How to Get Better at Solving Problems

Written by Neil Pavitt Wednesday 06 April 2016
The third in a five part series on unleashing your brain’s full potential looks at some simple ways to improve your problem solving skills
Rubic's cube drawn on a black board

This third collection of tips from my book Brainhack, are all techniques to make you a better problem solver.

1. Take Away the Context

When we’ve got a problem to solve, our mind’s tendency is to fixate on the common use of the object or its parts.

Now you might think lateral solutions come from taking the blinkers off and widening your thinking. Wrong. You need to narrow your thinking. Reduce the problem to its purest form.

When a ski company had a problem of vibrating skis, the natural solution was to focus on everything related to skiing; but the problem in its purest form was “vibration”.

They found out that similar vibrations played havoc with violins, causing sound distortion. The violin designers solved this problem by using a metal grid. The ski company adapted this technology and the problem was solved.

2. Take a Break

3M have their 15% programme, which means all their staff have 15% of their week to work on their own projects. The idea for Post-It Notes famously came out of this time.

Google have their 20% time, out of which Gmail, Google Maps, Google Talk and AdSense were born. AdSense alone is responsible for 25% of Google’s annual revenue.

Taking time out not only re-shapes your mind, but also what you produce. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that should never be underestimated.

Why not put a Post-It note above your desk? Not with anything on it, just a blank Post-It. You can use it as reminder of what you can do with a bit of free thinking time.

3. Take a Nap

Sleep experts have found that daytime naps can improve many things. It can increase alertness, boost creativity, reduce stress, improve perception, stamina, motor skills and accuracy, brighten your mood and boost memory.

Taking a nap also helps in solidifying memories. Napping pushes memories to the neocortex, the brain’s more permanent storage, preventing them from being “overwritten”. With the nap clearing the brain’s short-term memory storage, it creates more room for new information to be absorbed.

4. Keep Asking Why

Ricardo Semler, CEO of Brazilian company Semco, famous for its radical industrial democracy, suggests that one way to get greater insight is to simply ask three “Whys?”. Ask them one after another, about everything you are doing.

He says, with the first ‘Why?’ you always have a good answer. Then the second ‘Why?’ is more difficult to answer. By the third ‘Why?’ you realise that, in fact, you really don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Semler says that by asking “Why?” three times, you start to get clearer about who you are and why you are here.

5. Write by Hand

You might argue that typing notes at a meeting or conference is better because it’s easier. But the reason that handwriting is harder is exactly why it’s so important.

Most people can type significantly faster than they can write; it’s like taking verbatim notes.

When you take notes by hand you can’t write everything down. This means you have to think about the “essence” of what’s being said.

Writing by hand actually uses more of the brain, as you need to make several strokes for each letter. Your working memory gets activated, as well as brain areas used for thinking and language.

The more areas of the brain that are firing, the stronger connection is between the content of what you’re writing and your brain; therefore the more you’ll be able to remember later on.

Neil Pavitt

Neil Pavitt

Neil Pavitt is a writer and creativity coach. This article is based on his latest book Brainhack: Tips and Tricks to Unleash Your Brain's Full Potential (published by Capstone)