Thinking Cards

Sunday December 6, 2020

Inspired by How to Solve It, Lateral Thinking, and others, I've started to collect tactics for problem-solving. The shuffling stuff is so that you can easily choose a random tactic to try.

I might do more with this and I'd love feedback/suggestions; comment or message me!

1. Embrace problems

The word "problem" has a negative connotation, and some problems are hard to love. But in general, problems make life more interesting and give us opportunities to learn, grow, and improve. Keep your problems close.

2. Take care of yourself

Are you hungry? Tired? Stressed? Eat well, sleep well, and look after your mental health. Try to do something right now to make your body and mind more effective, like stretching.

3. Take the pressure off

What can you do to approach the problem calmly? Should you ask for help or otherwise communicate with others? Should you make a back-up plan or adjust your goal?

4. Reinforce the positive

You have an opportunity for growth. You're learning. Celebrate all progress, even small progress. Feel good about what you're doing. You can do this.

5. Remove distractions

Turn off the TV. Turn off your phone. Turn off notifications. Don't check the news. Multitasking is a lie. If other thoughts come, jot them down elsewhere to return to later.

6. Get inspired

Why are you working on this? What's the larger goal? What are the larger benefits? What other problems or people have done work you admire? Appreciate and aspire to greatness.

7. Make a plan

If you know how to attack the problem, make a plan to do that. Even if you don't, make a plan to spend time on the problem, not all at once, but consistently over a longer period.

8. Do other things

Don't forget to eat and sleep, but also, spend time on complementary and even unrelated tasks. Read a book. Tutor a student. Revisit other things. Take a walk.

9. Work hard

You need to focus. You need to put in time and effort. Sometimes you have to stop looking for shortcuts and do the work. There is no royal road. Work harder than anyone else.

10. Relax

Take some time to change the nature of your focus on the problem. Pull back from single-minded concentration. Don't focus on anything else either. Relax. Don't micromanage your brain. What comes to you?

11. Work smart

Even if you're already making progress, is there something you could do more effectively? Can you find a better process if you reconsider?

12. Find support

What would help you to be effective? Is there a group or team you can join or form? What people or other resources can you engage with?

13. Understand the problem

Do you completely understand what you're working on? Are all the definitions clear? Does everyone involved agree on the problem statement and objective?

14. Find roots

What is the root cause (or causes) of the problem? Is the problem as stated the real problem? How did the problem come to be? Keep asking why.

15. Know what you know

What do you know, and how do you know it? Are you sure? Could you explain it to someone else? What do you not know, and how could you come to know it? What else might be relevant?

16. Question assumptions

What are you taking for granted? What is so obvius that you haven't thought about it? What biases might be affecting your thinking? Are there alternatives that seem "out there"?

17. Find similar problems

Do you know a related problem? What have others done in similar situations? How is a similar problem solved in nature, or in another field? Can you build on work you or others have done before?

18. Consider quitting

Is this a problem that shouldn't be solved? Is this problem the right use of your time, right now? What if you didn't solve this particular problem?

19. Get an easy win

Find a task that you can succeed at in the next two minutes. It could be getting out a pen, or opening a book. Do it, then praise yourself for that victory. It may be easier to keep making progress afterward.

20. Start things cooking

Many tasks involve some waiting after you initiate them, like waiting for food to marinate, or waiting for responses to an email. Make a point to get these things started as soon as you can.

21. Take a step

Even if you're not sure of your whole plan, do something now. You can always reevaluate afterward. Choose some goal that you can accomplish, and do it now.

22. Do an experiment

You don't have to only do things that you know will work. Try something and see what happens. Be prepared to throw it away. You'll learn from it and it will help you to make progress.

23. Guess and check

A particular kind of experiment is to choose a next step, even if you don't know that it's right, and see what happens next. Follow the consequences forward. Even if you guessed wrong, you'll learn something.

24. Write down what you’ve done

Keep some log of what you've been doing, what you've tried, and what the results have been. If you haven't been doing this, try to remember and write down what you've done so far.

25. Try again

Sometimes when you try something and it doesn't work, it isn't that the approach was bad, it's that something didn't align that time. It could be worth trying again, especially with things you tried when you knew less.

26. Zoom in

How close can you get to the tiniest pieces? What happens for exactly one component? For a global problem, how does a single individual play a part on a daily basis?

27. Zoom out

What's the big picture? How does the problem fit into larger systems? What's the global view? What's the long term view?

