Tag Archives: Problem Solving

A Six-Step Self-Coaching Template to Solve Your Persistent Problems

There’s no human life without any challenges. If you don’t have any challenges now, you’ve probably retreated to your comfort zone. I’ve got bad news for you. The challenges that you’re avoiding now will eventually find you.

You might be on the other end of the spectrum, and your life might be full of challenges. Moreover, you might be facing the same challenges over and over.

You might be switching between jobs. You might have different relationships. The same challenges might occur in all of your jobs, relationships, or in any other context.

If you have repeating patterns among different jobs, relationships, or in other contexts, it might be your approach to the problem that isn’t working.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze Responses

We have three reactions to challenges, fight, flight, or freeze. These are low-level reactions and tend to perpetuate the problem. You might win a fight, but I can guarantee you that a similar conflict will arise.

The same holds for the flight response. You might quit a job because of a conflict, but the chances are high that you’ll face a similar conflict in your next job.

The freeze response doesn’t solve any problem either. It only postpones it.

How are we going to deal with our persistent problems then?

Today, I want to share a template you can use to work on your persistent problems. I recommend that you pick a problem, take a pen and paper or open a text editor, and do the exercise with me.

When you’re writing your answers, take as much time as you want. Some of your answers might be contradicting each other, and that’s fine. We’re brainstorming here.

Once the whole exercise over, you’ll have the opportunity to write down your conclusions, the lessons you learned, and the action plan you devised.

Step 1. Define Your Problem

Most of the time, we perceive a situation as a problem on an emotional level. We have reactions like “I hate my colleague” or “my colleague hates me.”

In this step, we want to bring the problem to a conscious level.

  • What are the symptoms of your problem?
  • How does this problem manifest in your reality?
  • What makes you think that your colleague hates you?
  • Why do you hate your colleague?

Step 2. What Are the Adverse Effects of Your Problem?

This question must be easy to answer because you define the situation as a problem. How does this problem lower the quality of your life?

Come up with a few sentences to define your problem and the adverse effects of your problem. Don’t skip these steps with a simple sentence response like, “my colleague hates me, and he makes my job harder.”

Also, don’t go too much into detail. If you find yourself writing more than a few paragraphs, you might be dealing with multiple problems. If that’s the case, pick one of those problems, and work on it.

Step 3. What Are the Advantages of this Problem?

This question might sound counterintuitive to you, but take your time to reflect on it. This step is important, so be creative, and write as many answers as you can come up with.

If you need inspiration, you can read my post Reframe Your Challenges as Opportunities.

  • This problem motivates me to improve my conflict management skills.
  • It’s an opportunity to practice mindfulness.
  • It’s a personal growth opportunity.
  • It’s a lesson to learn not to take things personal, and be objective.
  • It’s an opportunity to face my inner demons.
  • And so on…

Step 4. What’s My Contribution to this Problem?

In this step, you have to be honest and objective. How did you co-create this problem? I don’t claim that it’s all your fault. But what’s your responsibility in it?

None of us are saints, but maybe you tried to act like one and gave people around you the permission to treat you any way they want.

If you don’t take any responsibility and only blame the other party or the conditions, you’ll be giving away your personal power.

If you give away your personal power, you’ll face the same challenges over and over, and wonder why you attract these unpleasant experiences.

Step 5. What Are the Lessons You Need to Learn from this Problem?

You’ll be attracting the same challenge over and over unless you learn your lessons from your problem, and act on those lessons.

Again, take your time and reflect on this question. Maybe, you have to dial down your agreeableness trait. Maybe, you should stop taking every remark of everybody serious. Maybe, you should acknowledge others, and not look down on people. Maybe, you should start practicing mindfulness.

You can come up with as many lessons as you can. They might be contradicting each other, and that’s no problem in this step. In the first five steps, we are exploring and brainstorming.

Step 6. Your Conclusions and Action Steps

Now, it’s time to come up with a congruent conclusion. That means making a summary of each step by taking the items that make the most sense to you and that don’t contradict each other.

Based on your conclusion, you need to come with your action steps and behavioral changes. And of course, you need to follow up on them.

