Problems can be difficult to solve when we only know the issue and none of the steps to fix it. Sometimes it's even more daunting to figure out what those steps are at all. This guide will help you take just about any problem and figure out a plan to solve it and stay motivated when handling long-term issues.
Some problems, such as fixing a broken computer, can be pretty easy to solve if you have the right knowledge. Others, such as figuring out what you want to do with your life, can be very overwhelming because that answer is unique to you and takes time and experience to resolve—not to mention several other complications. Nonetheless, you can find solutions to simple and difficult problems alike by approaching them a particular way. While this approach to problem-solving isn't the only way, it's one way I've found particularly effective. Here are the basic steps you need to take to go from problem to solution:
- Understand the Problem, so you know you're actually focusing on the the real issue at hand.
- Create a Plan, so you have a series of actionable steps to follow.
- Keep Yourself Motivated, so you don't give up or get frustrated when it takes a while to successfully resolve the problem.
In this guide we'll go over each step in detail and use each steps to solve a bizarre dilemma.
Understand The Problem
Understanding the problem you're trying to solve is often the most difficult step because it's easy to focus on the wrong part of the problem, or look at the problem too broadly. For example, if you're sick you may see the problem as being sick. You may be able to get more specific and say that you feel congested. The problem of congestion is more specific and therefore a bit better than knowing you are sick, but it's a symptom that applies to many different illnesses and can't reveal the exact problem. You may have a cold, the flu, or seasonal allergies, but this one piece of information won't tell you enough to be sure.
The difficulty is both illness and congestion seem like the problems you want to solve because they're the things that are bothering you, but by seeking to solve either issue you're essentially taking shots in the dark. In order to properly understand the problem you have and make a real effort to solve it, you need to figure out what the problem really is. You need to break the problem down into its simplest form.
Let's look at another example.
The Case of the Stolen Leg: Part I
Pretend for a moment that you lost your leg in a horrible accident and have been living with a prosthetic leg for the past few years. One day you're visited by a travelling salesman who takes a liking to your fake leg and offers to buy it. You don't want to sell it, so he takes advantage of your disability, knocks you on the ground, and steals your leg. The obvious problem is that you're now missing a leg, but that's a problem with little specificity. Fortunately, this is an easy problem to understand because you know the cause: the travelling salesman stole it. That provides a simple solution as well: you need to find the salesman to retrieve your missing prosthetic leg.
That is an easy problem to distill because the cause is obvious, but let's say it's not. What if your leg went missing, suddenly, while you were asleep? You'd look for clues. Perhaps the culprit dropped an item or two along the way. Maybe someone saw him running out with the leg late at night and would be able to identify him. Maybe the tire treads on his car were unusual and could lead to more information. Regardless of what the clues are, when you're trying to solve any kind of problem you need to look for as much information as possible so you know you're focusing on the right things. If you wake up with a missing leg, you might quickly realise that someone stole it but that clue isn't specific enough to be very helpful. It's only enough to help you look for the right kinds of clues.
This is very similar to solving the problem of your congestion. It may seem silly to draw correlations between figuring out an illness and solving the mystery of a stolen prosthetic—and in some ways it is—but the process is pretty much the same. If you're trying to figure out the root cause of illness, you simply search for clues and gather information based on what you find. You might ask what other symptoms you have until those symptoms point to a particular illness. (Or you might just go see a doctor, because you don't want to mess around with your health.)
Regardless of the type of problem, the first thing you need to do is reduce it to its simplest and purest form so you know exactly what you're dealing with. While you're doing this, you need to ask yourself questions to make sure you're focusing on the right things. Once you have your correct and simplified problem, you can move on and put together a plan to actually solve it.
Create A Plan
A problem is just a problem if you don't have any means of finding the solution. You may know the result you're looking for, but if you don't have steps to get there it'll be too far to reach. To get from point A to point B, you need a plan with actionable steps. To figure out those steps, you need to ask yourself what's barring you from moving forward and make that step one. Step one will open doors to other steps. Consider which steps will open more doors, add them to the plan, and keep doing that until you get to your solution. Things will change as you act on the plan and you'll need to adapt, so it's best to keep your plan somewhat open-ended and try to include steps that involve preparing for trouble you can foresee. Obviously this is a bit vague, so let's get back to our story.
