Unlock Progress: Break Stuck Cycles With Proactive Problem Solving

When we’re emotionally agile, our problems can push us toward improvement. Except, we often get stuck trying to solve things the same way, even though it isn’t working. With a bit of creative thinking and openness to try new problem-solving tactics, you can find more effective solutions.

Key takeaways:

The importance of solving your problems

No one wants to have problems, but sometimes, they push you away from complacency and into action.

Some are simple and take just a few steps to solve, like hiring a mechanic to make your breaks stop squeaking or setting a timer to meditate daily. Others, however, are more complex and might not have a clear-cut answer, like how to better manage a mental health condition.

The most important thing to remember is that while working on certain issues is important, feeling like you have to solve all your most difficult problems makes things worse. Problems, especially difficult ones, are a part of life. But when feel like we have to have everything figured out, we put an enormous amount of unnecessary pressure on ourselves. That pressure is what often keeps us stuck, paralyzing us from thinking clearly or having the energy to work on solutions.

So, to start, check if it’s time to take a step back and let yourself recuperate before trying to solve your biggest problems.

Are problems ever good?

More often than we realize, problems are catalysts for improvement, innovation, and personal development.

They can force us to leave our comfort zone, which is almost always painful to start, and why we don’t change in the first place. But to grow, we have to try new things. That way, we can learn our strengths, gain different perspectives, and let our creative selves flourish.

Why do we get stuck while solving problems?

There are certain problems in life that we just can’t change. Accidents happen, people get sick, lose their jobs, or break up, but handling these situations better is a skill that can be learned.

Taking the time to become more emotionally agile can help you manage whatever life throws at you. That means practicing self-care, pausing and reflecting more often, thinking critically about new ways to manage the situation, or asking for professional guidance.

5 ways you maintain your problems

Before diving into problem solving, you first need to know what behavior is keeping you stuck. If you keep struggling with the same issue, it’s often because what you’re currently doing to solve your problem is actually maintaining it.

Often, we keep trying the same 'logical' thing, thinking that at some point, it has to work. For example, it seems to make sense to criticize our spouses every time they don’t clean up after themselves — except that can go on for years without resolution.

Five of the most common reasons why we get stuck is because we try to:

  1. Force something that can only happen spontaneously. Such as, someone with insomnia tries to force sleep, which increases anxiety.
  2. Master something we’re afraid of by postponing it. For example, a person afraid of driving keeps waiting until they feel more prepared, rather than starting with light exposure, such as just sitting in the driver’s seat while parked for two minutes.
  3. Reach an agreement through opposition. Sometimes, it’s better to focus on common ground and a resolution rather than trying to be right. For example, in a marital dispute, if one partner demands change from the other they can easily create resistance. Instead, they could try a non-confrontational/oppositional approach.
  4. Get compliance through voluntarism. Often, we want people to do things we believe are best. Even more, we want them to want to do it, as well. For example, it might be that your partner only does thoughtful things for you when you directly suggest them. Meanwhile, you’re frustrated that they don’t do nice things for you all on their own.
  5. Confirm an accuser’s suspicions through defensiveness. Whenever accusations come up, defensiveness usually follows. Commonly, if someone suspects their partner hasn’t been faithful, and they accuse them of it, their partner’s defensive attitude only makes them appear more suspicious. To disrupt the pattern, the accuser could focus more on communication rather than accusations.

Fortunately, there are proven ways to break out of these cycles.

Proactive problem solving: techniques to try

Different problems require different solutions, so the first step is to decide if it’s technical, interpersonal, or existential. From there, you can research different solution methods or talk with a professional about it, if needed.

However, in general, one of the first rules of problem-solving, especially if it’s a problem you keep having, is to break it down into how your small daily habits maintain it. Then, try something new. Even the tiniest of changes make the dominos move down a different path.

Different techniques to solve problems

We’ve all heard the saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result. Take advantage of that knowledge and let it guide you to try something new.

Making a 'U-turn'

Take a complete 180 in your current approach. This doesn’t necessarily require more effort, just clever thinking about what the complete opposite, albeit simple, action would be.

It’s great for repetitive problems, whether with yourself or others. For example, if you usually criticize your spouse with vague complaints like they don’t “take you out enough,” go casual and specific instead. “I’d really appreciate it if you cleared your schedule for me Saturday night and booked a reservation at a Thai restaurant.” With criticism, pressure increases — and so does defensiveness, creating a cycle of complaining and avoiding or defending.

By trying a 180, you can experiment with trial and error until you get the desired result. It could be the smallest of changes, such as starting your day doing something different and seeing how that one action affects the rest of your day.

Go slow

Most of us put way too much pressure on ourselves to 'feel better' or 'fix' a problem we’re having. Whether it's getting over a breakup or managing a particularly rough patch in life, we don’t always give ourselves time to rest and heal. Much like you need time to heal when you get ill, the same is true for your mental health.

Tough times happen, and negative emotions exist for a reason — they tell us something. Exhaustion tells you to rest, anger pushes you to take action, and frustration forces you to change tactics. Use your emotions to guide you toward change.

The 5-minute rule

If you’re a procrastinator, this one’s for you. Your only goal is to do whatever it is you’ve been avoiding or slacking off on for 5 minutes. If that’s too much, go for 2 minutes.

The hardest part of most tasks is starting, but knowing that you can stop after a few minutes relieves the pressure behind it.

Plan-do-check-act (PDCA)

For a work problem or something that requires thinking outside the box (including U-turns), give this a try:

  • Plan. Identify the problem, think about what might be causing it, and plan a problem-solving strategy.
  • Do. Set a specific time and place to implement a small first part of the plan to get the ball rolling and test its effectiveness.
  • Check. Did your actions create a small change toward resolution?
  • Act. If yes, put your plan into action fully. If no, revise your action plan and try again.

In the end, there’s no one clear answer for every problem because each and every one of us has a completely unique life. Resolutions need a bit of creative thinking and trial and error.

Most importantly, don’t forget to take the pressure off yourself to have everything figured out, because it’s impossible. We’re all just learning as we go.

Problems are a natural part of life where we have to accept what we can’t change and give ourselves grace while we work on what we can.

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