problem solving

Problem solving is often easier if you didn’t think about the problem. This may seem an odd proposition, that you can solve a problem without focusing on it, but there’s plenty of evidence to show that it is a viable idea.

When thinking about how to go about problem solving we often get stuck in a loop of faulty reasoning where, no matter how much we think about it, we just keep coming back to the problem. Solutions elude us and the more we think the further away answers seem to be.

It’s been pointed out by some of history’s most notable thinkers that you can’t solve a problem with the same mindset that created it (by Einstein, Gregory Bateson and Max Planck, for example). It’s also been said that when something’s not working you should do something different; this is a firm operating principle of Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT).

If you step back from ruminating on a persistent problem, you can see right away that becoming overly focused on it is precisely what has kept it in place.

We’ve all had experience of obsessing about something to a point where we grind to a halt. As we keep coming back to ‘the problem our circular reasoning effectively stymies any attempts to break the pattern. We feel utterly stuck.

When – in an attempt to distract ourselves and get some respite from the problem’s oppressive dominance – we go to the gym or do some chores – fresh ideas and even solutions suddenly occur to us when we least expect it.

This is because, when you finally break away from ruminating about something, you create some space for the abstract problem-solving part of your mind to do what it does best.

Another factor in problem solving is that many dilemmas don’t lend themselves to logical, yes/no, answers. Relationship difficulties fall into this category. They usually involve abstract concepts that cannot be resolved in neat and tidy ways.

Traditional ways of addressing problems tend to be linear and logical, if-then kind of reasoning. The idea that this is how you should go about it is a dominant one in modern life. We are taught that finding answers is a reductive and rational process which, if you apply it consistently, will strip away confusion and un-truth, to finally reveal the answer, or truth.

While this is certainly an effective method when diagnosing an illness or troubleshooting an electronic circuit, it’s not the only way. Most of the problems people struggle with in life involve their beliefs, values, emotions, agendas, fears, wishes, hopes… and other people!

It’s an untidy business, problem-solving with people, because we don’t behave in a rational, tidy and orderly way that logic expects.

Though it seems counter-intuitive to say that you can solve a problem by not focusing on it, this it is precisely what is often needed. Our ancestors knew it. They developed specific ways of ‘not-focusing-on-the-problem’; pilgrimage, retreats and rituals are examples.

Deliberately involving yourself in a task or challenge distracts you so that you can begin to develop new perspectives which will reveal fresh ideas or a new course of action. Taking yourself away from a difficulty allows the problem-solving part of the mind to kick-in. Often, solutions arrived at like this are surprisingly counter-intuitive and un-logical; you could never have got to them by the usual route of ‘thinking about the problem’.

Think about it, you know it makes sense. Then forget about it and do something different.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.



  1. Ellen February 27, 2017 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for this blog Barry – very timely for me.

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