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A good plan is like a road map—

It shows the final destination and

usually, the best way to get there.

                     —H. Stanley Judd


This toolkit, “Planful Problem Solving,” includes strategies that can help you solve or manage a wide variety of life problems.


There are four major steps to overcoming obstacles to solving a problem:

  1. Define the problem and set realistic goals

  2. Think of several different solution ideas instead of just one

  3. Decide which solution is the best for you

  4. Carry out the solution and determine if it worked




Defining your problem is like planning a trip— first figuring out where you want to go and then finding out what barriers or obstacles exist that might make the trip difficult (for example, not having enough time, too little money, differences of opinion among your family about where to go).


To accurately define your problem, carry out the following activities:

  1. Seek important facts about the problem (answer questions such as “who,” “what,” “when,” where,” and “how)”

  2. Describe these facts in clear language—be sure to distinguish between “facts” and “assumptions” (if you are unsure about whether something is a fact or not, try asking questions of others)

  3. Set realistic goals—break down a “big” problem into smaller ones; take smaller steps to your goal rather than trying to reach it in one big step

  4. List obstacles to your goal—these are the reasons why this situation is a problem for you; in solving this problem successfully, you need to overcome these obstacles.


An Important Point About Goals

We can’t always solve a problem by “fixing” it. Sometimes the best solution for dealing with a problem is to accept that the problem exists. For example, we cannot change the weather to better suit our plans, we may have to accept that it is going to rain during an important outdoor event. However, we can adapt or manage— people from Iceland have a saying: “there is no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothing.”

Also, sometimes certain problems involve others. Often, we believe the best solution is to change them. However, just like the weather, we may not be able to. So, when you are thinking about goals, remember to distinguish between problems that are changeable and those that are not.



Now that you defined the problem accurately, think of multiple solution ideas that can help you reach your goal. Remember that these solutions should overcome those obstacles you previously identified.

A great way to think of many ideas is to use the following brainstorming principles:

  1. The more the better—try to think of a bunch of ideas rather than settling only on one or two; try to think of at least 5-6 alternative solution ideas

  2. Don’t judge any ideas at first—evaluating the ideas in the beginning only limits your ability to be creative

  3. Think of different types of solutions—don’t just think of one type of idea, try to think of different approaches

Click here to access a video demonstrating the use of brainstorming

Tips to Increase Your Creativity

  • Think about how someone else might try to solve this problem—What would (for example, your best friend, famous sport player, your favorite movie star) do in this situation?

  • Visualize or use your imagination—close your eyes and think of ways to manage or solve this situation

  • Combine a couple of ideas or change them in some way to create new one



Identifying the most effective solution involves the following steps:

  1. Rule out obviously ineffective ideas

  2. Predict what the various outcomes might be if you carried out a particular solution—do this for each solution alternative

  3. Compare the possible consequences—weigh the “pros” versus “cons” to determine which solution ideas appear to be effective

  4. Choose those ideas that appear to be effective ones and develop an action plan

Predicting the “Pros” and “Cons” of the Solution Ideas

Answering the following questions can help you to identify the various positive and negative outcomes of each solution alternative:

  • Will this solution help me reach my goals?

  • Will this solution successfully overcome the obstacles I previously identified?

  • Will I be able to carry this solution out successfully?

  • What is the impact on me if I carry this one out? For example, what are the possible emotional and physical consequences? How much time and effort are involved? Is there a significant financial impact? Is this alternative in sync with my values?

  • What is the impact on others, for example, my family, friends, coworkers?

Developing an Action Plan

Based on the above “cost-benefit” assessment, choose those ideas that appear to have more positives than negatives. Because many problems in life are difficult and complicated, it may be important to include several solution ideas in your action plan rather than relying on just one. You may also think about a contingency plan—that is, what to do in case your initial action plan did not work out.



Now that you developed an action plan, the next step is to carry it out. However, that’s not when you should stop using these tools. Just like the doctor continues to check your blood pressure to determine if a medication is working, it is important to assess whether your action plan was successful. If not, then you need to go back to the previous steps to see if you can develop a better plan.

The following are the recommended activities for this last step:

  • Motivate yourself to carry out your solution (think about the pros and cons of “doing nothing” vs. the possible success of solving the problem)

  • Visualize how you would feel if you persisted and solved the problem; try to get a picture in your head of what it would be like if this problem were solved

  • Carry out your action plan-- you can jot down the steps involved in carrying it out and check off each step as you accomplish it

  • Observe and monitor the actual outcome-- take some notes or record some thoughts to reflect on later

To evaluate the outcome, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Was the problem actually solved (or significantly improved)?

  • Was the outcome for me more positive than negative?

  • Was the outcome for others more positive than negative?

If the problem was basically solved, then go ahead and “give yourself a pat on the back!”

If you are not satisfied with the outcome, go ahead and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did I define the problem correctly?

  • Did I think of a variety of solution ideas?

  • Did I consider both pros and cons of each solution?

  • Did I carry out my action plan as best as I could?

Check to see where you might do better and then try again.

Here are two quotes to remember if you start to feel frustrated and want to give up. Also remember to go to the page describing the MOTIVATION FOR ACTION toolkit if you are  feeling stuck. 

"I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions, I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot . . . and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why . . . I succeed." (Michael Jordan, famous basketball player)

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” (Albert Einstein, famous genius)


As recommended in the MULTI-TASKING TOOLKIT, it can be tremendously helpful to externalize (that is, write down) your answers throughout this process. That is why we include a brief PROBLEM-SOLVING WOKSHEET for you to use. We also include samples of 2 completed worksheets as guides.


              PST worksheet:                               Sample PST worksheets:



It’s a good idea to consider those problems, challenges, or other stressful situations that you might encounter in the near future. This is not to get you to worry about the future-- just to be prepared! Remember that both positive (for example, getting a new job or promotion) and negative (for example, getting a divorce or losing a job) situations can be stressful. Plan ahead and think about what is coming up in the near future and try to anticipate how you would use the tools described throughout this website to your benefit. Planning for the future goes a long way towards overcoming those barriers to achieving your life goals and decreasing any distress.

It is also important to think about using these tools to prevent getting overwhelmed and even depressed! Just like eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly goes a long way toward good physical health (and even living longer!), practicing good problem solving can prevent potential negative emotions when encountering stressful life problems. Brushing your teeth can lead to less cavities! Good problem solving can lead to less negative arousal!

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