The Case of the Stolen Leg: Part II
The problem that needs solving is pretty clear: you've lost your prosthetic leg and you want to get it back. But then you stop—mentally, of course, as you're not going very far with one leg. How are you going to get your leg back? You know the result you want, but achieving it seems impossible. This is not because the travelling salesman has a leg up on you, so to speak, but because you're looking at point A—your missing leg—and point B—catching the salesman and getting your leg back. There's a lot of distance between those two points, and you're not going to get there without some actionable steps in between. What you need is a plan.
How do you put together a plan to recover your leg? You need to avoid thinking about the ultimate outcome and more about the most urgent issue at hand. If your leg has been stolen and you're lying on the ground, what's the first thing you need to do? Get up off the ground. After that? Call for help, as you can't give chase too easily in your condition. So, solving the case of the stolen leg might look something like this:
- Use the chair you were sitting on to help you move yourself inside so you can reach a telephone.
- Call the police and report the theft.
- Call a friend to help you track down the salesman/leg thief.
- Get your friend to take you to local hotels and motels to try and find out where the salesman/leg thief is staying while in town. He's travelling after all, so he must be staying somewhere temporary.
- Wait for the salesman/leg thief at his temporary residence and retrieve the leg.
This plan has steps that work nicely if you know the exact outcome. When you know your outcome, you can outline steps like these because you know exactly where you're going to end up. Technical problems are uniformly simple in this way, but when you're dealing with people you don't have this type of predictability. Generally there's a variable level of capriciousness you have to account for when outlining your solutions. If you do not account for the unexpected, your plan will eventually render itself useless. Obviously, this is something you do not want to happen.
Keep Yourself Motivated
If you end up with a useless plan, it's hard to stay motivated because you might think you've failed. You haven't, but you've just fallen into a common trap of creating a plan that isn't flexible enough to account for surprises along the way. You not only need to make your plans flexible, but you want to try and plan for surprises as well.
You won't always know what they are, but you can make educated guesses and be a little more prepared to deal with issues when they arise. This will help keep you motivated when solving problems that take more time, as these surprises won't be so devastating if you're ready for them. Again, this is a bit vague. Let's take a look at how we can use these strategies to get our stolen leg back.
The Case of the Stolen Leg: Part III
Suppose you check every hotel and motel in town but do not locate the salesman. Assuming you've received 100% honest information and he's truly not patronising any of the local accommodation providers, your plan becomes useless. This is OK; most problems you'll encounter will throw you a few surprises and your plan will have to change. The important thing is that you recognise these surprises.
In the case of the leg thief salesman, your first instinct failed you and you need more information. At this point you might be kicking yourself—figuratively, of course—because you could've asked everyone you met at the hotels for more information instead of just trying to find out if he'd purchased a room. If you'd collected that information, you might have found out that someone saw him frequenting their favourite coffee shop. You'd then be able to easily change your plan to visit the coffee shop, talk to the baristas, and learn that he's staying with his old aunt who lives on the outskirts of town. With this information, you'd be able to visit his old aunt and catch him before he departed into the sunset with your prosthetic leg.
That's a happy ending to the story, but let's say things didn't work out so well. Let's say you do actually fail and don't get your leg back. Having a plan doesn't mean you eventually get what you want and always succeed. For that reason, it helps to account for failure as well. In a case like this, you can buy another prosthetic leg. It might not be an ideal outcome, but at least you'll be able to get a replacement—even if it's at your own expense. Knowing you won't be legless for too long can reduce the anxiety that comes with taking a chance. You know that if you fail, you'll still be okay.
Let's take a look at what we just did:
- First, we figured out the problem: we're missing a leg, it was stolen by a travelling salesman, and we need to get that leg back.
- Second, we created an initial plan, starting with the most urgent step that would open doors to new steps. We did not know the outcome, so we needed to speculate.
- Finally, because the outcome in our initial plan wasn't assured, we modified the plan to account for potential surprises so we could adapt to any new information we encountered along the way. We also planned for failure so we knew we'd be okay no matter what.
