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Gabriel Wilensky
W e are constantly faced with problems we must solve. Some are trivial; some are complicated. But it’s easy to be overwhelmed when you need to tackle so many, especially when you do that haphazardly. Thus, you need to approach these problems calmly and deal with them systematically to ensure you resolve them quickly and effectively. A problem is any situation or issue that may be hard to solve and thus requires you to make a difficult decision. Problems come in different flavors, though:

  • Sometimes it’s a conflict between people.
  • Some other times it’s a puzzle or mystery.
  • Other times you may need to find ways to persuade people of a point you are trying to make.

In this article you’ll see how you can solve problems through the use of five strategies that will allow you to effectively break down problems into their various parts and thus make them more manageable.

It is imperative we have a very clear definition and understanding of the problem we need to solve.

1. Identifying the Problem

This may sound obvious, but many times you lack clarity on what the problem is you are trying to solve. This leads to wild goose chases in which you get distracted by things that are irrelevant to the problem in question. Thus, it is imperative you have a very clear definition and understanding of the problem you need to solve. Once the problem is identified, one thing that will be helpful is to determine which are the obstacles that are preventing you from performing the task and which will need to be removed.

For example:
I need to buy a new car. I am not sure which model to get and how much I should spend on it.
I want to get married. We are of different religions.
My friends got into a fight and are no longer talking to each other. Identify what caused the conflict. Get them to talk again.

By breaking a problem down into its parts we may find that it was not as big or as complicated as we initially thought. Conversely, we may discover that it was indeed more complex than we initially anticipated.

2. Breaking the Problem into its Parts

Often what you discover by analyzing the problem is that it is comprised of one or more sub-problems. Indeed, this is the main reason why we need to break down a problem into its constituent parts once the problem is identified. This way, you can:

  • Get a better sense of the scope of the problem.
  • Get a good idea of how big it is.
  • Learn how many issues there are.
  • Understand what those issues are.
Breaking down the problem is a key requirement of effectively dealing with complex problems, as oftentimes you are faced with issues that at first glance appear to be so big that you may become paralyzed before you even begin to start solving them. In essence you become overwhelmed, not necessarily by the actual scope, but rather by what you imagine the scope of the problem may be. At that point you typically conclude that it’s so complex that it’s impossible for you to solve. If you give up at that stage you may miss an important opportunity.
Equally as bad is the opposite case. Here you underestimate the scope of the problem due to your lack of understanding of the issue or through having missed an important aspect of the problem. This typically leads to bad decisions as well, because in all likelihood you have made incorrect assumptions and thus made the wrong decisions and taken mistaken corrective actions. By breaking a problem down into its parts you may find that it was not as big or as complicated as you initially thought. Conversely, you may discover that it was indeed more complex than you initially anticipated.
Either way, getting a better understanding of the issue and breaking it down into its parts means you can tackle a smaller and thus more manageable sub-problem at a time, and therefore greatly improve our chances of getting the bigger problem solved. In practical terms when breaking down a problem into its constituent parts it may help to ask questions such as who, what, why, when, where and how. The answers to these questions may help you identify issues or get data you may have missed otherwise. Compiling this information into a list will also help you to process all the information and avoid missing anything.


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3. Prioritizing Issues

Once you have identified the issues you need to address you have to prioritize them. After all, the more likely scenario is that not all issues are equally as important. Also, sometimes sub-problems need to be dealt with in a particular order. You may also be able to tell the order in which the tasks need to be taken care of from a list like the one in the example. To pursue the same house building example a little further, clearly you cannot put the roof on until you have the walls up, and you cannot build those unless the floor and the foundation are laid down, and so on. Therefore by making this list you can rank the sub-problems in the order in which you need to tackle them, thus having a clear course of action to what needs to be done first, second, and so on. If the breakdown is fine-grained enough you will also likely see what is more important and thus needs to be given a higher priority. For instance, in your house-building project you might have the task of choosing the appliances you’ll install, but clearly that task can be performed later in the project and is ultimately less important than the task of laying the foundation.


If the problem you must solve is to build a house, you will break down the problem into the various steps you must take to do it, such as designing it, securing funding for its construction, buying a lot, laying the foundation, building the walls, putting the roof, and so one and so forth. By looking at this list you can clearly see the various tasks you must perform, and you can also evaluate the complexity and importance of each individually. You may discover that some of these tasks can be pretty involved and may require you in turn break them down into even smaller tasks.

4. Relevance of Issues

When you break down a problem into its basic elements you must be careful that all the issues are relevant to the issue in question. For example, if in your house-building project you listed helping junior with his homework, then you have clearly added a task that is irrelevant to the problem at hand, irrespective of how important it may be. Thus it’s critical every issue you list is relevant to the issue you are trying to solve.

5. Checking Assumptions

Another important thing you must do after you have broken a problem down to its constituent parts is to validate assumptions and check facts. This is very important as often you think or assume something is a problem, when in fact it isn’t. You must always question your assumptions as otherwise you might end up fighting windmills.

For example:
I cannot afford to buy a house.
  • Do I really want to own a house?
  • Is there any house I can afford?
  • Is it true there is no loan I can afford?
  • Is this a good time to buy a house?
  • Can I get help from my parents?

Breaking down the problem into its parts helps us to prioritize the issues that need to be solved.

Solve problems

I n conclusion, a problem is any situation or issue you must resolve and that may require you to make difficult decisions. You cannot really be effective at solving a problem unless you have a clear understanding of what the problem is. Breaking down the problem into its parts is helpful to understand the scope of the problem and to make it more manageable to solve. It also helps you to prioritize the issues that need to be solved which will result in a ranked list. The same process will help you identify issues that may not be relevant to the problem at hand, thus allowing you to focus on only the things that really matter.

What do you think?

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