Think Like a Scientist: How to Solve Everyday Problems

“You can increase your problem-solving skills by honing your question-asking ability.” — Michael J. Gelb

Hurdles are disheartening, and they’re often unavoidable.

It happens to all of us.

Even the most successful people you admire face obstacles everyday.

Life is like a game of chess.

There is an infinite number of ways to play. At the core, the game is about solving problems.

To be great at chess one needs to see patterns, think ahead, use logic, be systematic, keep moving, fail, and learn.

Every obstacle can be a great opportunity if you take your time and plan ahead. If you see a challenge as your call to action, it is amazing how your mind works to find solutions.

Most people jump straight from finding a problem to attempting to solve it.

Having a systematic approach to how you deal with problems, as opposed to just going by gut and feelings, can make a big difference in how you creatively find answers to your obstacles.

Think about it.

What does a great doctor do when you describe your symptoms?

They study the problem first.

They also poke and prod you: they ask you to try to do what you couldn’t do before: move, lift, and report how you feel. They even listen with a stethoscope, take your temperature, blood pressure, pulse, etc.

If the stakes are high or the cause is hard to pin down, they will schedule an X-ray, lab work, or an MRI, but only after first using simpler methods. They have a system, an approach (both simple and complex) to help you get better again.

Detectives and investigators use the process. They ask both obvious and unthinkable questions.

That’s how you start finding answers to everyday problems.

You get close and collect information about how the problem is manifesting.

You can think of yourself as a doctor understanding symptoms or a detective collecting clues at the scene of a crime.

Great problem solvers are detailed and thorough.

To find great answers, ask better questions

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Voltaire

If possible, understand where the problem does and doesn’t happen, when the problem started, and how often the problem occurs to generate critical insight for the problem-solving effort.

Don’t look for solutions immediately; take time to comprehend the gravity of the issue. Keep redefining the problem until you arrive at the root cause. Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, explains:

“…every time you find yourself making a judgment immediately upon observing — in fact, even if you don’t think you are, and even if everything seems to make perfect sense — train yourself to stop and repeat: It is impossible as I state it, and therefore I must in some respect have stated it wrong. Then go back and restate it from the beginning and in a different fashion than you did the first time around. Out loud instead of silently. In writing instead of in your head. It will save you from many errors in perception.”

Here are some questions to help you understand everyday problems better:

  1. What does the problem look like?

2. If you look closely is it always the same every time?

3. When did you first see the problem?

4. What pattern do you notice if you look at the problem over time?

5. Where might you expect to see the same problem but don’t?

These questions are guides, not directions.

Don’t try to guess the solution; try to understand how the obstacles, or challenges manifest first.

Gather data to analyze all potential root causes.

Consider all options, regardless of how irrelevant they currently appear.

No way of looking at things is too sacred to be reconsidered. No way of doing things is beyond improvement,” says Edward De Bono, author of How to Have a Beautiful Mind.

Find a way to connect the dots. Make better analogies.

Leonardi da Vinci was famous for this.

He studied how water moved in rivers to better understand how blood flows through our veins.

He dissected humans to understand how layers of muscle, tissue, and tendons work inside our body. This knowledge allowed him to paint details that no other painter considered at the time.

One good analogy is worth three hours of discussion, says Dudley Malone.

Break the obstacle down

A problem broken down is half way solved. Example, if you don’t have enough money to get a mortgage, you could divide the obstacle into “too little income,” “high expenses,” and “expectations of future house.”

And then address each category on its own.

Once you have categories, it’s very easy to continue digging.

For example, you could now list causes for the “too little income” category, and do the same for “high expenses”. This can help you narrow down on the best practices, ideas, possible solutions to your problem.

Ken Watanabe, the author of Problem Solving 101, recommends the decision tree, a tool that uses a tree-like model of decisions and their possible outcomes and consequences.

The decision problem is not posed in terms of an isolated decision. The problem is posed in terms of a tree of decisions.

A decision tree can help you consider various courses of action with greater ease and clarity.