Following those steps is generally the easiest way to solve a problem. Of course, a stolen prosthetic leg is not a situation most of us are going to encounter during our lives. Before we wrap things up, let's take a look at a couple of practical examples and how this process applies to them.
A Couple Of More Practical Examples
Since you're unlikely to find yourself hunting down prosthetic leg thieves, we're going to take a quick look at breaking down and solving a simple technical problem as well as a complicated life problem.
Breaking Down a Technical Problem
Consider a broken computer that needs to be fixed. All you know is that the computer turns on and makes a strange noise, but it refuses to boot up. You don't know anything more than this, but you still want to fix the computer. With most problems, you have to do a little research to figure out what's truly wrong. This is a lot more fun if you look at it like solving a mystery and use the clues you have to find new clues until you have the answer you're looking for. In the case of the broken computer, consider what you already know: the computer won't boot up and it's making a strange noise. In this case, you're not necessarily being detailed enough. What does the noise sound like? For the purposes of this example, it sounds like clicking—almost like a ticking clock. From here you can easily search online for more information about a broken computer making a clicking noise and you'll discover that the broken component is likely the hard drive. Now you know the actual problem: your hard drive is dead. The solution: it needs to be replaced.
From here you can move forward and plan how to solve it. Your plan might look something like this:
- Search online for instructions on how to replace the hard drive.
- Purchase a replacement hard drive.
- Install replacement hard drive.
- Restore data to the new drive using a backup (because you're so responsible and set up a great automated backup plan before your drive died).
Breaking Down A Complicated Life Problem
Life problems, or problems that less technical and uniform in their solutions, can be a little more difficult to pin down but the process is nonetheless the same. Let's say you've been working as a real estate agent for several years but your real dream in life is to become a painter. That's a particularly big shift in careers, but your happiness is important to you and you're ready to try.
In the worst case scenario, your problem is likely that you want to become a painter but you don't know how. This is about as vague as you can get, but it's not a bad clue to start with. If you don't know how to do something, just ask someone who does. While it's unlikely that you won't be able to ask the advice of another painter, or read their advice in a book or on the internet, let's pretend those options don't exist. If all you have is yourself and need another clue, you can always look to a similar problem you've solved in the past, even if you didn't intend to solve it.
Even though your experience as a real estate agent seems irrelevant, it's not. You still had to get that job, somehow, and maintain your position for several years. How did you do that? You had some knowledge that made you seem somewhat attractive to an employer and you convinced them to take a chance on you. Throughout the years you gained experience and success, making it easy to find work and make money as a real estate agent. If you want to work as a painter, which is also a job, you need those same basic things. The problem, in the worst case, is that you are unemployable as a painter because you have no talent or experience. That's the real problem you need to solve.
How can we create a plan to make your dream of becoming a painter come true? We know he the problem is that you don't have the requisite experience or talent to become a painter, so what is the most urgent need? You need to gain experience and talent. Once you have those things, you need to use that experience and talent to find work and become more and more successful. Your plan might look like this:
- Take a night class on painting (our learn digital painting for free on Lifehacker).
- Save money in case of a problem.
- Practice until enough good paintings exist to create a portfolio.
- Use real estate contacts to find already happy customers who might be interested in a painting or a wall mural.
- Gain enough customers to quit working as a real estate agent.
- Try to earn a living as a freelance painter. If things don't work out, live off your savings until they do or until another job can be found.
This is a pretty basic plan, but that's the idea. When you're breaking down a problem into a plan, you only want to get as specific as is necessary to move forward. If you get too specific, surprises will often trip you up. If you're not specific enough, you won't know what to do next. The goal is to create steps that keep you moving but don't trap you when the situation changes. Being too narrow-minded with your goals can make it easy to miss the right choices.
All you really need to do to solve any problem is distill it into its simplest form, create a plan that consists of actionable steps to solve the problem, and make that plan flexible enough so that you don't become discouraged. Doing these things won't necessarily make the problem easier to solve, but it will clarify the unknown and provide a means of actually achieving the solution.
Got any great tricks you use to make problem-solving an easier task? Let's hear ‘em in the comments.