Problem-solving skills are essential for life-long competence. If you’re not good at solving problems, you won’t be as successful in work, school, and even in everyday life. However, excellent problem-solving skills aren’t always the most natural things to acquire.
Some people seem like they’re born with them, but more often than not, it takes years of real-life experience and exercises to build up excellent problem-solving skills. The people with the best problem-solving skills are the ones who have worked the hardest at it, not the people who were born with innate logic skills.
Fortunately, while gaining excellent problem-solving skills won’t happen overnight, anyone can do it with enough practice. In fact, practicing gaining problem-solving skills with activities and strategies is one of the best ways to do it. We’ve included plenty of these to get you started in the sections below.
Work Your Brain
Of course, the most obvious way to build problem-solving skills is to solve problems. Some problems just can’t be replicated at your leisure, such as unforeseen issues at work, but logic puzzles and brain games are the next best thing.
You’ve undoubtedly played with some kind of logic puzzle before. Brain games are common in schools and even as hobbies. Chess, for example, is excellent to work your brain and logic capabilities, as are crossword puzzles, sudoku, and more.
You can get a bit more creative with your brain games, too. Hundreds of different options exist out there for you to try. Here are a few more examples:
- A Rubik’s Cube
- Hundreds of smartphone apps, like Cut the Rope and Angry Birds
Surprisingly, the best strategy for solving many logic puzzles – at least, the applicable ones – is to look at the problem backward. If you have a Rubik’s Cube, what movements would be required to get a solved cube to look like what you currently have? Just make those movements in reverse, and you’re good to go.
That strategy doesn’t apply to all logic puzzles, though. Consider Tetris, for example. This game is all about practice, muscle memory, and knowing how to make the best decision under pressure. This game tests your spur-of-the-moment decision making rather than your ability to think long and hard about something.
The trouble with problem-solving games is that, while all of them exercise your brain and promote the development of some kind of problem-solving skill, they tend to vary widely within that quantifier. While Tetris encourages the formation of fast decision-making skills, a crossword puzzle, on the other hand, tests your memory and ability to solve riddles.
The vast differences between different problem-solving games isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Since so many options are available, you can use them to build a variety of different problem-solving skills. However, this can make it a bit tough to find one that produces the skill you want, too.
Focus On the Solution
Like we mentioned in the paragraph above, one of the best ways to solve a problem is to focus on the solution. This strategy doesn’t just apply to brain-training games; it’s an excellent approach for real-life issues, too.
Believe it or not, there’s a fair bit of science behind this strategy, too. When our brains focus on a problem, we tend to experience negative feelings. However, when we focus on a solution, we experience happy feelings like determination, hopefulness, and willingness to compromise.
Focusing on the problem instead of the solution can be a real problem in team-based environments, too. When a team of people is stuck focusing on an issue, people tend to point fingers at each other – especially when things don’t get done or don’t succeed the way people wanted them to.
Focusing on the solution instead is a good way to look past and work through conflict instead of lingering on it. Instead of lingering on what may have gone wrong, you’ll end up thinking about potential solutions instead. This is a much more constructive use of your time when trying to solve a problem, after all.
Ask Plenty of Questions
If you’re looking to find potential solutions to a problem, you should be asking yourself plenty of questions about it. What exactly is the problem you need to solve? Are there any underlying issues contributing to the problem? Are there any solutions you’ve already tried that just won’t work? Have any team members offered any well-thought-out solutions?
You should never stop asking questions while trying to solve a problem. This goes for developing problem-solving skills, too. Whatever problem you’re trying to solve, whether it’s a real-life problem or just a game, try to gather as much information as you can about it through questions.
Asking questions is especially important if you’re attempting to solve a problem with other people. Whether you’re taking over a problem from someone else or working in combination with a team, it’s important to gather as much information as you can, whether that’s through questions or otherwise.
The types of questions you ask play a significant role, as well. You shouldn’t be asking any old questions. For example, if you’re building a block tower or other structure, and you ask, “Why isn’t my structure standing?” there may not be an obvious answer to the question. You’ll have to ask several follow-up questions to find the answer you’re looking for, such as:
- Is the material I’m using effective?
- Am I building the tower too tall?
- Am I using enough support?
- Are my team members fulfilling their duties adequately?
- Is the base for this tower steady and flat?
The above examples give you a familiar pattern to follow. If you’re trying to solve a problem and you don’t know what’s wrong, ask questions about anything and everything. Keep asking questions until you find one that you can’t answer, or that comes up with an unacceptable answer.
Define the Problem
Asking plenty of questions is an excellent way to solve problems, and it can often be handy for defining where the problem is, too. However, there are many different ways to identify a problem.
Consulting with team members is a great way to get started on defining your problem. If you’re not working with a team, ask a trusted friend, coworker, or supervisor to take a look at the situation or problem. A fresh set of eyes is always an excellent way to take another look at a situation, as they’re more likely to see things that you’ve overlooked, too.
Sometimes, defining the real problem in a situation is the issue. Red herrings in troublesome situations are more common than you might think, and even other people can lead you astray here. After all, something that one person thinks is a problem might just be their personal bias talking.
