What is the first thing you do when you have a problem? Find solutions?

The first thing you have to do to resolve any problem is not to find solutions. It’s to ask yourself important questions.

Similar to a mathematical problem you had to solve in elementary school, there is always a question at the end of each problem. If there isn’t a specific question at the end of each problem, you won’t know what to solve.

Below are 10 steps you can follow to systematically solve any problem you have. At the end of each step, you’ll find suggested questions that help you solve your problem.

1. Assess if your problem needs to be solved.

Why find solutions to a problem when your problem doesn’t need to be solved in the first place?

Your mind loves to create problems for you to solve. It’s mentally stimulating. But sometimes, if you take a step back and assess your problem, you may find that your problem may not be something you need to solve.

For example, my friend told me that drinking coke is his vice. But his vice isn’t necessary something that needs to be solved. If the benefits he receives from drinking coke outweigh the benefits of not drinking it, why does he need to change his habit? Even if he tries to change, it’s highly likely he would fail because of the benefit he receives from drinking coke.

So whenever you face a new problem, first ask yourself why you want to solve the problem. Assess the cost and benefits of solving and not solving the problem and determine if the problem is still a problem you need to solve.

Suggested Questions:

  • Why do you want to solve this problem?
  • What are the benefits and costs of solving or not solving this problem?
  • Is the benefit of solving this problem more than the benefit of not solving this problem?
  • Is the cost of solving this problem more than the cost of not solving this problem?

2. Identify the underlying problem clearly.

Every time you have a problem, go deeper and ask yourself if there is a deeper underlying problem. What you define as the problem may just be a symptom.

For example, you have a constant headache. Taking medicine will only resolve this problem short-term. It will only help you ease your pain for now. Your headache may just be  a symptom of the problem.

The real problem could be a lack of sleep and dehydration. And if you go deeper and understand why you allow yourself so little sleep, you may find that the bigger problem you have is poor time management or work stress.

Identifying the underlying problem helps you get to the root of the issue. Solving it helps you remove all the small, recurring symptoms that it creates.

If your problem isn’t clearly defined, then there is no point in finding solutions to it. Because you will end up solving the wrong problem or a problem that is of little value to you.

Suggested Questions:

  • What is the underlying problem here?
  • Is the problem you have defined a symptom instead?
  • What could be causing your current problem now?

3. Define specific and measurable objectives.

Now that you have defined your problems clearly, you can start to develop a strategic plan to tackle your problem.

But before you think of solutions, think of the objectives you are trying to achieve first. Because your problem will never be resolved if you do not have specific and measurable objectives to tell you that your problem has been resolved.

For example, you have identified that your problem is not having enough money to support yourself.

Finding more ways to earn money is good but without a clear objective you can’t check at any point in time if you have resolved your problem or not.

However, if you have determined your objective is to earn $5,000 each month in order to solve a financial problem, you will know that you are beginning to solve your problem when you do earn $5,000 in a month.

Moreover, it’s easier to come up with strategies and test their effectiveness when you have specific and measurable objectives defined.

Suggested Questions:

  • What are your objectives?
  • What are you trying to achieve by resolving this problem?
  • Are your objectives specific and measurable?
  • Does your objectives let you know your progress at any point in time?
  • Does your objectives help you determine if you have solved your problem or not?

4. Come up with as many solutions as you can.

The key to this step is to not filter any ideas you have.

No matter how crazy or how impossible your ideas may sound at first, write them down. Think about the constraints later (discussed in next step.) For now, just let your mind think freely and come up with as many solutions as possible.

For example, if you want to spend 2 hours more each week with your family, think of all the things you are willing to give up for your family. It could be spending less time watching TV, cutting down your commute time or spending less time at work. Even if they don’t seem possible at first, don’t dismiss them yet.

If you are lost, look for other people who have the same problem as you and understand how they have solved their problem. Their experience will give you great insights into how to solve your problem.

Suggested Questions:

  • What can you do to reach your objectives?
  • What do you think is impossible to do but could help you achieve your objectives?
  • How can you achieve your objectives if you aren’t limited by any constraints?
  • Who has the same problem as you?
  • How did they solve their problem?

5. Determine your constraints and refine your solutions.

Now that you have come up with solutions, it’s time to determine your constraints. Your constraints could be time, deadlines, money, resources or even fears that are blocking you from reaching your objectives.

Using the same example above, you have identified that to have more time for your family the solution is to spend less time at work. However, you feel that it’s not possible to knock off work time because you have so many things to do.

Determine if your constraints are true or just assumptions. Can you eliminate your constraints? Perhaps some of your work doesn’t need to be completed urgently.

Even if your constraints are true and you can’t eliminate them, use them to help you come up with better solutions. Combine your constraints with your initial solution and ask yourself a better question.

