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Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. Sometimes age just shows up all by itself. Tom Wilson
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« New Technology | Main | Absorb Information Like Never Before »

How to Solve Problems

Here’s a relatively simple method of gaining insight into problems that face us. Often the reason we can’t solve a problem is that we don’t concentrate on it long enough to look at it from enough different angles or give our brains time to process our ideas subconsciously.

Step One

Take a sheet of paper and write across the top “Questions I could ask myself about this problem include…..”

Then write down as quickly as possible between six and twelve different ways of finishing that sentence. Don’t think too much about what you write — the aim here is quantity not quality.

To take an example (completely fictitious of course!), I have a problem keeping my desk tidy. So I might write:

Questions I could ask myself about this problem….

  • why is this problem happening?
  • why does it matter?
  • how could I overcome it?
  • what problems does it cause?
  • who could help me overcome it?
  • what benefit am I getting out of it?
  • why is it so difficult to be tidy?
  • and so on…..

Put the sheet of paper away and go through Step One again the following day on a fresh sheet of paper without looking at the first sheet. You will probably find that you can find another six or more endings without duplicating anything you wrote the day before.

Step Two

Take both sheets of paper and extract from them the four or five questions that you feel are most helpful, relevant or useful. Then rewrite them as sentences for completion. So for example I might end up with the following list:

  • Reasons this problem is happening might include….
  • This problem matters because…..
  • One way of overcoming this would be…..
  • The benefits I get out of being untidy include….

Then do a similar exercise to Step One but this time use each of the sentences you have just written. Again aim to write between six and twelve endings to each sentence. Then put your sheet of paper away for 24 hours and do the exercise again. You will probably find that your insights have developed overnight.

You can do this for several days running if you have the time and the problem is not too pressing.

Step Three

Examine all the ideas you have written out and decide which ones you are going to put into effect.

Reader Comments (2)

William James said somewhere "the subject must be made to show new aspects of itself". This is important. We tend to select a useful perception and then move attention. But, for example:

"Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You presently find that one or the other of two things has happened: either your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing distinct at all, or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in question, and are looking at something else. But, if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot,—how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color, etc.; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates,—you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius does,..."


Michael Gelb make the same point in his book on Leonardo da Vinci:

"You can increase your problem-solving skills at work and at home, by honing your question-asking ability. For most people this requires shifting the initial emphasis away from focusing ‘on the right answer’ and toward asking ‘Is this the right question?’"


I see this idea of responding to problems with questions is also in Mark's latest book.
October 31, 2015 at 21:06 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Unashamed nudge to an important issue
September 8, 2019 at 16:06 | Unregistered Commentermichael

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