Discover the process of solving the four types of problems you may be facing on a daily basis.
Imagine for a moment that every thought and decision we make is a result of our brain constantly processing sensory information from our environment. From split-second decisions to solving complex problems, our mind navigates through a path of processing this information to determine how to respond to each piece of input. Fascinating, isn’t it?
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize Laureate Daniel Kahneman spent his life studying human judgment and decision-making and states that every thought, every decision, and every action we take is a manifestation of the mind’s inherent problem-solving ability. Whether deciding what to have for breakfast, navigating a crowded street, or making a crucial business decision, our minds constantly analyze and process information to arrive at the best possible solution.
Throughout my illustrious career, I have dedicated myself to tackling major problems for a diverse range of clients, from scrappy entrepreneurs to powerful corporate titans and influential public officials. But alas, as the old adage goes, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes,” and I must confess that I too have neglected my own well-being in the process.
In due time, I reached a critical juncture where I realized that I needed to take a step back and make some serious changes in my life. I’m writing this not as advice on how to go about solving big problems, for such a vast topic cannot be adequately addressed in a mere article. Indeed, my tale is crucial, as it sheds light on the issues and problems that once monopolized a staggering 80% of my time, yet did not receive the proper attention they deserved. These problems, left unattended, can quickly spiral into something much bigger, as I learned through personal experience. As an expert in problem-solving, I have discovered that it is essential to devote attention to one’s own issues as well as those of clients. Neglecting personal well-being and internal problems can lead to significant setbacks and challenges down the line.
As entrepreneurs, we are no strangers to facing a myriad of challenges on a daily basis. These challenges range from the mundane, such as managing spam emails or scheduling conflicts, to the more complex ones, like developing a new marketing strategy, managing team conflicts, and dealing with financial issues, legal challenges, or market changes that can be catastrophic. Startup CEOs also face the additional pressure of providing for their families and managing cash flow responsibly, adding to the already overwhelming stress and pressure. With so many tasks and issues to navigate, it’s crucial to have a clear and efficient thinking process to help us prioritize and solve problems effectively.
If the brain had to process everything in a slow-thinking manner, it would pose a heavy toll on itself. The brain makes up only 2% of body mass but uses 20% of the energy we consume. That’s why it is programmed to efficiently split these problems between shortcuts/heuristics and mind-straining activities. This phenomenon is described as the Dual process theory, which proposes that human thinking involves two distinct processes: System 1 and System 2. System 1 involves fast, automatic, and intuitive thinking, while System 2 involves slower, deliberate, and analytical thinking. This explains how the brain is efficient at splitting the work between heuristic shortcuts and more cognitively demanding activities.
System 1 thinking is characterized by heuristics or mental shortcuts used to process information quickly and arrive at a solution. For example, if we see a red traffic light, our brain automatically tells us to stop without requiring conscious effort or analysis.
On the other hand, System 2 thinking is characterized by logical reasoning and problem-solving, which are used to evaluate complex information and arrive at a solution. For example, if we are trying to solve a difficult math problem, we need to engage in deliberate and analytical thinking to arrive at a correct answer.
As entrepreneurs, we must be cautious of relying too heavily on heuristics, as they may lead to cognitive biases and erroneous decision-making. However, overthinking may cause us to waste precious time and energy, leading to fatigue and potentially faulty decision-making. Therefore, optimizing our thinking process to strike a balance between heuristic shortcuts and more critical thinking is crucial.
Problem Filtering and Sorting Rule of Thumb
Problem filtering and sorting is a process or a rule of thumb that I use on a daily, and more like on an ongoing basis, to filter and classify problems into buckets based on their complexity and difficulty. This allows me to prioritize and address every problem that comes my way by filtering it first, then bucketing it according to the simple scheme below. Let’s dive deeper into the following buckets.
