The Subtle, Yet Critical, Difference Between What and How

Ryan Eidson  —  January 19, 2017

When you decided on which goals you wanted to achieve this year, did you make an outline of the steps you will take to achieve them? Did you list how you will accomplish your goals, or did you simply write what you want to get done? There is a subtle difference between what and how, yet the critical distinction is part of what determines your success. Allow me to explain.

Let’s take the example I shared earlier this month of one of my creative goals for 2017. I wrote:

It is October 1, 2017 at noon; I have written the entire manuscript of my new book The Jack of One Trade.

Clarifying the Difference Between What and How

I’ve clearly stated what it is I want to accomplish, the deadline, and why I want to do it. But, in practical steps, how will I get it done?

  • Review, story edit, and copy edit the fiction portion of the manuscript
  • Draft, write, and rewrite the nonfiction study guide and essays to accompany the story
  • Put these tasks into my weekly calendar.

This is where the rubber meets the road: when you know exactly how your daily and weekly tasks (the smaller “what’s”) will accomplish your big “what”—you will make progress.

Each of the hows are also whats. You can reduce these to smaller “how’s” if needed:

How to draft the study guide:

  • When I review the fiction story, write down questions readers may have as they read, and how the would want to apply the story to themselves.
  • Curate a list of possible ideas to write about from those questions, other big ideas from the story, and notes from recent books I’ve read on the topic.
  • Organize this list into an order that makes the most sense for this book.
  • Draft a practical short essay on each of the topics on this list.

Some of the “how’s” you’ll just know in your head. You won’t have to list every single detail of how to do a task, especially if it is routine for you. You may want to explore a new way of doing something, such as physical fitness or eating habits, so your hows will need to be detailed (or with a not of “Use the system provided by a certain book,” or “Call Jill every Friday to ask how she prepares her grocery list for cooking next week’s meals.”)

I bet you already know what you need to do. Now, take the next step to fully explain how you will accomplish your goals. The difference between what and how can make all the difference in your world this year.


Ryan Eidson


I have the unique ability to make complex ideas easy to understand. I am the author of A Couple with Common Cents and live in rural Missouri.