How to Get Better at Problem Solving by Writing

Why Is Problem Solving So Hard?​

Have you ever been stuck on a problem and couldn’t seem to figure out a solution? Or maybe you couldn’t figure out how to start? There’s a very simple tool you can use to greatly enhance your problem solving ability: writing.

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Not “writing” in the now-common sense of typing into a digital device, but actually writing by hand, onto paper. In this post I’ll explain this very simple process, and how it unlocks your brain’s amazing ability to develop creative solutions to difficult problems.

In one of my previous The Journey posts, I discussed the benefits of writing in a journal to keep you focused on your most important activities as you work toward your goals. But writing is also an excellent strategy to increase your motivation, because it develops clarity. I’ve discussed the importance of clarity to your motivation in a couple of previous posts, and you can check them out here.

Does writing really do all that?​

When you have a problem that’s particularly challenging or overwhelming, writing is an excellent problem solving tool to help you get past whatever is blocking you. Writing works because it forces you to clarify your thoughts into coherent ideas so you can capture them on paper. This concept is illustrated in a study by social psychologist Pam A. Mueller, Ph.D. of Princeton University and cognitive psychologist Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Social Psychologist Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University
Cognitive Psychologist Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

They conducted research on the effect that note-taking medium had on students’ ability to retain and comprehend information conveyed during class lectures. While their research focused on the difference between note-taking styles, their findings are relevant to writing in general, as it speaks to the benefits of conveying ideas to paper.

They discovered that when you just capture information verbatim, which is the way most people instinctively type notes, it requires “relatively shallow cognitive processing”. However, when you summarize and paraphrase information that you hear, it requires a higher level of cognitive processing. That processing integrates the new information into other, existing networks of information, which is what enables a deeper and more robust understanding of the material.

When you have that deeper-level understanding, you can use the information to perform higher-order cognitive tasks. You can draw conclusions, infer consequences, and extrapolate the knowledge to other contexts or domains. It also helps you uncover different lines of thinking and explore new, relevant options. Thus, by integrating information about your challenging situation, writing improves your brain's problem solving ability by enabling creative solutions that draw on a vast network of contextually-relevant information.

How exactly am I supposed to use this?

So when you have a challenge that you’re struggling with, sit down and start writing. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, but you should strive to make coherent statements. Your goal is to frame your writing as if you were trying to explain to problem to another person in sufficient detail that they could explain it to someone else. Doing so will make sure you are adequately defining the problem and the constraints that you are working within.

  • Write out all of the relevant details, inputs, and circumstances surrounding your challenge.
  • Try to identify all of the assumptions you’re making about the situation.
  • ​Describe in detail the outcome you seek, and define what would mean success to you.
  • ​List all of the obstacles that you feel are preventing you from moving forward or resolving the issue.
  • Identify any limiting beliefs you may have, and what you think may be causing them.

Working through this process will often lead to an idea or realization that will break your current roadblock. However, do not be disappointed if it doesn’t happen right away. Problem solving does not always happen in a linear manner, as much as we might like it to. Your mind may need to “chew on it” for a little, which leads me to my next point.

But that's not all​

If you want to compound the problem solving power of writing, you can use another technique, known as priming. Priming is a process where you feed your subconscious mind the information about the problem you’re trying to solve (as in the writing process I described), and then step away from it for a while. When you do this, a system within your brain known as the default mode network starts to work on it. Marcus Raichle is a neurologist and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and one of the people who discovered the existence of the default mode network. According to Raichle, “the default mode network is comprised of several areas of the cortex that are most active when no external tasks demand our attention”.

The default mode network has access to information and processing power that your conscious mind doesn't. It's most effective at problem solving when your conscious mind isn't actively trying to think about anything, i.e. when you’re daydreaming or simply letting your mind wander. It’s during these periods of low cognitive load that your default mode network forms connections between ideas and starts to develop novel solutions that your conscious mind wouldn’t normally produce. I’m not going to delve too deeply into that topic here, as I plan to cover it in more depth at another time.

There’s no formula for the exact amount of time you need to be away from your problem to come up with a creative solution. Every situation will be different. You just need to make sure that your mind has an opportunity to effectively process the information. That means you need to spend time doing some kind of mindless activity.

Anything that requires virtually no conscious thought will give your subconscious mind a chance to process the information and look for solutions. Activities like household chores or showering or simply relaxing are good examples of this. Really, though, it can be anything that gives your mind the space it needs to work effectively. Ideally, if you have time to sleep on the problem, that will often yield even better results. Once you’ve gone through this process, you’ll have more clarity on what the next step is, what information you need to gather, or who you need to get help from.

How else can I use this?​

There are other ways you can use priming to support your motivation in achievement of your goals. I’ve discussed those in a couple of other posts, which you can check out here.

Some people like the idea of mind mapping to work through this process. I use mind mapping as well, and there is definitely value in it, especially if you are a visual learner. However, I’ve found that writing out thoughts adds an additional layer of effectiveness to the process. When you have to structure your ideas into fully-formed, [semi]coherent sentences, it forces you to test assumptions and clarify logic that can be easy to gloss over when you only sketch out the relationships between different ideas or topics.

I’ve started using this process lately, particularly for combatting overwhelm, and I’ve found it to be very helpful in calming the emotions and limiting beliefs that are an intrinsic part of facing a task that feels insurmountable. I hope it works for you, too. Please let me know by leaving a comment below.

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