As the New Year approaches, we tend to review the high points and challenges of the past 12 months, and make some resolutions for the coming year. For many of us, those resolutions can be much the same as those we made last year.
Why is it that some problems are so difficult to surmount, even when we’ve spent countless hours, money, and energy on trying to solve them? The answers vary, depending on the magnitude and type of issue. However, frequently our main difficulty is in focusing too much on the problem and too little on potential solutions. We allow the problem to assume monstrous proportions, minimize our ability to cope with the challenge, and, perhaps most importantly, neglect to imagine how our life might look if the problem no longer existed.
As Albert Einstein stated, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This year, why not take a new approach to problems – that of solution-focused thinking?
- Define the problem. Spend 15 minutes or so writing about the problem’s effect on your life. Consider why it’s important to you to solve this problem now, rather than next week or next year.
- Move from “why” to “how” questions. Instead of asking “why” about things you cannot change, ask yourself, “How can I solve this? What would be my first step?” I know, I know, this is easier said than done, but the point is to shift from passively bemoaning the lamentable state of current affairs to an action-oriented position. This takes a healthy dose of acceptance on your part about what you cannot change, but resisting what cannot be changed is futile and a waste of time and energy. Disengage from the problem rather than allowing it to become a part of your identity.
- Believe that you have the answers and resources you need to deal with this problem. You may just need to look at the situation from a different perspective, one that takes into account all that you have going for you, the many times you have creatively solved problems in the past, and a clear vision of your desired future. While you may benefit from seeking advice from others, ultimately you are the expert on your life and what works for you. This may be hard for you to accept, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time looking exclusively to other people for the answers. Nevertheless, practice faith that you possess inner wisdom that can come to your aid.
- Look for times when the problem has not been a problem for you. There are always exceptions. When did the problem not have such a hold on you? When were you able to rise above the problem? If you struggle with compulsive overeating, for example, when in your life did you manage to eat healthfully? What were the circumstances? Write out the details of a few such instances. What strengths did you tap into at such times? How did you do that? How can you do more of that now and in the future?
- Ask yourself why the problem isn’t even worse for you right now. How have you managed to take care of your responsibilities in the face of the problem? How did you manage to carry on? What resources (social, financial, spiritual) do you have at your disposal? What is already working in your favor?
- Consider the possibility that this problem may be temporary or conditional, rather than permanent and all-pervasive, in nature. Instead of telling yourself, “I have no control around desserts”, try saying, “When I’m tired or have gone too long without eating, my appetite tends to increase. When I’m sufficiently well-rested and eat at regular intervals, I’m better able to control my food intake”. Let go of the tendency to use terms such as “always” and “never” when referring to the problem. Believe in a life beyond the problem. What we focus on, grows.
- Ask yourself the “miracle question”. If you were to wake up tomorrow morning and the problem was miraculously gone, how would you know? How would other people know? How would you behave differently? This sort of thinking can help you to begin to imagine and create a life where you are living in the solution, and aid you in generating manageable action steps towards that end.
- Do one thing differently. Small changes add up to big results. What’s more, making one change can have a snowball effect and make it easier for you to implement other changes. Change the timing, location, circumstance, your words, body language, who you’re with, the order in which you do things – you choose. We are creatures of habit, and you can use this to your advantage. Each time you engage in a productive and effective action, you are strengthening that muscle. You are also getting yourself off of auto-pilot and into the mode of mindfulness, a powerful way to nip knee-jerk reactions and old unproductive habits in the bud.
- Recognize your progress. Ask yourself on a regular (perhaps weekly) basis, “How are things better than they were a week ago?” See where, when, and how you’re moving in a healthy direction, and give yourself appropriate credit. Encourage yourself for how you’re excelling, rather than berating yourself for how you may have tripped up. Remember that we all have a negativity bias, meaning that we tend to focus on potential threats than on positive events. So, learn to counter this bias by living in the solution. This is not to say that you should turn a blind eye to areas in which you could improve, but practice changing your overall focus. You could aim for thinking about the solution about 80% od of the time and thinking about the problem 20% of the time. I can almost guarantee that the latter part of the equation will take care of itself.
The bottom line is that there is a life and a future waiting for you, beyond your present problem, however insurmountable that problem may seem. Try the solution-focused approach, and you may be in for wonderful surprises – which you will have helped to bring to fruition.