The idea is to take everything apart until you have the individual pieces

Once you’ve broken your problem down, you can easily analyse the cause, and, finally, execute the best action plan.

The point of analysis is to never accept statements at face value, including your own.

Approach problems with a “could” mindset

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns to look at things in a different way,” says Edward de Bono.

In many situations when people encounter a problem, they tend to default to what they should do instead of asking what they could do.

Could helps you think outside an existing problem to generate more creative solutions.

Should narrows your thinking process to one answer, the one that seems most obvious.

“…when we think in terms of “could,” we stay open-minded and the trade-offs involved inspire us to come up with creative solutions,” says Francesca Gino of Harvard Business Review.

If you can resist time pressure, and give yourself a moment to reflect, you will come up with options, even better solutions.

“What if…?” and “How about…?” are questions that open up possibilities for better solutions.

Rethink boundaries.

Scientists are great at this.

They don’t assume anything. They don’t stop questioning either.

Their job is to question basic assumptions to figure things out.

The idea is to take everything apart and think beyond the existing principle.

This process opens up your mind to new ways to figure out better solutions.

For a better solution, don’t rush the thinking process

Many people assume that they just need to think harder when faced with a tough decision to make, or when they trying to solve a difficult problem.

But concentrating harder won’t force that ‘eureka moment’ you need.

Instead, your best option might be to step away from the problems and get do something unrelated to the project.

Give your brain the time to process the problem.

You will be amazed at the results.

When you stop thinking about a task, your brain continues working on the problem in the background.

“To solve a problem creatively, to have an insight, our brain tends to escape visual distractors, to physically block information, and to look somewhere else. You don’t want to overload your mind with visual information, because you want to focus more inwardly, and you get into this ‘offline mode’ where you’re very pensive,” says Carola Salvi, an Italian post-doctoral researcher at the creative brain lab at Northwestern University.

Give your brain the opportunity to reorganize the problem and come up with a better solution.

And when you have an insightful moment — where the solution pops into your mind out of nowhere — you should trust it, because it’s probably the correct one.

The power of the incubation period

Scientists have been studying the “incubation period” for years.

For many years, they have found that amazing ideas, solutions to problems and obstacles often come to people when they aren’t actively trying to develop a solution.

The incubation period works because your brain gets to take a break from everything distracting you.

People experience a spark of genius when they are busy doing something unrelated to the problem they are trying to solve.

You don’t have to take a long incubation period to make the most of it.

Even just 10 minutes might be enough to help your brain gain a new perspective.

The next time you’re tempted to make find a quick solution to that problem, remember the incubation period and give your brain the opportunity to surprise you.

Work backwards

When thinking about a process, we’re often fixated to follow the same sequence in our mind.

This way we miss opportunities to use insights that stem from following an alternative sequence, such as working backwards.

To solve some problems better, you may need to undo the key actions in the problem.

Start consciously from the end of the process and develop it step by step from there.

Reverse engineering changes everything.

It allows you to notice patterns your brain normally ignores.

When you work backwards, your mind slows down.

You begin to see things you didn’t see before.

Working backwards works when the final result is clear but the initial portion of a problem is obscure.

It pays to sleep on it

Your memory consolidates when you are awake, allowing little time to make deeper connections.

The opposite is true.

The brain makes better connections when you are asleep, allowing you to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas.

In many cases, when you are tempted to stay up late to find a solution to an obstacle, you might be better sleeping on it.

Your brain might solve the problem for you while you’re fast asleep.

Key takeaway

Problems are inevitable.

In every situation, consider all options, regardless of how irrelevant they currently appear.

Keep an open mind.

In any situation that demands better solutions, explore your options, question basic assumptions, use improved systems, build new approaches, rethink the usual boundaries, give your brain the opportunity to incubate better, and work backwards to notice patterns you normally ignore.

With an approach like this, you’ll never really get stuck.

Hilary Mantel says, “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just sit there scowling at the problem.”

Your next action should be made in light of the anticipated effect it and the outcome of uncertain events will have on future values and decisions.