Problems are part of everyday life.

How you deal with challenges in life has a lot to do with your success and happiness.

At work, solving problems (big or small) increases your value and empowers your team to think critically as well.

Problem-solving is a skill.

It’s something you can improve over time.

There are two ways to solve most problems: you either use old systems or figure out a new path and think beyond the first level.

1. The systematic problem-solving method

The common and most popular is to use the path of least resistance.

You come up with a quick solution you already know, you use a strategy that has worked in the past or engage the services of people who have build systems to solve solve niche problems, and that’s the end of the cycle.

For the most part, you are able to quickly solve your problem without major issues. It works in many environments, especially if you have deadlines to meet.

But the solution is usually common, and expected.

By all means, find and build a system that works for you, but continue to look for more ways to make your system even better.

Continue to perfect your problem-solving system or skill to serve your clients or customers better.

The more effectively you solve problems, the more value you create.

2. The second approach requires more effort: a higher-order cognitive process

“No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking. “ ~ Voltaire

This process required a new system.

You figure out a new path.

You give yourself time to reflect on the problem and come up with a new, even novel solution.

The process makes you more skilful, curious and most importantly gives you a deeper understanding.

If you have the time for it, it’s more rewarding.

But it’s not an easy process.

Most people don’t have time for a higher-order cognitive process, so they settle, or rely on existing systems.

Approach problems with a “could” mindset

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns to look at things in a different way,” says Edward de Bono.

In many situations when people encounter a problem, they tend to default to what they should do instead of asking what they could do.

Could helps you think outside an existing problem to generate more creative solutions.

Should narrows your thinking process to one answer, the one that seems most obvious.

“…when we think in terms of “could,” we stay open-minded and the trade-offs involved inspire us to come up with creative solutions,” says Francesca Gino of Harvard Business Review.

If you can resist time pressure, and give yourself a moment to reflect, you will come up with options, even better solutions.

“What if…?” and “How about…?” are questions that open up possibilities for better solutions.

Rethink boundaries.

Scientists are great at this.

They don’t assume anything. They don’t stop questioning either.

Their job is to question basic assumptions to figure things out.

The idea is to take everything apart, and think beyond the existing principle.

This process opens up your mind to new ways to figure out better solutions.

For a better solution, don’t rush the thinking process

Many people assume that they just need to think harder when faced with a tough decision to make, or when they trying to solve a difficult problem.

But concentrating harder won’t force that ‘eureka moment’ you need.

Instead, your best option might be to step away from the problems and get do something unrelated to the project.

Give your brain the time to process the problem.

You will be amazed at the results.

When you stop thinking about a task, your brain continues working on the problem in the background.

“To solve a problem creatively, to have an insight, our brain tends to escape visual distractors, to physically block information, and to look somewhere else. You don’t want to overload your mind with visual information, because you want to focus more inwardly, and you get into this ‘offline mode’ where you’re very pensive,” says Carola Salvi, an Italian post-doctoral researcher at the creative brain lab at Northwestern University.

Give your brain the opportunity to reorganize the problem and come up with a better solution.

And when you have an insightful moment— where the solution pops into your mind out of nowhere — you should trust it, because it’s probably the correct one.

The power of the incubation period

Scientists have been studying the “incubation period” for years.

For many years, they have found that amazing ideas, solutions to problems and obstacles often come to people when they aren’t actively trying to develop a solution.

The incubation period works because your brain gets to take a break from everything distracting you.

People experience a spark of genius when they are busy doing something unrelated to the problem they are trying to solve.

You don’t have to take a long incubation period to make the most of it.

Even just 10 minutes might be enough to help your brain gain a new perspective.

The next time you’re tempted to make find a quick solution to that problem, remember the incubation period, and give your brain the opportunity to surprise you.

It pays to sleep on it

Your memory consolidates when you are awake, allowing little time to make deeper connections.

The opposite is true.

The brain makes better connections when you are asleep, allowing you to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas.

In many cases, when you are tempted to stay up late to find a solution to an obstacle, you might be better sleeping on it.

Your brain might solve the problem for you while you’re fast asleep.

Work backward

When thinking about a process, we’re often fixated to follow the same sequence in our mind.

This way we miss opportunities to use insights that stem from following an alternative sequence, such as working backwards.

To solve some problems better, you may need to undo the key actions in the problem.

Start consciously from the end of the process and develop it step by step from there.

Reverse engineering changes everything.

It allows you to notice patterns your brain normally ignores.

When you work backward, your mind slows down.

You begin to to see things you didn’t see before.

Working backward works when the final result is clear but the initial portion of a problem is obscure.

Key takeaways

Life is one big maze, but the obstacle is always the way.

Many problems can be solved by finding interesting, and better connections between seemingly unrelated topics.

In any situation that demands better solutions, explore your options, question basic assumptions, use improved systems, build new approaches, rethink the usual boundaries, give your brain the opportunity to incubate better, and work backward to notice patterns you normally ignore.

Dig deeper

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