When faced with a problem what is the first thing you do? For some whether it is in the business world or personal life, we might set a goal. For some we have learned how to use the SMART goals system. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. The point of the acronym is to drill down on specifics, get the solution into crystal clear focus empowering you to do something to move towards the goal.
Setting a goal is great, they help direct us to where we want to go and can help keep us accountable while we get there. If we start by setting goals however, we are most likely setting ourselves up for failure. There is a type of therapy known as “Problem Solving Therapy” which just as the name suggests helps people solve a problem in their life. There are 8 clearly defined steps that a person walks through to solve a problem, and while goal setting is on the list it isn’t the first thing you need to do.
Step #1: Choose your attitude
The process of solving a problem actually begins with the thing in your life that is most under your control…your attitude. Step 1 is to get the right attitude. This step is often overlooked, and perhaps embedded in the desire for change, however clearly outlining the process so that we can be clear about what we are doing, how to do and evaluate the process (as we will see in step 8), we can go back to see where things went right or need to be adjusted.
The truth is for all of our efforts in this world we have control over very little, but what we do have control over is our effort and our attitude. Now that doesn’t mean that if you are feeling bad it is easy to choose to just “feel better”, but our attitude isn’t exactly the same thing as our emotions. We do choose our attitude which is another way of saying, we choose how we want to engage in the world. This is the first step in the change process to address a problem. This is believing that “I can do something about this problem”. It also can involve the process of “reframing” the problem into an opportunity. You may be familiar with the “growth mindset” approach which looks at challenges as opportunities to grow, and failure as feedback not defeat. We can choose how we view and evaluate the events in our lives. For many people, this a place where we can get stuck. Another common mistake is to skip over this step assuming that because we recognize a problem we already have done the work of choosing an attitude that will help us change it. But that isn’t always the case. Without going into the whole science of motivation, there choices we can make that lead us to feel empowered to make a change. Social support, believing you have a choice in the matter, and recognizing that your efforts are improving your skills are 3 components of this. Nevertheless, when you go about solving a problem it is important to reflect on whether or not your attitude is setting you up for success.
#2: Clarify the problem.
When life gets hard, when we feel overwhelmed, when too many challenges are competing for our attention life can feel like a jumbled wad of Christmas lights with too many strings of problems woven together. After recognizing what our attitude is, we have to drill down on the problem. This means rather than saying, my boss is annoying me, or my neighbor is the problem, let’s be specific about the actions someone is taking to lead to the problem. In this case it could be, “my boss undermines me by having me send in progress reports that seem unnecessary and cause me to lose focus from the task at hand.” If the problem is too vague, opaque, or subjective then it will be very difficult to identify clear actions steps to address the problem. We may need to break the problem down into smaller parts as well. Trying to address the whole of the problem at once may be perceived as too daunting. In this case we actually feel disempowered and are more likely to procrastinate or avoid it all together. (Note: this holds true whether the solution(s) to the problem are in our control or the plan of action is how to best manage a situation that we are powerless to control)
#3: Set goals and identify obstacles
Finally, it is time to identify our goals. We can use SMART goals, but there is another series of goal setting that looks at outcomes, performance markers, and process-oriented goals to identify what we want to change about the problem. This step also requires that we think about the obstacles to these goals as well. What could get in the way? Lack of skill or resources? Can a bout of anxiety or depression throw these plans off? Have you tried to solve this problem before? We want clarify not only what we want to change but also what are the elements in our life that can stop that from successfully occurring.
Step 4 Brainstorm multiple solutions:
This can be a challenge for some of us who want to just think of one solution and go with the first or best thing that comes to mind. We might do this because we are impatient or don’t believe we have more than one good idea, but it is important to generate up to 10 possible solutions to help address the problem either partially or in its entirety. This is a time to let your imagination run wild, we don’t need to stop and evaluate each solution at this point, just come up with the ideas. These can include behaviors we can do, thoughts we choose to have, or reaching out for help from a social support person.
Step 5: Evaluate the list
Are all of these solutions options within your control? Are all of them actionable and possible?
Step 6: Choose
Pick a solution on the list. This is where we decide on our first plan to address the problem.
Step 7: Plan of Action
Establish how, when, with whom, and why you will do this plan and the go do it. Again, the more specific and clear you are about the details of the plan the more control you will have over making sure the plan goes through as you hoped. This is also a place to come up with how to address the obstacles you identified back in step 3.
Step 8: Evaluate and adjust
After implementing the first plan, evaluate, how did it go? Did it address the problem completely, partially, or not at all? Did it go as you thought it would? Why or why not? And then we go back and look at our list of solutions and decide do I need to choose another possible solution and put that into practice? The key here is persistence, just because one solution didn’t work entirely or at all doesn’t mean that nothing will work. Remember step 1, your attitude. Choose an attitude that is both gracious to yourself (this is hard and doing this may be taking you beyond your current skillset) and one that remembers that often good things in life require hard work and dedication.
Whether the solutions are within our control or not, we can use this method to identify and address the challenges we face in life. Even when the solution to the problem is outside of our control, we can still chose a plan of action that includes self-care and other choices that will help us deal with the problem in a healthy way to endure it.