How to Solve Problems Effectively

Worrying vs. Problem-Solving

Worrying is simply a negative thought process. When we worry, we usually focus on worst-case scenarios, and possible future problems. These negative thoughts often play in our minds like an iPod on shuffle.

And even though we keep on focusing on these future ‘terrible things’, we are too anxious to think clearly and find real solutions. Instead, we just dwell in our worst fears. So worrying makes us anticipate and fear things that are unlikely to happen in the future, yet it leaves us unprepared to deal with any real problems.

Problem-solving, however, is different. It is a constructive thought process that focuses on how we can deal with our problems at hand flexibly and effectively. It involves identifying the problem and different ways to deal with it. Then, we can choose the best solutions and examine the pros and cons of each.

Based on our evaluations of solutions, we can develop a plan on how to best deal with the current problem by using one or several of the strategies we came up with. Then we can put a plan into place. Finally, we can evaluate how well we have done dealing with the problem.

Preparing for Problem-Solving

In order to solve problems effectively, we need to give ourselves the best chance of doing so.

First of all, we need to set aside time. Problem-solving can be a time consuming process and usually cannot be done on the run. We need to give it enough time and attention to really benefit from it.

Second, we need to deal with only one problem at a time. Trying to solve multiple problems at once will only hurt the quality of the solutions.

Third, it is usually easier to tackle a problem by writing it down. It may be difficult to hold several ideas or solutions in our head all at once. When writing things down, they seem clearer and less cluttered.

How to Solve Problems

The first step in solving any problem is to identify whether there is an actual problem to be solved. Questions that can help differentiate solvable worries from unsolvable worries are:

• Is it a real and likely problem I am concerned about?

• Is the problem something happening now or in the future?

• Is the problem something I have some control over?

If the problem at hand is one that is unrealistic, unlikely to happen in the future, and one that we have little or no control over, it is not an actual problem that requires a solution.

In this case, it is much more beneficial to work on challenging our negative thinking, and learning to accept the uncertainty of not knowing and not being able to control the outcome of the situation. On the other hand, if the problem exists in the here-and-now and we can do something about it, we should use effective problem-solving strategies to deal with it. 

Solvable worries:

  • “Several bills are due and I don’t have enough money to cover all of them.”
  • I have too many tasks to finish at work before the end of the week.”
  • “I had a fight with my spouse.”
  • “My child disobeys me a lot.”

Unsolvable Worries:

  • “My spouse might have an accident.”
  • “My child might get in with the wrong crowd and do drugs.”
  • “There could be a terrorist attack.”
  • “Interest rates might go up.”
  • “I might become seriously ill.”

Effective problem-solving includes 6 steps.

Step 1: Identify/define the problem 

Try to state the problem as clearly as possible by being objective and specific about the behavior, situation, timing and circumstances of the problem.

E.g.: Both the phone and gas bills are due this week. I don’t have enough money to cover both.

Step 2: Generate possible solutions/options

List all the solutions that one can think of independently of whether they are of high quality or not. This is just the brainstorming of ideas. After all ideas have been generated, eliminate the ones that are undesirable or unreasonable. List the remaining solutions in order of preference.

E.g.: Call both companies to negotiate a payment plan

         Prioritize – I need gas but can live without the phone for a few weeks

         Borrow money from family or friends

         Pay with a credit card and pay it off later

         Talk to a financial planner

         Get a second job

         Sell some possessions to pay off bills

Preferred solutions: Call both companies to negotiate a payment plan

            Talk to a financial planner

     Prioritize – I need gas but can live without a phone for a few weeks

Step 3: Evaluate alternatives

Evaluate the top 3 alternatives in term of advantages and disadvantages.

E.g.:  Solution 1 


May be able to keep both phone and gas on

Feeling of accomplishment


Feel embarrassed about asking for a payment plan

I will still have to pay eventually

I may not get what I want

Step 4: Decide on a plan

Come up with one or more plans and specify who will take action, when and how the plan will be implemented.

E.g.: Actions Steps – Solution 1 (Who/When)

Contact phone and gas company to negotiate a payment plan (Me/Monday morning)

Step 5: Implement plan

Step 6: Evaluate the outcome

Evaluate how effective the plan was. Make decisions about whether the plan needs to be revised or whether a new plan is needed to fix the problem. If the outcome is not satisfactory, repeat steps 2-6.

Effective problem-solving is more productive than worrying and ultimately it reduces anxiety. So if a problem exists in the here-and-now and we have some control over it, we should attempt to solve it instead of just worrying about it.

Effective Problem-Solving References

Nathan, P., Smith, L., Rees, C., Correia, H., Juniper, U., Kingsep, P., & Lim, L. (2004). Mood Management Course: A Cognitive Behavioural Group Treatment Programme for Anxiety Disorders and Depression (2nd ed.). Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.

Heimberg, R.G., Turk, C.L., & Mennin, D.S. (2004). Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Advances in Research and Practice. New York: Guilford Press. 

Wells, A. (1997). Cognitive Therapy of Anxiety Disorders: A Practice Manual and Conceptual Guide. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 

Wells, A. (2008). Metacognitive Therapy for Anxiety and Depression. New York: Guilford Press. 

Barlow, D.H. (2002). Anxiety and Its Disorders: The Nature and Treatment of Anxiety and Panic (2nd ed.). London: Guilford Press.

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