There are some difficult problems in our work and personal lives that can’t be solved with simple step-by-step, systematic strategies. In order to avoid frustration and burnout, you should take on two of these kinds of problems at a time, but no more.
Picture: Wolfgang Staudt/Flickr
On his blog, author and assistant professor Cal Newport discusses the difference between “decidable” and “undecidable” tasks. A decidable task is a problem that can be solved with a systematic procedure applied to it until the solution is clear. These are problems like completing your busy work or cleaning a messy house. An undecidable task is a problem that’s much larger and is unclear how to solve it. Problems like a writer trying to come up with a new idea for a book or a business owner trying to regain lost profits. The solution for these problems isn’t apparent and there’s no systematic way to solve them.
It might seem like it would make more sense to focus on only one of these tough problem at a time, but as Newport explains, working on two at a time is the most optimal:
Two is better than one as it allows you to switch your focus if you get stuck (or fed up) with one task. But two is still small enough that your mind can keep the various pieces properly sorted and available for serendipitous reconfiguration.
As you go about your work, identify the problems and tasks you face as either decidable or undecidable. When you encounter undecidable tasks — or tough problems that don’t have a clear solution — choose two that you want to work on. Try to think of what a solution would look like and determine what type of approach could get you there. When you get frustrated, shift gears and work on the other problem. Banging your ahead against the same problem will only burn you out and may even make finding a solution take even longer. Both pieces on undecidable tasks are worth a read, so check them out at the link below.
Deciding the Undecidable [Cal Newport Blog]