Scott H Young

Problem Solving Toolkit: 33 Tricks to Answer Tough Problems


When you have a tough problem you can’t solve, what do you do? If you’re like most people, you probably only have two or three routines for solving problems. This could be thinking it out, asking for help or writing it down.

But having only three methods of solving problems is like a carpenter that only has a hammer and a saw. Faced with a screw, he can’t come up with a decent solution. Even if you have all the essential tools, new ones can make your job a lot easier.

Having a large range of problem solving techniques to choose from can give you answers when your current tools fail. From practical to existential problems, having a lot of tools can give you better answers. To start you off, here’s fifty you may not have used much before:

  1. Write – Open a blank word processor document and start by writing your problem. Writing can help you organize your thinking.
  2. Read – Buy books about the subject and immerse yourself in it. This works well for big problems where your knowledge is incomplete.
  3. Ask For Help - Ask a friend for help with your problem.
  4. Talk it Out – Don’t have any friends? Talk to yourself to come up with an answer.
  5. Think it Through – Give yourself some time to really think without distractions. Isolate yourself if you have to.
  6. Meditate – Thinking Hard 2.0. Focus your breathing and close your eyes until you can think without distractions.
  7. Use Your Intuition - Go with your gut. Malcolm Gladwell showed how this can be useful for a trained mind in Blink.
  8. Freudian Flip – Flip a coin on it. Your reaction to the flip will illustrate your underlying feelings. You may be relieved or disappointed, then use that to gauge your answer.
  9. Sort the Information - Take all the relevant information and organize it.
  10. Draw a Diagram – Sketch out your problem. Draw flowchart for a programming task or a figure to compare areas of your life. Images compress information.
  11. Seek a Third Option – Stuck between two bad choices? Go for win-win or no deal, seeking to find a synergy, not a compromise.
  12. Poll Others – Ask for feedback from several people and notice common themes in their responses.
  13. Churn – Churn out ideas until you can’t think of any more. Then list another five.
  14. Brainstorm – Get a group of 3-6 and discuss the problem together.
  15. List 20 - Write out twenty solutions to your problem. The best one usually exists in the last five answers.
  16. Reconnect With The Basics - Go back to the parts of the problem you already understand. Familiarizing yourself with the basics can help you solve the advanced.
  17. Get a New Perspective - How would Einstein handle your problem? Leonardo Da Vinci? Bill Gates?
  18. Ask Your Subconscious - Pretend you are having a conversation with someone else. Use the dialog as a window into your intuitive responses.
  19. Find the Relevant Scarcity - Determine what factor the entire problem pivots on. Is your failing blog hinge on a poor writing skill, under-utilized marketing or bad ideas?
  20. Apply Multiple Disciplines – Go outside the discipline normally used. If you are tackling a web-design problem, look at it from the perspective of a sculptor or programmer. If you are having a career crisis, look at it from a philosophical or spiritual stance.
  21. Find a How-To - Almost any possible subject has tutorials. You can search online or go to your bookstore to find them.
  22. Sleep On It – Get some rest and tackle to problem again on a different day.
  23. Take a Breather – Engage yourself in something else. This will give you fresh ideas when you look at the problem again.
  24. Engage the Silence - Just sit. Don’t do anything. Notice your thoughts and capitalize on anything that comes to mind. I often use this approach to think of new articles to write.
  25. Identify Your Assumptions - What is your problem based on? What prevents normal solutions from working towards your problem? Some challenges are impossible to overcome simply because they have been framed incorrectly.
  26. Check Your Logic - Once you identify your assumptions, logically work towards possible answers. Errors in logic can lead to false conclusions.
  27. Reevaluate the Problem - Is it actually a problem in the first place? Some problems can’t be solved directly, but instead need to be adjusted.
  28. Trial and Error - Just try stuff until you find something that works. It’s crude but it gets stuff done.
  29. Prototype - Try out a smaller version of your solution.
  30. Visualize - Form a mental picture of all the components of the problem. Many athletes and speakers use visualization before a performance to focus themselves.
  31. Vision Decoding - View the first visual scene that comes to mind. Afterwards, try to decode the aspects of your vision as metaphors for how to solve the problem. The process of relating your problem to abstract symbols can give you a new way to handle it.
  32. Exhaust Your Thinking – Set a timer and just write. Write out ideas until you can’t think of anymore. Then keep writing. When I face a tough problem I often have six or seven pages of writing that shows the progress of my thinking.
  33. Ask Google - If solving the problem yourself is too much for you, just ask the machine.

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6 Responses to “Problem Solving Toolkit: 33 Tricks to Answer Tough Problems”

  1. Alex Ion says:

    Great article with great advices.

    I just want to add that if you haven’t found the solver with anything from 1 to 32 then Google won’t help at all !

  2. henryt says:

    a lot of times we assume a lot of things that they wont work – as a normal route 95% of our actions are done by reflexs – but if you keep all the negtive thingings away – you see , visualise your answers right in front of your eyes and your actions will prove you are right.

  3. Raoul Duke says:

    I do think there’s a state of free-wheeling thinking and creativity that is, for some (like me), hard to achieve on a regular basis. Different people have different means to get there – once some space brownies really got me figuring out some sweet ideas for game play, although of course I didn’t have the motivation ever to follow through and implement them.

  4. […] Problem Solving Toolkit – 33 Tricks to Answer Tough Problems @ Scott H Young […]

  5. […] Problem Solving Toolkit – 33 Tricks to Answer Tough Problems @ Scott H Young […]

  6. Amit Sharma says:

    You can make it more useful by thinking about the order in which should employ your tricks to solving a problem.

    That would be a step towards being an efficient problem solver. Sometimes solving problem in time is all that defines success.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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