The Right Way to Solve Your Problem

The Right Way to Solve Your Problem

You have something that you want to achieve.

Maybe there’s something in your life that you feel isn’t quite right, or maybe even horribly wrong, and you need to find a way to fix it. Or maybe you’re not dealing with a problem exactly, but you do have something big you want to accomplish.

It could be a financial issue, like being in debt, getting your spending under control, or starting a business. But it could just as easily be a personal issue like an ongoing argument with your spouse, or not getting enough sleep.

In any case, there are two ways to try and solve your problem. One way leads to uncertainty and inaction. The other way leads to action and continuous progress.

Which one are you using?

The wrong way

The first approach is the one that most people use most of the time. It’s the one I still find myself using constantly.

And it’s the wrong way to do it.

Here’s what you do:

  1. You recognize the problem.
  2. You envision the ideal outcome if you’re able to completely fix the problem.
  3. And then you…well, what exactly?

There are two big problems with this approach:

There’s no clear action to take. Since we can’t dream our problems away (wouldn’t that be nice!), solving them is going to require action. The problem here is that there’s no single action that’s going to get us from where we are now to that ideal outcome we’re envisioning. While that vision might make us feel good, it doesn’t help us actually figure out what to do to make it happen.

It’s demotivating. This one probably sounds counterintuitive at first, but hear me out. Let’s say that you’ve got a big pile of debt and your first step is to imagine your life once that debt is gone. Looks pretty good, right? The problem is that there are two likely outcomes from doing this, and both of them lead to a whole lot of nothing:

  • Outcome A: That ideal outcome feels so far removed from where you are now that it feels unattainable. If you’re currently up to your eyeballs in debt, how realistic can it feel to imagine yourself debt-free? This is where a lot of people start to feel overwhelmed and discouraged and end up avoiding the problem rather than dealing with it.
  • Outcome B: This is something I heard the guys on The Fizzle Show talk about and just immediately clicked as something I’ve experienced myself. When you envision that ideal outcome, it’s almost like you go through the entire process from start to finish in your head. It feels like you actually accomplished your goal because you imagined it all so clearly and it feels pretty awesome. In fact, it feels so awesome that you actually lose the motivation to take any action right now. How do you move from the euphoric feeling of “accomplishing” your goal to the actual work of making it happen? Why go through the long and difficult process of actually making the necessary changes when you can get the same positive feelings just from imagining that you’ve made them?

So if imagining the dream outcome isn’t the right approach, what can you do to actually solve your problem?

The right way

Here’s the approach that works:

  1. You recognize the problem.
  2. You come up with one small step you can take right now that points you in the right direction.
  3. You take that step.
  4. You repeat that process. Again and again. Day after day.

Here’s why this is the right approach:

It leads directly to action. When you can think small enough, there’s no question at all about what action you need to take next. In fact, what you’re actually doing is envisioning the action itself, rather than an abstract picture of “what could be”. And in the end it’s action alone that will lead to progress.

It’s motivating. There are two big reasons why this approach is incredibly motivating:

  • Reason A: Your vision is grounded in reality. It’s something that’s easily achievable as soon as you decide to do it. There’s no discouragement from feeling like the vision is too far away. There’s no complacency from running through the entire solution in your head. You can feel proud about taking this one action today, but you’ll still know that there are more to take tomorrow.
  • Reason B: You start accumulating small wins, and small wins are one of the big keys to big wins. Every small win you incorporate into your life not only keeps you motivated to stay on track, but it sets you up to find success with your next small win. Motivation isn’t really about some internal drive or desire. It’s really about focusing on constant improvement and allowing that continuous success to propel you forward. But don’t take my word for it. You can look at 18-time gold medal winner Michael Phelps to see this principle in action.