So for the example above, ask yourself questions such as:

  • How do I knock off work time while completing the work I need to produce? (Maybe I can trade tasks with my colleagues and do the work that I can do more efficiently.)
  • How can I do my work faster and produce the same outcome? (Maybe I can improve my personal workflow or change the existing way of doing things.)

Suggested Questions:

  • What constraints do you have that prevent you from solving your problem?
  • Is your constraint true or just an assumption?
  • Can you eliminate the constraints you have?
  • What questions can you ask yourself to come up with a better solution?
  • How can you do things differently but yet produce the same results?

6. Pick the best solution.

Having many solutions is good, but it’s important to pick one solution and focus on it.

To pick the best solution, go through your list of solutions and identify the solution that will give you the most results but takes the least time, effort and resources.

Why should you do this?

Implementing the solution that produce the most results will be fine if your solution works out. But what if it doesn’t? You need to think about what you will lose if your solution fails completely. Is it something you can live with?

Choose a solution which you can implement quickly and test if it works or not.

However, bear in mind, don’t pick the solution that is quick to implement but doesn’t produce the result you want. Always think of the results a solution can potentially provide, then implement the solution.

Suggested Questions:

  • How well can this solution solve your problem and meet your objectives?
  • How much time, effort and resources do you need to implement this solution?
  • Which solutions give you the most results but takes the least time, effort and resources?
  • If this solution fails, can you live with it?
  • Will this solution provide the results you desire?

7. Break the solution down into small action steps.

If you don’t make your solution actionable and easy for you to do, you won’t do it.

Let’s say you have a messy home and your solution is to clean it up. But cleaning it up seems like a lot of work. So what do you do?

You break it into smaller tasks that you can do within 5 – 30 minutes. For example:

  • Put the books on the table back into the cupboard.
  • Empty the trash.

Instead of tackling your problem or implementing your solution fully, chunk it down to bite size so that you can do a bit each day without overwhelming yourself.

Suggested Questions:

  • What do you need to do to implement this solution?
  • How can you break the solution down into small action steps?
  • What can you do within 5 to 30 minutes?
  • Are the action steps manageable or still too overwhelming?
  • How can you break your action steps even further?

8. Ask for help.

You don’t have to solve your problem alone. But you also don’t want to turn your problem into other people’s problem.

After you break down your solution into small actionable steps, it’ll be easier for you to ask others for help, and others are more likely to help you because you will have made it simple for them to help you.

Go through your list of action steps, pick tasks that you think others can do better and faster than you. And simply ask others for help. It doesn’t have to be restricted to friends and family. You can hire a virtual assistant online or someone professional to help you implement your strategy.

Apart from helping you with action steps, you can also ask or hire someone to be your accountability partner. For example, hiring a trainer to help you lose weight.

You will report your progress to that person every week and tell him or her what you are going to do next week. Having someone holding you accountable will keep you on track.

Suggested Questions:

  • What action steps are easy enough that others are willing to help you?
  • What action steps can others do better and faster than you?
  • Who will be suitable to help you with these tasks?
  • Do you need someone professional to help you with some of the action steps?
  • Who can you seek or hire to be your accountability partner?

9. Prioritize, schedule and follow up.

For the remaining action steps, prioritize them according to importance. Similar to step #6, pick the action steps that take the less time and effort to do but give you the most results.

You want to start off with some easy tasks to get your momentum going and let them build up your confidence.

Pick a few action steps that you think you can complete in a week and schedule them. Then, find a time each week to schedule your next action steps for the week.

For those action steps that you have outsourced to others in step #8, you also need to schedule a time to follow up with the other party and check their progress.

This step is crucial because it minimizes procrastination. If you don’t put your action steps on your calendar, you most likely won’t do it.

Suggested Questions:

  • What are three to five action steps that you can complete this week?
  • When would you be doing these action steps?
  • What actions do you need to take next week?
  • When would you be following up on the action steps that you have outsourced?
  • Have you scheduled these action steps on your calendar?

10. Take action and go back to the previous steps if necessary.

After you have scheduled your action steps, take action accordingly. If you are stuck, go back to any of the previous steps and revise your strategy.

Don’t be afraid to start all over again. You have already gained knowledge and experience in solving the problem from this process.

Even if you are not stuck, it’s good to take a step back and see if you are solving the correct problem, using the most effective strategies and making progress.

Also, check if you have already resolved the problem with the objectives you established in step #3. If you have resolved your problem, there’s no need to carry out the other miscellaneous action steps. Just celebrate what you have achieved so far and congratulate yourself for a job well done.

Suggested Questions:

  • Are the actions that you have taken producing any results?
  • Are you feeling stuck or not seeing any progress?
  • Which step do you need to go back to and revise your strategy?
  • Have your objectives in step #3 been met?
  • If so, do you still need to carry out the other miscellaneous action steps?

Featured photo credit: Worried!/Alon via flickr.com

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