How to Solve a Problem

Five Methods:OverviewDivide and ConquerBrainstormingResearchDiligence

Problem solving is one of the most essential skills in life. Regardless of who you are or what you do, you will face obstacles. How you deal with such challenges will often be a determining factor in how successful you are at life. While problems come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, this article will give you some tools to help find solutions.

Method 1

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    There are many ways to solve problems, and it will depend on your situation, your experience, your knowledge, your attitude, and your problem to determine the best approach.
    • Your situation may be that you have a long term problem that will take time to resolve, such as a legal dispute or a personal issue. Your situation may be pressing, but not immediate. Such may be the case for solving a problem at work, or how to help your child get a better grade on next week's test. At the extremes, your situation may be dire, such as discovering your single-engine plane has just run out of gas, and a solution is needed immediately.
    • Your experience comes into play for all the above.
      • If you are an attorney, or a counselor, you will know how to navigate legal and personal issues through training and experience, and the best approaches to take solving those problems.
      • If you are an educator, or even a parent who has an older child, you've already experienced the difficulties of test-taking, and will have the necessary skills to help your child succeed.
      • If you're in serious situation, you will likely rely on gut instinct to solve your problem. As a pilot, you will have been trained on how to react in an emergency.

Method 2
Divide and Conquer

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    Use logic to arrive at a conclusion. To solve virtually any problem, you can use a process of elimination—dividing the issue down until all you have left is the problem. There are four basic steps to this process:
    • 1. Define the problem
    • 2. Develop a plan
    • 3. Implement the plan
    • 4. Evaluate the results
    • Until there's an acceptable answer, you'll repeat steps 2 through 4 until that answer has been reached. We'll use a common problem to illustrate this scenario.
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    Define the problem. Your car won't start, there's nobody around, and the mechanics of automobiles is a complete mystery to you. It's a brand new car, so you are not familiar with it. Furthermore, you are going to be late for work if you don't get your car started, so it's up to you to figure out what the problem is. There are many issues there to deal with, but only one problem: your car won't start.
    • When defining the problem, do not consider things that are extraneous matters, only what the actual problem is. You can consider the other issues later.
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    Have a plan. This is important to develop for solving any problem, and key for keeping the process on track and finding the solution in the shortest amount of time. For our example, the plan is straightforward—though maybe not simple—as a car is a fairly complex piece of machinery. The plan will be to break the issue down into smaller problems that are more easily solved, until we are left with the actual cause of the problem.
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    Implement the plan. We’ll start with big, obvious yes/no questions. Knowing what the problem isn't is just as important as knowing what it is.
    • Does the engine turn over when you engage the starter? If it does, then the battery is not the problem, and you’ve eliminated one major possibility. If it doesn’t turn over, then we know the problem is probably electrical. For this example, we’ll say it didn’t turn over.
      • We know now that the trouble likely lies somewhere along the electrical path, whether it be starter or battery or some other electrical issue.
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    Evaluate the results. What did you learn from the first test? Did it turn over a couple times, then slowed down and stop? Did it only make a clicking sound? If it did that, the problem would likely be a dead battery. For this example, though, what happened was neither the starter nor the engine made any sound at all, and didn’t even attempt to start. This could mean a totally dead battery, except for the fact that turning the key caused all the dash lights and the radio to come on, just like normal.
    • Now we know that the battery seems to be OK, but something is still preventing the car from starting. So we know the problem is that power is not getting to the starter when you turn the key. That doesn't help you get to work, though, so start again from step 2.
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    Develop the next plan. If you knew auto mechanics, you might look under the hood to see if all the parts were there. For this example, though, you wouldn’t know valve seal from a bivalve. Still, you look, see the engine is still inside, and nothing is obviously missing, so your next plan is to consult an expert—the owner’s manual.
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    Implement the plan. Since you’ve narrowed the problem down enough to know it’s not a dead battery or no gas, you look in the manual for where the problem actually is: starting the car.
    • You note a large alert icon with text stating, “For safety reasons, you must step on the brake pedal to start your car.”
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    Evaluate the results based on this new knowledge. Did you press the brake pedal when you first attempted to start the car? If you did, then that’s not the issue. However, to make a long example bearable, let’s say you neglected to step on the brake pedal.
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    Develop the next plan. It's getting easier, isn't it? Your next plan is to attempt to start the car with the brake pedal pressed down.
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    Implement the plan. Attempt to start the car with the brake engaged.
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    Evaluate the results. Did it start? Yes, it did! Your problem is solved, and you’re on your way to work.
    • Had it not started, it might also be the point where you call in a real expert—your auto mechanic. However, because of your methodical and diligent attempts to solve the problem, you will be able to give him a very good idea of what's wrong, which will lessen the time it takes him to figure out what’s wrong, which will lower your bill.

