Problem Solving

One of the primary causes of stress are problems we encounter in our everyday lives. Problems may vary, but at the core they are all difficult matters causing us distress and requiring a solution.

If problems persist, the resultant stress may be detrimental to our mental and emotional health. Solving problems is therefore important. The following four steps may support addressing and resolving a problem:

  • Identify the problem
  • Set SMART goals
  • Determine effective solutions
  • Implement and measure effectiveness

Identify the Problem

The first step in the process is to recognize the problem. Often when we are feeling stressed, our thought process is distorted and we perceive things in a confused or negative way. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the problem clearly.

It is a common mistake to misattribute the cause of distress when the problem we confront overwhelms of confuses us. For example, Naveed may be feeling very stressed because his employer has set goals that are difficult or unattainable given the allotted time and resources.  Instead of dealing with his fear of failure or need for approval from his boss, Naveed may start blaming his colleagues or juniors for not performing well enough and perceive his problems at work to be a result of their inadequacies.

Another common mistake is to ignore the problem in the hope that it will vanish. This may offer temporary relief but in the long run it is common for a persisting problem to compound and become more complex.

At times we may not be aware that there is a problem, and instead find ourselves irritable or upset without knowing the reason. It is important to have a daily practice of quiet reflection to allow feelings to emerge and recognize factors that may be contributing to distress.

It is also a common error to become overwhelmed with a problem and focus on that which we cannot change.  In this case, valuable time and energy may be lost. Instead of focusing on what you cannot change, you can bring your attention to that which you can influence. For example, if you are feeling hot, hoping that the weather will change is of no use. However, you can focus on the aspect you can influence by asking yourself how you can dress to keep cool despite the hot weather.

Some ways to identify a problem are:

  • Pay attention to your feelings, particularly unpleasant emotions. For example, if you are feeling angry while talking to your boss, it may indicate that there is a problem in your relationship with her or him.
  • Start making a list of all the things you may feel are causing you stress.
  • Set aside those problems that are beyond your control, like someone else’s choices or actions.
  • Identify the areas that you can influence.

Set SMART Goals

After you have defined the problem, you can move onto identifying the ways of solving the problem through goal-setting. There may be several ways to solve the problem, but it is important to set realistic goals which are achievable.

When we are framing goals, it is helpful to frame the goal as a process rather than an outcome. For example, when struggling to study for an exam, it is not useful to continually imagine and worry about the result of the exam while studying for it. The result of an exam is the outcome, while the energy, attention and effort you put into studying for the exam is the process. By bringing attention to the process and away from the outcome, you can turn the problem of ‘I cannot fail this exam’ into the goal of ‘I want to be prepared as well as possible.’ Focusing on the process also allows you to step away from the feelings of anxiety and powerlessness that may arise from focusing on the result, to the sense of energy and motivation that it takes to read, take notes, practice, and review the material.

The acronym SMART is a useful tool that can help reframe the long term plan into a clear and precise plan of action:

  • Specific: Define the goal as narrowly as possible.

I want to improve my grade in mathematics.

  • Measurable: Think about ways of tracking the progress and measuring the outcome

To improve, I need a B in my final exam

  • Achievable: Is it realistic for you to achieve this goal?

The goal is realistic as my teacher said that a B is within my reach.

  • Relevant: Is the goal consistent with your overall beliefs and does it meet your needs?

The goal is relevant as I need a B to apply for engineering at university, where I want to study.

  • Time bound: It is important that our goal includes a time limit, so that we can track review goals and track progress.

Until my final exam in four months, I want to do a weekly test.  After each month, I will measure my improvement.

Determine Effective Solutions

Now that you have identified the goal, you can think about the different ways and strategies through which this goal can be achieved. This can be done by listing all the possible solutions that come to your mind, no matter how outlandish or unrealistic they seem initially.

When you have identified the possible solutions, it is important to prioritize the different solutions you came up with in order to find the most effective one. Prioritization depends on what kind of resources you need for different solutions, how easily you can enact the solution, and what impact each solution may have. For example, it may not be possible for you to stay at home during hot weather, but you can make sure that you always wear a cap outside and that you have some water with you to remain relatively cool.

You can also combine different solutions to arrive at the best one. It may even be helpful to discuss your ideas with someone you trust as often another person’s perspective is more objective than your own.

To summarize:

  • List all possible solutions.
  • Prioritize those which seem most realistic and effective.
  • Eliminate those less achievable or effective
  • Combine different solutions if needed
  • Seek advice from trusted people

Implement and Measure Effectiveness

After we have arrived at the best possible solution, it is time for you to implement it and measure the progress made in solving the problem. At this stage, it can be helpful to list the steps required for implementing the desired solution and go step by step.

It’s a good idea to measure how well the implementation of your chosen solution to the problem is working. If the problem is resolving itself, it means you have practiced problem solving well. However, sometimes the solution may not work out and it is important to not get disheartened – remember that even the best plans may fail sometimes.

If your solution doesn’t seem to be working, you could ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. Did you define the problem correctly?
  2. Were your goals unrealistic?
  3. Was there a better solution?
  4. Did you carry out the solution properly?

You may need go through these steps more than once until you have a satisfactory solution. This is normal, especially for more difficult problems.