Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Tools to Help
Smart People Achieve Ambitious Goals
by Jean Moroney
On this page:
(This case study was originally published
in the Thinking Directions Occasional
Update on 8/10/05.)
When I tell people about my course, sometimes they don't quite know what I mean by "hard thinking." I don't mean thinking on specialized subjects like astrophysics. I mean thinking on any subject in which, at times, it's not clear how to proceed. Some extra effort is required to get over the rough spots. That is hard thinking.
I hit some rough spots recently while writing a book recommendation for my newsletter. I had numerous problems, each of which seemed to doom the project. But by doing some hard thinking at each difficult juncture, I was able to complete the task. Here is the story, a case study in sustaining thinking on a difficult task:
I started work on the recommendation by re-reading the book. I
realized at once there could be a problem. Parts of
the book were
quite specialized—of little interest to a
general audience. What
to do? I decided to recommend two chapters only. They spanned fifty
pages, didn't presuppose any special knowledge, and contained
material on problem solving that I thought would interest readers
of this list.
I thought I was set. I prepared examples to use, named my theme, and sat down to write. But within a few paragraphs, I stalled. I could not figure out how to present the examples clearly. Nothing seemed to add up. After several frustrating attempts, I finally admitted, "I'm stuck."
I turned to a technique I teach in Thinking Tactics. I asked myself, "why does this seem impossible?" Unfortunately, the reason leapt out at me. I wanted to recommend the advice on problem solving. But the advice came in snippets in the book. Problem solving was not the primary focus of the chapters, nor was the discussion of problem solving detailed enough to support a strong case for a general audience to read the book.
I was stuck because I was on flimsy ground in my recommendation.
I was utterly dismayed. Logic dictated that I give up. My assignment was impossible. My time was lost. Now I had to come up with a new topic to write on.
That's when I *really* got stuck.
You see, at the time I was late putting out my newsletter. I had a public workshop coming up in a few weeks, and an announcement was overdue. I needed a new idea for an article, suitable for this audience, an article that I could think up, draft, and edit in say, 24 hours.
Fat chance. (That's what my subconscious said back to me when I explained the situation.)
I was totally blank and rather annoyed, so I turned to two more techniques I teach in Thinking Tactics (surveying and complaining). As I surveyed for article ideas and complained about them, my complaints led me, inexorably, to remember some writing advice I had read recently. (Complaining often helps stimulate recall of relevant problem-solving methods.)
What I remembered was something Ayn Rand called "the
"When you feel overburdened by the problems [of writer's block] I have discussed, one of the best solutions is to ask yourself what *you* want. . . . Remind yourself what you sought in writing, and what great pleasure there is in having your say about life, reality, or whatever subject you choose." (Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, p. 85)
So, I sat down to do "thinking on paper" on the question "what do I want?" I groped around giving one awful, useless answer after another. It was a hard question. Then a familiar thought flitted through my mind: "I want to learn how to tell stories." (That's my learning goal this year in my Toastmasters club.)
In that instant, I got a cute idea for a story to tell this list, a story with twists and turns, irony, a lesson or two, and a surprise ending. The perfect idea!
It felt like a classic case of insight. I was inspired. I was sure writing that story would solve all my problems. I wrote like a fiend for three hours, feeling greater and greater confidence in my solution.
Then I showed the story to my husband.
He couldn't follow it.
Did I mention that I'm not too good at telling stories yet?
I had made a classic mistake. I was trying to make two different but interrelated points at the same time with the same story. I had forgotten George Polya's second rule of style: "control yourself when, by chance, you have two things to say; say first one, then the other, not both at the same time." [Note 1]
I applied the second rule. I separated the two things. I said first one, and then the other. And then I was done.
In case you haven't guessed, it is this very issue of the newsletter, the one you are reading, that was running late. My original "insight" was that I could make the subject of the newsletter be the story of having writer's block while writing it. The great irony was that I had writer's block trying to write a recommendation for The Art of Nonfiction, a book I recommend for its excellent advice for dealing with writer's block. The surprise ending was supposed to be that advice from the book actually solved this particular case of writer's block. (You can see why my husband had trouble following the story.)
In the end, the solution was to separate the case study from the book recommendation. (The book recommendation is here. It is simple and brief, because I'm no longer trying to do the impossible, i.e., recommend the book to a general audience.)
The moral of this story is that, by using some basic skills to sustain thinking at critical junctures, I was able to produce this newsletter in a reasonable amount of time.
My subconscious told me "fat chance" just 2 days ago.
Note 1: The reference to George Polya is from his book on heuristics for problem solving, How To Solve It.
(This case study was originally published in the Thinking Directions Occasional Update on 10/10/05.)
Reading a "how to" book or taking a "how to" course doesn't magically transform a person's thinking abilities. Changing one's thinking methods can be as difficult as changing the established procedures of an entrenched bureaucracy. A person's old ways of thinking feel normal. They are automatized, so automatized that he may not even realize that a different approach is possible. And if he does try something new, he sets off internal objections that encourage him to return to his old habits.
I re-learned this lesson recently as I was preparing a 5-minute humorous speech for my Toastmasters club.
To put this story in perspective, you need to know that I have no natural talent as a humorist. The one time I made a joke in high school, there was a moment of stunned silence before the class laughed. But I believe that wit is an acquired trait, so to develop mine, I accepted the challenge of delivering a humorous speech.
When I sat down to work on my speech, I ran into problems.
I asked myself, "what would be funny?" I thought of a topic—living in
In my course, I teach that flailing is a symptom that you are trying to achieve a result without taking all the necessary intermediate steps. That was true this time, too.
