Three steps: sense, define, act

That’s funny. When I take my hands off the wheel the car doesn’t go straight. It veers to the left. And the steering wheel shudders. Hmm. 

I tell my friend about it. He knows about cars. “It’s a problem with the wheel alignment,” he says. “It won’t cost that much to fix.” So down to the mechanic I go. I leave him with the car for a few hours, he does some tinkering, and voila, the car goes in a straight line when I do no-hands.

That’s how problem solving works. You sense a problem, define the problem, and take action to fix the problem.

Take note. The first and second step are distinct. This is because it’s easier to sense when you have a problem than it is to know exactly what the problem is. I can tell there’s a problem when my car makes a noise it didn’t make yesterday. If I start a company, hire ten people, and nine of them turn out to be awful at their job, I know I have a problem with my hiring process. If every time I walk down the stairs I get shooting pains through my knee, there’s something up with my body. In all three cases, I know something is wrong. I just don’t know what or why.

The second step, defining the problem, is about narrowing down the causes of the problem from the possible to the probable. And it requires a skillset that is related to the arena in which you sense the problem. Obviously, you don’t go to the dentist when you have car problems. You go see a man with a wrench and oil-stained overalls. 

Sometimes the person who defines the problem is also the one who fixes it, like the car mechanic. Sometimes, they are not one and the same. The spinal consultant at the hospital isn’t usually the one who slices you open.

You would think these steps have to occur in a particular order: sense, define, act. And they kinda do. But sometimes, they don’t. You can sense a problem and then tinker until the symptoms subside. That’s how a lot of people deal with illness. They feel awful, take a few days to slob around and rest, then feel better again. They knew they had a problem—the illness—but they didn’t go to a doctor to find out exactly what it was.

But in general that’s the pathway. Sense, define, act. Use that model in your own life. The problems you can sense? Try to define them. The problems that you’ve defined? Take the next steps to solve them. And the problems you’re solving via action? Make sure you follow through. Problems are like bacteria: an incomplete course of medicine will only strengthen them, making it harder to rid yourself of them in the future.