“What to do now?” is probably the question I ask myself the most in life.
Motorcycle won’t start?
I am hungry.
What supplements should I take?
I am sick, should I see a doctor?
What stock to buy today?
What to listen to on a long car ride?
What is the meaning of life?
These are all the same question. There is a problem and I have to decide what the next right action is.
WARNING: this is a very deep topic which will consume thousands of words, these being some of the first attempts toward consolidation of how I approach this problem.
I find that how I approach a problem is more important than the absolute answer to any particular problem. Having a good mental model is better than having all the answers. Asking lots of clarifying questions, tends to lead to better answers and a more efficient possible solution set. Here is my mental model to solve ANY problem in life in a handy worksheet.
When you have filled it out, send to me and I will comment for free (really).
“Some things are in our control and others are not.” writes Epictetus. We can control our thinking, our decision process, and our reactions. This worksheet is about upgrading your decision process.
While I am sure to spill much more digital ink, here is the 50,000 foot view.
PROBLEM SET: This mental model is very good for triaging problems RIGHT NOW. Deciding what to do RIGHT NOW. This is not a strategic planning tool for long term plans. This is not how to control your emotional reactions. This is for the firehose of problems that come at us all day every day. How to figure out which ones to pay attention, now much attention, decide to delay, and what to do now to make progress even if not a final solution.
I would argue that EVERYONE who is good at troubleshooting and solving problems uses a systemic approach similar to the one I outline here. Short cuts are the most common cause of bad decisions and unsolved problems. I will argue often here than any problem can be solved with this process given enough time and resources.
As I have used this mental model over the years and recently in a more structured way with a daily review of decisions using the worksheet two things have happened:
- Get comfortable with probabilistic thinking. Everything in life is probabilistic. There is a 100% chance I will die. And a wide range of probabilities as to how. Some in my control (partially) and some not. In the 2016 election cycle Nate Silver projected Hillary Clinton had a 71% chance of winning and Trump 29%. Most of America conflated 71% with 100% and were shocked on election night when Trump won. Nate Silver was not wrong. 29% is actually a HUGE probability. 1 in 3 times it is going to happen. In a world of 7.8 Billion people 1 in a million chance events happen EVERY DAY (in fact 7,800 times a day). Getting comfortable with probabilistic thinking means making the right decision with incomplete information, size your bets accordingly and be ok when the lower probability events happen because they will happen. The trick to good decisions over time is to make the best risk adjusted decision you can with the information you have and keep playing.
- Your decisions will improve over time. By being honest about your process, and reviewing it often, you will catch common errors and they will become less frequent. It is Kaizen. Most people don’t participate in enough self analysis to get better over time. Daily decision process review (which I do with the worksheet) is a habit which has improved my decision making over time and will continue to in the future. You can manage what you measure, so measure your decision process.
To solve any problem in your life use this four step process:
PROBLEM: What is the Problem?
EXPLORE: Ask a bunch of qualifying questions about the nature of the problem.
HYPOTHESIS: Generate 3-5 hypothesis (theories) about the nature of the problem and possible paths to solutions. Rank each by how Easy it is to test and how Likely it is to be true.
ACTION: Take Action and test each hypothesis one at a time starting with the most Likely + Easy. If the problem solved, the end, if not solved, move to the next hypothesis. If you run out of hypothesis, go back to Explore, generate more hypotheses, test till complete.
Here is the worksheet for a recent problem I had
I solved this problem in real time without the worksheet, but went back later and filled out the worksheet. Ok, I am nerd about problem solving, so I do shit like that. Reviewing the problem with the worksheet was a good check on the process and actually confirmed that the mental model worked as expected. Practice of the model and review of how you approached problems during the day will make this approach second nature.
Problem: My daughter, Finn, was playing the guitar and dropped the pick into the body. It was rolling around in there. She wanted to continue playing with the pick, so we had to get it out.
Explore: The Explore process is where you clarify the problem, explore urgency, systems involved and other aspects of the problem in a structured way in order to 1. develop hypothesis about the problem and possible solutions and 2. Help set priority of operations. I have a specific set of Explore questions which I ask for each and every problem, some do not apply but I ask them anyway.
Pause: The first step in troubleshooting any problem is to pause. Become Curious. Think. The old “count to 10”. “Take a breath.” Do not do the first thing you think of. Stop and think about the problem and possible solutions. A little planning goes along way.
When the pick got stuck, Finn started shaking the guitar and I literally said “Wait a minute, let me think.” And we thought.
Victor Frankl wrote “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Make the space. In the military they have a saying “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” With most problems there is no prize for solving them first (they have likely been solved many times by someone else), so focus on solving them well. Solving problems well is the only thing that matters.
Clarity: Is the problem statement very clear ?
Many problem statements are not clear at all. “I feel bad about the weather.” Is the problem that you feel bad or the weather? You can’t do anything about the weather, so that is not really a problem you can solve.
Another clarity error is to have a hypothesis as a problem statement like “The battery is dead so the motorcycle won’t start.” The core problem is that the motorcycle won’t start. The battery being dead is one potential hypothesis. If you have a hypothesis in the problem statement, note it and save it for they hypothesis part later.