I recommend making weekly reviews on your conclusions, action steps, and behavioral changes to find out how they play out in your life, and to make course corrections whenever necessary.


Our default responses to challenges are fight, flight, or freeze. Those reactions only perpetuate the problem and make it persistent.

If there is a problem that occurs over and over in your life, you might want to go deeper than those basic reactions. You can use the following six steps to do that.

  1. Define the problem.
  2. What are the adverse effects of your problem?
  3. What are the advantages of this problem?
  4. What’s your contribution to this problem?
  5. What are the lessons you need to learn from this problem?
  6. What are your conclusions and actions steps?

If you don’t take the responsibility and work on your problems consciously, they will persist and come back at you over and over in different contexts.

By taking responsibility, you’ll build your personal power and improve your satisfaction and the quality of your life.

An Analytical Way to Making Decisions and Solving Problems

“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
  • Price
  • 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.

  • iCloud
  • OneDrive
  • Google Drive
  • Dropbox

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.

The Ideal Solution to Any Problem

When I’m confronted with a problem, I immediately come up with a solution. That makes me feel good. I feel like I’m smart. In order to amplify that good feeling, I implement that solution as soon as possible. That feels even better.

“I’m not only smart, but I’m also a doer.”

Nothing feels as good as achievement. As you complete a few cycles of coming up with quick solutions, implementing them as soon as possible, and getting rewarded with good feelings of achievement, you get addicted to this cycle. You want to repeat that cycle as much as possible.

The good feelings of achievement is geometrically inversely proportional to the time it takes to implement the solution. The quicker the solution, the greater the feelings of achievement.

Is this post about boasting about myself?

No. On the contrary. I’m trying to find the motivation for a dysfunctional behavior. Yes, quick fixes are dysfunctional behavior, because they produce greater problems down the road.

“The solutions of yesterday are the problems of today.”

I’m not the only one. It’s human nature to be attracted to quick and dirty fixes. We get drawn to quick fixes not only in our jobs, but also in our private lives, in our relationships, and even in politics and international relationships.

The Psychology of Problem Solving

Quick fixes don’t require any mental energy. They happen on auto-pilot. They are our knee jerk reactions to the problems we face. And we all have the conscious or unconscious belief that “if I came up with an idea, it must be a brilliant idea.”

Reflecting on a problem, finding its causes, and coming up with a real solution require a lot of mental energy. These activities don’t come natural to us. We evolved them later in our 4.5 billion years of evolution. They are almost registered as pain.

The principle that guides all human behavior is that we avoid pain and seek pleasure. Quick fixes are pleasurable and ideal solutions are painful. That’s why we are drawn to quick fixes and avoid ideal solutions.

When it comes to problem solving, choosing the painful option in the short term results in much less pain in the long term.

Two Steps to Solve a Problem

My academic and industry experience has taught me two steps to solve a problem. The first step is to determine the root cause of a problem, which I have explained in detail in a previous post. The second step is to ask myself the following question:

“What would be the ideal solution of this problem?”

When I worked as a researcher in academia, we tried to solve a problem with exact methods that produced mathematically proven optimal solutions, i.e. the ideal solution. If those attempts failed, only then, we turned to approximation methods, which produced good results, but not guaranteed optimums.

That ideal solution does not need to be practical. It doesn’t even need to be feasible. I just want to come up with the theoretically ideal solution that someone with infinite resources could implement. As you can imagine, this not only applies to software development or engineering, this applies to any area of life.

Once I have the ideal solution, I can either go ahead and implement it or compromise it to the level it is practical to implement. In either case, the ideal solution is a great guide. It’s a goal to strive toward. It’s like a north star that shows you the direction you need to go towards.

Without an ideal solution, you are lost. You are running around in circles like a headless chicken. You are repeating the same mistakes over and over.


Favoring ideal solutions over quick fixes is counter-intuitive, but it benefits your personal life as well as your professional life. In order to develop sustainable businesses, managers need to stop demanding and rewarding quick fixes and ask for ideal solutions from their employees.

You can apply the ideal solution concept in your private life as well. The first step to do that is to write your own obituary now. Don’t wait for someone to write it after your death. That will help you find your direction in life. And from there, you can reverse engineer your life to live the best possible life you can.

