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How To Use Skills To Logically Solve a Problem

Problems are a normal part of life.

You can think of them as challenges—like a puzzle to be solved—or you can think of them as burdens that you are powerless to resolve. The choice is yours.

Your willingness and ability to solve problems has a huge effect on the way you feel, and largely determines whether or not you become frustrated, avoidant, or depressed. In some cases, the solutions are pretty obvious—you know what you need to do to fix the problem and you have the skills to do it. In other situations, the solutions are not clear and you’ll need to consider lots of possible options before you can find the best one.

When you’re confronted with a problem there are ways to deal with it.

Problems Can Affect Your Mental Health

When you’re faced with a problem, it’s not uncommon to feel:

  • Overwhelmed
  • Stressed or anxious
  • Annoyed and frustrated at yourself or others
  • Down or depressed
  • Excited by the challenge
  • Confused
  • Angry
  • Pressure or expectations from yourself or others
  • Physically sick, including headaches or nausea
  • Distracted or finding it hard to concentrate
  • Tired, especially if you’re sleeping too much or not enough

Problems are often stressors, which are known to affect our mental and physical wellbeing. If you’re experiencing these feelings, it’s important to look after yourself. Take time out to do something that you enjoy. Even though you might not feel like it, exercising and eating well can help. If you want to explore other ways to cope, check out the Developing Coping Strategies article.

Having tools to help you make a decision can help you reach a successful outcome. If you’re finding that your feelings are affecting your day-to-day routine, it’s a good idea to talk to someone you trust. This could be someone like a friend, school or campus counselor or family member.

Focus on Solutions

Working through a problem one step at a time can make you aware of lots of possible solutions. This increases your likelihood of getting what you want and helps you to feel more in controlSometimes, it’s helpful to get ideas and alternative perspectives from other people like family members and friends, although in the end it’s up to you to decide what action to take.

Whenever you’re feeling bad, it is a good idea to ask yourself:

  • What is the best thing I can do to resolve this problem?
  • What are my needs and wants around this issue?
  • How can I get my needs met while also being mindful of reality and the people around me?

If there’s an obvious solution, make a plan of action and get it done. Considering you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance your issue is a bit more complicated. If there isn’t a clear solution, you might need to take some time to sit down and brainstorm some possible options.

Remember that for most problems, it is possible to find partial or complete solutions. The challenge is to look for the best solutions and put them into practice. Also, it’s important to not act on impulse, no matter how mad or upset you are. If you act on your immediate emotional response, you might do something you will regret later because you weren’t thinking clearly.

Using step-by-step problem solving doesn’t always lead to perfect solutions, but it increases your likelihood of resolving the problem—partially or completely. It might also help you feel more in control of the situation or more confident in your ability to make sound decisions.

8 Steps to Solve Your Problem

Sometimes, just doing something towards solving a problem can help you feel better, even though in some situations there’s not much you can do. Going through the steps of problem solving might be difficult at first, but will become intuitive with practice.

Step 1: Define the Problem

Be specific. Vague descriptions can lead to vague solutions. Without being specific, you’ll find that a whole lot of problems are all tied in together. When this happens, try to separate the problems so you can work on each problem separately.

For example: “I hate my school” can be broken down to:

  • I get upset when people in my class make fun of me.
  • I get annoyed when Mr. Simpson picks on me.
  • I feel tired because I don’t get enough time out from studying.

These are three individual problems, which, although related to each other, are best dealt with separately.

Put it into practice. Write down your problem and all the specific ways that you’re affected by it. It’s time to get clear about what you’re facing.

Step 2: Work Out the Goals for Each Problem

What do you want? Remember the questions we asked ourselves earlier? Ask yourself these questions again and write down the answers next to the specific problems you identified in the step above.

  • What is the best thing I can do to resolve this problem?
  • What are my needs and wants around this issue?
  • How can I get my needs met while also being mindful of reality and the people around me?

Try to focus on the things that you can do, rather than what you would like to happen. Ask yourself, “Is this something I can control?”

