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Free Up Time and Become More Efficient By Using 3 Techniques for Problem-Solving

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Problem-solvingI know what you’re probably thinking…

…What the heck does saving time and becoming more efficient have to do with problem-solving?

 

Before I tell you why, I want to make a poetic analogy.

Sometimes life is like a maze: you’re navigating through your days without really getting anywhere, not sure if you’re getting closer to your goals or not.

There are constantly new problems coming up that need to be solved… Right?

Or is it really so?

Are these problems really “new”?

The answer is: No.

Most of your problems are old news, you just haven’t got ’round to fixing them. And  I mean REALLY fixing them, on a fundamental level.

Let me ask you this: How often do you do the same things over and over?

Probably a lot.

You do this because almost all of your behavior is habitual.

But, what if you could pinpoint specifically when and where your current habitual behavior doesn’t serve your purposes?

Well friend,  then you’d become a much more efficient person…

I’m going to tell you three simple techniques for problem-solving. The first one involves pinpointing your habitual behavior and it is the most important one. When I say “problem-solving“, I mean everything you encounter that requires making a decision.

So, how do you solve a problem?

It depends on what sort of problem it is.

There are three sorts of problems:

  1. General problems
  2. Normal problems
  3. Unique problems

You should start categorizing the problems you encounter according to these three types, and treat them accordingly. Because if you do, it’ll boost your problem-solving skills. Which will result in what?

–Increased efficiency and more free time.

General Problems: 80 % Focus

General problems happen recurringly. They are by far the most common — and important — type of problem.

The general problems are the most important ones to spend your time solving. If you only take one thing away from this article, it should be this.

You solve general problems by coming up with a rule of thumb describing what you will do when the specific problem occurs. A great way of doing this is by compiling a list of daily lessons, preferably in your commonplace.

Daily Lessons

What are daily lessons?

Here are a few examples:

  • Interesting observations
  • Important takeaways you learned during the day
  • How you behaved in a certain situation

The reason we have general problems is usually because we’re not conscious of them. Or we may even be conscious of them, but lack the motivation to do anything.

Compiling daily lessons you overcome both of those sticking points — because it strongly concretizes the problem and elucidates how much of an impact the problems has on your life.

If you write down a few of these lessons each day it will quickly scale. Soon you’ll have a lot of info about yourself and your behavior. It won’t take long until you start noticing a recurring pattern of behavior.

Bingo. You’ve just identified a general problem that needs to be solved!

Here are some examples.

Maybe you find that you’re having trouble waking up in the morning…

Maybe you find that you’re not doing the important and urgent things first thing in the morning…

Maybe you find that you’re becoming tense and tired at a certain point each day…

…And so on.

Generally speaking (no pun intended) if you find yourself writing similar daily lessons over a longer period of time — say 30 days at least — it’s clearly a sign that you are experiencing a general problem.

When you have compiled enough daily lessons you should spend some time — perhaps a few hours — going through them.

Once you have noticed certain patterns, and identified the general problems, you deal with it by creating a rule of thumb describing specifically what you’ll do when it happens the next time. The simpler your rule of thumb the better.

Be sure to:

By doing this, you’ll quickly turn your rule of thumb solution into a habit.

This will automatize the solution to your problem — and that way you won’t need to deal with as many “new” problems every day.

Normal Problems: 15 % Focus

Normal problems happen once in a while, just often enough for it to be predictable.

A good problem-solving method for normal problems is to use WCCA — Worst Case Consequence Analysis — which works like this:

  1. What’s the worst thing that could happen? (event)
  2. How likely is it to happen? (Estimated probability)
  3. Can I take this risk? (Perceived risk)

Event x Estimated Probability = Perceived risk

Your brain does this automatically actually. But,  it helps to think of every once in a while, just to practice.

There is a problem with this method for problem-solving (no pun intended). Depending on the situation you might grossly miscalculate the estimated probability.

Why?

Because you’re very mood-based.

For example, if you’re in a negative mood, you’ll tend to overestimate risks and scare yourself into decision paralysis. And if you’re in a great mood you’ll tend to underestimate risks and feel that everything is possible, sometimes unrealistically so.

However, in my experience it’s a lot better to be delusionally positive and possibly mess up, than being negative and not doing anything.

Anyway, most people tend to overestimate the perceived risk because they’re afraid.

Then there are also other interfering biases. For example, loss aversion is estimated to be about 2.5x stronger than your will to win. That’s a serious issue, because your inherent fear clouds your judgment and destroys motivation.

On the whole, normal problems are a bit tough to deal with in a systematic way.

Unique Problems: 5 % Focus

Unique problems are rare and very hard to predict. They are like black swans.

How do you deal with them?

The answer is: You don’t.

This is what most people don’t understand, and it hurts them on two levels:

  1. They worry about things that are unlikely to ever happen. Worry causes unnecessary stress. Stress in turn hurts the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for memory function.
  2. They waste time and mental space that could be more productively used for other things.

Another problem is that worried and stressful people are “contagious”.

When you’re around someone who acts in a certain way you’ll often unconsciously mirror that person’s behavior. That’s when you need to be unreactive, because your mirror neurons aren’t helping you at all in that situation.

The best way of  “not” dealing with unique problems is by being prepared to face them. You prepare in advance so that you can absorb them head-on. In finance, this is called hedging.

Think of it this way, you could lose your computer in a ton of different ways. It could get stolen. It could get hacked. It could stop working by itself. Someone might spill water on it… And so on.

There’s simply no point in trying to predict all possible ways you might lose or break your computer. So what you do instead, is that you back-up your files every once in a while on an external hard drive. By this doing you’re ready for all of those problems when they happen.