This Is the Only Way to Solve Problems

Most of us do it wrong.

The problem I’m about to explain happens everywhere in our lives, in our private lives, in our professional lives, in our relationships, in every aspect of our lives. So, please stick with me even if the software development example doesn’t resonate with you.

A computer programmer comes against a nasty bug. They immediately start writing dozens of lines of code to fix the bug. They use the trial and error method and add new code to the program until they cannot reproduce the error.

Another computer programmer comes against the same bug. They go into the code and spend hours to find the root cause of the bug. Once they find the line that caused the bug, they change that line and the bug is solved.

Now, which one is the better approach? Using trial and error, adding and subtracting random lines of code? Or spending hours on finding the root cause of the error and changing a single line to fix it?

Trial and Error

The trial and error approach is the way of the inexperienced programmer. It means that you don’t know what you are doing. In that case, you can gain some insights on how the program works by trial and error.

When you use the trial and error approach and add and remove random lines to the code, you are making the code base unstable, harder to maintain. You are likely introducing more errors than you solve. And most probably, you are only sweeping the errors under the rug.

By sweeping the errors under the rug, you seem to have done a good job in the short term, but in the long term, you are creating greater problems, because those errors will eventually show up and they will be much harder to find and solve.

Finding the Root Cause

Finding the root cause of a problem is the way of the experienced programmer. The experienced programmer knows that without finding the root cause, you are not solving any problem at all. It takes patience, concentration and it’s a very frustrating process sometimes.

You might search for a line that is causing the problem among tens of thousands of lines of code. It’s like searching for the needle in a haystack. But once you find the needle in the haystack, then you know that you have solved a serious problem.

Which surgeon do you prefer to operate on your body? The one that uses the trial and error approach? Or the one that looks for the root cause and only fixes that one?

Your Life Isn’t Any Different.

Most of the time, we are trying to find quick fixes to our problems using the trial and error approach.

  • Quick fixes take longer to implement.
  • They are more expensive at the end.
  • They make our lives unstable.
  • They create more and greater problems down the road.

“The solutions of yesterday are the problems of today.”

Quick fixes are knee jerk reactions to the problems at hand. They don’t solve the problem. They only postpone the problem at best and cause disasters at worst. Why do we use them? Because it’s human nature to react with knee jerk reactions to every perceived problem.

How to Find the Root Cause of a Problem

Finding the root cause of a problem is cheaper, faster, and more effective in the long run.

The majority of people think that quick fixes are quick, cheap, and effective. Nothing can be further from the truth. This is just mental laziness and inexperience manifesting itself. Quick fixes result only in more and greater problems in the long run.

If finding the root cause of a problem is the only way to solve a problem, how do we find the root cause of a problem?

The 5 Whys Technique

The solution is a method called the 5 Whys Technique. You formulate the problem as a why question and look for an answer. Once you find an answer, you formulate the answer as a why question. You repeat these two steps five times. By the fifth why, you have a decent chance of finding the root cause of your problem.

Once you find the root cause or causes, the solution is relatively easy to find. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy to implement. Here’s an example.

  • Why do I not perform well at work?
    • Because I can’t concentrate.
  • Why can I not concentrate?
    • Because my partner is texting me all the time.
  • Why does my partner text me all the time.
    • Because I don’t pay much attention to them.
  • Why don’t I pay much attention to my partner?
    • Because I don’t have much time to spend together with them.
  • Why don’t I have much time to spend together with my spouse?
    • Because I’m addicted to online gaming.

In this fictional example, we find the root cause after asking five whys. The solution is simple, quit online gaming. Is it easy to implement? Probably, not.


Sometimes, you might come up with multiple reasons for a why question. In that case, you have to complete the process for each branch. This way, you might end up with hundreds of reasons.

Sometimes, you might come up with the root cause after the first why. Sometimes, you might have to dig deeper than five whys to find the root cause.

Sometimes, you end up with circular reasons. For example, you can’t sleep well, because you drink too much coffee and you drink too much coffee, because you are sleepy during the day.