For example, thinking “I would like all the painful people in my class to disappear” isn’t a realistic goal because it’s not within your control. However, “I would like to focus on spending more time with my friends during lunch and breaks between classes” is a realistic goal because it’s more likely to happen and is within your control. Similarly, “get rid of Mr. Simpson” is not a realistic goal, but “work out a strategy to help me cope with Mr. Simpson without getting upset” is more feasible.

Put it into practice. Focus on realistic goals within your control for each problem you identified in step 1. Ask yourself the above questions to get even more specific about what you need.

Step 3: Brainstorm as Many Possible Solutions as You Can

Be creative! Come up with as many possible solutions as you can think of. Some of your ideas might be a bit out there but remember: You aren’t judging or evaluating how good or bad your solutions are at this stage.

For example, some of the possible solutions for dealing with annoying people in your class might be to:

  • Totally ignore them
  • Be rude back to them
  • Be nice towards them regardless of how they speak to you
  • Talk to one or two of them and tell them how you feel
  • Change schools
  • Get to class early to pick a desk further away from them
  • Speak to the principal and ask to change classes
  • Beat them up
  • Ask your parents to contact the parents of the main culprits

Put it into practice. Try to come up with as many different strategies as you can think of. Don’t judge them, just write them down. 

Step 4: Rule Out Any Obviously Poor Options

Keep it realistic. Not every solution is going to be possible or will make the most sense long-term. Now it’s time to be critical of what solutions you came up with and rationalize whether or not those are good solutions. 

Let’s rationalize our options from the example:

  • It’s obviously not a good option to beat someone up because you’d probably get in trouble and it’s never worth it to solve things with violence. Would it really be worth it?
  • It’s probably pretty challenging and time-consuming to change schools, and even if you did, would the same problems follow you?
  • You might also be wary of having your parents contact the other parents, as it could escalate the problem or remove some amount of control you have over the outcome. In some instances, however, the problem could be so severe that getting parents involved is the only thing that makes sense.

Put it into practice. Look for all the ideas on your list that are unrealistic or unlikely to be helpful and cross them out. Spend some time thinking about the potential outcomes of these strategies. If you’re on the fence about some of your solutions, save it for the next step.

Step 5: Weigh Out the Pros and Cons of the Remaining Options

Now you can be the judge. You’ve gotten specific about your problems, come up with some goals, thought of some really good solutions, and trashed the ones that weren’t so great. Now it’s time to weigh out the options we have left. For each solution you have for your problem, think of the positive and negative outcomes.

To continue using this example:

  • Being rude back at the other students might help you let off some steam (positive), but it might also make the situation more hostile and could get you in trouble (negative).
  • Being nice toward them in spite of their put-downs may make you feel frustrated (negative), but it might change the way some of them respond to you (positive).
  • Explaining to the others that you don’t like the way they are treating you might make you feel embarrassed (negative), but at least they will know how you feel and you spoke up for yourself (positive).
  • Ignoring them might be really hard to do and some people find this doesn’t work very well. But if you do it successfully – meaning really ignore them, it might help you feel more empowered (positive).

Put it into practice. Go through the options that are left and write down the ”pros” and ”cons” of each. Creating a table where you can them side by side can be really helpful.

Step 6: Identify the Best Options

Make your decisions. Once you’ve considered the positive and negative outcomes for each possible solution, it’s time to make a decision. There may be one option that stands out as better than the others. If there are a few possible solutions, you might be able to implement all of them.

For instance, with the above example, you might decide to talk to the people who are hassling you and explain how you feel and what you want. If it happens again, you might then decide to go to your advisor or counselor to discuss the problem and perhaps ask to change classes.

Put it into practice. Go through the options and pick out the ones that seem the most practical and potentially helpful.

Step 7: Put It Into Action

The real work. Now it’s time to take all of this planning and put it into action. Depending on what you’re trying to do you might need to use effective communication skills, plan for the safest option, making sure you’re in a level emotional place before acting, or check the way you’re thinking about this situation so you can play it fair.

