Your problem is you don’t know what your problem is.

Life is full of problems. In fact, we spend most of our time solving problems; everything from deciding what to eat to figuring how much to save each month for an early retirement. In our pursuit to solve, two common glitches occur:

  1. We apply solutions in search of problems; OR
  2. We solve the wrong problems.

Both of these approaches get us nowhere.

Most people think that cleaning up their diet, signing up for the gym, or getting 30 minutes extra sleep will improve their health. While these seem like good ideas, they are examples of solutions in search of problems.

How can this be? After all, clever marketing would have us believe that we must do these things to be well. But marketing doesn’t know anything about you, other than your being as prone to irrational decision-making as anyone else.

You go ahead and sign up for a new gym membership. Then you attempt to insert this ‘solution’ into your already jammed schedule. Immediately, your quick fix has created conflicts with how you’ve designed your use of time. We know how this goes. You change things to accommodate, it works for a while, then things regress back to normal. You feel bad for letting yourself down, guilty for buying the membership, and so on. This could have been avoided by thinking more about what problem you really need to solve.

Here’s another example: if I just sleep better, everything would change. This is false reasoning. What is the ‘change’ I’m looking for? How would I measure it? What is the threshold for success? Unless I define these things, any sleep intervention would risk solving the wrong problem. But before I even define my outcomes and measurements, I need to dig deeper into the root problem.

I suggest a tool we often use in quality improvement research, called the ‘5 Whys’. Here’s how it works:

Why do I think my health is not optimal?

My sleep is poor.

Why is my sleep poor?

After I put the kids to bed, I have trouble winding down. So, I go to bed later than I should.

Why do I have trouble winding down?

I feel like I still have a million things to do before tomorrow.

Why do I feel I need to accomplish all of these things now?

If I don’t, then I will get behind at work.

Why am I feeling behind at work?

Well…let me count the ways…

In this example, it turns out that extra pressure at work (or self-imposed deadlines) are the actual problem. Fixing this problem will be far more likely to free up the evenings to then have the desired sleeping routine. The solution is certainly not, ‘I just need to sleep better’.

This line of questioning could have gone several ways, depending on the responses to the questions. This depends on the individual. What’s important is to ask the questions before we set ourselves up to fail by fixing the wrong problems or applying the wrong solutions.

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