It focuses on the process, rather than the result. You might be able to imagine what you want your life to be like at the end of this journey, but the truth is that even if you’re wildly successful you’ll probably end up somewhere different than that. Life is just too fluid, too unpredictable to know for sure how it will turn out, and by focusing on that end result you can set yourself up for disappointment even when you achieve something different but equally as good. But if you instead focus on the process of improvement, you can learn to enjoy the ride no matter where it takes you.

What’s your next step?

Now, I’m not saying that you should never imagine the end goal. I actually have an entire process for setting goals where the very first step is to visualize your ideal life. It can be a useful start.

But that step is just an exercise, nothing more. It won’t show you how to make progress, and if it’s your only approach then you’re not likely to get very far.

If you want to actually make that vision a reality, you have to start much smaller. You have to put the big dream aside and instead focus on the little things you can actually achieve today.

So before you go, before you move on to the next blog post, or the next item on your to-do list, or the next cat GIF on Facebook, I want you do this very simple thing:

  1. Pick one thing you’d like to improve about your life. It could be money-related, or it could be something else completely. It doesn’t have to be your biggest problem. Just take whatever it is that comes to mind first.
  2. Write down three small things you could realistically achieve by the end of the day that would make progress towards making that improvement. They can be as small as you want, as long as they move you forward.
  3. Pick one of those three things and do it. Do it right now if you can, but definitely by the end of the day. No excuses.
  4. Celebrate! Physically pat yourself on the back. Tell yourself that you’re awesome. Share your success with your spouse or a friend. Whatever it is, find some way to recognize your accomplishment.
  5. Tomorrow, do it all over again.

There’s nothing fancy about this process. Nothing grand or idealistic. But if you can master it, if you can do it again and again, day after day, you’ll find success with your goals much sooner than you think.

So, what’s the one step you’re going to take today to get closer to your goal? What can you do right now to start making your life a little better? Tell me in the comments, or shoot me an email if you’d prefer. Either way, I can’t wait to hear about it!

Photo courtesy of Wyncliffe

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12 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • So true Matt. I always here people who want to lose weight or get in shape tell me these gigantic goals, and i always tell them it starts with a simple walk…or whatever you’re into..repeated daily. You just do it, like the Nike slogan. For me, I’m at a square one with learning a musical instrument. It’s weird to feel like a beginner at something again. I, like you said, visualize myself playing on stage and singing…but I’m nowhere near that goal. So my plan is to spend at least 20 minutes a day (and I’m going to be taking a class every Monday night) to just do something with the Ukulele. So far, so good.

    • Matt Becker June 30, 2014

      Oh cool! The Ukulele, huh? Way to think outside the box! I love that goal of 20 minutes per day because it’s something you have complete control over. You can’t control how well you can play or whether you can learn a specific song, but you can definitely spend 20 minutes a day. That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about here.

  • Chip Hutchison June 30, 2014

    Awesome post!
    It reminded of a book I read last summer from Gary Keller called “The ONE Thing” –

    It dovetails beautifully with your message. Gary says to ask yourself this question; “What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

    The book is, as you say, all about the process!

    Keep up the good work! I enjoy it very much.

    • Matt Becker June 30, 2014

      Thanks for the link Chip! Looks right up my alley.

  • Claire M July 1, 2014

    Matt – you guys are ROCKING the financial advice. Love the redesign and looking forward to reading more 🙂

  • Hmm, you’re right – somehow envisioning my ideal goal gives me a false sense of accomplishment already. It’s the little steps that eventually get us there that will actually solve the problems, not just thinking about it.

    • Matt Becker July 2, 2014

      Yep. As soon as I heard those guys talking about that it really clicked. I’ve done that way too many times to count. It’s always the much less glamorous little steps forward that make the real difference.

  • Done by Forty July 2, 2014

    Hooray for small repeatable actions! Really good stuff, Matt. We’re a collection of habits, so our problems (and solutions) are likely going to be habitual, too.

  • Hannah @ Wise Dollar July 3, 2014

    Great post Matt! I’m presently facing a problem and this post might actually help me.

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