Summary: The 3 Types of Problem-Solving

General problems — 80 % focus

General problems are by far the most important ones to focus on solving because you can systematically eliminate them by creating habits and check-lists of best practices/rules of thumb.

Systems create automation and boost efficiency, which gives you more time to focus on other things.

Spend at least 80 % of your time solving the general problems that happen often.

You can do this by writing daily lessons and looking at them once in a while — perhaps once every month. That’s enough time to notice the overall patterns of what you’re struggling with (the general problem). You then sit down, reflect on the observations, and figure out some rule of thumb solutions.

Normal problems — 15 % focus

Normal problems happen once in a while and are possible to predict. But, they are still not worth putting much time into. If you have to do it you can use WCCA — Worst Case Consequence Analysis. Just remember it’s not always that accurate.

Unique problems — 5 % focus

Hedge yourself against unique problems by preparing to absorb them. Live with a bit of risk — and accept it. Don’t obsess over the unique problems, it’s simply not worth the time.

Suckers and neurotics obsess over unique problems.

Don’t be that guy.

 

Over to you…

Have you got a good system for dealing with problems?

Do you differentiate between problems or categorize them?

Photo Credit: Flickr

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Comments

  1. Great post, again. I have these system of dealing with the most boring tasks first (easy or difficult) and then, I go to the tasks that I enjoy the most (self-education, reading, sports). i also used the commonplace blog and the onenote guide you wrote some time ago and my production, skills and disciplined have sky-rocketed. I wish I knew about this long time before but well it is never too late. I am also happy because this blog inspired to start my own webpage about education, not the best but better than nothing, or better than spending the time worrying because worry leads to watching useless websites, or playing games and being unproductive all the time. The key word is FOCUS.

    • Hey Ninja,

      “I have these system of dealing with the most boring tasks first (easy or difficult) and then, I go to the tasks that I enjoy the most”

      — Great habit.

      ” i also used the commonplace blog and the onenote guide you wrote some time ago and my production, skills and disciplined have sky-rocketed”

      — I’m happy to hear that. Cheers!

      “The key word is FOCUS.”

      — Damn right. :)

  2. I see that I unconsciously do what you advise Ludvig.
    I keep a journal and self-analysis habit. Every morning I write down my ruminations. From time to time my self-analysis session focus on specific problem.
    For example I’m ready to start a pilot of my own mentoring program from some time, but I procrastinate. I’m afraid. During last 20 days I came back to this issue 4 or five times shooting down an excuse after excuse.
    Journaling plus awareness must lead to the solution or insanity. I’ve been doing it for the last year and I’m still not crazy ;)
    My way is not as systemized as your, but it works for me.

    • I’m not surprised, Michal. You seem like a very structured person.

      I actually started the daily lesson thing because my journaling was too time-consuming to review.

  3. Dan Erickson says:

    “I tell them there are no problems, only solutions.” John Lenon

  4. Nice nice. Cant say Ive thought much about this before, but you do make some good points.

    Particularly about the daily lessons. I just bought some post-its where ill do this before sleep. will be cool to see if i come up with any insights one month from now. Keep posting :)

  5. Yeah, it’s not even funny how much time people spend on trying to solve the normal and unique problems.
    Probably 60% + of their time?

    Writing this now, I feel reeaally guilty of doing the same thing. But whatever, thats how it goes sometimes, time to switch things up from now right?

    I think this is one of the things, if not THE thing that really “successful” people do very well. Especially managers/CEOs.

  6. Hi Ludvig,

    “However, in my experience it’s a lot better to be delusionally positive and possibly mess up, than being negative and not doing anything.”

    100% Agreed. If you’re doing something at least you’re making progress.

    “Stress in turn hurts the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for memory function.”

    I watched a program about this the other day and long-term stress starts to actually shrinks this part of the brain. They studied people who had severe memory loss expecting it to be some sort of life threatening, devastating illness. But hey, presto… your a bit too stressed out. Just chill out!

    I will be using the ‘general problems’ rule because I do have small, annoying habits that effort my work progress. They may only be small but they add up eventually.

    The ‘unique problems’… When dealing with my perfectionism (ha, sound like a illness with the ‘ism’). I had to accept I couldn’t worry about what I couldn’t change and manage my need to control everything. This helped my stress level drop about 40%

    Another great article, thanks

    Naomi

  7. Hey, splitting your problems into categories based on importance is something I have just started to do. I’m probably not quite as organised as you but I do enjoy a little chaos – it keeps me on my toes.

    I find that if I start the day as early as possible and pick the most enjoyable task – it seems to warm me up for the most important task, which I’ll tackle next.

  8. Reading your post reminds me about the importance of taking time to think through our days. To think about what we did that allowed us to make the best use of our time and those things that caused us to waist our time with non productive tasks. The discipline of reflective thinking should be a habit for everyone. Great post!

  9. Abgrund says:

    I don’t know if it’s exactly a problem-SOLVING technique, but it’s one I (and others) do use: try to ignore it and see if it goes away. Lots of things seem to be important problems until they aren’t. If it’s really important and really a problem, you’ll find out. Maybe soon enough, maybe not, but it’s arguably better not to waste your time worrying about 100 things when you only have resources to deal effectively with 10 of them and no way of knowing in advance which 1 of the 100 will turn out to bite you in the ass. Or, a pound of cure is worth a ton of prevention.

    • I suppose that’s true. But it’s hardly an advisable best practice for someone who’s struggling to change his life around. The last thing that person needs is to forget and escape reality.

      • Abgrund says:

        Yeah, I’m not sure it’s a “best” practice, but maybe it’s an adequate substitute for having good enough judgment not to take on too many unessential tasks.

  10. I have fun with, cause I found just what I used to be taking a
    look for. You have ended my 4 day long hunt!
    God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

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