Use This 5 Step Formula to Find the Best Solution for Your Problems

photo credit: Day 360 via photopin (license)

photo credit: Day 360 via photopin (license)

By tapping into your creativity and following a simple, logical process, you may find that the solutions to your problems have been available to you this whole time. In this post, Dr Gail Ratcliffe explains her 5 step formula for evaluating your options and settling on the best course of action to overcome problems in your life and work.

This 5 step formula will enable you to look clearly at all the possible options for solving your problems, to evaluate the pros and cons of each, and to select the one which will work best.

Step 1: Define your problem

Frequently, if you can’t sort out what needs to be changed in your life, it is because you haven’t clearly and concisely defined what the problem is. Write down a very full description of the issue that causes you to be stressed.

If yours is a relationship problem, for example, don’t just write down, ‘We have rows all the time.’ Look at when you have rows, over what, how long the situation has been like this, what makes it worse, and what makes it better.

Case Sample: Rows with Roger

We will use this example of a couple having problems for each of the steps below:

"We have been arguing ever since Roger has started to work for himself. Most of the arguments are over the fact that I never see him anymore; he works every evening and on the weekend he’s too tired to do anything, or he’ working. We argue most if I have nothing happening in my life and have to sit at home on my own every evening. We argue less if he makes an effort on the weekends and we do something together."

Once you have clearly defined your problem, you’ll find it’s much easier to come up with some solutions to it. Deciding on solutions is Step 2 of the problem-solving technique.

Step 2: Brainstorm alternative solutions

Brainstorming means thinking of as many different solutions to your problem as you possibly can. Don’t evaluate them at this stage or be critical of them or try to select the best; just aim to create as many different ones as you can. It doesn’t matter if they seem totally off the wall or even unlikely to work.

Brainstorming gets your brain thinking laterally and allows you to be more creative about your solutions.

Brainstorming Example:

"Roger to go back to a 9 to 5 job again; leave Roger; take up more interests myself so I won’t be left alone on my own so often; Roger to cut back on his work and set aside some time to do things together; Roger to tell me when he’s going to be working late so I can decide in advance what I want to do then; start working for myself so that I will be working the same hours as Roger; take in a boarder so that I won’t be so lonely in the evenings; have a child so I will be more occupied in my spare time."

After you have brainstormed as many different solutions to your problem as you can, evaluate them. This is Step 3.

Step 3: Evaluate the pros and cons of each option

Write down all of your alternative solutions and look at what’s likely to happen in each case. Make a list of both the probable positive consequences if you select each option, and the likely negative outcomes.

Often there is no one best solution; most choices we make in life have some negative consequences – it’s a matter of which of these you can live with.

Part of your list might look like this:

Option 1: Get Roger to cut back on some of his work

Positive outcomes:

  • We would have more time together.
  • I would not feel so neglected.
  • I would feel I had a say in what happens in our life.
  • We would not have so many arguments about not spending time together.
  • Roger would be less tired on the weekends and feel more like doing things together.

Negative outcomes:

  • We would have slightly less money.
  • Roger may feel resentful unless he agrees to this.

Option 2: Take in a boarder so that I won’t be so lonely in the evenings

Positive outcomes:

  • I would have someone to talk to.
  • We will have a little more money.
  • We would have fewer arguments about not spending time together.

Negative outcomes:

  • It won’t mean that Roger and I will spend any more time together.
  • The boarder could be someone I don’t get on with.
  • It could be extra work if I have to do all the cooking and cleaning.
  • I don’t really want the privacy of my home invaded by someone I don’t know.

Option 3: Get involved in more activities outside the relationship

Positive outcomes:

  • I won’t feel so lonely.
  • I won’t feel so neglected.
  • There should be fewer arguments about not spending time together.
  • I’ll feel more positive about my life if I have more interesting things in it.
  • I’ll be a more interesting person and so we will have quality time when we are together.

Negative outcomes:

  • I won’t spend any more time with Roger; we may even grow apart.

You can see that there is no single solution that is perfect and that all options have some disadvantages.

Step 4: Select one or more solutions

The issue of which option or options you select is really one of values. You need to weigh up your priorities. Ask yourself what’s important to you? Put yourself in the shoes of Roger’s partner.

Is it more important to have a balanced life and quality time in your relationship than to have money? If so, Option 1, getting Roger to cut back on some of his work, may be one that you select.

You may also want to look at Option 3, getting involved in more activities yourself, to bring some positive things into your own life and the relationship.

If money or companionship is very important to you, you may want to select Option 2 as well and take a chance on not getting on with your boarder.

Step 5: Put your solutions into action and evaluate them

Once you have decided which solutions you’ll select, make a plan for when and how you’re going to put them into operation. Try out your solutions for two or three months, which is usually long enough to see whether something is going to work.

If you’re not happy with the outcome then select some of the other alternatives that you haven’t considered, or brainstorm some new ones, or talk to someone else: either discuss it with a friend or get professional advice.

Dr Gail Ratcliffe is a clinical psychologist widely regarded internationally for her work on reducing the impact of stress in everyday life. She is the author of “Take Control of Your Life - The 5 Step Plan to Health and Happiness"