28. Draw a picture

Make a graphical representation. It could be a sketch, a plot, a diagram, a mind map, a flow chart. Make something you can see.

29. Change representations

What's another way to conceptualize the problem? In math, you might switch between numeric, geometric, and algebraic forms. You might change domains, or phrase the problem as a story.

30. Use a different tool

Try saying it out loud. Try typing, or writing longhand, or recording a video. Try post-it notes or index cards. Try paper and pencil, or a calculator, a diagramming tool, or a programming language.

31. Use analogy

What else is this like? Can you compare to something else, even if it's a stretch? What do the similarities and differences tell you?

32. Change viewpoints

How does this look from different perspectives? How do different people, pieces, places see the problem? Can you imagine yourself in different positions?

33. Organize concepts

What's the deep structure of this problem? Can you model the problem? Are there axes or other ways of representing the ideas of your problem?

34. Add randomness

Consider something you wouldn't otherwise: a random word, WikiPedia article, or the concept of randomness itself. Go to a museum, or a store. Whatever you find, relate it to your problem. What could it mean?

35. Talk it through

Have a conversation with someone. Or imagine a conversation with someone. Or have a conversation with yourself. Explain everything you're thinking about.

36. Decompose/Recompose

What are the words and ideas that you're using? Are they cliché? Are they appropriate? What if you broke down the way you're understanding the problem and rebuilt it? Can you articulate the problem and solution spaces?

37. Get feedback

Get an outside view on your problem and your work on it. Try to solicit feedback that helps you see things you aren't otherwise seeing.

38. Learn more

You may not know enough to solve your problem, and you may not even know what it is that you don't know. Keep learning! Be curious about topics near and far. Read and study for pleasure.

39. Ask for help

Other people can help you a lot. Put effort into finding the right place and way to ask, and others will often put effort into helping you.

40. Break it up

Sometimes you can break big problems into many more manageable steps. It may even be possible for multiple people to work on separate parts. Regardless, pursue and celebrate partial progress.

41. Use inversion

How might you achieve the opposite of your goal? Are there other reversals or inversions that might be illuminating? What's the worst case outcome? Can you avoid it?

42. Make a list

Generate lots of ideas. What are all the options? Consider more possibilities. What else could you make a list of?

43. Eliminate possibilities

What can you rule out? What hasn't worked already? What's impossible? What has to be wrong? Why is that? What are the constraints? What can you learn from what doesn't work?

44. Work backward

Assume you have a solution. How would it come to be? What would immediately lead to it? Can you follow steps backward from the end?

45. Consider special cases

Are there some specific forms of the problem that are more tractable or help with understanding? Can you extend a method based on these?

46. Consider extremes

What if something in your problem disappeared, or was huge? What if the problem itself was much worse, or more minor?

47. Add a constraint

Add a deadline for something. Can you come up with ten ideas in ten minutes? What if you have to be done today? What if your techniques or resources were limited? What if you couldn't use a tool you're currently using?

48. Simplify

In what ways could a complicated problem be made less so? What does simplifying it mean? Can you solve the simpler problem? If so, is that good enough, or is there a way to build on the solution?

49. Generalize

Can you make your problem a special case of some other problem? Can you solve that problem? Maybe a general-purpose tool or approach can be used or adapted for your problem.

50. Change the goal

Maybe you don't need to solve exactly the problem you started with. What's most important? Can you focus on that? Can you compromise to find something that you can make progress on?

51. Imagine the end

"Begin with the end in mind." What would a solution look like? Would it necessarily have certain properties? What properties?

52. Find checks

If you had a solution, how would you know that it's a good solution? What would be the "check" in a "guess and check" approach? What can you learn from your checks?

53. Think beyond the end

If you had a solution, what would you do next? How does this step fit into your ideas for where you want to go? Would you be happy, once you had a solution? Why?

54. Choose the right tactic

Which tactic is the one that will help you the most right now? Choosing them should be natural as you work on problems all the time. Think about your problem and what would be best.

55. Make your own tactic

Add a new tactic that works for you. What fits with how you think, and the problems that you care about? Have you learned something that works for you? Do you need something specific to your current problem?

56. Implement an existing solution

Try applying an approach that's worked for you or someone else in the past, even if it came from a slightly different problem. What do you learn from trying this? Can you adapt the solution?

57. Quantify your progress

Can you measure how much you've done, and how much is left to to? Finding a metric can help you better understand your goal and what's working to get you there.