Become a Problem Solver!

Read on for some tips on boosting your problem solving ability! Learn how to be a slow thinker and also slow your stress levels.

For many of us the start of each New Year means making resolutions, usually ones we think will improve the quality of our lives like losing weight, being more fit, giving up nicotine. You may find that you keep making the same resolutions year after year!

You are not alone. Richard Wiseman, a UK psychologist, undertook some research into new year resolutions; his team tracked more than 3,000 people attempting to achieve a range of things including losing weight, using the gym, quitting smoking or drinking less.

Men and Women ARE Different

They concluded that New Year’s Eve is not a great time for making resolutions (!) and that you have more chance of success if you plan ahead for the changes you want to make. They also found some interesting gender differences in achieving success. For men, the secret of success lies in setting specific goals and focusing on the rewards you will get if you achieve them; for women, the best way to keep a resolution is to tell people about it. At the start of the project 52% of the participants were confident of success but Dr Wiseman found that only 12% actually achieved their goals.


Men were 22% more likely to succeed when they set goals for themselves, such as losing a pound a week rather than losing weight in general. In addition, men tended to succeed when they focused on rewards, such as losing weight to become more attractive to the opposite sex. “Men may be more likely to adopt a macho attitude and have unrealistic expectations, and so simple goal setting helps them achieve more,” said Dr. Wiseman.


Women were more successful at keeping their resolutions when they told family and friends about their plans. They also responded better to encouragement not to give up if they reverted to old habits temporarily – such as treating a chocolate binge as a setback rather than failure. Telling others increased women’s chance of keeping resolutions by 10%, although sometimes they were reluctant to do so, losing this source of support.

Most Likely to Succeed

The researchers found that the resolutions most likely to succeed were:
Enjoy life more, (32% of people stayed with it)
Improve your fitness (29%)
Lose weight (28%)
Be more organised (27%)
Quit or cut down drinking (25%)
Quit or cut down smoking (24%)

Try Nothing

However, I have another suggestion for an enriched life this year. Book some space in your diary to do…..nothing! Read on and find out how.

We know quite a lot about how the brain works and how important it is to exercise it and keep mentally active. We know that successful people are whole brain thinkers; they utilise both the left logical side of their brains along with their creative right handed side and we know many techniques to help this along.

But there is a potential flaw in this approach- the creative and visual techniques, initially designed to help you relax and tap into deeper parts of your self or subconscious are now being used as problem solving techniques in themselves.

Brainstorming, for example, is now a mainstream tool, but it started life as a creative right brain activity. Once we start putting pressure on ourselves to come up with a result in a time limited way we can lose the very essence of what we were striving for, tapping into our creative subconscious.

Tip of the Tongue

How many times in a day is information on the tip of your tongue and yet the more you try to remember that person’s name or a phone number, the more it eludes you? Yet when you give up and stop trying to remember and relax, suddenly it comes to you!

Guy Claxton has written a fascinating book on this topic (although be warned, it’s not light reading) called ‘Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind’. In it he argues that we overvalue the hare brain, by which he means the intellectual thought and quick wit highly prized in the world of work and business. Our minds works at different speeds.

For example, if we’re in a crisis situation like avoiding a road accident, we may go into auto pilot and react instinctively using all the driving skills we have acquired without doing any of it consciously. Afterwards we may marvel that we did it at all and at how fast our brain was working!

Then there is logical reasoned thought. We employ this type of thinking when we’re trying to solve a problem at work, when we deliberate over something and come up with a solution, like the mechanic tutting over your engine, or the board members debating a particular agenda item. Generally someone who is good at this type of thinking we think of as clever or bright.

There is a third way of thinking though which is the one I want to encourage to you experiment with. It is not as purposeful and is more ‘dreamy’ in style.

It’s when we ruminate or mull things over- often without realising that we are doing it. It’s taking time out from our hectic schedule to just stop and look out of the window, or simply close your eyes and take yourself to somewhere that makes you serene and tranquil, real or imaginary. Make time in your life to simply ‘stand and stare’*.

Slow Thinking

The idea of slow thinking feels contrary to our Western take on problem solving. However, there has been some scientific research that demonstrates that the more patient, slow type of thinking is more effective than deliberate, logical thinking when we are trying to solve a problem that is ill defined, when we don’t know exactly what we are looking for, what the parameters are, or simply where to start.

You will probably have experienced this already, for example, how often do good ideas come to you at odd moments, maybe in the shower, or when you are on the brink of sleep and your brain waves have slowed but you are still awake? (Incidentally, this is why visualisations are so successful as they take your mind to that point just before sleep but leave you mentally alert).

Allowing your mind time to unwind is not a luxury, or being lazy, but positively good for you!


To tap into these slow ways of knowing, or our inner wisdom, we need to throw off for a time our Western need to do everything fast and know why we are doing it and have a theory to explain it. This is something known by many of the great thinkers of our time. Einstein, for example, was often found just sitting in his office staring into space and Sir John Harvey Jones (ex-Chair of ICI) said that a meeting without long silences meant that no one was thinking.

In my training for many years now I have tried to build in some reflective space and to encourage participants just to wander for a while, actually or figuratively, to allow some of the ideas and strategies just to percolate round in their head. It’s something we rarely get a chance to do in the fast paced world of work but it costs nothing and can greatly enhance your problem solving capacities, your mental well being, and your enjoyment of life!

So, put some time in your diary now. Slow Thinking Time (STT). And see what happens – you may be surprised! And if colleagues scoff, tell them you are employing a well known technique from Einstein!

Suggestions for Further Reading available from Amazon
Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind by Guy Claxton

* This quote is from a poem by William Henry Davies, called ‘Leisure’.


Posted on May 10th, 2009 by

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