I was surprised and chagrined to realize that I was making *the* classic mistake in creative work. I was censoring my ideas before I had time to develop them. I needed to suspend judgment regarding whether a topic was funny until after I had given it a real chance to develop.
Here's the point: I *know* this principle. I *use* this principle all the time in my creative work. I *teach* this principle in my course! But in this case, I had no idea I was censoring, not until after I got bogged down and reflected on what had happened. The mistaken process just felt right.
I knew there was only one thing to do—something that
didn't *feel* right. I decreed that the topic for my speech would be living in
My entire emotional mechanism opposed the decision. I felt
a pang of terror as my insides screamed, "you'll be humiliated!" I braced myself
and wrote 500 words about living in
It wasn't funny. It wasn't even interesting. I felt doom coming upon me, followed by the temptation to drop this topic—it wasn't funny! New topics occurred to me—topics I felt sure would be funnier than this one. But I stuck to my decision.
My first attempt had sounded petulant, so I tried to be
more positive. I listed some things I love about
I succeeded in giving my speech, because I didn't give in to my subconscious bureaucracy. The entrenched procedure wasn't working, so I made a conscious decision to use a better technique—one I knew, but that didn't come naturally to me in this situation.
It is normal to feel resistance to changing an old routine, and to feel temptation to return to it as you start to change your approach. But when you persevere with a new, better technique, you gain something that you can't get from a book or a course. You observe, in the workings of your own mind, that the new technique has guided you through a difficult task that you couldn't have completed otherwise. Success is the most effective teacher.
(This article was originally published in the Thinking Directions Occasional Update on 1/19/06.)
New Year's Resolutions. How often do they turn out to be empty rhetoric?
A resolution is a special kind of goal. It is not just a one-time target, like doubling sales for the year. When you make a resolution to lose weight or stop smoking, your goal is to change your habits and routines to make a permanent change in behavior. That's one reason that achieving New Year's resolutions can be difficult.
I think another reason that many people have trouble achieving their resolutions is that they misunderstand the role of willpower. Often, it seems that willpower is all that is needed. This is rarely the case.
To see this, consider the story of how I achieved one of my resolutions last year.
My resolution was to keep a clean desk. I had found that whenever I let my desk get cluttered, I felt unmotivated to do administrative work for my business. I thought that keeping a clean desk would help me stay on top of that work.
I anticipated no problem forming a new habit. I was already cleaning up my desk regularly. I expected that I could use just a little extra willpower to clean it up every day.
I was wrong. Despite my commitment, I didn't clean up my desk any more often after I made the resolution than before.
Seeing this apparent failure of willpower, I asked myself, "What is stopping me from implementing such a simple change to my routine?"
There was a very good explanation. My routine consisted of cleaning up the desk before going to bed. This meant I often faced a choice between cleaning up or losing sleep. I know how much sleep I need to be productive—so, given that alternative, I often, quite properly, chose sleep.
To keep a clean desk, I needed more than a little willpower. I needed a radically different daily routine, one that didn't create a conflict between sleep and neatness.
I wasn't sure how to make that change. I didn't want to disrupt my workday. So I started looking for opportunities to make an incremental change to my daily routine.
I noticed that after I did my hard thinking in the morning, I often piled up the notebooks, dictionaries, papers, etc. into a stack, and put them on my desk. I thought, "Why don't I put them all away immediately?" I knew that wouldn't solve the whole problem, but I thought it was a good step in the right direction.
I was right. This was an easy change that significantly reduced the clutter on my desk. It took only a little willpower to spend an extra 30 seconds to put things away instead of leaving them in a pile.
I saw many opportunities to extend this success. I started putting marketing materials away after I used them. I started unpacking immediately after returning from a presentation. I rearranged my office to make filing easy. I had learned a new principle, "Put things away as soon as you're finished with them."
I found I could implement this principle with just a little willpower, each time I finished a task. My desk became neat, if not clean, by the fall.
Despite this progress, I was unsatisfied. Although my desk was no longer piled high, it still attracted papers that needed action—and they still lingered there. To completely achieve my resolution, I decided to try harder. I put in extra effort. A terrible thing happened. Administrative work seemed to multiply. If I worked through the tasks on my desk, more came in. Soon I'd get frustrated—and let the new work pile up on the desk. I could not seem to keep a clean desk, nor keep on top of the administrative work.
I call this kind of situation floundering. It's a situation in which you exert significant effort, without making reasonable progress toward the goal. In my course, I teach that the first step to end floundering is to re-evaluate the goal.
After thinking about it, I realized that cleaning up the remaining papers on the desk would not, in itself, motivate me to do more administrative work. The desk was clean enough.
The deeper problem was that I experienced a conflict between doing administrative work for the business, and doing intellectual work to develop my ideas, which is what really interests me. When I used willpower to do more administrative work, it generated even more administrative work—work which then took me away from thinking and development.
Willpower, i.e., "trying harder" and "just doing it," can't resolve a conflict like this between two important values. If I had relied on willpower, I would have fallen into thrashing. I would have alternated between intense work on one task then the other. When you're thrashing, you keep working harder on the task at hand, until you realize that the other task is facing disaster. Then you drop the first task to salvage the second one.
Instead, I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile this conflict. How could I keep up with the administrative work so necessary to the business, while maintaining a steady schedule of intellectual work so necessary to my job satisfaction? I came up with a plan (a new morning schedule) but that is another story, the story of my 2006 New Year's resolutions.
The moral of this story is that it takes more than willpower to implement a New Year's resolution. It requires a commitment to thinking—thinking about whatever problems face you as you pursue your goals, so you can be sure your willpower is put to good use.