You might enjoy solving problems. I do, too. But every now and then I get that horrible overwhelming feeling where specific problems just feel like insurmountable mountains. And the more I feel like that, the more difficult it is to think clearly about the problem. It becomes a deadly cycle.
However, there is hope. Here are a couple of my go-to methodologies when I feel that feeling of helplessness.
- Calm down. Seriously, just a couple of deep breaths will bring oxygen to the parts of your brain that you need to kick into problem-solving gear. I have a breathing app on my Apple watch that reminds me to breathe for 1 minute. If you don’t have an app, you can do “box breathing” – inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold it for 4 seconds. Repeat a couple of times until you feel calmer. Read “Breath” by James Nestor to get closer to improving your breathing.
- Write it down. I am a visual thinker and creating lists or mind maps really clarifies my thinking. It doesn’t have to be fancy or pretty, as long as you understand it. Write out the problem, brainstorm solutions and start compiling a plan. I use sticky notes on a flipchart so that I can move things around to create structure and see connections.
- Have a thinking partner. This is probably my secret sauce. I had a great manager who would walk into my office, sit down and exclaimed: “I need you to be my thinking partner on this!” She would talk through issues; I would ask questions and we would both get to new understanding. Your thinking partner doesn’t even need to understand the problem that well or be an expert. And they really don’t need to give advice. They just need to listen. The process of talking through it with someone is almost magical in that it clarifies the issue in your mind. There’s something about hearing yourself saying things that makes it more effective than just thinking about things. Nancy Klein’s book “Time to Think” is a great resource here. And if you don’t have anyone to talk to, talk to yourself! Sometimes I record myself on my phone and play it back. It’s almost as good.
- Identify the very next action. If it’s a big issue, being overwhelmed is easy. However, if you take just the very next action, you’re already taking a step to solving it. In Dave Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” that’s his main piece of advice.
- Leave it. If you’re really stuck, leave the problem for a while and so something completely different. I take the dog for a walk, bake something with my kids or play music. Allow your subconscious to figure things out. You might be surprised at the new ideas and insights you create when you return to the problem.