Solve a problem with pencil and paper

Solving math, physics and other science problems using a pencil and paper is common. But what about harder problems that defy a structured approach? Better yet, what about those life problems that not only defy a structured approach, but leave us nearly paralyzed and helpless?

If you have one of those beasties to solve, here’s an approach that almost always works for me:

Freewrite about the problem. I spend 20 minutes writing about it, never letting my pencil (or pen, or keyboard) stop moving. Doesn’t matter what I write as long as its about the problem and how I feel about it. The point is to get all the elements that are swirling around in my head down on paper so I can forget about them and free up some space.

By the way, use whatever works as far as materials. I usually end up with blank paper or my journal and whatever is nearby, but a computer or a voice recorder would work just as well.

I list all of my fears, worst case scenarios, and potential bad stuff that I can think of. This could be the things that will happen if a good solution is not found, or the risks that are present, or whatever. I do this to make sure I face the elephant in the room. Many times, once I’ve acknowledged the realistic risks a solution pops into my head or the blockage is removed.

If I haven’t already had a good epiphany, I keep going.

I think of one of those coworkers we all have had that seems to get a lot of recognition for very little work. One of those people who just seems to do a poor job at everything, but succeeds in spite of it. Freewrite what that person might do. What kind of sloppy, slip shod, corner cutting approach would they take? What lame, unbelievable excuse would they use?¬†Sometimes when I’m stuck, it’s because I don’t want to face that the solution is inelegant or clumsy, and this exercise helps me lower the bar on my expectations to a more realistic level.

Last, I think about the best case scenarios. What awesome, wonderful things could arise out of this problem and my solving it? This exercise is critical when I’m dealing with something I’ve been asked to do from far above, that makes no sense, is inefficient and a waste of my time, and I have to find the silver lining and some motivation.

At the end I will have spent maybe an hour getting this all down but usually a lot less. I close the book or set the papers aside and do something else. Best is something that I will feel good about. A chore that needs doing, or exercise, or some other task that requires a little self discipline.

After a few hours have passed and I have been thoroughly engrossed in something else for at least a while, I come back to the problem. By this time one of a few things has happened:

  • I will have had an epiphany and a great solution, or multiple solutions have appeared.
  • I realize that the one inelegant or unpleasant thing I’ve been dreading is actually the only solution and I’d better just face it.
  • My expectations have changed, and I see the problem more realistically my stress is down, and I can work on it more productively.
  • Once in a while I will still be stumped. I will read through everything, and end up trying again in a day or so. In these cases there’s usually some false assumption here or there that I discover.

Regardless I will have a lot less stress and a lot more clarity. So, the next time you’re dealing with a dreaded problem or thorny work challenge, give this a try!

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