Good problem-solving skills are excellent for helping you define a problem quickly and easily. However, if your problem-solving skills are lacking, you might land on a few different conclusions before you make your way to the right problem. This is perfectly okay, if inefficient.
Part of developing these reasoning skills is learning how to parse through several conclusions before deciding on the most likely one. There are games out there that will help you build this skill, but it’s one that usually comes best through real-life practice.
Break It Down
Once you’ve identified the problem, the next logical conclusion is to break it down into manageable chunks or steps. An excellent way to get started on this is to ask multiple questions about the problem, as we illustrated a few paragraphs ago. If you’re trying to repair a car, and the issue is the engine, it’s time to figure out what steps to take to fix it.
In fact, breaking down a problem is just like breaking down a car engine. Sometimes, it’s clear that the problem is something simple. However, you might miss something if you don’t take the engine apart all the way. It’s always best to break a problem down to its basest parts to make sure you cover all issues before you try to solve it.
With time, people do develop the skills to evaluate a problem thoroughly without needing to break it down. However, this is a skill that comes with practice and age. For example, a skilled car mechanic can tell what’s wrong with a car based on a variety of external factors, like the smell, sound, feel, and mileage on it. However, a novice might need to tinker with the car a bit more before they’d be able to tell.
This is part of why learning to break problems down to their core components is so useful in developing problem-solving skills. The more problems you solve, the less you will need to break down in the future. It’s all about experience, thoroughness, and taking your time to understand the situation before making a final decision.
Getting a good night’s rest isn’t just good for your body. Getting a good night of sleep will help you make better decisions the next day, too. REM sleep, in particular, helps to boost creative processes in your brain, and you want your creative mind to be active when trying to solve problems.
Some of the best solutions to historical problems have been outside-of-the-box, and employers, especially, value outside-the-box thinking. Sometimes a nonstandard solution to a problem is just what a company needs to edge out its competitors. However, if you’re always running short on sleep, you won’t have much capacity for creative problem-solving.
A big part of this lies in the potential of dreams. When we dream, our subconscious mind tends to group things together that our conscious mind might never consider. This is part of why “sleeping on it” is such good advice; when we have trouble making up our minds, getting some good rest and REM sleep can help us to work through a problem creatively.
If you have a problem that’s giving you more trouble than you are used to, try giving it a good night’s sleep to see what happens. You might find yourself with a solution in the morning, and even if you don’t, you might find one coming to mind when you revisit the issue.
Of course, merely sleeping whenever you can’t overcome a problem (or when you’re training your problem-solving skills) shouldn’t be your sole fallback method. While sleeping on a problem can help you creatively solve a problem, it won’t solve the problem for you, either. It is best used in conjunction with other problem-solving techniques.
If you find yourself solving difficult problems often, or even working on your problem-solving skills on occasion, you may want to think about simplifying these problems. As it happens, when we’re trying to solve a problem, we often overlook the simplest solution to it. We even make things more complicated on our own, sometimes.
We’ve talked about simplifying the problem already. However, simplifying the solution is equally important. Sometimes – to re-use our metaphor from earlier – buying a new car instead of fixing the engine really is the best solution. We stress sometimes here, of course, because buying a new car every time it broke down, in reality, would be an awful idea. However, in certain circumstances – if the vehicle already has two-hundred-thousand miles on it and is quite old, for example – it might be worth it.
In the same way, it can save you time, energy, effort, and sometimes money to take the simplest solution to a problem. You know this already, of course, but the trick is remembering to do so. As human beings, we often try to think of the most elaborate and creative solution to a problem. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s not always efficient.
Always consider the simplest solution to a problem before you move on to more complicated ideas. This saves time if the most straightforward solution ends up being the best one, and since the simplest solutions are typically the fastest and easiest ones to implement, it’ll save you resources, too.
Consider the simple solutions even if they seem ridiculous, too. An average person would think buying a new car when the check engine light in your current one comes on would be silly, but, as we said before, if your car is old and not worth fixing, it might be your best option.
Brainstorming is one of the best ways to come up with a solution to a pervasive problem! Brainstorming is often utilized in seminars, workplaces, schools, and more to come up with ideas and solutions alike. You’ve most likely heard the term before.
Brainstorming can be done in many different ways, but the most common way is to write things down. Some people like to use diagrams along with their brainstorming as well, such as spider plots or Venn diagrams. However, this isn’t necessary, though a measure of organization is usually helpful. Something as simple as sorting your ideas into columns can be more than enough to keep things organized.
Brainstorming can be done alone (and it works perfectly well this way), but it’s especially useful when done with several other people. While brainstorming, everyone involved can present their ideas to the group, no matter how outlandish or unlikely they might be.
Some groups prefer to deliberate on ideas aloud, then write down the best ones. However, it’s often better to just write down all of the ideas on the first pass instead. An idea that might not seem like a good one when mentioned might sound better later, or it could even end up incorporated into a broader, better plan.
The benefit of writing your ideas down is clear, too. If you write down your thoughts as you think of them, you’ll be able to look back on that list later if you have a breakthrough idea. If you don’t write them down, you could end up forgetting about something that may have made a difference.
