Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Problem Solving 101

The nightly news has done a pretty good job of telling the country that the sky is falling. I'm not sure if the planets are not aligned correctly or what, but the past couple of months have put reasonably sane people into a tail spin. I won't even go into the whole topic of whether the doom and gloom from the media is encouraging the swift downfall of our economy or if economic indicators are doing that job on their own. But I digress...

When everything is going along well, there is usually little impetus to improve or change what you are doing (from the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' theory of management), however, when there is doubt or uncertainly in any area of your life (financial, marriage, job, kids, et al) people usually enter into some predictable actions: panic, anger, depression, denial/head in the sand, and (hopefully, eventually) change.

Panic is usually the first response to a change of situation. A lost job, a wayward child, a wayward spouse, a financial disaster, basically any change from your "norm" can set forth a negative response. Flapping around like a chicken, losing hope, imagining every possible negative scenario--the usual "I'm going to freak out now" response. Although it feels comforting initially, you will find that this response is not very useful at improving your situation. The panic response is generally followed by anger and depression; also rather unuseful emotions. Some people will then go into a state of denial and figuratively bury their head in the sand and hope the entire situation blows over before they come up for air. Finally there is change--either for the better or the worse. It is up to you which one to choose.

So how do you whether an emotional/financial/physical storm? Here's some steps:
  1. Give yourself about ten minutes (alone) to release all of your negative emotions. Yell, scream, cry, punch a wall (not too hard--you have more important things to do after this step than waiting in the emergency room).
  2. Assess the situation. Unlike an immediate emergency which requires immediate action, storms of this nature usually give you some time for thought and response planning. Get out a piece of paper--or ten if need be--and list down each and every one of your immediate crisis. Get every worry, concern, situation, event, problem, etc. onto paper. Don't editorialize as this will send you back to panic mode (step #1).
  3. Detach from the situation and put yourself into General mode. A General doesn't have time to obsess about one issue--there are many fronts and each situation needs to be handled efficiently, effectively, and simultaneously as many soldier's lives depend on the decisions he makes. Detachment is necessary in highly emotional settings as people loose the ability to think clearly when they are too close to the action and too hung up on the outcome. How many times have you marveled that an otherwise competent friend can't see the disaster that is his love life?
  4. Make goals. Next to each problem, list the way that you hope the situation will be resolved. For example, next to "electricity will be shut off next week", write, "my electric bill is paid in full, the lights are on, and there is money in the bank to pay the next month's bill".
  5. Make a plan. And a back up plan. You have the situation clearly outlined in front of you, so the next step is to make a plan. Remember the old adage that "if you keep doin' what you're doin' you're going to keep gettin' what your gettin'". It is time for evolutionary thinking that will propel you past your current problems. With the electricity bill example, consider the steps it will take to move from the current situation to the resolved situation. Your plan may include: find out the total owed, ask for an extension until payday, look into community organizations that provide assistance with electricity bills, reduce electricity usage to the bare minimum to keep future bills lower, raise the money to pay this bill by selling something on EBay, babysitting the neighbor's kids, or collecting cans. Consider back up alternatives (such as taking in a roommate to help pay the bills temporarily), and put $1 a day into a savings account to pay next month's bill when it arrives. Most importantly, make plans that have a reasonable opportunity for success--if the spouse has moved out and filed for divorce, consider that planning to get them back may be unreasonable as it takes two who want to be married to make it work. Finally, realize that you can only change yourself and your responses--having a goal to change others, to make changes that clearly are against the law, or changes that rely solely on hope, not action, will be doomed from the start.
  6. Take action. Lists are great for organizing thoughts but the thoughts don't jump off the paper and go to work solving your problems--you need to do that. Get up and get going!
  7. After some time passes, review the results of your efforts. Continue doing what works to improve your situation and change tactics in situations that are not improving. This is called evolving. The opposite of evolution is called death. While you cannot change situations, you can change your reactions to them. It is often not possible to keep the status quo when everything around you is changing rapidly so it necessary that you plan your responses in a way that will help you to positively evolve out of your negative situation and put you into a positive situation where you will be comfortable and happy, at least for the time being.
The bottom line--if you are not succeeding at various aspects of life, it is you that needs to change and improve your reactions and responses. You cannot change other people, mandate employment in a profession that has moved overseas, or wish yourself into a better situation. Use your God-given talents and creativity to change your circumstances and change your life for the better.

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