Another clarity problem can be conflating events with emotions. “My friend has not read an important email I sent them.” Can sound like a clear problem. But it is not clear at all. Is the problem that they have not read your email (outside your control – see below)? Or is the problem that you feel disrespected, ignored, put off (while emotions are not in your control – your reaction to them is). Likely with the email the clear problem is your emotions about the events, not the other person, so clarify it. “Because my friend didn’t open an important email I sent them, I feel ignored and put off.” is a much more clear problem statement. Focus on stating a problem over which you have some ability to solve, is in your control. You cannot solve problems outside your control.
Clarity is about getting to the core real problem which is within your control.
The guitar pick problem was super clear. Guitar pick stuck in body of guitar.
Urgency: Does the problem have to be solved right now? For business decisions I have often used the Eisenhower box.
If a problem is urgent and important, it must be solved now. Do not put it off. It is very interesting that fewer than 20% of the problems I encounter in a day end up in the “DO” box. Just by asking the Urgency question, many problems can be scheduled for another time (decide), delegated to someone else, or deleted completely from the to-do list. Turns out the best way to solve most problems is to not solve them now.
The stuck guitar pick caused a complete stop to what we were doing so Importance and Urgency was NOW and it could not be put off.
What changed: At sometime in the past, the current problem you are facing was not a problem. What changed between then and now? The motorcycle won’t start. It hasn’t started since last summer. It was not on a battery tender all winter. What changed? Batteries lose their charge over time, especially in cold weather. This change raises the likelihood that something changing caused the homeostasis of the system to go out of whack. While many other catastrophic failures COULD cause the motorcycle to not start, the ones that change are MORE LIKELY to be the cause.
What changed was I dropped the guitar pick. Simple enough.
Emotions at play: We all have two brains, the emotional brain and the thinking brain. Sometimes psychologists call them “system 1 and system 2”. Daniel Kahnaman recently called it “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Mark Manson recently wrote that our consciousness is like a car with a driver and a passenger, our two brains. We like to believe our thinking brain is always driving, but more often than not the emotional brain is driving and the thinking brain is the navigator. Even in what can seem like purely logical problems, emotions are at play. The trick I have found useful is not to switch drivers in the middle of the journey, but to recognize both parties, pause and ensure they are talking. Back to the motorcycle that won’t start. Sure it is a purely technical problem, given all parts working to spec, the thing will start. But what does it say about me if I can’t fix it? What kind of an idiot will I look like to my friends and feel like myself if it is just out of gas? Yup, happened many times. Many times the feelings will influence the urgency question. “I have to fix this now or my boss will think I am an idiot.” But what if your fix is not optimal and you look like an idiot anyway? This part of explore is just about noting what emotions are at play, not arguing with their veracity or confronting them. Acknowledge what emotions are at play.
The guitar sat on my daughters lap, there were two people here, father and daughter. A father is supposed to help solve a daughter’s problems. What kind of a dad would I be if I can’t get a guitar pick out of a stupid guitar? Yea there were emotions at play: Fear, insult, frustration, stubbornness, disappointment (hers of me – mine of myself), doubt, perplexed, incapable, panicked, nervous, defensive and more. As well as potential positive emotions including victory, understanding, confidence, conection, devotion, admiration, gratitude, thankful, curious, amazed, focused, liberated, helpful, uplifted, confident, reliable, supported, and more. Yea I didn’t know there were more complicated emotions than “happy” and “sad” until I found these cheat sheets.
Agency: Is the problem under my control? Simple Y or N. You have more agency in more areas than you think. At least making a stab at troubleshooting is better than calling an “expert” most of the time. This is an area where I tend to take on more problems rather than less, maybe that is because I like hard problems, but trust me, you can do more than you think. While the ultimate solution may include external people or solutions (going to the store, asking a friend, etc.) managing the process is more often in your control than you may think. And more thorough troubleshooting by you before you go to “experts” will help them immensely (more on that later).
Getting the guitar pick out of the guitar was Definitely under my control.
Acute or Systemic:
Acute (adj) (of a bad, difficult, or unwelcome situation or phenomenon) present or experienced to a severe degree. Another way to think of acute, is a one-time problem. Not a result of a system failure or a structural problem with the system as designed.
Systemic (adj) relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part. A broken bone is an acute problem. Unexplained random pains not tied to specific events are likely systemic.
Acute problems need a different troubleshooting approach than systemic problems. Many problems have both an acute part AND a systemic part. Separate these two into two different problem statements with two different approaches. Your work will get much easier.
The guitar pick was an acute problem. One part stuck in one guitar. Get pick out, problem solved, system (guitar) works again. The systemic issues were immaterial and not urgent, so no problem worksheet was created for them.
What system is involved: Even if the problem is acute and not systemic, most problems involve some kind of system. Check for dependencies that could affect any possible approach. Are there other parts connected? Any obvious constraints? Very few things operate in a vacuum.
While the guitar pick was the problem, it was stuck in the system of the guitar with its body and strings. Gravity was at play as well as different tools for possible extraction. The other people in the room (my daughter) and my desire to look good solving the problem was also a system concern in the problem approach.
