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Albert Einstein’s Problem-Solving Formula, and Why It Still Works Like a Charm

Albert Einstein’s Problem-Solving Formula, and Why It Still Works Like a Charm
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When asked how he would spend his time if he was given an hour to solve a thorny problem, Einstein said he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and alternatives and 5 minutes solving it.

You’ve probably used a handy invention called “coffee sleeves” if you’ve ever visited a coffee shop.  These insulators make it bearable to hold that super-hot cup of coffee.  Jay Sorensen is the inventor of the coffee sleeve.  He came up with this idea when he was driving his daughter to school when he spilled a cup of coffee in his lap, because the coffee was too hot to hold.

It’s common wisdom that innovative ideas must be original, new, and a flash of creativity out of the blue. But this belief is a real obstacle to creativity.

Jay Sorensen didn’t create the coffee sleeve because he was setting out to innovative. He needed to solve a problem.

Innovation is not about creating something from nothing.

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There are problems everywhere, as long as you pay attention to them. Lots of great inventions come from the daily problems people encounter.

When it’s raining and you don’t want to wear clunky, unfashionable rain boots – but you don’t want to get your feet wet?  There go the Dry Steppers.  You want to bring a water bottle to work, but the shape of normal water bottles don’t work with your briefcase? Someone came up with the idea of Letter paper shaped bottles.

True breakthroughs happen when you notice problems and create solutions. Problems stimulate you to really think about what can be improved. Observing problems is a good start.

Different Levels of Problems

There are different types of problems. Some are easier to stimulate innovative ideas, some are more difficult.  Finding out the type of problem you have identified helps you to know your effort needed to create new ideas.

Type 1: Problems with Good Solutions Available

Difficulty Level: ★★★

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Some problems already have good solutions available. For example, in hot and humid climates, people have adjusted to the use of fans and air conditioning. It would take a huge breakthrough in order to think of a solution superior to what’s already available.

So, a brand-new invention to address hot climates would be a very difficult innovation to accomplish. There is no clear need for a new solution.

Type 2: Long Existing Problems with No Solutions Yet Found

Difficulty Level: ★★

A more intermediate scenario is when a problem has existed for a long time, and no solutions have yet emerged.

These intermediate problems are often very hard to fix because of their scale or complexity. For example, poverty is a huge problem, and everyone knows that. But nobody has “fixed” it probably because it’s hard to fix, and there are limitations on the resources to fix it.

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When anything is possible, it’s difficult to know when and how to kick it off. But this situation can also be positive. With intermediate problems, you have no restrictions, and so you’re free to try out creative ideas. Take this as a source of inspiration. You might not have the resources to apply your solution right now, but that shouldn’t hold you back. Think of a solution and try it out when the timing is right.

Type 3: Problems That Have Flawed Solutions Available

Difficulty Level: ★

Finally, there are easy innovations. These include problems that do have available solutions, but those solutions are flawed. You can take what’s already there and improve on it. For example, the smartphone is in many ways an improvement of the original cell phone; it has added a lot of new functionality to an old technology.

While you might feel inspired to tackle a 3-star problem, you might try to kickstart your innovation with an 2-star or 1-star problem first.

Start with a Problem Within Your Reach

There are tons of problems out there, in every conceivable area of life. Look for one that is within your own field of expertise – where you can excel by using your knowledge and skills. By narrowing the scope of the problem, you also won’t get distracted by problems that you can’t control.

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In your own field of work, you see recurring problems all the time. Find one that bothers you and dig deep into the root causes. Ask yourself, why does this happen all the time? Are there layers of causes? Understanding the problem deeply helps you think of more and better approaches to it.

Once you have identified the causes, turn to solutions.

First, are there any existing workarounds? If there are some, why aren’t they effective? Perhaps they don’t really address the root causes, or only address some of them. Consider how you might improve the available solution. If it’s possible to improve an existing solution, it could be easier to implement than something brand-new.

If there are no available solutions, then start brainstorming new solutions. In this scenario, it could be pretty tough to fix the problem outright. So instead of aiming to fix the root cause immediately, try to target individual layers of causes one at a time. This piecemeal kind of approach can help you work your way up to a complete solution.

Stop Thinking of New Ideas, Find Problems

Don’t look for a great idea. Look for a good problem. Observe the troubles that you come across in your everyday life.

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It’s by addressing these problems that you can make the most positive impact on the world.

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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