Problem solving skills are useful in many more areas than a math assignment. Analytical thinking and problem-solving skills are required in many jobs ranging from accounting to computer programming to police investigations to more creative pursuits such as art, drama and writing. Individual problems vary from person to person, but there are certain ways to approach problem solving such as the one proposed by mathematician George Polya in 1945 . You can improve your problem-solving ability and attack each situation systematically by following his four principles: understanding the problem, setting up a program, pursuing it, and looking back at the problem.
1. Clearly define the problem.
From the outside, this step is simple, but essential. You won’t find an effective solution, or you may fail altogether, if you don’t have a clear understanding of the problem. You should ask yourself questions and look at the problem from different angles to define it. For example, is there one problem or are there really several? Can you rephrase the problem in your own words? You will understand the problem better when you spend a little more time on it, which will equip you to find solutions.
Try to formulate questions. Let’s say you’re a student and you don’t have much money and want to find an effective solution. What is the problem? It’s an income problem. Are you not earning enough money? Do you tend to spend too much? Unless you have unexpected expenses or your financial situation has changed.
2. Define your goal.
State what you intend to do as a means to the end. What do you want to achieve? What do you want to discover? Keep in mind that you should consider both known and unknown problems and know where to find the data to achieve your goal.
Let’s say you still have a money problem. What is your goal? You probably never had enough money to go out on the weekends and relax at the movies or a bar. So you decide that your goal is to have more cash to spend, which is good! You have defined your goal better when it is clearer.
3. Gather information in a systematic way.
You should gather as many facts as possible about the problem so that you have a clear picture of the problem and your goal. Gather data, ask questions of people or experts related to your problem, find information online, in paper documents or elsewhere. Organize your data when you have it. Do this by trying to rephrase it, summarize it, or condense it. You might even draw a picture of it in graph form. You might not bother with this step for a simple problem, but it will be essential for more complex ones.
To solve your money problem, for example, you should have as detailed a picture as possible of your financial situation. Gather data from your most recent bank statements and talk to a financial advisor. Write down your income and expenses in a notebook and then create an accounting sheet or graph to show you where your expenses and income are.
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4. Analyze the information.
The first step in finding a solution is to look at the data you have collected about the problem and analyze its contents. During this analysis, you will look for connections and similarities to gain a better understanding of the overall situation. Start with the raw data. This information may need to be broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces or it may need to be ranked in order of importance or relevance. Charts or plans that show cause and effect relationships are useful tools for doing this.
Let’s say you have collected all your bank statements. Look at them. Where do your sources of income come from, what are they like, and when do you receive them? What is the general state of your finances? Are you in credit or in debt? Are there any unexplained items?
5. Look for possible solutions.
Let’s say you’ve gone through your data and discovered that your income is in arrears, which means you’re spending more than you’re earning. The next step is to come up with a series of possible solutions. You don’t have to fix them right away. Try to think about or find solutions by turning the problem upside down, for example. This involves asking yourself what caused the problem in the first place and turning the answer you came up with upside down . You could also ask others what they would have done in your place.
Your problem is a lack of money. Your goal is to have more cash to spend. What are your solutions? Try to come up with some without trying to evaluate them. Perhaps you could get more money with a part-time job or take out a student loan. You could also save money by cutting back on expenses or limiting certain costs.
Use some strategies to help you find solutions.
- Divide and conquer. Break the problem down into smaller parts and think of solutions for each part, one at a time.
- Use similarities and analogies. Try to find a similarity to a previous or commonly occurring problem. You may be able to adapt solutions to your current problem now if you find similarities in your situation to one you have dealt with in the past.
6. Evaluate the solutions and make a choice.
Just as you should analyze the raw data of your problem, you should also analyze its potential relevance. In some cases, this may mean trying out a possible scenario or experimenting. In other cases, it may involve a simulation or imagining the situation in your mind to see the given consequences. Choose the solution that best suits your needs, the one that can work and does not create other problems.
How do I find money? Look at your expenses. You probably don’t spend a lot of money on classes, food, and housing. Can you save money elsewhere, such as finding a roommate to reduce your rent? Can you afford to pay off student loans just to have fun on the weekends? Can you find time outside of school to work part-time?
Each solution will have situations that need to be evaluated. Plan ahead. Your money problem will require you to put together a budget. But you should also consider your personal situation. Can you, for example, cut back on essential expenses such as food or rent? Will you prioritize money over education or take on debt?
7. Put a solution into practice.
Do this when you have chosen the best solution. You might want to do it on a small scale first to see the results. Or you can go for it right away. Keep in mind that unanticipated problems may arise at this stage, things that you did not foresee in your first analysis and evaluation, especially if you did not structure the problem properly.
Let’s say you decide to cut costs because you don’t want to incur debt to have free time after school or make the choice to get a roommate. You put together a detailed budget, cut out a few dollars here and there and commit to sticking to it for the long term.
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8. Review and evaluate the result.
Once you have put a solution into practice, you will also need to monitor and review the results. Ask yourself if the solution is working. Are you achieving your goal? Are you running into problems you didn’t anticipate? Review your problem and the procedure for solving it .
Let’s say the results of your trial are mixed. You have saved enough money for a month to have fun on the weekends. But new problems have arisen. You realize you have to choose between having cash and making basic purchases, like food. You also need new shoes, but can’t afford them because of your budget. You may need another solution.
9. Adjust the situation, if necessary.
Keep in mind that problem solving works in a cyclical fashion. It will produce a number of possible solutions, which must be evaluated one after the other. You have found a solution that works for you when you have solved the problem. If not, you should find another solution and start all over again. Review your first solution and adapt it if it doesn’t work. Try another solution, test it and see what happens. Repeat this process until you have solved the problem.
Let’s say that after a month, you decide to give up your budget to save money and prefer to work part-time. You find a job near college. You now have money and put together a new budget without it taking too much time away from your studies. You may have found an effective solution.
10. Do regular mental exercises.
You should exercise your problem-solving ability, just as you exercise the muscles in your body, if you want to strengthen it and improve its functioning over time. In other words, you should exercise it regularly. Studies have shown that mind games can give you greater mental flexibility . There are all kinds of mind games to try.
Word games are excellent. Word jumble, for example, requires you to piece together fragments of words to match a given theme, such as philosophy. In the game called “Tower of Babel”, you will have to remember and match words in a foreign language with the corresponding picture.
Math games can also exercise your problem-solving skills. You stimulate the more analytical part of the brain by using word or math games. An example: “John is half the age he will be when he is 60 years old than he was six years before he was half the age he is now. How old will John be when he is twice as old ten years after being half the age he is today?”
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11. Play video games.
It has long been said that video games are for those who suffer from intellectual laziness. However, new research has shown that playing video games can improve thinking skills such as spatial awareness, reasoning and memory. Nevertheless, not all video games are created equal. Although individual shooting games can improve your spatial reasoning, they are not as effective as others in developing problem-solving skills.
Play something that forces you to think strategically or analytically. Try a puzzle game such as Tetris. You may also prefer a role-playing game or a strategy game. In this case, a game such as Civilization or Sim City may be more suitable for you.
12. Find a hobby.
A hobby is another way to continue to improve your problem-solving skills. Choose something that either involves active problem solving or stimulates the corresponding parts of the brain. Start by learning a foreign language, for example. Language functions are handled in both hemispheres of the brain. You will therefore stimulate the areas that control analysis as well as reasoning and problem-solving skills when you learn a foreign language.
Online web design, software programming, puzzles, Sudoku and chess will also force you to think strategically and systematically. Any of these activities will improve your overall problem-solving ability.