Happened before: Y or N. This is simply a prompt to stop and ask yourself if you have ever seen anything like this has ever happened in your life, or if you have heard of a similar problem and likely solutions. Stop and browse your memory banks. Maybe there is nothing there, but do it anyway.
Never had a guitar pick stuck in the guitar. But I have often had small things stuck inside other things and came up with a couple ideas from those situations.
Exact, measurable outcome: What is the exact, specific desired outcome? Many problems fail this test. Problem: My friend is an asshole. Many issues here, especially how do you exactly and measurably quantify “asshole”. Many time judgement based problems don’t have a specific solution. They can be systemic. The point of this exploration is to ask yourself IF there is a specific outcome possible. Problems without a specific outcome can still be addressed, but give up the specific outcome expectation. It will relieve a bunch of stress and worry about the outcome. Some problems are simply intractable (adj) “not easily governed, managed, directed, relieved or cured.” Like Pi. There is no solution so deal with it.
The guitar pick problem was tractable. Easily measured result, pick out of guitar.
Call a friend: Or today, ask Google. Just paste your problem statement into google. You will be surprised how many people have had the problem and offer solutions. Or call your buddie who knows about the system the problem is in. Exploring the problem approaches others have taken will spark hypothesis and approaches you may not have thought about. This explore step is not to ask them to solve your problem, but to get more data for your own explore process.
The guitar pick problem was pretty clear as were possible approaches by now, so I didn’t ask google or call a friend. Although a later search of “guitar pick stuck in guitar” yielded a 91 second video with a helpful flip technique that is actually much simpler than the approach I ended up taking. I recommend even after solving a problem to go back and google it, maybe there is another approach. A key take away here is that there are many possible solutions to any given problem. Don’t get hung up on the “best”, just get it solved.
Root Cause: First principle thinking: What are the probable root causes? List as many as you can think of. Motorcycle engine won’t start possible root causes: An engine needs three things to run: Air, Gas, fire. Systems make each of those things work. Parts of those systems which could cause a system failure include: Battery dead, spark plugs broken, loose wires, lack of gas, water in gas, blocked air filter, clogged injectors, you get the idea. Work through the system components to find possible root causes. Another variant of this is first principle thinking. Elon Musk famously applied this to Lithium Ion Batteries. His problem was: Why do Lithium Ion Batteries cost so much? Well, what are the raw materials involved (the first principles)? The raw materials were something like 2% of the finished cost of the battery, so the problem was not in raw materials cost, it was in the manufacturing process and⑊or the supply chain to deliver the product. To solve the cost problem, attack the 98% cost.
With the guitar pick problem root cause analysis didn’t really apply. I wrote NA.
Turn it around. Many times assuming the opposite of your problem statement can shed light on you assumptions and give perspective. Byron Katie has a whole method around this (The Work) which I highly recommend. Tim Ferris suggests “What if you did the opposite for 48 hours?” I have found the time box helpful because there is a limited time investment on the strategy which is diametrically opposed to your instincts. Charlie Munger (Berkshire Hathaway fame) says “Invert, always invert.” The turn around is especially helpful for emotional problems. Girlfriend a pain the ass? What if you are the pain in the ass? Or specific tactical ones. Can’t reach anyone between 9-5 on the phone? Call from 7-9 and 5-7. Carrot doesn’t work, try the stick.
The turn around didn’t really help with the guitar pick, so NA.
Now comes the fun part. Take all the information you got during Explore, and start forming hypothesis about the nature of the problem and potential solutions. Sometimes the nature, root cause, is clear as with this guitar pick, so you just write possible solutions. In the motorcycle won’t start problem, each subsystem related to how the engine starts (air, fire, gas) could be a hypothesis with separate potential solutions under each category.
Here are the hypothesis I came up with for the Guitar Pick Problem.
In the first round, I came up with three and started with “shake it out”. Now I hadn’t yet seen the youtube video advising to get the pick on top of the label under the strings before carefully flipping the guitar, so I just started randomly shaking the guitar. It remained stuck. As the shaking was chaotic, I became worried about banging the guitar on something (it was a very expensive guitar). So we stopped. Hypo 2 and 3 seemed to risk damage to the strings or body, so we went back to explore. Upon review I remembered losing a quarter one time behind the washing machine and getting it out with a doubled over piece of tape stuck to the bottom of a stick. Ah, something sticky. Less potential damage and it had worked before. We doubled up some tape and stuck it to a chopstick (thanks hypothesis #3) and stuck it between the strings. Being light the pick stuck and came right up where I could grab it. Problem solved.
Ok, there you have it, my longest post in some time. A topic I am sure to refine and spill many more pixels on. A worksheet for your own use and my own process on one problem. I have done hundreds of these worksheets and hope you do too. After a couple dozen times it will likely be second nature and your decision making will be upgraded across the board. Whenever you find a decision error, review your process. You likely skipped a part or didn’t go back for a second or third round.
When you have filled it out, send to me and I will comment for free (really).
Next up will be common decision errors.