Seeing things written down makes a difference for our brains, too. Not only does writing things down help you remember them, but it helps to see things arranged spatially, also. If you write ideas down randomly, you might end up seeing two next to each other and spurring a plan from them.
In this way, brainstorming is excellent because it can lead to so many other activities. Brainstorming as a team is a great way to involve all members on equal footing, and it makes it easy to combine and compare ideas. Simply write your thoughts on a sheet of paper, then cut or tear each idea into a separate piece. This makes it easy to put ideas together or reorganize them.
Keep a Journal
This problem-solving strategy piggybacks off of brainstorming directly. If you keep a journal filled with your brainstorms, thoughts, and ideas with you, not only do you have a convenient medium to brainstorm on whenever you get the urge or opportunity, but you have all of those ideas in one convenient place.
When you carry an idea journal with you, you have instant access to the ideas that you’ve come up with in the past, too, both with other people and by yourself. You can repurpose old strokes of genius, combine old ideas with new ones, and much more. You can even draw diagrams, write tips or notes to yourself, or keep problem-solving strategies in your journal.
If you can remember to keep the idea journal with you, there’s really no downside to having one around. Nowadays, in today’s technological age, you can even create this journal on a tablet or laptop reasonably easily, making it even more portable and accessible.
Unless you have an incredible photographic memory, trying to keep all of your ideas in your head is a very unreliable idea. If you know you can do that, that’s one thing, but for the majority of people, writing them down is a much better idea.
Keeping an idea journal has the added benefit of letting you collect ideas whenever they come to you. It’s useful for brainstorming with others, but its real benefit is for those times when a truly ingenious idea pops unexpectedly into your head. Regardless of whether you’ve just woken up, you’re settling into bed, or you’re engrossed in some other activity, you can quickly write it down alongside your other ideas before it fades away.
While some people might consider a post-it note to be sufficient for this, this is a great way to end up disorganized with your ideas. You might lose some, or others might never make their way into your idea journal. A concrete idea journal, whether virtual or physical, is the best way to keep these ideas all together in one neat place.
Solutions, Solutions, Solutions
Another good way to use brainstorming is to use it to think of as many solutions as possible. The more answers you think of, no matter how unlikely, the better your chances are of finding a proper solution. Even if something seems unlikely or ridiculous, you should write it down or mention it aloud. It might contribute to a better solution somewhere down the line.
We talked about this a bit in our section on keeping a journal above. Even if a solution doesn’t apply to your current problem, it might be suitable for a future one. As such, writing down as many answers as possible is ideal.
Now, writing down solutions that wouldn’t realistically happen is the one exception. There’s no reason to clutter up a journal or a brainstorm with scenarios that would never happen. However, if there’s even the slightest chance that your idea could be utilized, you should write it down or mention it aloud.
In certain places, especially creative industries, the phrase “no idea is a bad idea” is common. Even if an idea is incredibly unlikely to be used, it could contribute to the formation of another idea. As such, each plan has its own value, whether it’s utilized or not.
Let’s look at an example. We’ll go with our earlier model: your car engine is in trouble, and you need to get it fixed. Some of your solutions might be:
- Fix it yourself
- Take it to a mechanic
- Purchase a new car
- Purchase a new engine
- Part out the vehicle and the engine to raise funds for a new car
- Keep driving the car
Assuming the car still operates, all of the above solutions could be used to solve your problem. Some are temporary solutions, and some will also take longer than others to accomplish. That paired with the difference of each solution makes each of them a unique, valuable addition.
We can even use the list above to come up with a hybrid solution to the problem. For example, you could pair purchasing a new engine with parting out the old engine to raise funds. Alternatively, you could drive the car until it’s no longer road-safe, then buy an entirely new vehicle.
Change Your Mindset
Your mindset, whether conscious or unconscious, plays a vital role in how you treat your problems. If you’re looking at your issues as burdensome, you’ll try to avoid them as much as you possibly can. As human beings, we tend to avoid things that stress us out and make our lives more difficult, even if we don’t consciously realize we’re doing it.
As such, changing the way you think and feel about your problems, even if it’s just a little, can change how easy it is to solve them, too. Changing how you feel about something stressful is a skill in and of itself, but it will inevitably help you get over problems that you dread facing.
This might seem like a daunting task, but it’s all about reminding yourself about how to feel. Perhaps you dread going into work every day because it’s stressful. Well, going into work is your source of livelihood, so it’s still crucial. Keeping your head up and performing at work might help you get a raise or a promotion, too.
When you feel like avoiding something or putting less than your full effort into it, just remind yourself how important it is that you give it your total energy and attention. Some days, it might feel like the hardest thing you can do, but it’s worth it.
One of the essential parts of improving your problem-solving skills is to keep evolving, learning, and growing with each challenge. Just like there are infinite combinations of problems that can crop up, there is no end to building the skills to surmount those problems. While you might feel like you’re a master one day, there’s always something to learn the next.
Actively look for lessons that you can learn from each problem. You might discover that keeping a journal of your ideas is essential one day, and you might learn not to discard seemingly-ridiculous ideas the next. Never forget these lessons you learn, and don’t close yourself off to them, either.