How to Solve a Problem in Seven Easy Steps


By Dovid Spinka, LMSW

Unwanted situations are an inevitable part of life. Fully embracing and radically accepting that fact is a firm basis to managing difficult emotions. Acceptance is especially important when there is nothing we can do, such as when the weather is too cold, hot, or rainy, or when roommates continue to be loud after repeated requests to keep the noise down.

But in many situations, we can solve or at least minimize the problems at hand. Here are seven steps to problem solving, taken from the principles and practices of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

Step 1 – Describe the problem

Take the time to describe the situation you’re facing. Be specific and detailed, and include the consequences that you’re concerned about. For example, “I keep failing my exams despite the fact that I study a lot before taking them, which leaves me feeling anxious and fearful that I may not graduate.”

Step 2 – Check the facts (all the facts)

Be mindful of extreme thinking and make sure that your description is correct. For example, did you really fail the exam? Or did you not get as high a grade as you had hoped for? How many exams have you failed? How much study and prep time did you actually put in beforehand? Is this a general exam issue or limited to a particular subject? Sometimes after checking the facts we realize that our description of the problem needs to be revised. If the facts are incorrect, go back to Step 1. If they’re correct, move on to Step 3.

Step 3 – Identify your primary goal

Take the time to clarify what needs to happen or change for you to feel ok. Keep it simple and be realistic – choose something that can actually happen. For example, “I want to improve the effectiveness of my studying, so I don’t fail any more exams”.

Step 4 – Brainstorm

Take the time to identify lots of solutions to achieve your goal. Think about as many solutions as possible, and don’t throw anything out because it seems strange or unrealistic. It is crucial not to judge brainstorming or evaluate ideas for feasibility at this stage. Have fun being a creative thinker. For example, could you… Study with your classmate Daniel who does well in exams? Ask to meet with your professor to get feedback and advice about the exams? Learn mindfulness and relaxation techniques to help improve your concentration during study time? Drop a few courses and take online classes for beginners, then try again next semester? Quit school and become a professional ballet dancer??

Step 5 – Choose a solution

Pick one of your brainstormed ideas that fits the goal and is most likely to work. Don’t aim for perfection – just pick the best answer. If necessary, do a pros and cons to decide between two or more good options.

Step 6 – Put the solution into Action

The entire enterprise of problem solving is aimed at this step: Putting effective solutions into action. However, people often get stuck with anxiety at this point. If thoughts such as “this is too hard” or “this isn’t going to work” arise in your mind, accept them and mindfully refocus on action. Stay focused and stay the course! For example if you selected studying with Daniel, call him up, explain the situation, and book a time to get together to study.

Step 7 – Evaluate the outcome

Take the time to think about how things went. Did your solution help you to achieve the goal? If the answer is yes, take even more time out to congratulate yourself and celebrate! And if not, don’t be disheartened – sometimes the best solutions come after several tries. Just go back to brainstorming (step 4) and try again until you succeed. Additionally, when solutions are carried out as planned, there are often secondary benefits that we can enjoy, so reap the benefit of those even if your planned outcome did not work out.

In sum, effective problem solving is a skill that needs to be learned, practiced, and honed over time. Therefore, we can be methodical, planned and deliberate about the process.

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