Simple problem-solving strategies – Fast Company
A. J. Jacobs is an editor for Esquire. As a journalist and author, he is known for putting himself in the role of test subject as he embarks on various lifestyle investigations.
Below, Jacobs shares five key insights from his new book, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. Listen to the audio version—read by Jacobs himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Don’t get furious—get curious.
When confronting a problem, it’s easy to get angry and frustrated. But anger is counterproductive to creative solutions—you get tunnel vision. Instead, I recommend the Puzzler Mindset. This is a mindset of deep curiosity and reframing life’s problems and annoyances as puzzles.
The legendary music producer Quincy Jones has a saying: “I don’t have problems. I have puzzles.” I love this quote. I want a tattoo of it on my forehead because it’s the perfect encapsulation of the Puzzler Mindset. When I look at life and business as a series of puzzles instead of problems, I’m both more productive and happier because problems are fear-inducing and intractable. Puzzles are solvable, motivating, and engage your creative and playful side.
For instance, if I’m talking to someone who disagrees with me—about business strategy, politics, or whatever—I could try berating them into changing their mind. That rarely works. In fact, it’s often counterproductive. Instead, treat it like a puzzle. What do we really disagree on? Why do I believe what I believe? Is there any evidence that could change one of our minds? Is there common ground? All of these are puzzles, and pursuing their answers is a more likely way to produce a productive solution.
2. Chop your problem into bits.
One of the best strategies for any puzzle is chopping the big puzzle into a series of smaller puzzles. Consider the genre of puzzles called Fermi problems, a type of logic problem that Google and Microsoft famously ask at some job interviews.
A typical Fermi problem goes like this: “How many piano tuners are there in New York City?” You have to estimate the size of something about which you are totally ignorant. David Epstein talks about how to solve Fermi problems in his book Range. If you take a wild, off-the-cuff guess, you’ll probably be wrong by orders of magnitude.
Instead, break it down. As Epstein writes: “How many households are in New York? What portion might have pianos? How often are pianos tuned? How many homes can one tuner reach in a day? How many days a year does a tuner work?” You won’t guess it exactly, but you’re more likely to be in the ballpark.
Breaking a problem down into parts can work in all sorts of areas. I use it when facing the puzzle of writing my books. If I visualize my task as one monolithic book, I feel overwhelmed. Instead, I break it down into a series of chapters, and see it as a sequence of smaller puzzles. Tackle parts instead of the whole.
Or, take the puzzle of getting myself to walk the treadmill for a few minutes a day. If I say to myself, “You have to walk on the treadmill for an hour today,” I will delay this task forever. So, I break it down. I put the big picture out of my …….