Author: Kari Kagan, Psy.D.
All of us encounter problems in our lives. Problems can range from as simple as figuring out how to change a light bulb to as complex as figuring out how to help a family member who is struggling with mental illness. Not all problems are going to be solvable immediately, or ever. For those problems, there is a different set of strategies to help cope with issues we cannot fix. I encourage you to read more about acceptance here. For those problems that we are able to solve, it is important to take steps toward figuring out how to deal with them as soon as possible. When problems linger and remain unresolved, they can contribute to an increase in anxiety, depression, sleep issues, and other distressing symptoms. Further, as more problems build up, people can feel overwhelmed and engage in unhelpful behaviors that only further distress, such as avoiding dealing with the problems or turning to substances to help them “forget.” As such, this blog aims to provide a step-by-step guide to problem solving that can be applied to any problem, big or small. Below I will walk you through a tool that comes from the DBT Skills Training Manual and will use an example to help demonstrate how to use it.
Figure out what the problem is and describe the situation. Be specific.
Example: I have two different work projects due on the same day. I am worried I will get fired if I ask for an extension on one of them.
Check the facts to be sure you have the right problem situation. The problem to be solved should be based on the facts of a situation, not on parts of a situation that you cannot know for sure, such as what someone is thinking or feeling.
Example: It is a fact that I have two work projects due on the same day as both of my managers told me when they want the project sent to them by. My worry about getting fired is not based in facts but more in my fear of what could happen if I don’t meet expectations.
Identify your goal in solving the problem.
- What needs to happen or change for you to feel ok?
- Keep it simple, and choose something that can realistically happen.
Example: My goal is to try to get an extension on one of the projects in order to allow me the time to do both the projects with full effort and to help reduce my stress levels.
Brainstorm lots of solutions.
- Think of as many solutions as you can. Ask for suggestions from people you trust.
- Do not be critical of any ideas at first. (Wait for Step 5 to evaluate ideas.)
Choose a solution that fits the goal and is likely to work.
- If you are unsure, choose two solutions that look good.
- Do pros and cons to compare the solutions.
- Choose the best to try first.
Example: I am most interested in options 4 and 5
The pros and cons of option 4:
*I will start with option 4 then try option 5 if option 4 doesn’t work.
Put the solution into action.
- It might be helpful to write out a step-by-step plan for how to take action on the solution.
- Take the first step, and then the second . . .
Email managers to set up a meeting to ask for extension
Explain that I have 2 projects due on the same day and more time would be helpful to be able to do the best job I can on each project
Negotiate a reasonable extension that still gets the projects complete in a timely manner
- Evaluate the results of using the solution.
- If it worked, great! Problem solved. If it didn’t work, go back to step 5 and choose a new solution to try.
Example: The first option worked! My managers understood and I was able to get an extension on one of the projects.
To get comfortable with this tool, I encourage you to try it on a relatively simple problem. Even if you think you know the solution without going through all of the steps, practicing using the step-by-step model could help you apply it to the more complex problems that are difficult to solve. If you are struggling to solve problems in your life or are feeling overwhelmed throughout the process, I encourage you contact us or other professional help to learn how to better manage problems.
Diana Gordon, Psy.D., Kari Kagan Psy.D., and Katie Leoni, Psy.D.
Drs. Gordon, Kagan, and Leoni practice psychotherapy in downtown San Francisco and Oakland. Their areas of expertise include anxiety, sleep, stress, depression, and addiction. They blog about these topics to provide research-based information about common problems and strategies to help manage them.