Problem Solving

When All You Have is a Hammer

As soon as you wake up, your brain goes to work on problem solving. If you don’t believe me, think back to this morning or even to this very moment. As you’re reading this, how many problems have presented themselves and how many times has your brain rushed off into solutions? What problems are rolling around in your head right now? What is your brain saying in response to these problems? The problem could be as simple as getting to the end of reading this in hopes of finding the answer to the question: how do I solve my problems? However, it’s likely that your brain has a number of other problems to check off its list. The problem of happiness, perhaps. Or feeling better. Or getting the laundry done. Or walking the dog. There could be sound coming from another room: what is it? And why is the brightness on the screen so harsh? How can it be fixed? How can all of it be fixed?

All of this can be a lot to consider but that’s what the brain does. Neither good nor bad, the brain has many functions. One of its primary functions is to keep you safe. All things considered, if you’re here reading this, then it’s done its job thus far. Through many generations, the problem solving brains of ancestors led to you. In a more primitive world, ancestors needed to problem solve lest they become prey of a creature more cunning like a bear or a rival group of ancestors.

In the modern world, though dangers still exist, we are far less likely to fall prey to a larger predator. We no longer spend entire days searching for food to stave off starvation and protecting against imminent physical harm. However, the brain persists in this problem solving. It’s still on the lookout for threats and as time goes on, more and more can be categorized as problems to be solved, threats to be neutralized. Patterns set in the more we label one thing as a threat versus another, sure of what our brains are telling us and reacting in kind.

Autocorrect in Action

Think up another problem occurring in your life right now. An every day, small problem, like your morning commute. Got your problem? Great.

What’s the first solution that comes to mind? Keep it simple. In the example of your commute, it’s likely your usual route. The one that is tried and true and gets you where you want to go. Our brains have a tendency to move towards what they know, whether your commute is from bed to desk or from one town to another. This can occur in a number of settings, like when someone thinks they know what you’re going to say before you do (or vice versa). Or thinking you know how a situation will play out before it does. Or thinking that pile of clothes in the dark is actually something far more sinister.

The more threat involved, the more narrowing the focus and the more the brain defaults to safety mode. When something is deemed a problem, the brain rushes to solve it. It will zero in and determine the fastest path from point A to point B. However, the truth of the matter is that despite what our brains tell us, they don’t always know best. If there’s suddenly construction on your commute, would you continue to take the same path or would you try something different?

Another factor to consider is that not all solutions nor problems are created equal. While neutralizing external threats can keep us safe, the same strategy is not as effective when turned inwards. Applying problem solving to things like thoughts and feelings can prove ineffective and thus the brain might take certain liberties when certain solutions don’t work. The brain might determine that you are your thoughts or feelings which can make things worse rather than better. It might even determine that you yourself are the problem, creating a loop of both problem and solution that spirals downwards. With this in mind, the problem itself may not be what needs to be solved but what we are default labeling problems.

Something Different

If you’re willing, try this practice from Kelly Wilson’s Mindfulness for Two to see how far your problem solving brain goes. Set a timer for 1-2 minutes and close your eyes (after reading these instructions or follow the recording below). If your brain wants to barrel through the instructions, intent on moving onto the next thing in your day, see if you can slow down. Slowly. Read. Each. Word. It’s only 1-2 minutes. Sure, you could do it later, but what could it hurt to try it right now?

Take a few deep breaths and then let your body breathe itself. You don’t have to do anything. Just let it happen. Then, watch what problems come to mind. What problem is your mind trying to solve right now? Am I doing this right? Did I leave the oven on? I have to control my breathing. I can’t sit still. What if something happens while I’m sitting here? Or what if nothing happens? What if I can’t control my thoughts? Or even labeling: this thought is good, this one bad.

Just notice the problems and see if you can release from them when they offer a hook to grab onto. Whatever problems are out there can wait. See what happens when you let these thoughts come and go. Get curious. Open up to whatever arises.

What’s it like to step out of the problem solving?

What did you notice? What was it like? Did you notice yourself getting caught up in thought? If so, congratulations – you have a human mind. That’s what the mind does. It can be especially challenging when they’re sticky thoughts – judgments, intrusive thoughts, or memories that cause discomfort or even pain. Did you try to have no thoughts, to empty your mind completely or even argue your thoughts away? What happened in this case? Did the thoughts get more in your face or did they go away? If they went away, for how long? Are they back now, even as you’re reading this?

You don’t have to control your thoughts and feelings in order to experience the full breadth of life. Kelly Wilson and other ACT experts compare our life experiences in terms of sunsets versus math problems. Is your life a math problem to solve or is it a sunset to experience?

This doesn’t mean that we disregard or avoid math problems as finding solutions is a vital task in life. However, a sunset mindset might allow alternatives to problem solving and it opens us up to other experiences. With our heads down solving math problems all day, we can miss out on a lot of what life has to offer if only we were to look up.

You can cultivate this mindset through intentional practice. Your problem solving mind might object but try this the next time you’re in a place where you’re doing something you want to be doing or that you enjoy. It might be spending time with a loved one or preparing a favorite meal. It could even be a literal sunset. Whatever it is, try to step into the sunset mindset rather than problem solving. See what happens if you’re there experiencing what it is to experience without problem solving. See what it’s like. What do you notice that’s different?

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