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12 tips to improve problem-solving skills

ost people believe that you have to be very intelligent in order to be a good problem solver, but that’s not true. When you understand the ...

ost people believe that you have to be very intelligent in order to be a good problem solver, but that’s not true. When you understand the different steps to solve a problem, you’ll be able to come up with great solutions.

1. Focus on the solution – not the problem

Neuroscientists have proven that your brain cannot find solutions if you focus on the problem.1 This is because when you focus on the problem you’re effectively feeding ‘negativity’ which in turn activates negative emotions in the brain. These emotions block potential solutions.
I’m not saying you should ‘ignore the problem’ – instead try and remain calm. It helps to first acknowledge the problem and then move your focus to a solution-oriented mindset where you keep fixed on what the ‘answer’ could be instead of lingering on ‘what went wrong’ and ‘who’s fault it is’.

2. Adapt 5 Whys to clearly define the problem

By repeatedly asking the question “why” on a problem, you can dig into the root cause of a problem, and that’s how you can find the best solution to tackle the root problem once and for all. (And it can go deeper than just asking why for five times.) For example:
Problem: Always late to work
  • Why am I late to work?
    I always click the snooze button and just want to go on sleeping.
  • Why do I want to go on sleeping?
    I feel so tired in the morning.
  • Why do I feel tired in the morning?
    I slept late the night before, that’s why.
  • Why did I sleep late?
    I wasn’t sleepy after drinking coffee, and I just kept scrolling my Facebook feed and somehow I couldn’t stop.
  • Why did I drink coffee?
    Because I was too sleepy at work in the afternoon, not having enough sleep the night before.
So there you see, if you didn’t try to dig out the root of the problem, you may just set a few more alarms and have it beep every five minutes in the morning. But in fact, the problem you need to solve is to quit Facebook surfing endlessly at night so you’ll feel more energetic in the day time, and you won’t need coffee.

3. Simplify things

As human beings, we have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be! Try simplifying your problem by generalizing it.
Remove all the details and go back to the basics. Try looking for a really easy, obvious solution – you might be surprised at the results! And we all know that it’s often the simple things that are the most productive.2

4. List out as many solutions as possible

Try and entertain ‘ALL POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS’ – even if they seem ridiculous at first. It’s important you keep an open mind to boost creative thinking, which can trigger potential solutions. Coming from 10 years in the corporate advertising industry it is drummed into you that ‘No idea is a bad idea’ and this aids creative thinking in brainstorms and other problem-solving techniques. Whatever you do – do not ridicule yourself for coming up with ‘stupid solutions’ as it’s often the crazy ideas that trigger other more viable solutions.

5. Think laterally

Change the ‘direction’ of your thoughts by thinking laterally.3 Pay attention to the saying, ‘You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging it deeper”. Try to change your approach and look at things in a new way. You can try flipping your objective around and looking for a solution that is the polar opposite!
Even if it feels silly, a fresh & unique approach usually stimulates a fresh solution.

6. Use language that creates possibility

Lead your thinking with phrases like ‘what if…’ and ‘imagine if…’ These terms open up our brains to think creatively and encourage solutions.
Avoid closed, negative language such as ‘I don’t think…’ or ‘This is not right but…’.

7. Work out to Some Tunes

A study of cardiac rehabilitation patients tested verbal fluency after exercising with and without music. Results showed that when they listened to music while working out, participants more than doubled their scores on verbal fluency tests in contrast to when they worked out in silence. According to the study’s lead author, “The combination of music and exercise may stimulate and increase cognitive arousal while helping to organize the cognitive output.”

8. Keep an “Idea Journal” with You

You’ll be able to quickly record important thoughts, write down personal experiences, make sketches, and explore ideas when you keep an “Idea Journal” with you at all times. Working out problems by sorting your thoughts on paper and then viewing them more objectively is easier than when all your thoughts are stuck in your head.

9. Participate in Yoga

The powerful combination of body awareness, breathing, and meditation that is required during yoga practice has been shown to significantly raise cognitive test scores. Other results from a University of Illinois study include shorter reaction times, more accuracy, and increased attention.

10. Eat Some Cheerios (And Then Think About It)

The Cheerios Effect is the name physicists have given to the event that happens when the last few cheerios in a bowl always cling to each other. The cause of this occurrence is surface tension.
The takeaway is that when it comes to experiencing tension while trying to solve a problem, cling to those around you. Rely on others’ experiences and ideas, even those from different career fields. Draw connections. Brainstorm. Work together to get the job done.

11. Use Mind Maps to Help Visualize the Problem

Mind Maps, a visual snapshot of a problem and its possible solutions, can help focus the mind, stimulate the brain, increase the capacity for creative thinking, and generate more ideas for solutions.
Make a Mind Map by drawing your problem as the central idea. Add “main branches” consisting of all the reasons for the problem. Use “sub-branches” to explore further details.
Next, make a separate Mind Map of all possible solutions to the central problem. Add “main branches” showing all the ways that your problem can be solved, such as colleagues that can help, techniques you can apply, and other resources you can use. Add “sub-branches” to further explore the details. Make a final branch with the most suitable solution for the main problem. Use “sub-branches” for details.
Through this exercise, you should be able to see which “branch” or option is the most practical, time-saving, and cost-effective way to solve the problem at hand.

12. Create “Psychological Distance”

What is psychological distance? According to the construal level theory (CLT), it’s “anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves.” Some examples include taking another person’s perspective or thinking of the problem as unlikely.
Scientists have shown that by increasing the mental distance between us and our problem, we’ll have an increase in creative solutions. This happens because thinking more abstractly helps us form unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, thus allowing our minds to increase its problem-solving capacity.

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