‘Problem solving’ is a broad skill and might even be considered to be multiple skills rather than a single ability. Certainly though, it is highly useful and can prepare you for a wealth of situations. If you are an effective ‘problem solver’, then you will be more effective in many workplace situations, you will be better able to survive a personal crisis and you will be able to make breakthroughs in your own projects. The ability to solve problems, abstract though it is, is one of the biggest predictors of career success, creativity and reduced stress.
While ‘problem solving’ might be tricky to pin down as a single ability, there are many approaches that will be effective in a wide variety of scenarios and which can help you to improve your general ability to handle challenges. Here we will look at some of the best ones…
The first and most important thing to do in order to enhance your problem solving abilities is to relax. Depending on the nature of the problem, many of us will often react by experiencing anxiety and stress which results in the release of the neurochemicals ‘norepinephrine’ and ‘cortisol’. The job of these neurochemicals is to help us survive a physical threat and thus they have the effect of narrowing our focus and keeping us highly switched on to what’s going on around us.
While this is useful in some contexts, it certainly is not particularly effective when you are trying to solve a problem that requires creativity to come to a solution. Creativity occurs when we widen our focus in order to consider other elements that we might have forgotten. Remember that our brain works essentially as a series of interconnected neurons forming a web known as a ‘connectome’. When we relax, we are free to explore these connections and to hopefully find links between disparate ideas. This is how you ‘think outside the box’ and it is how you come up with new connections that provide novel solutions to problems.
Because stress hormones narrow focus, they prevent us from gaining full access to all the related memories and ideas that might help us to find a solution to the problem at hand. Therefore, it is highly important that you relax and take a breather if you’re going to better solve the problem.
This is also where the suggestion ‘sleep on it’ comes from – when you sleep that’s when you relax most and your brain gets truly creative in its problem solving ability.
Define the Problem
Defining the problem is incredibly important for helping you to relax and get context as well as to be efficient in finding solutions.
Let’s imagine a scenario where your car breaks down. In this situation you might start worrying that you’re not going to get to where you need to be in time, you might worry about getting cold, you’re probably thinking about how dangerous it is to leave your vehicle on the side of the road… In short, all sorts of issues and challenges will be running through your mind.
But these are complications and issues – they are not ‘the problem’. In this situation ‘the problem’ is simply that your ‘car won’t start’. Once this is defined, you can then focus on addressing that problem specifically rather than dealing with a myriad of concerns that will only complicate matters. Your car won’t start? Call a mechanic. Simple problems have simple solutions.
Reword the Problem
Once you’ve defined what your problem is, it can help to reword it sometimes in order to give yourself fresh perspective.
In the above example, you might decide to rephrase the issue as:
‘I can’t get the car to start’
‘I can’t get the car to move’
‘I have no mode of transport’
‘I have no way to get home’
By rephrasing it this way you might start to see multiple new options emerging. The fact that you are saying ‘I can’t get the car to start’ might suggest for example that somebody else may be able to help. The fact you can’t get the car to move might suggest getting the car towed. Or seeing as you have no way to get home, could you consider staying somewhere local for the night?
Try twisting the idea around and you might just be able to shed new light on your possible solutions.
Take a Step Back
As the above suggestion demonstrates, sometimes solving a problem is a matter of perspective and requires you to think a particular way.
Sometimes we can’t see a solution to a problem because we’re set on approaching it from a particular angle. We then end up just banging our head against the wall trying to force a solution that doesn’t fit.
The solution then is often to take a step back and to try again. Sometimes this means taking a break from the problem and coming back to it. In other cases, it might mean using thought experiments to approach it from a different way.
One of the best ways to do this is to try and get inside the head of someone else.
‘How would Uncle Tim solve this problem?’
Or better yet:
‘How would an engineer solve this problem?’
Sometimes, this can be enough to get you to think outside of your normal constraints and thus to find the correct solution.
Remember ‘Functional Fixedness’
Functional fixedness is the name that describes a ‘cognitive bias’ which is highly relevant to problem solving.
Essentially, this phrase tells us that when we face a problem, we will often only consider the resources we have in a very narrow manner. Specifically, we will think of ‘tools’ rather than ‘resources’. This prevents you from thinking of alternative uses for those items.
So for instance, if you have a box of cards, you might fail to see that what you actually have is cardboard, a container, paper, a game and a square.
The best way to explain this is to look at the ‘Candle Problem’ (1). Here, participants are presented with a box full of tacks and a candle and they’re then asked to attach the candle to the wall so that it can be used to light the room. Usually the participants will attempt to solve this challenge by tacking the candle directly to the wall which of course does not work.
In fact, the correct solution is to use the tacks to attach the box itself to the wall and then to stand the candle in that. They are prevented from seeing this solution early on because they suffer from functional fixedness: they view the box as a box of tacks, not simply as a ‘container’ or a ‘stand’.
How do you get around this limitation? The solution is to list all of the tools and resources you have available to you, rather than to simply think of the devices and gadgets in the context of what they’re intended for.
Ultimately though, one of the best ways to get better at solving problems is simply to practice doing it often. As with anything, problem solving is a skill that can be trained and improved through practice and if you are constantly dealing with these kinds of challenges then overtime you will become better at keeping your cool and thinking abstractly.
Often our work provides us with plenty of challenge to sink our teeth into but if you want to get further training then there are a number of different things you can do to practice. For instance, trying your hand at programming is a fantastic way to get better at problem solving as this essentially boils down to solving a series of puzzles. Likewise, practicing math problems can help too, as can playing sports which calls for a different kind of ‘rapid problem solving’. Even computer games – especially fast paced puzzle games – can be very effective at helping you to practice and develop your problem solving skills (2).