Problem Solving

Problem Solving

Problem solving is a vital life skill, not only in our interpersonal relationships, but also at work, within our family dynamics, and in regard to managing the daily obligations and requirements of life in general.


CATEGORY: Life & Coping Skills


Number: #8


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A study released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing in 2023 (5,500 people aged 16 to 85 years old during 2020-2021) showed that more than two in five Australians experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. In 2020–21 more than 3.4 million Australians sought help from a health care professional for their mental health.

The study is published at

W e can’t navigate life without solving problems, both large and small.

From deciding what to eat for dinner to considering whether it’s the right time to buy a house, problem-solving is a large part of our daily lives. It’s important to have problem-solving strategies in your toolbox and it’s even more important that you use them. Overcoming obstacles that are making it harder to resolve the issues you face is vital.

In cognitive psychology, the term ‘problem-solving’ refers to the mental process that people go through to discover, analyse, and solve problems.

A problem exists when there is a goal that we want to achieve but the process by which we will achieve it is not obvious to us. Put another way, there is something that we want to occur in our life, yet we are not immediately certain how to make it happen. Maybe you want a better relationship with your spouse or another family member but you’re not sure how to improve it. Or you want to start a business but are unsure what steps to take. Problem-solving helps you figure out how to achieve these desires.

The problem-solving process involves:

  • Discovery of the problem
  • Deciding to tackle the issue
  • Seeking to understand the problem more fully
  • Researching available options or solutions
  • Taking action to resolve the issue

Before problem-solving can occur, it is important to first understand the exact nature of the problem itself. If your understanding of the issue is faulty, your attempts to resolve it will also be incorrect or flawed.



Some of the characteristics and obstacles of both poor and good problem solving:

Poor problem solving

Not identifying the cause of the problem – For example, assuming the other person’s recent disinterest in the relationship means he/she is angry with you, when the actual reason is work stress.

Choosing a solution before considering all options – For example, thinking that a family dinner, friend’s night out or a holiday will fix a situation, rather than looking at minor changes that could make a great improvement.

Trying to solve the problem without the other person(s) involved – Not working out solutions together may lead to blaming each other when things don’t work out.

good problem solving:

  • Understand the exact nature of the problem itself
  • Separate big problems into smaller ones and deal with each individually in order of importance.
  • Consider all possible options and strategies before choosing a solutions.
  • Work with others because both/all of you need to have a sense of shared ownership in the process and shared responsibility in the outcomes.
  • Focus on the positives and learn from each situation.

Obstacles to problem solving:

Problem-solving is not a flawless process as there are a number of obstacles that can interfere with our ability to solve a problem quickly and efficiently, and these might include:

  • Assumptions: When dealing with a problem, people can make assumptions about the constraints and obstacles that prevent certain solutions. Thus, they may not even try some potential options.
  • Functional fixedness: This term refers to the tendency to view problems only in their customary manner. It prevents people from fully seeing all of the different options that might be available to find a solution.
  • Irrelevant or misleading information: When trying to solve a problem, it’s important to distinguish between information that is relevant to the issue and irrelevant data that can lead to faulty solutions. The more complex the problem, the easier it is to focus on misleading or irrelevant information.
  • Mental Set: a mental set is a tendency to only use solutions that have worked in the past rather than looking for alternative ideas. A mental set can work as a heuristic, making it a useful problem-solving tool. However, mental sets can also lead to inflexibility, making it more difficult to find effective solutions.

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Good problem solving skills can be hard to learn, and even harder to apply in difficult situations when it is hard to think clearly.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Create a flow chart. If you have time, you can take advantage of the algorithm approach to problem-solving by sitting down and making a flow chart of each potential solution, its consequences, and what happens next.
  • Recall your past experiences. When a problem needs to be solved fairly quickly, heuristics may be a better approach. Think back to when you faced a similar issue, then use your knowledge and experience to choose the best option possible.
  • Start trying potential solutions. If your options are limited, start trying them one by one to see which solution is best for achieving your desired goal. If a particular solution doesn’t work, move on to the next.
  • Take some time alone. Since insight is often achieved when you’re alone, carve out time to be by yourself for a while. The answer to your problem may come to you, seemingly out of the blue, if you spend some time away from others.


If your goal is to become a better problem-solver, it’s helpful to remember that this is a process.

    • Recognise that a problem exists. If you are facing a problem, there are generally signs. For instance, if you have a mental illness you may experience excessive fear or sadness, mood changes, and changes in sleeping or eating habits. Recognising these signs can help you realise that an issue exists.
    • Decide to solve the problem. Make a conscious decision to solve the issue at hand. Commit to yourself that you will go through the steps necessary to find a solution.
    • Seek to fully understand the issue. Analyse the problem you face, looking at it from all sides. If your problem is relationship-related, for instance, ask yourself how the other person may be interpreting the issue. You might also consider how your actions might be contributing to the situation.
    • Research potential options. Using the problem-solving strategies mentioned, research potential solutions. Make a list of options, then consider each one individually. What are some pros and cons of taking the available routes? What would you need to do to make them happen?
    • Take action. Select the best solution possible and take action. Action is one of the steps required for change. So, go through the motions needed to resolve the issue.
    • Try another option, if needed. If the solution you chose didn’t work, don’t give up. Either go through the problem-solving process again or simply try another option.

You can find a way to solve your problems as long as you keep working toward this goal—even if the best solution is simply to let go of something, or accept a situation, because no other good solution exists.


A psychologist can be very helpful in teaching you good problem solving skills and often works on this with you in the context of relationship problems, other interpersonal issues or work related concerns.