“We cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
That’s a quote attributed to Einstein and the idea behind today’s post. Today, I’ll discuss how to get to the higher level of thinking with which we can solve our problems.
Let me explain the low-level and high-level thinking on an example. This example might sound simple to you but bear with me. You can use the same approach successfully on more complex problems in your professional and private life.
A Sample Problem: Multiple File Hosting Services
At the moment, I use three different file hosting services, iCloud, OneDrive, and Google Drive. They came with my iPhone, MS Office, and Google account.
As a result, my files are scattered around in three different services. They’re also installed on my laptop, which makes it slower to boot.
That’s a problem, and I decided to solve that problem. Now, there are two approaches to solving that problem.
The Default Approach to Solving Problems
The default approach is to randomly choose one of the services, start moving files to that service in a haphazard manner, and start deleting files and software from my laptop and smartphone.
Can you see the problem with that?
With that approach, I can easily choose the wrong service, lose some important files, and end up with an incorrect configuration on my laptop or smartphone.
That might sound obvious to you, but more often than not, we follow that casual approach in solving problems, not only in trivial matters but also in critical professional endeavors. As a result, we create greater problems than we intend to solve.
“Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.” Peter Senge
The Higher Level Thinking Approach to Solving Problems
In this approach, we go one level higher in our thinking. Instead of working on the problem directly, we work on the problem of solving the problem at hand.
The first step is to come up with the answer to the following question: “What’s the best way of solving this problem?” In my case, the answer is as follows.
- Decide on a file hosting service.
- Move the files to that hosting service.
- Remove the duplicate files from my laptop, smartphone, and tablet.
- Remove the unnecessary software from my laptop, smartphone, and tablet.
Now, that gives us a high-level breakdown of the solution. That’s one step toward the ideal solution, but still imperfect. Can you see why?
These four steps are too high-level to be executed directly. We need to break them down further.
Making the Right Decisions
The first step above is a decision. That might look like a simple decision to you, but I want to apply the same problem-solving technique in this step to demonstrate its use in decision making.
There are two ways to make a decision, instinctively vs. analytically. In the first approach, we make a decision without thinking, with our instincts, emotions, and intuitions.
If you developed your intuition in a field over the years, deciding on autopilot might be efficient for you, but most of the time, we don’t make the best decisions with this approach.
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Laurate behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman explains how our biases misguide our decision making when we operate on autopilot mode.
An Analytical Approach to Making Decisions
With the analytical approach, our goal is to overcome our biases and to make an informed decision. Here are the steps of the analytical approach.
- Decide on a set of decision criteria.
- Determine your options.
- Analyze your options according to your decision criteria.
- Choose the option that satisfies your criteria the most.
In my case, my decision criteria are the following.
- 100 GB disk space
- Works on Windows and iOS
- Preferably, a service that I’m already using
- Preferably, a company that I haven’t paid yet
My options are the following.
- Google Drive
The option that satisfies all of my decision criteria is Google Drive. I don’t like the fact that I paid hundreds of euros to Apple and Microsoft and still have to pay them an extra for anything more than 5 GB disk space.
I don’t need the 1 TB disk space of Dropbox. Therefore, I don’t want to pay an extra 80 euro each year for a service I won’t use.
Google is probably using my files to collect data about me to show me personalized ads, but I’m fine with that. So, my final decision is Google Drive.
Break Down Solution Steps into Action Items
I need to break down the remaining three steps before I start to execute them.
Move the files to Google Drive.
- Move the files in OneDrive to Google Drive. This is a cut and paste operation on my laptop.
- Backup the photo and video files in my iPhone to Google Drive.
- Make sure there aren’t any photo and video files in my iCloud that aren’t backed up to Google Drive.
Remove the duplicate files from my laptop, smartphone, and tablet.
- Remove the photo and video files from my iCloud.
- Remove the photo and video files from my iPad.
Remove the unnecessary software from my laptop, smartphone, and tablet.
- Remove iCloud from my laptop.
- Remove OneDrive from my laptop.
- Stop backing up my photo and video files to iCloud.
- Set up my iPhone to back up my photo and video files to Google Drive.
When to Use the Default Approach
In some cases, writing down the solution steps might feel like too much work to you. You might be tempted to skip it and attack the problem at hand right away. Sometimes, you might save some time with the default approach when solving trivial problems.
More often than not, we underestimate the challenges we face. We attack the problem head first. As a result, we either end up in a dead end or create a problem that’s greater than the one we tried to solve.
In most cases, except the trivial ones, it pays off to write down a general overview of how we’re going to solve the problem hand. In more complicated cases, we can treat each step as a problem in itself and break it down into further steps.
You can go into as much detail as you want until you reach clear action steps. Don’t worry about wasting time planning, because as Brian Tracy says “every minute you spend in planning saves 10 minutes in execution.” That’s an approximation of course, but it gives you a good idea.
Our default reaction to problems and decisions is to dive head first into them. That results in greater problems in the future.
We can improve our decision making by coming up with decision criteria, determining our options, analyzing our options according to the decision criteria, and choosing the option that satisfies our criteria the most.
We can solve our problems effectively by writing down the solution steps and breaking down each step until we come up with clear action items.
The analytical way of making decisions and solving problems seems to be a lot of work, but it prevents us from greater problems in the future.
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly overview of my latest content on personal development and life lessons.