Problem Solving

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

How Do You Solve a Problem When There Just Doesn’t Seem to be a Solution?

According to the experts, we make thousands of choices every day.  We begin by deciding what time we will wake up, how long we’ll take to brush our teeth, what we will eat for breakfast, whether or not we will clean up after breakfast, which route we will drive to work and so forth.  There are so many choices to be made it’s surprising we sometimes find ourselves in a rut.

So, what should we do when we find ourselves stuck?  What is the first step to solving a problem?  The answer: Identifying what the problem truly is – who it impacts, why it’s a problem in the first place, and how it came to be a problem.  On a scale of one to ten, how big of an issue is this to you? One of the most important questions you can answer is: Will this huge situation really matter ten years from now?  For example, one of our Parenting Matters parents was concerned about her two year old not being fully potty trained. She felt her child should be out of diapers because her small nephew was by age two.  What she didn’t know was that all children become potty trained at different stages.  The second step to problem solving is to get as much information as you can about it.  When another parent who happens to be a nurse shared that her child didn’t learn to become potty trained until age three, the first participant became relieved.  When she did her own research online about toilet training norms, she went from “feeling like a failure” to believing her family was right on track.  She just needed a little more patience and the reality was ten years from now this “huge problem” would only be a memory.

Out of the box thinking                       

Let’s try another scenario.  You’ve done the above, now have plenty of factual information about the situation, and it’s time to stretch your thinking.  Try to list at least ten different possible solutions to every major problem.  It may feel impossible at first but once you get on a roll, listing will become easier.  A friend of mine has been out of work for more than a year.  He and his family recognized he was at a crossroads and decided to list as many potential solutions to the issue at hand as possible.  He considered relocating, combining multiple part time jobs, going back to school for additional training, starting his own business and becoming a stay-at-home dad, among others.  With each potential solution, he wrote down the pros, cons, consequences and benefits to each potential path he could take. 

As one example, the pros he listed for working three jobs were that he would be able to help with the bills and wouldn’t have idle time on his hands; the cons were that he wouldn’t contribute very much and he wouldn’t have health insurance.  Some additional consequences of this choice were that he wouldn’t be available to help with the kids or spend time with his wife and would be distracted from finding a fulfilling permanent position.   He took this approach with each scenario and after listing, analyzing and discussing them with his spouse, over a brief period of time the merits of the various options became clearer.  Subsequently he was able to make a choice that was both a win/win for him, his family and for all their long term goals.  By proactively thinking about what the desired end game was, mapping the various means of getting from points A to Z, then taking the first appropriate steps in the right direction, his clear and appropriate course was set on the path toward future success. 


Rachel Harris Monteverdi is a Family & Consumer Sciences Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, a division of North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University.  The Family & Consumer Sciences department incorporates prenatal to end-of-life programs.  Priorities for North Carolina citizens include:  Family & Parenting Education; Balancing Work & Family Workshops; Academic Success; Elder Care; Active Aging; Planning for the Future; Home Ownership & Housing Issues; Conservation & Environmental Issues; Leadership; Emergency Management and more.  Call 252-257-3640, email