“One thing is sure. We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the moment… If it doesn’t turn out right, we can modify it as we go along.” – Franklin D.Roosevelt

Problems in life can take on a variety of forms, but many of them share common characteristics that serve as cues, alerting us to the presence of a bonafide problem. The attitude that we choose to take toward the problem can serve as a powerful determinant of our ability to reduce distress and use emotional information in helpful ways. Many of the problems or chaos that we invite, create, or have thrust upon us become less intimidating and paralyzing when we take a proactive stance toward solving them. A mindfully open and alert stance can serve as a stable foundation as you begin the process of confronting the problem and moving toward a solution.

Part of the wisdom inherent in effective problem solving is discerning between solvable and unsolvable problems… and being willing to radically accept and let go of those problems which are truly out of your control. For all of the problems that you have the power to solve, remember that quite often a puzzling or painful problem is actually just a very difficult decision that is waiting to be made. It is possible that the looming “problem” in your life has taken on its imposing or frightening form due to a conscious or unconscious unwillingness on your part to make a tough decision.

Brief Mindfulness Exercise:

Before you begin the following five steps of problem solving from your base of mindfulness, allow yourself a few moments to slow down and take a some slow deep breaths. Bring your full awareness to this moment. Allow your thoughts, emotions, and sensations to naturally emerge; notice them just as they are, accept their presence, and release them with each breath that leaves your lungs. If confusing or unsettling thoughts enter into awareness, observe them with an open heart and nonjudgmental mind. Allow yourself to become disentangled from those thoughts as you notice that they are just thoughts… not “facts” or absolute truth.

Notice your emotions as they arise naturally from within. Perhaps you sense a deep-seated fear as you approach this problem. Observe this experience and direct compassion toward your fear, anxiety, or doubt. Embrace your suffering, rather than push it away. Notice what useful information is embedded within those painful disavowed experiences. Observe any physical sensations that emerge at this time, reconnecting with your body. Direct your full awareness in a nonjudgmental, accepting, and curious way toward those sensations. Perhaps there is a tightness in your throat or chest, shaking in your hands, a racing heart, or queasiness at your core.

Be kind toward yourself and notice the delicate way that your thoughts, emotions, and sensations are all coming together in a nuanced dance as you approach solving this problem. Allow wise mind to guide you, bringing together reason with emotion, as you begin to become open, reflective, and alert to the problem. When you are ready, direct your mindful awareness and focus completely to the problem you are facing. Remember that part of being mindful involves directing your full presence toward one thing at a time, so give yourself the gift of slowing down as you go through this five step process of problem solving.

Mindful Problem Solving

Read through the following five steps of problem solving and write down your authentic responses at each step along the way. Let go of the notion of “right” or “wrong” responses and trust yourself. As you go through these steps, make a commitment to yourself to follow through with your plan. When you take the time to move through solving a difficult problem with an open heart and awakened mind, you may begin to see that the right path out of the woods was there all along… just waiting for you to notice it and summon the courage to make the journey.

(1) State your problem

Problems cannot be solved and decisions cannot be made effectively before you have clearly and accurately identified the problem. If this step is easy for you, simply write down in simple and concise terms exactly what problem you are facing. If it seems challenging to identify the problem, try writing down some characteristics of the problem or common themes. For example, “health issues: illness, sleep, diet, mental health” or “relationship issues: conflict, loneliness, dissatisfaction.”

Once you have clearly identified and stated your current problem, take the time to engage in a bit of “problem analysis” to help you understand the various dimensions of the problem with greater clarity:

  • What is the problem?
  • Who is involved?
  • What happens? What bothers you?
  • Where does the problem occur?
  • When does it occur?
  • How does it happen? (Is there a pattern?)
  • Why do you think it happens?
  • What else is important in this situation?
  • How do you respond to the situation? (List your behaviors.)
  • How does it make you feel?
  • What outcome do you want to see?

(2) Outline your solutions

Once you have sufficiently identified the problem from various perspectives, you are ready to start identifying the best solutions available. Maintain a mindfully open attitude as you approach potential solutions from a place of creativity. Even if your “ideal” solution may not be realistic at this present moment, stay open to making the most out of the tools you do have to work with at this point in time. Notice if any potential solutions come to you as you reflect on your responses to the last three questions from step one, regarding what you do, what you feel, and what you truly want.

Try coming up with and writing down three possible solutions based on those responses. For example, possible solutions may be worded in some of the following ways: “Figure out better ways to respond when I feel confused or frozen by the problem,” or “Learn how to manage intense emotions more effectively when the problem occurs,” or “Deliver painful news or express authentic feelings, no matter how scary it may feel.”

As you begin to set goals that will move you closer to your desired solution, remember to describe what you do want to happen, as opposed to what you don’t want to happen. For example, instead of “I don’t want to feel sad and confused,” rephrase that as, “I do want to feel happiness and a sense of clarity.” It is easier to move toward desired goals when they are stated in positive terms. If your goals feel general or vague (e.g., “I want to feel happier”), simply notice this for now – you will develop specific strategies intended to help you realize your goals in the next step.

Remember to state your intended goal from your own point of view, taking responsibility and ownership… this is what you want to do. For example, instead of “I don’t want my friend to get angry with me so easily,” rephrase it as, “I want to learn how to develop a better relationship with my friend.” When goals are stated in these terms, you can become empowered by realizing the amount of control you have in reaching your goal, instead of depending on or wondering about the thoughts or behaviors of others.

