Optimising For Deck Chairs - Why We Fool Ourselves Into Solving the Wrong Problems

When we've got a problem, many of us like to swing into action and get to work on building a solution. Thing is, sometimes we end up solving the wrong problem. Here's how to slow down and get to the bottom of things without wasting your time.

There Has To Be a Better Way

Famed psychiatrist Victor E. Frankl - holocaust survivor and founder of the school of Logotherapy - sat opposite one of his patients who was holding his head in his hands. This patient hated his job and was at his wits' end, prepared to even try a new form of psychotherapy that people had only just started talking about.

He'd tried therapy before, of course; his last shrink had sat him down and made him analyse his relationship with his father, going ever deeper and deeper into the past to truly have a chance at reconciliation. After five years of this not a lot had changed and he still hated his job.

Frankl believed that our main motivation in life is to find meaning, but that this 'will to meaning' can be easily frustrated. These frustrations are nothing special - they're usually just the everyday obstacles we encounter. Where others had attempted to solve these problems with drugs and endless analysis, Frankl would sit his patients down and show them the forest where they could only see trees.

Frankl, sitting opposite the patient, didn’t analyse a thing. He told him to just quit already and get a new job.

Quick, Look Busy!

When you've got a problem, acting on the impulse to improve something - anything! - is common and what you'd expect if you're the motivated type. But just because we are improving something doesn't mean that we are necessarily improving the right thing.

First of all, there's nothing to say that we've even defined the problem that well. Secondly, the link between a problem and its solution is often not so clear, especially if we are currently living in the problem.

Secondly, the mere act of being productive and finding solutions can fool us into thinking that we're making progress even when we aren’t. My favourite example of this is the absolutely phenomenal Slap Chop advert.

You're slapping your troubles away! And eating healthy! And you can clean it easily! Makes sense, right? Look at how efficient that thing is, chopping up all those fruits and vegetables so efficiently. Wouldn't you be able to eat healthily and save money with one of those?

Thing is, how healthy you eat and how much you spend on food has almost nothing to do with your kitchen utensils. And never mind the fact that most everything he chops has already been sliced and prepared with a knife... just shut up and buy one, damn it! It's the solution for a problem that doesn't exist.

All Aboard (The Titanic)

Buying a Slap Chop because you want to eat healthier is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Any time I find myself doing something as misguided as that I try to stop myself but, sometimes, I'm too late:

  1. I once spent weeks perfecting a bedtime routine to give me better quality sleep - complete with blackout blinds, 'wind down' settings on my phone, chamomile tea and sleep podcasts - all while drinking more than 400mg+ of caffeine every day. Later on, when I cut my caffeine intake, my sleep improved overnight.
  2. I used to spend enormous amounts of time trying to get better at meditation and mindfulness to overcome the stresses of a job I hated - when really, like Frankl's patient, what I needed to do was just quit my job. As soon as I did that and went freelance in a job I'd long dreamed of, the stress evaporated.
  3. I used to agonise over finding the right exercise routine to build strength and lower my body fat percentage, all while my diet was filled with junk food, alcohol and piles of refined sugar. As soon as I took a healthier approach to my diet, my fitness drastically improved.

The obvious disclaimer here is that the above are unique to me; my deck chairs may be your sinking ship, or vice versa, or not at all. It's all relative. (Perhaps this is why it's so difficult, and so tempting to be seduced by those who tell us they've got it all figured out.)

Why This Sucks and What to Do About It

Improving the wrong thing is bad for us because:

  • We waste time, energy and money
  • We think we're making progress when we aren't, and
  • The problem doesn't get fixed

When we spend our time solving the right problems with the right solutions, we don't lose that time and energy, we save money, we make real progress and, of course, we actually solve the problem.

Just saying 'solve the actual problem' is easier said than done, though. Reflecting on my previous deck chair escapades, I've been able to change what I do to make sure I'm solving the right problems more often than not.

Here's my approach:

  1. Be aware you're actually trying to solve something: if you find yourself in 'problem needs a solution' mode, try to take notice of it and be aware of what you're doing. Do you know what you're actually trying to solve here?
  2. Slow down: before making any more decisions - buying that new thing, booking that flight, sending that email or re-arranging all your furniture at 2am - just take a while to pause. There's nothing quite like a good night's sleep to get your head around a problem and, if any of your potential solutions would have been irreversible, you've bought yourself some time to stay your hand.
  3. Check for obvious answers: before going any further, ask yourself if you're trying to solve something that simply isn't there. The old saying goes, 'if you hear hooves think of horses, not zebras.' Are you imagining a zebra when really you're just looking at a horse? It might feel too obvious to be true, but sometimes it just... is.
  4. Define the problem: if it's still not that clear, take some additional time to truly define the problem and get to the root cause of what's going on. One of the most effective ways of doing this is asking 'Why?' several times (five, on average). Start off with the broadest high level issue you can see and ask 'why' for that issue and each subsequent answer. Eventually you will arrive at an underlying issue you might not have considered in the first place.
  5. Change one thing at a time: if you change ten things at once but only one solves the problem, you're never going to know what the solution really was and never be able to confirm what the problem was. You may also end up spending way more time and energy than you needed to. So just take it slow.

Years later, Frankl checked in with his patient to see how he was doing. It turned out he loved his new job and he hadn't analysed his relationship with his father even once in the intervening years. Not a bad outcome, all told.

If you're interested in Frankl and want to know more, you can read my notes on his book 'Man's Search for Meaning'.

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