Political strategies

Simple problem solving strategies

AJ Jacobs is editor for Squire. As a journalist and author, he has been known to put himself in the role of a test subject as he embarks on various lifestyle investigations.

Below, Jacobs shares five key insights from his new book, The Puzzler: One man’s quest to solve the most baffling puzzles of all time, from crosswords to puzzles to the meaning of life. Listen to the audio version – read by Jacobs himself – in the Next Big Idea app.

1. Don’t be mad, be curious.

When faced with a problem, it is easy to get angry and frustrated. But anger is counterproductive to creative solutions – you get tunnel vision. Instead, I recommend the Puzzler Mindset. It is a mindset of deep curiosity and of reframing life’s problems and annoyances as puzzles.

Legendary music producer Quincy Jones has a saying, “I don’t have any problems. I have puzzles. I love this quote. I want a tattoo on my forehead because it’s the perfect encapsulation of the Puzzler mindset. When I view life and business as a series of puzzles instead of problems, I am both more productive and happier because problems are fearsome and unsolvable. The puzzles are solvable, motivating and engage your creative and playful side.

For example, if I talk to someone who disagrees with me — on business strategy, politics, or whatever — I might try to scold them to change their mind. It rarely works. In fact, it’s often counterproductive. Instead, treat it like a puzzle. What do we really disagree on? Why do I believe what I believe? Is there any evidence that could change any of our minds? Is there common ground? All of these are puzzles, and pursuing their answers is a more likely way to produce a productive solution.

2. Cut your problem into pieces.

One of the best strategies for any puzzle is to cut the big puzzle into a series of smaller puzzles. Consider the kind of puzzles called Fermi problems, a type of logic problem that Google and Microsoft pose during some job interviews.

A typical Fermi problem looks like this: “How many piano tuners are there in New York?” You have to estimate the size of something you don’t know about. David Epstein explains how to solve Fermi problems in his book Interval. If you make a wild, off-the-cuff guess, you’ll probably be wrong by orders of magnitude.

Instead, break it down. As Epstein writes: “How many homes are there in New York? Which part could have pianos? How often are pianos tuned? How many homes can a tuner reach in a day? How many days a year does a tuner work? You won’t guess exactly, but you’re more likely to be in the ballpark.

Breaking a problem down into parts can work in all sorts of areas. I use it when faced with the puzzle of writing my books. If I view my task as a monolithic book, I feel overwhelmed. Instead, I break it down into a series of chapters and see it as a sequence of smaller puzzles. Address the parts rather than the whole.

Or take the puzzle of having me walk on the treadmill for a few minutes a day. If I say to myself, “You have to walk on the treadmill for an hour today,” I’m going to put off that task forever. So I break it down. I pulled the big picture out of my mind. At first, I tackle the sub-objective of putting on my sneakers. I can do it. Next, the sub-goal to turn on the treadmill. I can do it. And just step on the rubber belt for just five minutes. I can do it. Eventually I walk in and realize, it’s not so bad. I can do it. I stay all the time.

3. Flip the puzzle over. Or upside down. Or any other way.

Consider the following puzzle: There is a man in a room. The walls are cement and the floor is earthen. The only openings are a locked door and a skylight. The man has a shovel and starts digging. He knows it’s impossible to dig a tunnel, but he keeps digging anyway. Why?

As problem solvers, many of us focus on the man digging a hole, but he also does the opposite: he builds a hill out of dirt. He will climb the hill and exit through the skylight.

Inverting your thinking is an incredibly powerful tool, not just in puzzles, but in life and business as well. It spawned everything from the assembly line (what if car parts moved to workers, instead of workers moving to car parts?) to the shiny, upside-down Heinz ketchup bottle .

4. Be extremely flexible.

Perhaps the most powerful weapon a puzzler has is cognitive flexibility. Good puzzlers don’t fall in love with their guesses. They keep their beliefs tentative, open to new evidence. They embrace eraser and delete key.

Almost every puzzle I tackled required it. For example, I love crosswords, and British crosswords are even trickier than American crosswords. They’re all about sneaky puns. I remember a clue: “Gegs”. That was the whole clue. I thought it was the plural of a word “geg”, but what does it mean? I googled and found it was the symbol for Portland airport. I have nowhere. It was only after pausing, letting go of my certainty, and coming back a few hours later that the answer came to me. The answer is “scrambled eggs”. Very clever. Boring, but clever.

I had to come to terms with the idea that I could be wrong to finally get it right. It’s the hallmark of my favorite thinkers. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, “Being wrong is the only way to be sure you’ve learned something. »

That’s why so many successful businesses started with a completely different premise. One of my favorite examples is that Welch’s grape juice started out as a non-alcoholic communion wine during Prohibition. It was only when that failed that they switched to grape juice as a sweet treat for children. More recently, there’s messaging software Slack, which started as an internal tool for a video game before the founders realized it had more potential than the game itself.

5. Find the foot.

Faced with a problem, attack it at its weakest point. Bill Clinton talks about this strategy when interviewed for the crossword puzzle documentary Play on words. He says that if he does a really difficult crossword puzzle, he will often stare at it for several minutes without knowing a single answer. Finally, he could see a clue he knows, fill in that answer, and that’s all he needs to get started. You work from this answer to get others.

Clinton says he finds this a useful strategy for solving all sorts of problems, and I agree. As with writing, often I don’t know how to start a chapter or article, but I have a great quote or anecdote that I know I want to use. I’ll start with the anecdote and go from there. Eventually the whole structure will become clear and I can write.