I think of problems as obstacles that get in the way of accomplishing something you want to do. Most creatures deal with problems by instinct and trial and error. Successful trials get stored away and get used when the same problem comes up again. Rational creatures, have the added ability to incorporate things learned from others. You may disagree with me on this point when you see children insist on learning from their own experience when parents try to convince them not to engage in some activities. We can also extrapolate from one problem to another through analogy to help us deal with problems that seem similar.
Polya developed a useful method that formalizes the process of human problem solving. Although he worked on mathematical problems, one can apply this method to any type of problem. You can find many sources that describe his method in detail, including his book , How to Solve It. I will summarize his method here in the following way:
- Understand the problem, including what you do and do not know about the problem.
- Create a plan of how you will try to solve the problem. Here you will make “educated guesses” about how to go after the problem.
- Execute your plan. If it does not work, go back to step 2.
- Review your progress, what did and did not work, and develop a strategy for solving similar problems in the future.
As you think through our strategy before actually doing it, you can sometimes very accurately predict your outcome. For example, when picturing how to get from your house to a city you’ve never gone to before, you can picture the path you will have to take, all the left and right turns, the distances, and the types of roads. With tools, such as Google maps, you can even get a satellite and street views to give you more accurate predictions of what you will see on the route. Although you can think about and make complicated plans and strategies to solve a problem, you still must do what all creatures do and try out your strategy. You have not solved the problem until after you have gone through your plan.
Having a structured methodology, such has the one presented by Polya, maximizes your ability to find a solution to your problem. Solving your problem will let you get on your way to accomplishing what you want to do.