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Want To Tackle Problems At Work Like A Boss? Learn This Thinking Approach From Elon Musk

Want To Tackle Problems At Work Like A Boss? Learn This Thinking Approach From Elon Musk

If you’re eager to improve your work performance, you probably consider yourself an ambitious and forward-thinking contributor to the world of business. But let’s face the fact: ambition and hard work alone are not enough to help us overcome numerous hurdles on our career paths. What sends some people to the pinnacle of success is their strong problem-solving ability.

Totally clueless about how to improve your problem-solving skills at work? Maybe you learn and practice the thinking approach adopted by many successful entrepreneurs including Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and owner of Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Solar City.

What is the thinking approach? It’s called First Principles Thinking.

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What Is First Principles Thinking?

There are two types of thinking when it comes to brainstorming and tackling problems; one is comparison thinking and the other is first principles thinking.

Comparison thinking is when you come up with a solution using a mixture of pre-existing ideas. We tend to do this because our minds can become quite limited and often tries to find the easy way out by building on or tweaking an idea that is already out there. The problem with this is we begin the brainstorming or problem-solving from a space of assumption rather than questioning – we build on what has already been established rather than finding and questioning from a new basic level.

First principles thinking is about starting from a clean slate and free from any pre-existing ideas making it a much better approach to problem-solving and creating innovative ideas. It’s about starting with the core fundamental basics and working your way up from there.

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What Are The Benefits Of First Principles Thinking?

By following first principles thinking, it helps you gather a better understanding of complex problems and better knowledge of the unknown leading to unique innovative thinking. Comparison thinking leads us to think in terms of analogy whereas first principles thinking allows us to potentially see something in much finer detail.

How Can I Apply First Principles Thinking?

The best way to use this way of brainstorming is for improving performance at work. Whatever career path you’re on – coming up with new ideas, ways to improve your business or presenting a potential new business strategy to your boss – using first principles thinking will allow you to fully research and understand what will be successful and what won’t be.

The three questions you should use to focus your mind and break free of limited assumptions are:

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  • What am I trying to accomplish?
  • What is the fundamental problem?
  • What really matters to the people I’m reaching with this?

This allows you to get to your core motivation and understanding rather than using an existing idea and trying to see how to make it better.

For example, Musk talked about his thinking behind Tesla, his electric car company. An example of comparison thinking would lead someone to say “electric cars will never take off because batteries are too expensive.” This thought process holds limitations and could well lead to the company not going down a profitable route.

Instead, Musk would ask: What are the materials used to make these batteries? What is the market value of these individual materials? Could we, therefore, produce the batteries much cheaper?” He found it was much cheaper through using the strategy of first principles thinking. By taking this route we are able to break down the components and rebuild them in an affordable way showing the original assumption that batteries are not economical enough is, in fact, wrong.

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First principles thinking is about breaking out of limited thinking and the assumptions that we tend to conclude from previous evidence. It’s about looking at something from a new angle. It’s about questioning until you reach the core answer. Try applying this to your work life and see how the possibilities can multiply.

Featured photo credit: Nicolas Bariteau via nicolasbariteau.com

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Jenny Marchal

A passionate writer who loves sharing about positive psychology.

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Last Updated on July 13, 2020

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

Overwhelm is a pernicious state largely caused by the ever-increasing demands on our time and the distractions that exist all around us. It creeps up on us and can, in its extreme form, leave us feeling anxious, stressed and exhausted.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, here are 6 strategies you can follow that will reduce the feeling of overwhelm; leaving you calmer, in control and a lot less stressed.

1. Write Everything down to Offload Your Mind

The first thing you can do when you begin to feel overwhelmed is to write everything down that is on your mind.

Often people just write down all the things they think they have to do. This does help, but a more effective way to reduce overwhelm is to also write down everything that’s on your mind.

For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section “things to do” and the other “what’s on my mind”.

The act of writing all this down and getting it out of your head will begin the process of removing your feeling of overwhelm. Writing things down can really change your life.

2. Decide How Long It Will Take to Complete Your To-Dos

Once you have ‘emptied your head,’ go through your list and estimate how long it will take to complete each to-do.

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As you go through your list, you will find quite a few to-dos will only take you five or ten minutes. Others will take longer, often up to several hours.

