Help to function optimally

une-logo-500pxJohn Malouff, Ph.D., J.D., earned a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1979 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Arizona State University in 1984. He currently works as an associate professor of psychology at the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia. He has co-authored five books and several dozen articles in scientific journals. He writes a blog on Using Psychology in day-to-day life.

Link to original documentProblem Solving Strategies

Record and fully consider options.
It is often wise to consider a range of solution options when engaged in problem solving. Several options may solve a problem, but one may solve the problem more completely or cheaply. Individuals may squelch their own good ideas or the good ideas of others by immediately rejecting ideas. Hence, it may help to record possible solutions and consider them fully. Even a very bad idea might point in a useful direction if it is not pushed aside too quickly.

Set a goal with a purpose you value.
Setting a goal with an outcome we value tends to help us achieve more. So, if you have an assignment of math problems to complete, you might set a personal goal of completing all of them correctly for the purpose of earning an “A” on the assignment and in the course so that you can improve your chances of gaining admission to medical school, so you can spend your life helping ill children. If you have a problem of getting your research approved by an ethics board, set a goal of gaining approval so that you can do the research and help others with your findings.

Avoid distraction.
Distractions slow the problem solving process. Distractions can include environmental events such as phone calls and machinery noise. Distractions can also include repeated intrusive thoughts (“This is a terrible situation!”). One way to avoid external distractions is to go somewhere peaceful where no one can find you. Another way is to disconnect the phone and put up a “Do not disturb, please” sign. One way to reduce intrusive thoughts is to tell yourself that you will think about these emotion-laden matters at a specific later time, but for now you are going to yell “STOP!” every time the thought intrudes. Another way to reducing intrusive thoughts is to write them down or to tell someone close to you about them.

Work in a new setting.
New settings sometimes prompt new types of thinking that can be useful in solving hard problems. For instance, go sit and think in the quiet park across from your headquarters, in a forest cabin, or in a different library.

Adjust time limit to optimum.
Some problems are easy to solve but tedious.  It may facilitate efficiency to set an artificially brief time frame for completion, e.g., “I’m going to finish these math problems in 30 minutes. “For difficult problems, increasing the time frame for solution may help by reducing distraction-provoking anxiety. So if you are asked to solve a difficult problem, ask for an amount of time that will be sufficient to eliminate time pressure but still not so long as to induce inefficiency.

Work with someone.
All else being equal, several people working on a difficult problem tend to produce a better solution than one person. Some efficiency may be lost, so working with someone may best be reserved for very difficult problems. So, if you want to clone a bonobo, work with someone.  If you want to end your dependency on tobacco, work with someone.

Create a positive mood with an optimum arousal level.
People work better when they have a positive mood and a moderate arousal level. To create a positive mood, you could engage in some activity you greatly enjoy, such as listening to music or reading a book, or you could think back about huge triumphs and outstanding moments in your life. To avoid excessive arousal, you could use a relaxation method such as deep breathing, tensing and relaxing muscle groups, and telling yourself to stay calm.

Think of the problem as a challenge or opportunity.
No one wants to have “problems.” So we often think of problem solving as an unfortunate, unpleasant task. Such a negative view of the problem solving may impair our performance at the task. In order to keep a positive mood and keep working on a problem, it is helpful to think of the problem as a challenge or opportunity. So, if the barking of your neighbour’s dog is driving you batty, look at the situation as an opportunity to practice your assertion skills. If your PC won’t come on, look at the situation as an opportunity to challenge yourself, as you might with an anagram. If your investments go sour, think of the situation as a challenge: Do you still have what it takes to make yourself rich through earnings or investment?

Think confidently.
Confidence helps us persist in problem solving, and confidence comes most powerfully from problem solving success. So, think about past problem solving successes or solve another problem to boost your confidence about solving a specific problem. Useful thoughts include “I have solved more difficult (or similar) problems,” “I know how to approach this problem,” and “I can solve this problem if I try hard enough.”

Take a break.
People can get fixed on a certain way of thinking about a problem or a specific class of possible solutions. It sometimes helps to take a break and think about matters unrelated to the problem in order to open the mind to new ideas. Some people benefit from sleeping on a problem.

Persistence in problem solving often pays off. It took many years to build the Great Wall of China. It may take you some time to solve a problem. Your odds of success often go to 0 when you give up. With continued effort, you have a chance. So, whether you want to want to become a millionaire or you want to eliminate the use of land mines, persist. If one possible solution fails, try another one or try another problem solving strategy.  Note though that persistence can become maladaptive if the goal is unrealistic.  In some cases, the best course is to accept a problem as presently unsolvable and focus (with persistence) on other, solvable problems.