problem solving

Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available under Creative Commons on Flickr.


You love your problems, don’t you? They are your little friends that push you towards growth.

Problem solving vs thinking

Before I’ll talk about great approaches to problem solving, first I want to explain how not to solve your problems.

Do you know how?

By thinking alone.

“What?”, you may say, “You must be crazy. I need to think about my problems!”.
For sure, you do. No doubt about it. However, in order to tackle your problems you need other modalities alongside your thinking.

Thinking through your problems is a necessary ingredient for a successful solution, but it is usually insufficient. Thinking may work for simple problems, but it fails to buckle down complex ones. I don’t need to tell you this because, I bet, you know it from experience.

How many months (or years) have you thought about being in a job, relation or a situation you are unhappy with and yet little has improved?

How many months (or years) have you thought about being fit, becoming an entrepreneur, or traveling the world, yet little has changed?

How many months (or years) have you thought about improving your social skills or learning a new one, yet with no progress?

Perhaps you have analyzed some or all the aspects of your problem and decided that the “I don’t care” state is your safe haven. The comfort zone of inaction is, for sure, attractive. If this is your solution, you have convinced yourself to ignore the problem. If not, …

… thinking is not the way out


Because thinking may continue for a very long time without any dedicated action. Some perfectionists want to see the problem from all possible angles in order to find the best solution. The best solution, similarly as the best decision, can only be judged if there is a simple criterion or rationale, which is often not the case. Others want to understand the problem as much as possible. However, you don’t need a full understanding of your problem to actually solve it (ok, unless you tackle a complex math or physics challenge).

For instance, you don’t really need to fully know how an engine works, all the construction details and how to repair a car in order to drive it. You need to understand some pieces about the context, though. Similarly, you don’t need to know all the details of running a business or a project as you will learn while doing it.

There are two aspects of thinking that will keep you stuck in your problems.

1) Long-term thinking about your problem keeps you exactly in the reality of your problem.

What you think about, expands. In other words, whenever you think of what you lack, you are perpetuating the very state of experiencing lack. You may even deepen the experience.

Thinking about the job you hate will help powerlessness to root stronger. As a result, it will become increasingly more difficult to find another job.

Thinking about your stagnant relation will strengthen your feelings of self-pity and influence your overall well-being. As a result, you will have less attention, focus and love for your kids, friends and work.

Thinking about the lack of money will prove to be true. As a result, you will have less ambition and less courage to create new streams of income.

Long-term thinking with the premise for gaining understanding is only an escape from taking action.

2. Thinking alone may prevent you from finding intelligent solutions.

The first limitation is that your conscious span can only handle a limited amount of information. Therefore, it is difficult to hold different perceptions or views at the same time. (To realize that just think whether you can hold in your mind just four different views of a given object: front, back and two side ones). The second limitation is that you will look for patterns and ways to simplify things. As a result will tend to overgeneralize or make a hasty generalization. Finally, thinking often moves around a vicious circle circular by following the same types of thoughts.

In brief, thinking gets into a self-perpetuating mode, where with time, little novelty is allowed.

To have a fresh perspective, even if you need to tackle a problem that is similar to the ones you encountered before, it is still important to consider the whole context: raw facts, emotions, circumstances and obstacles. This means that any time you want to apply your problem solving skills to a problem that is similar to the ones you tackled before.

How to be successful at problem solving?

The simplest strategy is to get your thoughts out of your head into the world. Then, you use dedicated tools to release emotions and organize thoughts.

There are two good approaches to problem solving and both of them focus on moving from the non-physical world (thoughts) into the physical one. Thoughts and emotions are attracted to physical anchors, which are basically forms of expressive outlets. In general, your body acts as such an anchor but it holds all the thoughts inside. Once you want to move the thoughts and emotions into the world, you need to attach them to another anchor. It has to be a tangible one.

The spoken word is a step in the right direction, though not long lasting. A better anchor is created by the written word, or even an artistic expression (drawing, painting, collage, etc). Both the written word and the art expression can last for a long time, hence they are purposeful modalities. They can direct both emotions and thoughts from chaos to order.

These two approaches are:

  1. Talking-modality: coaching or talking through
  2. Writing-modality: self-coaching, journaling or automatic writing

Talking modality: coaching, talking through or a role play

In this modality, the role of the anchor is played either by a human or an object.

Women often talk about their problems, or rather they talk about their emotions (of course, I realize this statement is a generalization ;)). They hardly ever want an advice, but instead, they want to be heard and appreciated.

Women can perfectly describe the tiniest details and feelings. First, it helps them to relieve the tension. Secondly, it helps them to organize the thoughts. In fact, hearing yourself explaining the issues to another person is of a great value. And … If there is great active listener, he/she may direct them towards a solution.

The task of the active listener is to ask open questions that help the person to clarify the problem. In addition, the listener helps to challenge some fixed points of view, shift perspectives and reframe. An active listener is a blessing.

If you want to solve your problems effectively, one way is to talk through them with a willing and gentle soul. This person, however, should refrain from giving advice unless you explicitly ask for. He/she is there to be a genuine listener, caring for you and offering you full attention. Your goal is to be heard and understood. If you miss such a partner, you can still become successful at problem solving by creating an imagined anchor-partner.

The pillow exercise

For myself, I choose a pillow as a prototype, but you may choose any other still object/plant you like. The choice of a pillow is of course intentional. A pillow can offer a great service as an object to cuddle as well as to hit or cry to. It’s good for reconciliation too ūüėČ

The best is to imagine that the pillow is a specific person, alive or not. It should be a person whom you admire and/or respect and whose traits you know. It can be somebody such as your beloved grandma or a friend. Alternatively, you can just imagine a certain kind of a person with a few specific traits or values such as honesty, kindness, courage, independence, etc.