Method 3

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    Talk to people. If your problem is not immediate, and you have time to gather together people who have skills or experience that relate to your problem, take advantage of having such smart friends. Let's say you want to start a business, but don't know how to proceed.
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    Get your people together around the table. If you're in a business setting, call a meeting. If it's more informal and you're calling on friends, invite them over for a social business meeting.
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    Define the problem. Yes, just like above, you cannot solve a problem until you first define it.
    • The problem is you want to start a business, but don't have the knowledge you need to do it successfully.
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    Make a plan. Talk to your team. Brainstorm—that is, listen to their ideas, discuss them, and build on them. Toss your ideas onto the table, and let people discuss them as well. Often times, you'll find that everybody will have little pieces of an idea, but together you create a much more substantial plan to continue.
    • The plan in our example will be for you develop the outline for the business plan. This gives you concrete steps to follow that will enable you to define your business and its goals, examine the competition, evaluate the market, and have a clear outline of what you want to accomplish.
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    Implement the plan. Build the business plan from the ground up. It will take a while, and it will test the limits of your knowledge, but it will push you along the path to having a successful venture.
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    Evaluate the results. When you have created your business plan, gather your team again, and discuss what you have discovered. Brainstorm again, listening to and implementing what works, discarding what doesn't.
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    Repeat until you have fine-tuned your plan and you're ready to start your business. That problem has been solved, but there will be many more ahead!

Method 4

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    There are many approaches to problem solving. Perhaps one of the most key approaches to solving any problem is research. Whether reading the manual to find out why your car won't start, or poring over endless legal volumes on case history and precedent to find the best approach for that civil suit, research can play a vital role in problem solving.

Method 5

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    In closing, perhaps the best approach of all is to incorporate every approach you know, and don't give up until your problem is solved. There is a solution to every problem, even if that solution is difficult to accept. As the I Ching frequently states, "perseverance furthers."
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    Good luck!


  • If you feel like you can't do anything, stop thinking about what you can't do and start thinking about what you can do. Even if it's something small or seems unimportant, that little step might just lead to another, bigger step.
  • Attitude is the key. The more problems you solve the greater is your experience with problem solving. You can apply a solution from one area to another only by gaining experience. Be open to new problems.
  • If you start feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, take a breather. Realize that every problem has a solution, but sometimes you're so wrapped up in it that you can't see anything but the problem.
  • Be brave.
  • Keep in mind the role others can play in problem solving. Team work often plays a vital role in such issues. The threat of personal tension in such situations merely underscores the importance of promoting clarity and logic within the group.
  • Write down your thoughts so that the problem becomes a lot simpler in your mind. You become more relaxed and that often leads to better problem solving. There are different ways to get your thoughts on paper.
  • Consider problem solving books related specifically to your issue. Polya's book "How to Solve It", is an example of an excellent book for general problem solving.
  • If anything goes wrong during the problem solving process, just start over again. Take notes of anything that goes wrong and try to improve it.
  • Albert Einstein famously said "You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it." When you identify a problem, you might be emotionally charged, disappointed that the problem exists. The initial emotional reaction is normal,[1] but how you express it is very important.[2] Getting angry at others will usually put them into a defensive or withdrawn position, far less helpful for collaborative problem solving. Give yourself a moment to let the initial emotions calm down, then you'll be better able to evaluate and decide on how to proceed productively. Try to be calm and logical when approaching a problem, resolution ultimately lies in this approach.


  • Don't turn away from your problems. It will come back sooner or later and it will be more difficult to solve. Common sense can help to reduce the size of the problem.
  • Naturally, common sense is vital to solving any problem. Do not follow any procedure that results in endangerment, unless such hazards are unavoidable.

Sources and Citations

  1. Descartes Error, by Antonio Demasio
  2. Crucial Conversations, by Patterson et al

Article Info

Categories: Goal Realization & Problem Solving