Treating Problems Like Puzzles

It’s been a crazy couple weeks! There has been a ton going on out in the world, and I’ve been a busy bee in my personal and professional life as well. For me, the combination has resulted in a general feeling of stress and tension and unease. Definitely not the most fun I’ve had! This time, I decided to take some time to try and snap myself out of it and really think about what works for me when it comes to managing and working through the stress. My outlook may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but a taste test probably wouldn’t hurt.

Problems are Puzzles

I don’t know about you, but puzzles were once my absolute favorite activity. My parents enabled my puzzle obsession by allowing me to leave my puzzles half-done and strewn about the house on various flat surfaces. Now some people do puzzles because they like the pretty picture that it creates. Some do it for the sense of accomplishment.

Those were both reasonably rewarding end-games to me, but my main draw to puzzles was the method. I LOVED developing and honing my method of conquering a puzzle. I loved using the colors and brushstrokes of the artwork on the puzzle to figure out which pieces went together. I loved finding the funky shaped edges and putting them together. I loved putting together a section independently then finding where it fit in the bigger picture days later.

In my adult years, I’ve realized that I use my puzzle mentality to solve a LOT of problems. I also still have a fairly similar outlook about methods even. I enjoy seeing the efficacy of the way I choose to do things. The final result or the sense of accomplishment isn’t as motivating as seeing the wheels start to roll smoothly.

So let’s get a little more detail on my puzzling method, shall we?

Step 1: Preparation

Puzzle: Take your time. Check out the box. What is the final product supposed to look like. Where are you going to work on it? Find a clear, clean workspace and dump out the pieces.

Problem: Think generally about what the solution is supposed to look like. Find a quiet, clear workspace where you can try to do this puzzle problem with minimal interruption.

Step 2: Corners and Edges

Puzzle: I like to dig through the pieces, spread them and sweep them across the floor and look for the edges and corners as quickly as I can. It’s like a brain teaser challenge for me. I like to see how quickly my eye can catch the straight edges and separate them into a pile.

Once I’ve separated them into their pile, I start working on putting the corners and edges together before I even deal with the middle pieces. I like doing this because it helps me to see the outer limit of the puzzle. I know that everything else I have to deal with will fit within these borders and that gives me a bit of sanity. Especially when I’m working on GIANT puzzles with tiny pieces.

Problem: Dig through and identify the outer limits of the problem that you’re working on. Write them down. Keep on writing until you fully understand the parameters of your problem. You’re looking for flat edges, or tasks that don’t directly connect into the next bigger problem. Even if there are a couple of dependencies that lead to bigger problems, keep trying to find a reasonable set of parameters for the problem at hand so that you can work inward from there.

Once you have your parameters or edges set up, you can move on to the next step.

Step 3: Flip Face Up and Dig

Puzzle: Once you have your edges set, you still have a pile of disorganized middle pieces facing every which way. Flip them all face up so that you can see their print. The puzzle would be virtually impossible if you were working from the cardboard side. After you’ve flipped them over, you can use the puzzle box as a guide to which patterns, colors and images might be grouped together. You can start by sorting them into their own little piles of similar pieces.

Problem: You’ve got your parameters. Now you get to find, flip over and organize all of the pieces and micro-problems and steps to success that create the final solution. When I do this, I like to use a big notepad, whiteboard or sheet of paper. Every problem or step I identify often has a bit of a Russian nesting doll tendency, so I need the space to expand and elaborate on what needs to be done with each bullet point.

It’s important to try and identify every piece to your problem. Some of them may not become apparent until you’re knee deep in the work, but the deeper you get into the analysis the less likely you are to hit these blockages and have to majorly change course later. Similarly to your puzzle, by identifying what each of these smaller problems are you will be able to group them with like tasks to be accomplished more easily.

Step 4: Create an Order of Operations

Puzzle: In most advanced puzzles, you’ll have a section where virtually every piece looks the same. A giant patch of blue sky where your only real reference is the shapes that are meant to fit together. To do the puzzle more efficiently, I choose to do the easier sections first so that the space that I have to fill with more difficult pieces is smaller.

Problem: There are going to be pieces of your problem that you cannot solve or finish without completing other parts first. That could mean you need to resurface a table before you can stain it. In my case lately, it was that I had to buy and replace the starter in my car before I could fix a traction control issue. Creating an order of operations within the project means that you gain an understanding of what tasks are blocking factors for other tasks. You will be much less frustrated and stuck if you follow this kind of blueprint along. And make sure you write it down! Turn it into a checklist! It will help you keep your head on straight and know exactly where you are in the process.

Step 5: Piece it Together

Puzzle: Now your tasks are much easier to digest. You can get going building a specific face, a building, a sunset, etc. You can move on to a different pile of pieces if you’re getting frustrated or bored. You eventually find the connections to your outer edge and where all the miniature sections that you’ve worked on merge. Then you can finish it off with the more difficult sections and that coveted FINAL PIECE.

Problem: You’ve broken your big problem into bite size problems. Now you know the general order that they have to be taken care of. It’s time to start chipping away at them! Just follow your blueprint and order of operations and be on your way. Don’t be surprised if you have to stop, take a step back then redo some items. Problems are different than puzzles in that they have a much greater tendency to change somewhere along the line. Keep your goals in mind, shift them if necessary, and I hope you come out on top!

Step 6: Check out Your Work

Puzzle: Every time I finish a puzzle I press the pieces all down and make sure there aren’t any corners or pieces sticking up. I look at it, then I make one final sweep with my forearm to make sure that everything is smooth. If I feel a funny rough edge I check it and see if it’s just sticking up or if it’s a piece in the wrong place. Then I look at it for a little bit, take a picture if I feel like it, let it sit on the table for a couple days, then I put it away.

Problem: You’ve finished all the steps and your problem puzzle seems complete. It’s important to poke and prod at the finished pieces and tasks to make sure they fit together the way they need to in order to solve the problem at hand. But just like a puzzle, do your final sweep then you can revel in your feeling of accomplishment!

I hope that helps you! Good luck with what you’re working through!



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