Why Later

Whenever people are asked to do something, in any context, here is how they usually process the request (whether consciously or not):

Step 1: Ask why.

Step 2: Process that reason as good or bad, and based on that information…

Step 3: …decide if they can/will do it (possibly with the addition of an excuse if not).

That’s a terrible way to evaluate task requests. The better order is:

Step 1: Decide whether you can perform the task (and if so, whether or not you want to). The reasons for this are all internal – your current workload, your ability, etc. External reasons don’t matter yet, because you either can or you can’t.

Step 2: If you decide that you can, do it. If you decide that you can’t, inform the person making the request of this fact politely but directly (possibly offering alternative suggestions, if helpful). After all of that:

Step 3: Ask why.

Now, this is a general rule. There are exceptions, usually in the form of tasks that might have huge gaps between the most ethical and most unethical reasons to do so. (For instance, this advice is great for “spot me five bucks,” but might not work for “help me dig a hole in the woods at night.”)

Why is this advice good, though? First off, you don’t usually need to ask why in order to agree to a task and then do it, because people will offer you that information in the request. Most people aren’t deliberately cryptic – your friend doesn’t usually say “do me a favor and show up at my house Saturday.” They usually say that they’re moving some furniture and could you help? So if you ask for any additional information, you’re only going to get one of two things – pleading or lies.

So if you want honest information (and you should, for future reference!), you should ask why after the fact. People who you’ve just done something for are more likely to feel like they “owe you one,” and combined with the fact that they know they aren’t risking the favor itself by being honest with you, this creates the conditions most likely to result in you getting the truth.

A few months ago, a friend of mine called me and asked me if I could pick up his car from the mechanic that is only a few blocks from my house. I didn’t need to ask for any clarification or expanded information – I knew that no matter the circumstance I’d say yes, because a.) I could do this task easily and b.) this is a good friend of many years. After I dropped the car off, I asked him about the circumstances, just because I was curious; but no part of the story would have affected that favor – only potential future ones.

In another instance, a casual acquaintance asked me to lend him a very substantial amount of money – an amount that would have been inconvenient to even get together (i.e. more than was just sitting in my checking account) and would have represented significant hardship for me had I not gotten it back promptly. So I said no. He seemed shocked because I hadn’t asked him why he needed it. But I had no reason to ask – my answer of “no” was based on my conditions, not his. Any additional information he had to give me would have been pleading or lies, so I didn’t need to waste either of our time further by indulging. His need could have been very genuine, but that wouldn’t change my ability to meet his request.

It all comes down to this: you are the captain of your life. You don’t need to surrender decision-making authority to a constant stream of carefully-tailored information from others. You can – and should – just decide for yourself what you can and want to do.

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