Getting Schooled: 5 Ways to Tackle a Challenging Problem

Success in life depends not only on what you accomplish, but also how you overcome everyday challenges. This includes the challenges many college students face during back to school season. Don’t call mom and dad yet: Here are five easy problem-solving tips you can apply to just about any challenge, big or small.
The Example Problem:
One of the scariest back to school challenges many students face each year is physically moving away to college for the first time. You might find that you’re moving somewhere without a lot of space or resources and you have too much stuff to take with you. Let’s tackle this problem in 5 steps. You’ll find that these steps can also help you in a variety of different challenges throughout your college life!

1. Chunk It: Break big problems into smaller, more solvable problems.

How do you swallow an elephant? One bite at a time. The same is true for solving problems. For our moving scenario: Look at the stuff you have to take to school and break it into smaller, more manageable groups (clothes, furniture, electronics, etc.). Then solve the problem for one group at a time. Perhaps ship some of the clothes, have a roommate take the computer, and so on.

2. Simplify It: Solve an easier version of the same problem to see how it works.

I call this activation – getting your mind on the right path to solve a problem before tackling it. Mentally imagine solving a similar, easier version to let your mind walk through the steps one at a time. This practice helps you see new solutions and resources you might have overlooked. Continuing with the back-to-school problem, imagine having to get your stuff to a next-door neighbor instead of a whole new city. Who might help, what would you take with you, and what tools would you use? Apply possible solutions you discover here to the bigger problem.

3. Draw It: Visualize the problem to see new ways to solve it.

Seeing a problem with all of its component parts helps you put the problem in a new perspective to open up possible solutions. Draw the problem on paper and show how the various parts are connected. How do they affect each other, and which parts are more challenging than others? Organizing your dorm room? Draw it.

4. Rearrange It: List the components of the problem and rearrange them to spark solutions.

We are so used to how familiar objects are structured that it prevents us from imaging other configurations. This tunnel vision blocks our creative problem-solving. To overcome it, mentally break objects into smaller parts and randomly put them in different places. Look for an unexpected benefit. For example, what if you packed some of your school clothes outside of the suitcase — perhaps with other objects, like fragile dishes or glassware? What if you rearranged items in the car in a different way? Move every component of the problem into a new place and see what happens.

5. Challenge It: What if your assumptions about the problem are wrong?

Things change, and what you once thought was true might not be. List the assumptions you are making about the problem and imagine, one by one, what would happen if an assumption were not true. For example, what if the date you need to start school is different than what you had thought? Have you checked your class schedule? Do you need to take all the items back to school right now? What if that’s not true? Challenging, and sometimes reversing, some of your assumptions can give you just the breakthrough you need.
Copyright 2014 Drew Boyd (This post first appeard in Coke Journey on August 11, 2014)

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