Then you simply imagine a role play between yourself and the pillow character. You begin by explaining the problem, and then you project yourself into the mind of the anchor person, who is going to react to what you are saying by asking open questions. In doing so, you pretend to be the pillow character listening to you with empathy and total interest. You keep taking roles (while you remember your pillow is a gentle soul indeed) until you have said everything it was to say and your mind has become empty.

Of course, you may imagine such a role play directly in your head but it will stay in the realm of thoughts. It makes a tremendous difference whether you have a physical object that you can touch or cuddle and when you use a spoken word (in your normal voice). You will arrive at calmed emotions, clarity and the feeling of power.

However silly it may sound, I’ve found this exercise to work extremely well for a few complex problems involving lots of emotional baggage. As I my preferred learning style is a mix between visual and touch-and-feel approaches, I personally prefer the written word or an artistic expression. Nevertheless, it was my pillow exercise that helped me through when other modalities couldn’t. As such the talking modality is especially beneficial for people whose main learning style is auditory (i.e. they organize knowledge and learn mainly by listening).

 Automatic writing, journaling or self-coaching

In this modality, paper (or computer screen) plays the role of the physical anchor for thoughts. It works especially well for people whose dominant learning style is visual. However, when paper is used and doodling encouraged, the power of paper proves its worth for those with the touch-and-feel learning style.

Writing down thoughts as they come, especially in an uncensored way, is a great tool, often overlooked for problem solving. Writing helps for gaining understanding, releasing negative emotions and achieving goals. The majority of us hardly writes down about own problems, yet it is such an easy way to move forward.

Automatic writing exercise

In an automatic writing, called also freewriting, the idea is to open an editor or take a piece of paper (paper works usually better) and write about your problem. You need to have one or two good questions about it, such as “What is really my problem about?” and¬†“How can I solve my problem in/while X?” (where X is used to specify your other constrains, e.g. “in the next three months”, “in the most effortless way”, “for the highest good of all involved” etc).

Write the first question down and set your timer for 10-15min (the old-fashioned egg timer is perfect for this, but you can also use this one). Begin to write your thoughts down as fast as possible. Even if you don’t know what to write, just write¬†“don’t know what to write” or “this problem bothers me” or whatever else is in your head. The idea is to get all these annoying thoughts out. You may use single words or half-baked sentences.¬† Keep writing continuously in an uncensored way, i.e. without taking any care of spelling, punctuation, and a neat look. Write big or small, whatever suits you at the moment. Don’t pause to read what you have written or stare before you. “Keep writing” is the idea!

The idea behind writing fast and careless is to release the junk thoughts (“i can’t”) and pass your inner critic until you relax. Once the waste of your thoughts is out of the way, you will relax and open up to the stream of quality thoughts. You will notice that different words become to flow. Just keep writing until you hear the timer beep.

Then you work on the second question (concerning your solutions). Set the timer for another 10-15min and start to write again.

Of course you can ask any other relevant question, such as “What stops me from working out the solution?” or “Which resources do I need to solve this problem?”. Similarly as in the pillow exercise, you can also hold a conversation on a paper about your issue with a real or imagined friend.

Please know that this approach may not work well for the first time, as your inner critic may act too strongly. If you are persistent, however, with little practice you can be surprised by the quality of answers from your inner wisdom.

Why do you need a timer?

Without the time constraint there is no external push or force to make you work to find the answers. The limitations, when set, inspire your brain for activity and creative thinking.


Journaling usually involves a longer time of writing and inspecting a few well-structured questions. It can be a method to use daily before or after the day to write about your goals for the day, the expected or experienced progress, disappointments etc. It is a way to get the perplexing thoughts out of your head and leave your mind empty for a creative work.


Self coaching is a powerful modality that helps you to work towards improvement through a series of well-structured questions. Although it is imperfect substitute for a 1-to-1 coaching, it can nevertheless deliver great results with a small price. What you need is a way to phrase your problem as a goal or target and then explore the context, identify possible solutions and the obstacles and decide for the way forward.

This again works best when explored in a limited time frame (say 40-60min) and involves the written word, in answer to the questions.

Example questions include:

  • What is exactly your problem?
  • What tells you that there is a problem?
  • What is your key challenge that you need to overcome?
  • What are you afraid of when the problem remains unsolved?
  • What would you do if you had no fear and no limitations?
  • What is the first simplest step forward?
  • What is the most effective way forward?
  • How can you create, borrow, learn what you need?
  • What are your obstacles that you need to address?
  • How can you motivate yourself to work towards a solution?

If you coach yourself regularly, alongside the automatic writing, you will gain clarity and liberate yourself to taking action.

In summary

In order to move both the emotions and thoughts towards manifestation in the world, you need to find a physical anchor for them. All approaches to effective problem solving rely on getting the thoughts out of the head and make them explicit.

When thoughts are talked through or written down, the release of emotions leaves the mind with the partially organized thoughts. They are labeled, hence born to existence into the physical world. In fact, the thoughts are not ephemeral any longer; they become things, as they are anchored to reality. Inspecting the maze of the shaped thoughts, your solution to a problem boils then down to an intuitive insight or a recognition of what a good idea is.

To employ both modalities, write and repeat your solution loudly every day.
Keep taking the necessary action.

The power of the spoken and written word will surprise you.



Categories: Effective communicationExercisesGet UnstuckPerformanceSelf mastery

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