If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, write it down

November 24, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Education, Tips

I coached a client recently who felt like she had a lot on her plate. She was trying to figure out plans for the next year, where many decisions depended on each other and she couldn’t figure out which to do first.

When she explained them to me it seemed clear the order in which she had to do each, but she was swimming in so much information she couldn’t figure out where to start. For that matter, each time I suggested the order that made sense to me, she kept talking about all these details of each, how long each would take, the resources each needed, and all these other things she didn’t need to think about now, but was, which was holding her back from planning effectively.

Finally I got out a pen and paper, drew a time line, wrote the four main decisions she had to make and their dependencies, and below that wrote in big letters “Act,” where I wrote what she could do. Ultimately all the planning has to result in concrete actions. Then I wrote a little check box next to each decision, which I planned to check when each action in the section below would take care of one of the choices.

Then I wrote what I understood she had to do with each action. I didn’t create anything I wrote. I only wrote what she told me she in a different layout.

The moment I finished ordering everything, her tenor changed. She become calm and thoughtful. She stopped stressing about what she had to do and started thinking about taking care of the first thing, unhampered by later decisions she couldn’t act on before she finished the first one.

If you have a complex problem, write it down.

I couldn’t help but think of one of my big lessons from teaching. Years ago I tutored physics a lot. One of the first things I told every student for each problem was to make a diagram. They often wanted to solve it quickly, thinking if they didn’t write it down they could solve it faster. After all they generally wanted to learn this stuff to do well on tests, where time mattered.

If the problem ended up simple, they wasted little time drawing and could use it to verify their answers. If it ended up hard, they’d benefit from the drawing.

The farther I got in physics, the more simple undergrad problems became to me, but also the more I’d draw them anyway. I find that pattern happens generally — the more skilled someone is, the more they do things by the book, using the basics.

If you have a complex problem, write it down.

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