ask.

Trust it. Follow it. Your organizing, your work, and even your life will be better for it.


  1. Thank you so much for this, Jennifer. It sits down right where I’ve had a puzzle for several years – not an organising one as such. It’s a dear friend who always asks ‘Why did that happen?’ each time I tell her something I’ve experienced. An indirect way of making a judgemental comment! Never got to that idea, but always feel bad, immediately.

    The thing now is what to do/say now you’ve opened my awareness to this. I believe it might have something to do with ‘is there love even here?’

    Thank you Jen.

  2. I’ve often said I feel like I’m stuck in a revolving door, or if I try to step onto the step of that down escalator I’ll fall.

    WHY?!?! feels like that to me, too. I can’t say that there is anyone else who asks me WHY??!! but I know I ask it, and often don’t even hear my own voice in my head when I DO!!

    Thanks for the insight.

  3. This is brilliant – and not just for organizing. I’m helping a family member who has anxiety disorders and this seems to be a concrete way to get past just about any problem. Thanks so much!

  4. 1511 days ago,
    Christine Weddle said:

    Love this article. Thank you again so much for your graciousness and wisdom and compassion. I am so grateful for you!


  5. Hi Jennifer,
    I receive your newsletter and totally love it. Even though I agree with the second half of your newsletter I don’t really agree with the first part.
    In my mind, answering the “why” is not a bad thing at all.
    “Why” ends up telling us that there is something deeper behind that issue. We know that we would like to do things differently but we don’t. There’s a reason and there’s also a solution.
    Finding out the why will lead us to deal with the deeper issues that hinder us. We can take a good look at the thoughts that lead us into a certain behavior. We can also see that they are not true and replace them with truthful empowering ones. I believe that finding out the “why” is actually the beginning key to making change. It starts from within.
    Yes, once we understand the “why”, we can address the next question which is what can I think and do differently that will get me un-stuck. If we try to implement solutions without first addressing the deep rooted issues we might find ourselves going back to the same behavior because we haven’t really solved things.
    Blessings always,

  6. 1503 days ago,
    jennifer said:

    Bevianne – I so love that phrase “is there love even here?” I think you’re on to something… 🙂

    Currie! Yay! 🙂

    Debbie – You’re welcome! It’s often been said that although I start with organizing, this stuff applies to anything in life. 🙂

    Christine – HUG!!

    Eren – Thanks for sharing your viewpoint! I’m so glad you enjoy my newsletter. If ‘why’ works for you, use it. Plain and simple. If ‘why’ makes you frustrated and stuck, try something else. This article was sparked by a conversation with a client who was driving herself batty asking why she kept making the same mistake. She wasn’t getting anywhere with it, so we switched to ‘what do you really need?” and the light came pouring in.

    Always, always trust what you need. That’s the bottom line. <3

  7. Awesome! It’s amazing how what works for one person doesn’t work for another. Thanks for responding.

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