How to have more breakthroughs in problem solving

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I just had a breakthrough. Just now. Lately, I've been thinking about what my next steps are in life. Actually I've been habitually forcing myself to think about it for the past 6 months. Every time I did, stress consumed me. I'd feel so lost and anxious - unable to make sense of the jumbled ideas, each taking their turn to scream at me.

Finally, this morning, it all made sense.

For once, I wasn't trying to discover anything... I just did.

One thing I know for sure - it didn't come to me by accident. I know exactly how it did.

How to Solve Tough Problems

Step 1: Stop Forcing it

Stop thinking about this problem as all-that-matters-in-the-world, and start thinking about it as something that can and will eventually be figured out.

Assure yourself: Any problem you have has been had by someone else on this earth at some point in time. Chances are, they worked it out. Chances are, they may have even written a book about it. You have all the tools you need to solve this problem.

Step 2: Relax

‘ To meditate does not mean to fight with a problem. To meditate means to observe.’ - Thich Nhat Hanh

Give yourself time in your busy schedule to relax. By relax, I don't mean watch TV at night [which can have detrimental effects on your health & productivity], but to really relax.

Relaxation might mean:

  • Going for a walk as the sun sets,
  • Listening to your favourite calming music for 10 minutes at lunch break,
  • Sitting quietly with a cup of tea,
  • or even meditating before bed.

Use this relaxation time to realize one key thing: silence.

There is so much opportunity in silence. It reveals space between you and your thoughts. This revelation is powerful. It allows you to take a step back and realize that your thoughts don't have power over you. It gives you perspective on the problem you're trying to solve - which will lead to the conclusion that the problem is not as big as it seems.

If you aren't quite at that stage yet, that's okay. Getting to this silent place takes practice. In the beginning, it helped me to observe my thoughts. I would think "Wow, my thoughts are really negative" or "my thoughts are all over the place today".  This observation will show you that you and your thoughts are separate things.

This silent space will be important later on.

Step 3: Do more "gain" activities

Once you've discovered this silent space, you'll want to fill your time with more "gain" activities.

Gain activities are those with no deadline. As Richard Branson says, "You can go through life without performing a single gain task. No one will notice if you don't. No one will come into your office and hound you about finally starting that ecommerce site. No one will ask if you've ever run that marathon."

You first need to identify your gain activities. Is it finally starting that blog? Is it signing up to perform at a coffee house? Is it identifying and analyzing high-growth stocks for fun (hey - we're all different) ?

You'll then want to identify your prevent pain activities. These are tasks we perform to avoid the pain we'd realize if we neglected them. They normally recur, have a deadline, and don't enrich your life in any meaningful way. Some examples probably include doing payroll, scheduling meetings, and often attending meetings.

For me, writing and reading are big gain activities. I love reading, especially books by people who inspire me. Last week, I gave myself time to read Oprah's new book "What I Know For Sure". In this book, she spoke about how important it is to be aware of your intentions. This was key to solving my problem, and definitely wouldn't have come to me if I didn't increase the number of gain activities in my life.

Step 4: Relax, again

After doing some gain activities, you will feel amazing (guaranteed). You'll have fresh knowledge about things that make you excited and fill your soul.

This is the perfect time to relax... again.

Get into that silent space, let your thoughts wander, and observe them.

When I did this, everything became more clear. There were new perspectives, and new paths to connect dots between thoughts. Most importantly, I was not stressed while doing so.

What Did I Discover?

That question I'd been asking myself - what do I want my next step to be - was the wrong question. This process allowed me to realize that.

I finally asked myself: "What do I want my intention to be when looking for my next step in life?"

By answering that, I've come miles closer to figuring out my tough problem. It's the question I've needed to answer this whole time, and I wasn't allowing myself to ask it.