In my last blog post, you might have read what I had to say about The Power of Naming the Problem. I posited three key ideas: 

  1. We often perceive a problem when the root issue is actually fear. 
  2. We have trouble solving problems and fixing what’s broken because we can’t actually name the problem. 
  3. We create solutions that are more complex than the “problems” they are meant to solve. 

All of that is true. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that sometimes, the opposite is also true.

If one side of the coin warns, don’t create a more complex solution than the problem deserves, the other side of the coin cautions, don’t create a more complex problem than the solution can serve.

Here’s what I mean:

Often, we have a very complex problem. We break it down and opt to only deal with a small, simple, manageable part of it. 

We start by painting the living room. 

But then we decide that while we’re at it, we may as well paint the dining room. And while we’re at that, we may as well change the chandelier. And…

Before we know it, we’re remodeling the whole house. 

See how that can snowball? Scope creep in problem-solving can become a very real issue. 

I can afford to remodel my living room. But I cannot afford to remodel my entire house. 

Here’s the challenge: Can you keep the portion of the problem small enough to actually manage—without it bleeding into everything else? 

The problem with problems is that they have a tendency to not stay small. Often, we let the problem grow and become too complex to manage. It becomes so big that we can’t stop it. Then, we get overwhelmed and believe that nothing can change. In the midst of trying to address the simple part, we get overwhelmed with the complex stuff. What starts as a small, manageable problem that you feel totally prepared to solve (painting the living room) can suddenly balloon into a Goliath of a problem that you can’t bear to face (remodeling the whole house).

We need to stay focused on the thing we’re solving. That’s why we need to find and name the actual problem. Then, once we name it, we need to commit to limiting the scope of the problem we’re going to solve

Realistically speaking, there will always be more to do. If we keep the solution and the problem at the same level of complexity, that’s when we can actually solve problems. (If we don’t, we get into trouble.) 

So how do we set boundaries? How can we put limits on the problems we’re solving? 

One way we can keep ourselves in check is by invoking an idea from Steven Covey that I have written about before called the Covey Time Management Matrix. 

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version. Every problem, task, or responsibility can be placed into one of four quadrants:

  1. Urgent and important
  2. Not urgent but important
  3. Urgent but not important
  4. Not urgent and not important

If we find ourselves with a problem that has gotten too complex to manage, the first step to solving it is to break it into parts that are small enough to manage. 

But how do we order and rank those smaller parts? We use Covey’s matrix. 

Some things are urgent and important, like your water heater going out. But cleaning the windows isn’t that urgent—nor is it likely important if you’re going to be doing remodeling work that will just make them messy again. Replacing the roof is important but not urgent. 

Getting a handle on this concept—understanding what really belongs in each quadrant—will make all the difference in your problem solving. It will help you do things in the right order, with the right priority. 

So the next time you have a problem that starts to get out of hand, you know what to do:

  • Get specific in concretely naming the problem you’re trying to solve. 
  • Verify that it is actually a problem. 
  • Use the Covey Time Management Matrix to give your problem-solving structure and order. 
  • Decide which piece of the problem needs to take priority. 
  • Then keep chipping away at the thing one well-prioritized piece at a time.

Commit to what I’ve outlined above, and you will have a much easier time of staying sane in the midst of what might otherwise feel like unmanageable chaos.


Photo by Jacob Li on Unsplash