For example, you might decide to approach one of the girls in your class who makes nasty comments about you. This can go wrong pretty quickly if we attack the other person with our words. With mindful communication, we can keep this situation from escalating.

Communication Tips:

  • Use this formula:This happened, I feel this, and this is what I need from you.”
    • “When you said really hurtful things about me in front of everyone in class it made me feel disrespected and upset. Going forward, can you not do that in front of everyone? If you have a problem, you can talk to me about it privately.”
    • “Do you remember how you made that joke about me in class the other day? I felt really embarrassed when you did that. I would appreciate it if you didn’t did that again.”
  • Use tact. We’ve all have someone talk to us in a rude way. How did that make you feel? Did that make you open to hearing what else they had to say? Try your best to deliver your message or request with tact so the person doesn’t shut down and will actually be receptive to what you say.
  • Providing context can help. You don’t have to explain yourself if you don’t want to, though sometimes giving people context can help them understand you better. Let’s say you messed up and forgot to do that thing your mom asked you to do. You can say:
    • “I can see how you’re upset with me because I didn’t do what you asked me to. I feel really stressed right now with all my assignments and exams, and trying to keep up with everything. My brain has been a little scattered lately. I’m sorry I couldn’t be more helpful to you. Could we make a list together of things you need me to do so I don’t forget?”
  • Be understanding. Try to come from a place of understanding if you value the relationship (or learn about other’s perspectives).
    • “Can you tell me more about why you did that?”
    • “Help me understand why you reacted that way.”
  • Rehearse what you’ll say. Try to write down the things that you plan to say so that you have it clear in your mind. If this doesn’t work, one of your other solutions might work. In the example used previously, your next action might be to go to your teacher or counselor to talk to him or her about the problem. Again, you can write down in advance what you plan to say.
  • Stay solution-focused. It’s easy to get caught up in the feels when you’re trying to express your needs. Take a break if you need to and come back to the conversation when you’re ready. If you value the relationship, always try to stay focused on how you can improve things so this doesn’t happen again.
Do your problems have to do with mental illness? Check out our Articles of Empowerment to learn more about different mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, OCD, bulimia, schizophrenia, body dysmorphia, or suicidal thoughts. We also have an overview of mental illnesses you could check out, as well. 
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. Before you act, make sure you’re educated about the circumstance so you can have a greater perspective on the issue. For instance, if your best friend has an abusive partner and you’re trying to help them, learn about abuse and the dangers associated with leaving an abusive partner before making a safe plan of action with your friend.

Put it into practice. Go get ’em, Tiger! Put your plan into action. Use your voice. Stick up for yourself. Make amends. Whatever it is you need to do, now is the time.

Step 8: Reflect on How It Went

Reflect and review. The last step is to review how things went. So you tried it out—what happened? Did it solve the problem, or do you need to try another approach? If your current approach worked, then that’s all you need to do. But, if you didn’t get what you wanted, then it’s usually helpful to try a different approach. Talking to friends and family could be really helpful in finding alternatives you’ve never thought of.

What if you can’t fix the problem?

Although problem solving usually helps us find solutions, in some situations, despite our best efforts, we still can’t fix the problem. If you’ve tried a number of strategies and none of them have worked, it may be time to focus on coping strategies

Try It Out

Is there a situation that you don’t like? If you can change it, try working through the steps towards finding a solution to your problem. If not, see how you feel after trying to cope with the situation. What can you say to yourself to accept the situation? What sorts of things can you do to get on with your life in a positive way, in spite of the situation?

Remember that problems are a normal part of life, and that we usually feel better when we do something constructive toward resolving our problems rather than just dwelling on them. Make a plan, take action, and do your best. In the end, you’ll know you did all you could to make a difference.

What did you find successful for you when trying to solve a problem? Share in the comments below!

Information for this article was provided by:
  • Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions by Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond, Foundation for Life Sciences, 2005
Acknowledgements: This article was partially developed by youth and staff for

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