The other day I went out for a bike ride. It was a beautiful, warm and sunny afternoon. I had been looking forward to the ride all day. When I began, everything was perfect…and then, about a mile into the ride, boom! I got a flat! I thought: “Man, all I want is to have a little fun in my day, and all I get is a problem!” Do you ever feel that way? Sometimes I just want my problems to go away.

We all face problems in our lives – problems with a family member, problems with a co-worker, health problems, money problems, problems in our marriage and home, problems with our schedules, and the list goes on…  Being good at problem solving is an essential skill to living a good life.

So, how do you become a better problem solver?

1. Learn to anticipate problems.

Most people function with the expectation that there will be no problems or minimal problems. But if you have lived for any length of time you know this is simply not true. Reality is full of problems, large and small. People who are unwilling to adjust to this truth will inevitably spend most of their life in a frustrated state of mind.

People who enjoy a good life anticipate and expect problems. They are not shocked or thrown off when they arise. The assumption is that there WILL be problems.

When you think a situation will work out one way, you have to always be prepared for the fact that it may not all come together the exact way you want it to.  In fact, the probability that it won’t is pretty high.  You have to know that things are not always going to go according to plan.  Anticipate the problem and be ready to improvise.

2. Define the problem.

Ask yourself: What do I see going wrong? What are the specific symptoms? What is really happening?  That way, you know what you’re really working with.

3. Identify the root cause of the problem.

There are 3 types of root causes. A physical cause is something that is tangible, material. Some item failed in some way (for example, a car’s brakes stopped working). A human cause is basically human error.  Someone did something wrong, or did not do something that was needed. Human causes often lead to physical causes (for example, no one filled the brake fluid, which led to the brakes failing). Or there are organizational causes.  This is when a system, process, or policy that people use to make decisions or do their work is faulty (for example, no one person was responsible for vehicle maintenance, and everyone assumed someone else had filled the brake fluid).

When identifying the root cause, just keep asking the question: “Why”?  When you keep asking ‘why’, eventually it will lead you to the source, the first misstep.

4. Brainstorm!

Think through the problem and come up with a list of ways to fix it. It was Grenville Kleiser who said, “To every problem there is already a solution whether you know what it is or not.” Don’t be afraid to get some smart people you trust to help you brainstorm. They will often see a solution that you don’t.  Then evaluate and select the solution that will work best.  Ask yourself which solution has the most potential to work and go with it.

5. Implement the solution.

Norman Bushnell said “Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it who makes a difference.” It’s not enough to brainstorm. You must act and execute your plan of action.

Again, life is full of problems, large and small. Problem solving is therefore a critical skill to living. The good news is that it is just like any other skill… you can get better and better at it over time with practice. Follow these steps and you will improve your life.