Problem solving techniques

Problem solving is all about finding a route from where you are now, to where you want to be, if that route is unclear or somehow blocked. Its one of the most complex things our brains ever do, as it involves coordinating many high-level skills: creativity, understanding of complex situations and ability to plan.

Too often people don’t try to solve problems as we usually don’t know any techniques. We may randomly try a solution or two, and when they don’t work we give up.

This is a bit strange, as so many people enjoy more abstract puzzles, such as crosswords or Sudoku. Of course, life isn’t generally like a Sudoku puzzle, with one, neat logical solution to every problem. In reality we’re dealing with messy, chaotic and complex issues.

Nevertheless, there’s a range of specific techniques that are available for solving problems (which I will cover in more detail in future articles) but, in my opinion, most of them boil down to a small number of general principles.

1. Accept

It may sound obvious, but you have to accept you have a problem before you can begin to solve it. Too often we avoid facing up to the reality of a problem because it makes us feel bad to do so, and we aren’t certain of having any way to solve it so there doesn’t seem any purpose in facing up to it. Needless to say this can often make things worse when the problem doesn’t go away. Another thing that can make us feel stuck is an assumption about what we think or want the solution to look like. It may be necessary for you to let go of that if it’s an impractical solution and its mentally blocking you from seeing a more practical one.

2. Define

In order to solve a problem you need to be clear about what the problem is. The best way to do this is either to describe it clearly to another person, or to write it down. This forces you to think about it as clearly as possible, and starts to separate out a bit the facts from your emotions. Yes your emotions are important, but they can cloud your judgments. They can make some situations seem better or worse than they really are. In some instances it can take courage to face up to the facts of a situation, but its essential in order to make progress in solving a problem.

3. Research

Gather together all the facts about the problem. Trying to problem solve if you are missing key information is obviously going to be harder if not impossible. Google (and other web search engines) are amazing resources. Try searching for information on your problem. Experiment with different search terms. Try things like ‘how to solve (and then describe your problem)’, or ‘how I solved…’

4. Intuition

What is your intuition telling you about the problem? What is your gut feeling about what needs to be done to solve it?

One technique you can try comes from solutions focused brief therapy. Think to yourself: when does your current problem not occur? What is it about those times that mean that it doesn’t occur? Could you do more of that thing, or encourage more of that situation which prevents the problem from occurring?

Or, imagine you woke up one morning and your problem had just completely vanished. What would be the first sign that it had gone? What would be different about your environment?

These methods can provide a different and fresh perspective by making you think about solutions rather than the problem itself.

5. Reason

Sit down and quietly think through the information you have gathered so far. It may help you to use some paper to write down the key facts and maybe list out options.

A lot of problem solving involves decision-making. For example, you may be faced with several alternative solutions, any of which you could pursue and you need to decide which one to go for. Listing out the pros and cons of your options can be a useful exercise. As you go through your list you can also eliminate any options that aren’t worth considering at all.

It can also be useful to ask yourself how important it is for you to decide to take action or not. More often than not its best just to decide to move forward with even an imperfect plan. You won’t always find a perfect solution to your problem, but you can try to make the best of an imperfect one.

6. Do other people have a solution?

When you researched the problem, did you come across any examples of people who have solved similar problems? Can you do some further Googling to try to find examples of such people whose solutions you could copy?

Is there any professional advisor you could consult? Even if you had to pay, in some situations it may be worth it.


If all else fails, or if you have a very general problem that doesn’t seem to have one particular solution, then try using the 80/20 law (the idea that 20% - or at least a small minority – of things create 80% - or the majority – of the results). Look through all the possible things that would help lessen the problem and pick the one that you think would have the most impact/bring you closest to your goal.