Analysis Paralysis

There’s another pitfall with the 5 Whys Technique. Sometimes, you might end up analyzing the problem over and over in order to find the root cause. Or you might branch endlessly, coming up with dozens of answers to each why question. This is just an illusion and it is analysis paralysis.

In reality, you know deep down what the major issue is on each level.  By branching endlessly or going too many levels deeper, you are only avoiding the problem. You are procrastinating and you don’t want to face the reality. Analysis paralysis is your way of coping with the reality of your situation.

The 5 Whys Technique results in finding the root cause fairly quickly. The solution to that root cause is also fairly obvious.

If you can’t find the root cause and see the obvious solution, take a hard look at the reality of the situation that you are in. Face the reality of your situation completely and make the decisions that need to be made.

Which actions are you avoiding? Maybe the solution is way outside of your comfort zone. If that is the case, admit it and work your way towards extending your comfort zone, develop the necessary skill sets, make a plan, and execute your plan.


The 5 Whys Technique exposes multiple problems on multiple levels. By finding the root cause of a problem and solving it, we solve multiple problems on multiple levels. In the example above, performance at work, concentration, relationships issues, and time management issues.

Apply the 5 Whys Technique to a problem that you face right now. Try to find the root cause of the problem and come up with a solution to the root cause. Let me know how the technique worked out for you!

One Habit That Can Turn Around Your Life

It’s not an easy one, but your life can turn around if you did this every day for six months.

We are all humans and we all have challenges in our lives. Some of us have challenges in our jobs, businesses, or studies. Some of us have challenges in our private lives, with our family and friends.

Even though we wish we didn’t have any challenges in our lives, a life without any challenges would be boring. Each challenge is an opportunity to grow as a human being.

Even if you don’t have any challenges in your life right now, you might want to set new goals to create some positive challenges in your life.

How to Handle Challenges?

The first step to handle a challenge is to put it on paper. If you can formulate a challenge as a sentence or a paragraph, you will be well on your way to solve it.

Sometimes, just writing down the challenge is enough to come up with the solution. In other cases, it might require more effort to come up with a solution.

Formulate the challenge as a question.

  • How can I increase the sales of my product?
  • How can I increase my productivity?
  • How can I improve my relationship with my family?

Now, come up with twenty or more ideas to solve this challenge.

At the beginning, it is easy to come up with ideas. The first few ideas are usually the ones that you already know you should be doing but you don’t do.

Keep thinking to complete the minimum twenty answers after the obvious answers. Write down even the most ridiculous answers.

You need to get the most obvious and ridiculous ideas out of your mind and on to the paper to allow new and creative ideas to emerge.

When you write down those twenty answers, something strange happens. You complete the exercise and you go on with your life, but your mind doesn’t stop working on the problem. It comes with new ideas, even if you carry on doing something else.

The best ideas come when you aren’t even thinking about the challenge. They come when you are working out in the gym, taking a shower, or doing something completely irrelevant. For that reason, it’s important to have something to write down your ideas whenever they come up.

I prefer Evernote on my smartphone to keep track of ideas. I write them down, no matter how silly they might seem, because you never know which idea will lead to a solution to your challenge.

Brian Tracy calls this exercise mindstorming. James Altucher goes one step further and recommends doing it every day to become an Idea Machine. He says that your life would turn around, if you did this for six months.

Related Practices

Mindstorming is a great practice to come up with solutions to your challenges. However, it’s not a replacement for learning what you don’t know you don’t know. Reading books and consuming other educational content will feed you with new ideas to solve your challenges.

A more advanced form of mindstorming is brainstorming. That is doing the exercise with two or more people. You might not always have other people to think about a challenge together, but if you have the opportunity, use it.

When you brainstorm with other people, ideas by other people trigger each other. Ideas that each participant never thought of before come up as a result. I know this is not the most popular method among the introverted people, but give it a try if you have the opportunity and see the results yourself.

How to Start

You might wonder how to start this practice. Maybe you don’t have any challenges at this moment. Maybe you have so many challenges that you are overwhelmed by them and don’t know where to start.

Start with writing down twenty challenges that you are facing now or you might be facing in the future. Tomorrow, pick up the most relevant, the most important, the most essential challenge and start from there.

Repeat the mindstorming exercise every day for six months and let me know how your life has changed!