Every day we face situations and challenges that make us use multiple brain processes, all at once, to find answers. Those tasks often involve a set of Executive Functions collectively known as Problem Solving.
When you problem solve you must:
- Pay attention to the situation,
- Give that situation meaning (and value),
- Sort out the details and put them in context,
- Find (recall) and reference a situation that might have been similar,
- Assess consequences, and
- Decide what to do.
You may be required to make a quick decision or you may have a bit of time to react. In all cases, there are some important steps you can take to increase your chances of making the best decision to fit the demands of the situation. Let’s use a pretty common example: you can’t find your keys.
- Assess the situation. Is there a risk involved and is this the most important thing happening right now? If you are getting ready to leave for an appointment and you can’t find your keys, the answer to both questions might be yes. However, sometimes, when things feel urgent, you may be missing something else that might present an even greater risk. Put your risk assessment in the context of everything else that is happening.
- Identify the source of the problem and any obstacles. Were you the last person to have the keys? Could someone else have moved them? Could someone else have taken your car (and the keys)? Is there anything else keeping you from finding your keys? Sounds silly, but if you start to look for your keys by retracing your own steps if you were not the last person to touch the keys , that is not the best use of your time. Also, working around obstacles may slow the process. Thinking ahead a bit and anticipating things that might get in your way will save you time, frustration, and energy.
- Form a strategy and organize your information. What did you do last time you lost your keys and did that work? How did you approach the problem? Who did you ask? How did you start searching? What was the result? Success and failure often happen in repeatable patterns. Look for similarities and use past experience as a reference. Look for those patterns and organize your plan around those patterns.
- Set priorities and consider consequences. This is an often skipped important step. Is looking for your keys the best thing you can do right now? What happens if you don’t look for your keys? Make your plan based on both the strategy and the importance of the situation. We often spend too much time focusing on things that, in hind sight, might not have been the best use of time.
- Act and prepare to adapt as the situation changes. Unless you find your keys immediately, the problem solving process does not end when you start looking for your key. In most cases, you will form your strategy to fit something you did before. Life is never exactly as it was so be prepared to shift your focus and adjust your strategy as you get new information.
Problem solving is all about achieving your goal. Practice may not make perfect but you can become a better problem solver if you can train yourself to look for patterns, find success, and focus on preparing and taking the best route to achieving your goal.