Editorial
17 Ways You Can Wire Your Brain to Be Better at Problem Solving
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Jane Scudder image

Maybe you're not the problem-solving kind because you're not great at the decision-making process. Critical thinking perhaps doesn't come easy to you. Maybe you tend to create the problem, but then you need learn how to solve the problem. Sometimes it's just plain hard to answer to people, like the guy who's always asking some open-ended question, which can make it hard to define the problem. Or it's some sort of complex problem or creative problem that you don't feel equipped to handle.

Regardless, problems arise in everyday life and you should want to be a good problem solver. Why? Decision-making and problem-solving skills will help you get through life and succeed in your work. Many professionals claim that they are good at it, but what does it really mean? And more importantly, how can you grow this ability? You don't need the scientific method to get things done.

But problem solving, like any strength or skill, is something you have to work to develop and that you need to practice to maintain. Yes, some people might be more inclined to think in this mindset, but if that's not your natural tendency, do not give up hope! You can actually train your brain to be more solution-oriented. You just need an action plan and a problem-solving strategy. It also takes commitment and focus but, eventually, it becomes natural. Along with the typical suggestions like “be a constant student” and “meditate” (which you absolutely should do), there are few less frequently discussed tactics to boosting your decision-making and problem-solving skills.

So if you worry that you're a fraud and simply claiming to be a problem solver, read on for 17 ways you can grow your problem solving skills.

1. Keep track of your ideas.

Write it all down. Carry a small notebook around with you; keep a pad of paper at your bedside table; have post-its at your desk; keep a blog library. Whatever your technique is, give yourself the opportunity to jot things down. They're each a good problem-solving strategy in the long run.

Why? Problem solvers know that they need to recognize patterns, especially from the past, so journaling and the act of writing down can help to retain memories and experiences. Additionally, the habit of writing things down rather than simply thinking about this is a power that needs to be exercised.

2. Have the right mindset.

Attitude is everything; it's simple cognitive psychology. How you psychologically approach a problem is linked to how you view the solution. At the most foundation level, if you believe there is a solution there is a solution.

Problem solvers are playful, curious and inquisitive and choose to have a positive outlook and use positive language. If you think something is impossible, it becomes impossible. Likewise, if you think something is possible, it becomes possible. Your outlook frames everything so choose it actively and wisely. Doing just that is an action plan of its own.

3. Ask for feedback.

Problem solving is based on trial and error. A key part being the learning process and learning how to get better. While you might not be able to A/B test your career you can learn a great deal about your approach from your peers, direct reports, business partners, and superiors. How? Ask for feedback. 

Pro Tip: Make feedback a part of who you are professionally. Ask for it and give it, all the time, not just at year-end or mid-year in your company’s automated performance management system.

4. Get good at making decisions, even if you’re admittedly lukewarm on your choice.

Decision-making is a skill in itself and also a problem-solving strategy when you can actually make choices. That’s partially because making an important decision can be daunting and pressure-filled. A key piece of problem solving is coming up with an idea for a solution and running with it. If doesn’t work, you pivot. The point is to get comfortable driving to — and actually making — a decision.

5. Consider a different perspective.

What’s your move if you’re faced with a decision but don’t like the choices you have in front of you? Find another option. Sounds obvious, right? For a seasoned problem solver it might seem like second nature but actually this a conscious choice. To grow this ability try this: Before every choice you make commit to considering another perspective then choosing what you want to do. Start small. When choosing what type of cereal to buy at the grocery store, before you pick up your usual low-sugar, fiber-rich go-to, ask yourself what your seven-year-old would do. What about Fruity Pebbles would make her want you to buy it? You don’t necessarily have to buy Fruity Pebbles, but working to consider other perspectives when making seemingly innocuous choices will help you grow your ability to shift and consider different perspectives more seamlessly.

6. Have mentors and role models.

Mentorship and role models are important for any career, but for a problem solver they take on another component: modeling. With a good mentor or role model, rather than having to test a specific choice or path a problem solver will learn all she can about the career and choices of a role model or mentor, ask questions when possible, and then make decisions for herself with the knowledge of these learnings. Employing the scientific concept of modeling in your life and career allows you to incorporate learnings from the experiences of others without having to re-create the wheel. (Though, of course, there are some things you have to try for yourself!)

7. Have some fun.

Playfulness is a key characteristic of being a problem solver; no idea is too silly and there’s fun in everything. So have fun, know how to let loose, and don't take everything seriously. Talk about an probelm-solving strategy!

8. Have rituals but know when to break habits.

Another problem-solving method is to slowly steep tea in the morning. Or grind your own coffee. Go to a yoga class late Sunday afternoon to re-set your mind for the week ahead. Have dinner with friends the second Friday of every month. Establish things that you like to do and do them regularly. This helps you train your brain for regularity and create moments in work and life that you look forward to.

But also know when and how to regularly change your environment and break habits. Whether it’s changing things around in your home or workspace every now and then, giving yourself a change of scenery in the middle of the day, or going on a weekend getaway and missing the monthly dinner with friends, changing your scenery is essential. This trains your brain to be open to new ideas and breaking routine.

