Most of our puzzling problems or potential opportunities are unique to us. This is why you can’t Google the solution without getting some pretty lame advice. Advice from the Web or from YouTube is either obvious, or you don’t want to do it, or it doesn’t apply to you and your situation.
Last month I gave a guest Zoom lecture for an online course for graduating students. Part of the lecture was how they can change habits and get out of unwanted ruts. There was Q&A at the end, and the last question was “How can a person find time to think more deeply about how to solve problems or make opportunities in their life?”
This is a great question because we all have tons of things in our lives that we would like to be better but we’re not sure how to do it. We might try half-heartedly do one or two obvious things and shrug when they don’t work. These can range from important things like “How do I find an exciting job where I’ll learn a lot” or “How can I find a great spouse,” to small, but nagging little problems like “How can my stop dog, Spot, from making spots in my apartment,” or “What should I do about all of that junk in the garage?”
But we don’t usually try too hard to solve these problems. That is, we usually don’t come up with the right answers because we don’t think in a focused, deep way about how to solve them. We moan about them, we avoid them, or we settle for an expedient band-aid solution.
Still, no one’s better able to find the unique-to-you answers to these problems better than you. If you had an easy strategy to come up with the answers, your answers might not be perfect, but they would be a huge move in the right direction.
When this person asked this excellent question in this class, I shared something with him and with the I’ve been experimenting with and modifying for couple years. It’s been working well for me and although it was a bit off-topic from my lecture. I thought it would be useful as they venture off to great new possibilities. Over the past years, I’ve distilled into three steps:
Step 1. Find 30 Minutes of Undistracted, No-Phone time. Find 30 minutes of undistracted, nonelectronic time, and grab a journal or a piece of paper and pen. This can be first thing in the morning (best) or just before bed (next best). At the top of the paper write down “10 Actions for . . . . “ and then plug in your problem or opportunity.
Step 2. Write 10 Actions that would Solve the Problem that’s Most on Your Mind. Write down 10 actions that you believe you could realistically take (if you wanted) to help start solving your problem. The more specific your answer the better. Your first 3-4 actions will come fast because they are obvious, but they’re also the actions you probably don’t want to take, or this wouldn’t be a problem. The next 3-4 are going to take thought, because you’re stretching past the obvious. The last 3-4 will be difficult to generate and might seem pretty wacky, but it’s often where your real turn-around insights will happen. The key take-away is that you must write down 10, even if a bunch of them seem too far out of the box.
Step 3. Pick the Best 2-4 Ideas and Schedule a Time to Do Them. Schedule your 2-4 best and easiest ideas into your to-do list or calendar. You can do more, but usually 2-4 is enough to get you unstuck and to make huge progress.
If an example would be useful, let me show you want this has looked like for me so far this week.
Most mornings I think of one thing that’s on my mind that I’m unsure how to tackle. Yesterday was Monday and my topic was how can I change the home page for a website I’m creating for family meals. Today’s topic was how I can learn 14 new-to-me songs in four days for a new band I just joined. Here’s what the first 30 minutes of my day looked like yesterday and today:
Step 1. Find 30 Minutes of Undistracted, No-Phone time. I did them first thing in the morning. I laid on my home office couch with a journal and a pen. This was before anyone else was up, and before I turned on my computer or checked my phone.
Step 2. Write 10 Actions that would Solve the Problem. This took me about 25 minutes with the webpage issue, but it took me about 45 minutes with the new songs issue because the problem was so unfamiliar to me that I spent a lot of time holding a pen and staring at the paper. I spend a bit more than 30 minutes because I felt I was on a roll. You’ll also notice below that for the web page, I put down 11 ideas on the page (and a couple others on the next) since things were flowing.
Step 3. Pick the Best 2-4 Ideas and Schedule a Time to Do Them. For the website issue, I acted on idea last night and put the others on the calendar for next Monday (after the 3-day weekend). For the songs, I started this morning and created templates for them. I’m sure have lots of problems, and I’ll change them, but at least it will get me over this 4-day hump.
This is fairly personal, and I never shared this approach with anyone (other than my brother and wife) until this person asked during class. There might be a ton of ways you can modify it to work for you, but the main ideas are: Pick an undistracted (no phone) time with pencil and paper, write down 10 (ten) specific actions, and immediately do them or schedule them.
Here’s why this topic came to mind for a column – a full month after the original question was asked.
Last weekend a former graduate student is moving with his family to start a new job, and he has 400 things on his mind. He asked me about two questions/problems/issues he’s facing. After talking, I described this approach to him as a way of tackling the other 398 issues he’ll be facing daily once he drives the moving van into town.
He said, “I do something similar. I come up with 3-4 ideas. I just never do anything about them, and then I forget them.”
I told him the key isn’t usually the first 3-4 solutions to the problem. It’s the next 6-7 pretty great ones come up after you’ve stared at a blank page for 20 minutes. And writing them down helps with remembering. And having them in a journal keeps them organized.
Good luck with trying this out. Give it a week and email me and let me know how its working for you and how you might have adjusted or modified it.
In the meantime, I better get back to playing a lot of wrong notes so I can get them out of the way.
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I'm an author and researcher who discovers ways to help people be healthier, happier, and more meaningfully connected. See what works for you, and share it with others.
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