(3) List your strategies

Maintain the creative mindful attitude that you took while generating possible solutions, as you allow your heart and mind to fully open to the process of recognizing strategies that will move you closer toward your goals. As you begin the process of coming up with ideas that may or may not help you reach your goal(s), remember: (1) don’t criticize/judge your ideas, (2) allow yourself to generate lots of ideas/possibilities, (3) think creatively – allow yourself to be free of censorship, and (4) integrate and improve on ideas if needed – perhaps a few of your strategies have the potential to integrate into one amazing idea.

As you begin to create a brainstorm list of potential strategies, reflect back on your three possible solutions from the previous step. This exercise in brainstorming possible strategies involves the following steps:

  • Write down the clearly stated/defined problem
  • List your three possible solutions
  • Underneath each solution, write at least 10 possible strategies

Part of engaging in this process of brainstorming from a centered place of mindfulness involves giving yourself permission to take your time, slow down your mind, and allow creative and productive strategies to emerge naturally into conscious awareness. Creative, effective, and mindful problem solving allows for strategies/ideas to be borne out of your authentic self… from your innermost sense of values, intuition, and alert wisdom.

(4) View the consequences of your strategies

At this step in the problem solving process, you have clearly stated the problem, come up with three possible solutions (think of them as solutions A, B, & C), and at least 10 possible strategies for each. Now that you are equipped with at least 30 problem-solving strategies, you are prepared to narrow down that list as you evaluate the potential (realistic) consequences of putting them into action.

  • Look at the three lists of strategies you created for solutions A, B, and C. Notice which solution has generated the most strategies that appear to have the greatest chances of actually succeeding.
  • After you mindfully evaluate which of the three lists contains strategies that seem most effective (likely to bring about the desired outcome), choose the solution that you believe has the greatest chance of bringing success.
  • Using the solution you chose (A, B, or C), begin to narrow down the strategies to three. These three strategies should be the best strategies for that particular solution; bear in mind you can always combine a few strategies into an even more powerful one. During the process of narrowing down your list, cross out any ideas that strike you as exceedingly unrealistic or not aligned with your true values or authentic self.
  • In order to evaluate the consequences of each strategy, reflect on how each may positively and negative impact yourself, others, and your short-term/long-term goals.
  • Write down each of your three narrowed down strategies in specific terms and list the positive and negative consequences in two columns underneath each strategy.
  • If the best strategy does not become readily apparent to you at this point, try rating the positive and negative consequences for each of the three strategies on a scale of 1 to 4 (1 = not too important or significant, 4 = very important or significant).
  • You can now go through all three strategies and add up those scores. The idea is that the most effective strategy is the one with the highest positive/lowest negative consequence score.
  • If you feel at peace and content with the strategy that yielded the greatest positive consequences for yourself/others and your short-term/long-term goals, carry this knowledge and confidence with you to the final step of this problem-solving process.

(5) Evaluate your results

Now that you have selected the best strategy as a result of your deliberate, focused, and mindful process of problem solving, the time has come to put that strategy into action. It is time to take your carefully selected strategy and break it down into simple, specific, realistic steps that you will commit to enacting. Remember to insert different/specific words into the following example that allow you to connect this final step to the personal problem you are currently facing. A specific example of breaking down your chosen strategy into concrete steps can be found at step five of the following example.

General example of final outcome – “Five steps of effective and mindful problem solving”:

(1) Problem: “I’m at a major crossroads in my life and don’t know what to do.”

(2) Best solution – based on which of the three primary solutions generated the most effective list of strategies: “Figure out better ways to respond when I feel confused or frozen by the problem.”

(3) Best strategy – based on greatest/realistic chances of success and mindful weighing of potential consequences: “Practice mindfulness meditation, emotion regulation exercises, & interpersonal assertiveness.”

(4) Awareness of consequences – accurate recognition of short-term/long-term consequences to yourself/others based on enacting the best strategy: “Positive: feel more centered/relaxed/in touch with my authentic experience, increased ability to effectively identify/respond to emotions in myself and others, & increased confidence in ability to take a stand and speak my true feelings with healthy assertiveness; Negative: fears of becoming lost within the process of meditation, temporary discomfort with allowing and responding to uncomfortable emotions authentically, & potential that expressing authentic thoughts/feelings may cause short-term/long-term hurt to others.”

(5) Evaluate & break down strategy into manageable steps – consider desired actions based on chosen strategy and commit to specific steps you will take toward putting that strategy into action: “Read about simple mindfulness exercises and set aside 20 minutes each morning/evening to practice, write out specific emotion regulation coping skills onto flashcards and practice using them when feeling calm/centered as well as during times of emotional distress, & learn about interpersonal effectiveness and assertiveness skills – actively practice clearly stating thoughts, feelings, and needs on a daily basis.”

Problem solving becomes significantly easier and less intimidating when you take a proactive approach toward solving the problem and become mindfully attuned with your authentic inner experience (focusing less on what others may think, want, or do as you determine what you are feeling). Give yourself the opportunity go through this type of deliberate, thoughtful, and wise process of reaching healthy resolutions to your problems.

Remember that even when taking a mindful approach, problems aren’t always solved in the first, second, or even third attempts. This is because there are so many unknowns inherent within life’s mysteries and the only person’s behaviors you can ultimately control are your own. If your initial attempts at problem solving go awry, choose to reframe that perceived failure as a learning opportunity and a valuable chance to do things differently next time. The sooner you start taking active steps toward solving problems and recognize what works and what doesn’t work… the sooner you can shed the heavy robes of indecision and emotional paralysis and begin to live your most authentic life.

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Wood, J.C. (2010). The cognitive behavioral therapy workbook for personality disorders. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: For What It’s Worth by Adam Swank / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Ross on May 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    Extremely helpful, Laura. Thank you so much.

    I would so enjoy seeing more about problem-solving and decision-making.

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