Do not worry about that at this stage. Just focus on estimating how long you will need to complete each task to the best of your ability. Here’s How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List.

3. Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

Now here’s a little trick I learned a long time ago. Parkinson’s Law states that work will fill the time you have available to complete it, and us humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take:((Odhable: Genesis of Parkinson’s Law))

    This is why many people are always late. They think it will only take them thirty minutes to drive across town when previous experience has taught them it usually takes forty-five minutes to do so because traffic is often bad but they stick to the belief it will only take thirty minutes. It’s more wishful thinking than good judgment.

    We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage. If you have estimated that to write five emails that desperately need a reply to be ninety minutes, then reduce it down to one hour. Likewise, if you have estimated it will take you three hours to prepare your upcoming presentation, reduce it down to two hours.

    Reducing the time you estimate something will take gives you two advantages. The first is you get your work done quicker, obviously. The second is you put yourself under a little time pressure and in doing so you reduce the likelihood you will be distracted or allow yourself to procrastinate.

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    When we overestimate how long something will take, subconsciously our brains know we have plenty of time and so it plays tricks on us and we end up checking reviews of the Apple Watch 4 or allow our colleagues to interrupt us with the latest office gossip.

    Applying a little time pressure prevents this from happening and we get more focused and more work done.

    4. Use the Power of Your Calendar

    Once you have your time estimates done, open up your calendar and schedule your to-dos. Go through your to-dos and schedule time on your calendar for doing those tasks. Group tasks up into similar tasks.

    For emails that need attention on your to-do list, schedule time on your calendar to deal with all your emails at once. Likewise, if you have a report to write or a presentation to prepare, add these to your calendar using your estimated time as a guide for how long each will take.

    Seeing these items on your calendar eases your mind because you know you have allocated time to get them done and you no longer feel you have no time. Grouping similar tasks together keeps you in a focused state longer and it’s amazing how much work you get done when you do this.

    5. Make Decisions

    For those things you wrote down that are on your mind but are not tasks, make a decision about what you will do with each one. These things are on your mind because you have not made a decision about them.

    If you have an issue with a colleague, a friend or a loved one, take a little time to think about what would be the best way to resolve the problem. More often than not just talking with the person involved will clear the air and resolve the problem.

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    If it is a more serious issue, then decide how best to deal with it. Talk to your boss, a colleague and get advice.

    Whatever you do, do not allow it to fester. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. You need to make a decision to deal with it and the sooner you do so the sooner the problem will be resolved. (You can take a look at this guide on How To Make Good Decisions All The Time.)

    I remember long ago, when I was in my early twenties and had gone mad with my newly acquired credit cards. I discovered I didn’t have the money to pay my monthly bills. I worried about it for days, got stressed and really didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I told a good friend of mine of the problem. He suggested I called the credit card company to explain my problem. The next day, I plucked up the courage to call the company, explained my problem and the wonderful person the other end listened and then suggested I paid a smaller amount for a couple of months.

    This one phone call took no more than ten minutes to make, yet it solved my problem and took away a lot of the stress I was feeling at the time. I learned two very valuable lessons from that experience:

    The first, don’t go mad with newly acquired credit cards! And the second, there’s always a solution to every problem if you just talk to the right person.

    6. Take Some Form of Action

    Because overwhelm is something that creeps up on us, once we feel overwhelmed (and stressed as the two often go together), the key is to take some form of action.

    The act of writing everything down that is bothering you and causing you to feel overwhelmed is a great place to start. Being able to see what it is that is bothering you in a list form, no matter how long that list is, eases the mind. You have externalized it.

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    It also means rather than these worries floating around in a jumbled mess inside your head, they are now visible and you can make decisions easier about what to do about them. Often it could be asking a colleague for a little help, or it could be you see you need to allocate some focused time to get the work done. The important thing is you make a decision on what to do next.

    Overwhelm is not always caused by a feeling of having a lack of time or too much work, it can also be caused by avoiding a decision about what to do next.

    The Bottom Line

    Make a decision, even if it is to just talk to someone about what to do next. Making a decision about how you will resolve something on its own will reduce your feelings of overwhelm and start you down the path to a resolution one way or another.

    When you follow these strategies to can say goodbye to your overwhelm and gain much more control over your day.

    More Tips for Reducing Work Stress

    Featured photo credit: Andrei Lazarev via unsplash.com

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