9. Use (and create) diagrams.

As humans we are visual creatures. But along with visuals like diagrams and drawings helping us understand, to be able to communicate something in a clear, visual manner highlights understanding of it and can help you reaffirm your belief in it. Employing diagrams in your work and life is a great problem-solving method. Try this out by drawing a scenario. Not an artist? Remember #6.

10. Employ visioning.

This might be life coach in me, but here’s the truth: Visioning is an extremely powerful tool and technique. You cannot accomplish something you cannot envision. Feel too squishy? Consider that babies develop motor skills through a process of observation and visualization over time. It’s only after they are able to visualize themselves picking up objects after careful observation that they can do it themselves. But visioning isn’t just for babies. We all use it when we read books, listen to colleague tell us about her vacation in Greece, or when we imagine the future or remember the past.

A little unsure where to start? Try simply envisioning a more vivid picture when reading something. Along with imagining the scene consider what a room or person smells like; what food tastes like; the small movements in someone’s mouth as she considers a comment. You’ve started to vision!

11. Ask solution-oriented questions.

We know we should ask questions but are we asking the right kinds of questions to help us solve problems? Questions are a truly incredible part of our lives. When you stop and think of it, so much of our daily human interactions are based on questions. We communicate via questions with our internal dialogue and others on anything from what we want to have for lunch, if we want to buy a cup of coffee or stick to the free coffee in the shared kitchen, when we should make a doctor's appointment, what to wear on Tuesday that will work for happy hour after the office, what manner to phrase question to our boss (#meta).

It's easy to get lost in what feels like a sea of meaningless questioning. So take back control! Ask and frame questions in a solution-oriented manner? How? By asking how and what How do these words help build problem solving skills? What advantage to why questions do they offer? They challenge you to find solutions and expand your thinking by going beyond what we already or normally believe true.

12. Or if you prefer a more scientific term, allow things to incubate.

An early idea may be the tip of the iceberg of a more complex idea. Give ideas time. Call it rest, incubation, giving it time to percolate — whatever language you like.

Pro Tip: For those who feel uncomfortable with simple rest, first try to get comfortable with it. But if you want more guided reflection, before nodding off to sleep, pose a question or two to yourself. Then reflect on this same question when you wake.

13. Frame a problem as a question.

When you're faced with a problem — communicating a less than ideal campaign performance, finding more dollars for an urgent project, spending an additional $50,000 just allocated to your team, creating a website that works for both new and current customers, finding a new speaker on short notice — reframe it. Rather than seeing simply the problem begin to see it as a big question that you need to answer. For instance, "How can I spend and extra $50,000 in Q4?" Then come up with as many solutions as possible for this. Remember to take your playful mindset and that no ideas are "bad."

Pro Tip: Actually write all this out. You can have two columns of "questions" and "solutions" or two separate pieces of paper.

14. Make reflection a habit.

What’s happening? What’s going well? What do you want? Bring reflection into your life daily. If you already practice mindfulness or mediation this might just be an extension of that, but if you don't start in manageable steps. Spend 5 minutes on your commute to work considering what you want your day to be like. For five minutes on the way home reflect on how your actual day compared. Evolve this to include any questions or topics that matter to you.

15. Ask for help.

You can’t do everything alone. And frankly, even if you could, should you? No. Delegation, outsourcing and tapping experts are all things for a reason. Group problem-solving can be key because problem solvers revel in different perspectives and constantly want to consider things from a new vantage point. It’s no wonder that they solicit other ideas. Enlist a trusted colleague or mentor, hire a coach or talk with a loyal and non-judgmental friend. A spouse and best friend is great, but the key here is to find someone who will offer you an unbiased and completely open-minded outlet or perspective.

16. Take (calculated) risks.

A creative solution won't be achieved or successful without some level of risk. What’s the best way to get comfortable with risks? Start taking them. Whether it’s traveling to another country, eating alone at your favorite restaurant on a Friday night, or telling your sensitive colleague that the apple she enjoys at her desk every afternoon at 3:05 p.m. is driving you insane. Taking risks is a part of the mental framework of a problem solver so find something that works for you and do it. Now.

17. Set and measure goals.

Establishing desired outcomes is a key part of a successful solution to a problem. And like everything this must be refined and infused to all areas of life. To get better at this set and measure goals in your own professional (and personal) life.

Pro Tip: Make sure they’re measurable. And then actually measure them. Don’t say you want to lose weight but, rather, commit to losing five pounds in three months. Then assess where you are at three months. Rather than saying you want to learn a new language; decide what progress you want to have achieved in six months (say the number of vocabulary words, practice conversations, etc.) and decide what program or method you plan on employing (a tutor, in-person or online classes, self-study, etc.)

Do you have a go-to problem-solving process? How about for some complex problem? Sometimes, to solve a problem can take quite a few steps and an action plan. This article should help you hone your decision-making process and find ways to solve the problem at hand — or just get through everyday life, since you'll have to solve a problem at some point. It's a long list, but it's simple stuff. Not sure where to start? Pick one, set a goal around it and do it!

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Jane Scudder is a certified leadership, career, and personal development coach, facilitator, and workplace consultant based in Chicago, IL. She helps individuals and group navigate and grow their careers, teams, and personal lives. Find out more at janescudder.com.

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