Bucket 1: Easy Problems
The first bucket consists of easy problems that can be solved through a cognitive bias filter and a rule of thumb. Some examples of these problems include scheduling appointments, answering simple emails, and making routine decisions.
I use a combination of tactics and heuristics to tackle this bucket, including
- Choose the default option when making routine decisions.
- Batch tasks by grouping similar activities together to maximize efficiency.
- Delegate small tasks to team members to free up your time for more important tasks.
- Create and use templates for frequently performed tasks to streamline the process.
- Establish routines for completing common tasks to reduce decision fatigue.
- Automation tools to simplify repetitive tasks and reduce the workload.
Now for this bucket and all remaining buckets, I always apply the Pareto Principle by identifying and optimizing the 20% of tasks that will yield 80% of the results, Koch, R. (1999).
Bucket 2: Medium-sized Problems
The second bucket includes medium-sized problems that require some thinking but not too much. Examples of these problems involve brainstorming new marketing strategies or developing a new product idea. For these problems, I use a 2-step variation of the popular Eisenhower Matrix in combination with the 80/20 rule to prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance, Covey, S. R. (1989).
I add these problems to my daily to-do list and prioritize them based on their urgency. The most pressing issues are scheduled for early in the day, while the less urgent ones are pushed to the end of the day.
After mapping my productivity for several days, I found that I’m most productive in the morning. As the day progresses, my productivity and mental capacity tend to decline.
Bucket 3: Difficult Problems
The third and final bucket includes difficult problems that require significant thinking and planning. These problems are prioritized and written down in my project management tool. Examples of these problems include creating a new business plan, developing a long-term strategy, or solving complex technical issues. Each problem is unique and requires a different approach to solve.
It’s important to note that not all problems are created equal. Some problems are linear, meaning they can be solved by following a straightforward and logical approach. Others are non-linear, meaning they require creativity and thinking outside the box. Identifying the type of problem we’re facing and adjusting our thinking process accordingly is essential.
As I mentioned earlier, a strategy consultant, my job is to solve difficult problems for clients, and I’m even writing a book on the subject. However, the purpose of this short hack is not to delve into that topic. Rather, it’s important to approach these types of problems as you would a project.
For this category, I have a Kanban project management tool to keep track of them.
Bucket 4: Catastrophic Problem
The best rule to overcome catastrophic problems is to avoid them altogether. This is done by anticipating such problems and putting checks and balances, scorecards, and systems to detect them before they catapult into a catastrophe and by having good risk assessments and contingency plans in place.
In fact, if you manage Bucket 2 and 3 effectively and efficiently, this is a good way to prevent such problems from turning into potential catastrophes.
How Has this Worked for Me?
The approach I am sharing for productivity and problem-solving may appear simplistic, yet I have two compelling reasons to counter such an observation. Firstly, as posited by renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we are not only “blind to the obvious,” but we can also be “blind to our blindness,” leading us to overlook simple solutions that could significantly impact our lives, Kahneman, D. (2011). This phenomenon is prevalent in my daily consultations with clients who struggle to identify clear solutions due to their day-to-day workload. This has regrettably led to consultants being stereotyped as charlatans who complicate straightforward solutions.
Secondly, I have found that complex heuristics rarely lead to successful outcomes. As previously mentioned, this is more of a rule of thumb. Despite reading several books containing elaborate, multi-step methods for improving productivity, my attempts to implement such techniques have been unsustainable. Although I initially grow exceedingly enthusiastic about applying new methods, I ultimately find myself dropping them, resulting in the techniques failing to produce the intended results. Rather, I believe in the efficacy of simplicity for enhancing productivity. Since adopting a straightforward approach, I have noticed a significant improvement in both my productivity and problem-solving abilities. As a result, I am now able to accomplish twice as much in a day compared to my previous methods.
If you enjoyed reading this article and want to learn more about the business world, check out my other articles:
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Koch, R. (1999). The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less. Crown Business.
- Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Simon & Schuster.