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Sometimes, it is not enough to just cope with the problems – they need to be solved.
Most people engage in problem solving every day. It occurs automatically for many of the small decisions that need to be made on a daily basis.
For example, when making a decision about whether to get up now or sleep in for an extra 10 minutes, the possible choices and the relative risks and benefits of obeying the alarm clock or sleeping later come automatically to mind.
Larger problems are addressed in a similar way. For example: “I have tasks that need to be done by the end of the week. How am I going to get them all done on time?”
After considering the possible strategies, 1 is chosen and implemented. If it proves to be ineffective, a different strategy is tried.
People who can define problems, consider options, make choices, and implement a plan have all the basic skills required for effective problem solving.
Sometimes following a step-by-step procedure for defining problems, generating solutions, and implementing solutions can make the process of problem solving seem less overwhelming.
Six step guide to help you solve problems
Step 1: identify and define the problem.
- State the problem as clearly as possible. For example: “I don’t have enough money to pay the bills.”
- Be specific about the behaviour, situation, timing, and circumstances that make it a problem. For example: “I need to pay the phone and gas bills, and I don’t have enough money to cover both this month.”
Step 2: Generate possible solutions
- List all the possible solutions; don’t worry about the quality of the solutions at this stage.
- Try to list at least 15 solutions, be creative and forget about the quality of the solution.
- If you allow yourself to be creative you may come up with some solutions that you would not otherwise have thought about.
Step 3: Evaluate alternatives
- The next step is to go through and eliminate less desirable or unreasonable solutions.
- Order the remaining solutions in order of preference.
- Evaluate the remaining solutions in terms of their advantages and disadvantages.
Step 4: Decide on a solution
- Specify who will take action.
- Specify how the solution will be implemented.
- Specify when the solution will be implemented. For example: tomorrow morning, phone the gas company and negotiate to pay the gas bill next month.
Step 5: Implement the solution
- Implement the solution as planned.
Step 6: Evaluate the outcome
- Evaluate how effective the solution was.
- Decide whether the existing plan needs to be revised, or whether a new plan is needed to better address the problem.
- If you are not pleased with the outcome, return to step 2 to select a new solution or revise the existing solution, and repeat the remaining steps.
Problem solving is something we do every day.
Some problems are small or easily solved - others are more complicated and can seem overwhelming.
One way of tackling problems is to use a specific and systematic problem solving procedure. If you’ve tried to solve certain problems without much success, try these steps out and see if they help.
Learning to solve problems effectively will help you to minimise the level of stress in your life and improve your overall sense of well-being.
Try it out and see.
Where to get help
Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI)
- 9.00am – 5.00pm, Monday to Friday
- Phone: (08) 9227 4399
- Email: [email protected]
- Read more about the Centre for Clinical Interventions
See your doctor
Visit healthdirect (external site) or call 1800 022 222, mental health emergency response line (mherl).
- Metro callers: 1300 55 788
- Peel: 1800 676 822
- Rural and remote areas 1800 552 002
- Most people engage in problem solving daily.
- Sometimes following a step-by-step process to define problems, consider options and make choices can make problem solving less overwhelming.
- You can always talk to your doctor or mental health practitioner and ask for help.
This information provided by
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.
- Centre for Clinical Interventions
- Unhelpful thinking styles
- Depression – reversing the vicious cycle
- Anxiety – reversing the vicious cycle
- Centre for Clinical Interventions (external site)
- Head to Health (external site)
- Patients' rights
To help answer the question about pay differences between managers and other employees, read this section. Managers have to have many skills that put them at the top of the pay scale, including problem-solving skills the average worker doesn't need.
A Six-Step Approach to Problem Solving
Assuming that your top priority is salvaging your GPA, let's tackle your problem by using a six-step approach to solving problems that don't have simple solutions. We've summarized this model in Figure 6.12 "How to Solve a Problem".
Figure 6.12 How to Solve a Problem
- Identify the problem you want to work on . Step one is getting to know your problem, which you can formulate by asking yourself a basic question: How can I improve my grades?
- Gather relevant data . Step two is gathering information that will shed light on the problem. Let's rehash some of the relevant information that you've already identified: (a) you did poorly on your finals because you didn't spend enough time studying; (b) you didn't study because you went to see your girlfriend (who lives about three hours from campus) over the weekend before your exams (and on most other weekends, as a matter of fact); (c) what little studying you got in came at the expense of your team project and lacrosse practice; and (d) while you were away for the weekend, you forgot to tell members of the mountain-biking club that you had to cancel the planned meeting.
- Clarify the problem . Once you review all the given facts, you should see that your problem is bigger than simply getting your grades up; your life is pretty much out of control. You can't handle everything to which you've committed yourself. Something has to give. You clarify the problem by summing it up with another basic question: What can I do to get my life back in order?
- Generate possible solutions . If you thought defining the problem was tough, wait until you've moved on to this stage. Let's say that you've come up with the following possible solutions to your problem: (a) quit the lacrosse team, (b) step down as president of the mountain-biking club, (c) let team members do your share of work on the business project, and (d) stop visiting your girlfriend so frequently. The solution to your main problem – how to get your life back in order – will probably require multiple actions.
- Select the best option . This is clearly the toughest part of the process. Working your way through your various options, you arrive at the following conclusions: (a) you can't quit the lacrosse team because you'd lose your scholarship; (b) you can resign your post in the mountain-biking club, but that won't free up much time; (c) you can't let your business-project team down (and besides, you'd just get a low grade); and (d) she wouldn't like the idea, but you could visit your girlfriend, say, once a month rather than once a week. So what's the most feasible (if not necessarily perfect) solution? Probably visiting your girlfriend once a month and giving up the presidency of the mountain-biking club.
- Implement your decision and monitor your choice . When you call your girlfriend, you're pleasantly surprised to find that she understands. The vice president is happy to take over the mountain-biking club. After the first week, you're able to attend lacrosse practice, get caught up on your team business project, and catch up in all your other classes. The real test of your solution will be the results of the semester's finals.