4 strategies to improve your problem solving

Dear creative problem solvers,

You have a difficult job. Before you can start finding solutions, you must sift through a lot of information, define the problem, and make a mental model (also known as a “problem solving schema”). The number of possible paths are infinite but the time you have is not. While each problem and solution is unique, there are some common principles based on cognitive sciences research that can help guide you along the way.

1. Always understand “why” the problem needs to be solved.

Did you know that failing to provide a rationale for why a problem needs to be solved greatly diminishes the ability to find a good solution? It turns out that people naturally form mental models of the problems they encounter, something called a “pragmatic reasoning schema”, based on the implied purpose of a task, like the need to predict a future event or make a profit or follow a rule.

In research conducted among college students, their ability to successfully complete a card selection task, which requires logical reasoning, improved significantly when the researchers provided a rationale along with the instructions for the problem. The bottom line is: you’ll likely be a more successful problem solver if you understand why the problem needs to be solved.

2. Focus on one problem at a time

Your brain is just like a computer. When asked to do too much, performance degrades. To create a mental model, your brain must recognize a pattern, test a hypothesis, revise the hypothesis, switch attention and repeat this cycle until a good candidate solution is found — a lot of work!

Because successful schema creation demands so much of your cognitive resources, doing too much at the same can easily disrupt this process and result in creating an incomplete or incorrect mental model. So by reducing the cognitive load, you’ll be able to dedicate your full attention to creating the right mental model, setting yourself up for success.

3. Translate text to symbols

The parts of the brain that interpret language are different from the parts of the brain that create meaning from pictures. To take advantage of both processing areas, try representing the same information in text and symbols. Specifically, create a visual representation of the problem using symbols for the elements as well as the relationships among one another.

4. Do not precede mindful tasks with mindless tasks

The mental processes required to complete mindless, rule-following tasks are different from those that are required to complete mindful, rule-finding tasks. When switching from rule-following to rule-finding, it’s like needing to suddenly accelerate to 60 mph from rest with the engine off.

In research conducted among college students, their performance on rule-finding (mindful) pattern recognition tasks suffered significantly when it followed any rule implementing (mindless) tasks.


Each problem-solving schema is unique and will depend on the information that informed its creation. However, these four strategies can help increase your chances of success the next time you’re working through an undefined problem.