Problem Solving

The Most Common Pitfalls in Problem Solving

As a graduating engineer myself, I have often found myself hard pressed to solve a particular problem. Everyone experiences these kinds of situations more or less frequently, and even though every single mind has its methods and nuances in how it approaches problem solving in general, there are common pitfalls that everyone seems to fall into. I would theorize this phenomena is related to the structure of thought itself – our highly pattern-based thinking is optimized by evolution to solve certain problems, which comes at a cost. Exploring the biological and physical origins of these phenomena, while certainly interesting, will not be pursued in this short essay, both due to my lack of qualifications on those subjects and the goal of the writing of the essay. What I do intend is to provide insight into some the top three common pitfalls, so you may recognize them when you inevitably run into them. If the short time it takes to read this essay spares someone an afternoon of head-banging, then it will already have been worth it.

As the astute reader will notice throughout the essay, most (but not all) of these pitfalls are related to thinking habits and employment of otherwise good thinking strategies to the wrong problems. At every pitfall I will try to provide an illustrative example, and I’m sure more than a few readers will remember themselves in past experiences where they, too, walked in circles in a frustrating battle against a seemingly unsolvable problem of the same nature. I would also like to point out that in most cases an equilibrium must be found, as for every pitfall there is also the opposite equivalent. Having that said, I’ll begin by exposing a well known thinking flaw.

1st Pitfall: I can’t see the forest for the trees. (“Why don’t you just walk to work?”)

We all know this proverb – it applies to situations where people get so caught up in the details of a problem, they lose sight of the problem itself. Not surprisingly, this is a very common occurrence. Let’s exemplify: imagine you don’t have a car, and conclude it would be nice to have one so you don’t have to walk 3 km to work every morning. Having that in regard, you begin saving for a car, perhaps even getting a part-time job in addition to your current job, so you can realistically have enough money for a car in a reasonable amount of time. Your part time job hardly pays off though, and you barely have time for yourself between the two jobs! You survive a few months of this until some caring soul asks you the why of all that trouble. And when you tell him, he formulates the question above.

So what was the pitfall here? The character in question tried to solve a problem, which was a mild discomfort caused by a long daily walk. When he began to take the necessary steps to solve it, he ended up in a much worse situation overall, and the worst part, he didn’t notice how the solution he came up with was at odds with his original intent! I’m sure everyone has experienced some more or less severe version of this problem. The pitfall is caused by two distinct factors: the first is a thinking pattern which we are used to. “Divide and Conquer” is a well known maxim and a strategy that we instinctively apply (in the soft sense; whether it actually stems from our instincts or from our education is a quest I’ll leave up to the interested reader). It consists in breaking up a large problem into subproblems we can tackle. However, when sight of the original problem is lost, contradictory paths end up being taken. You might end up breaking something in order to fix it, working more in an attempt to work less, or losing money in an attempt to save it. The second factor is simply forgetting what you were trying to achieve in the first place. This might happen if a certain problem requires a solution that is too widely spread over a great period of time.  The principle by which you avoid this is simple: always make sure you know why you are doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you might have just thrown a lot of time and work off the window, and, in the worst case, you’ll only notice you’ve been driving down the wrong road when you hit the dead end.

Of course, the opposite side of the coin is that really energetic guy that tries to solve world hunger overnight. The issue is that “Divide and Conquer” really is a very useful strategy, and few work would be done if not for this simple yet powerful maxim. One just needs to make sure everything is kept in perspective at all times (or at least, when frustration starts to kick in!).

2nd Pitfall: Imposing Arbitrary Restrictions. (The Gordian Knot Syndrome)

The Gordian Knot is a well-known myth: in the third century BC, an oracle prophesied that the one that could untie a particularly complicated knot would become the king of Asia. Many tried, but none succeeded at untying the knot – until Alexander the Great himself came and took the challenge. He solved the problem by taking his sword and cutting the knot in half. Another known variant is the Egg of Columbus, where Columbus succeeds in making an egg stand, feat which the sages present had failed to achieve, by breaking the bottom of the egg slightly (or in other versions, by balancing it on a small pile of salt). This type of problems (and there are a good amount of examples coming from advanced research departments!) often stump even the greatest problem solvers; for problems are already difficult on their own, and when one adds (unnecessary) restrictions unconsciously, they become harder or even impossible to solve. Of course, the stories always include problems where the solution was really obvious; that’s not how this pitfall presents itself most often, though. The most common scenario is a difficult problem becoming more difficult because of restrictions imposed by the problem solvers themselves (although unknowingly). This pitfall stems from prejudice (not in the pejorative sense), or generalizing, the inductive process in general[1]. While that is the feature of our thinking processes that allows us to make useful and practical conclusions (as deduction doesn’t ever produce new information per se), as well as making thinking a lot more efficient by cutting off the least unlikely scenarios automatically, it may also be the source of what seems like an unsolvable problem. Take this lateral thinking problem for instance:

“A little girl was warned by her guardian never to open the cellar door, or she would see things that she was not meant to see. One day, while her guardian was out, she did open the cellar door. What did she see? “

Think for a while before you move on, even if you don’t come to a solution – the important here is that you realize how our prejudices can become an obstacle. Most readers will probably have difficulties in solving this problem. If not, congratulations – you most likely won’t experience this pitfall frequently. For the rest of us, we have to keep an eye out.

So, imagine you’re dealing with what seems an unsolvable problem. After a lot of eaten nails, it might be wise to think about the problem itself. Is the problem really that hard are you making it harder? You will be surprised how often the latter comes up. By the way, the solution of the problem presented earlier is that the girl opened the door and saw the garden through the window – she had never gone outside the cellar as her parents kept her inside it at all times. The key realization of the problem is that the girl is inside the cellar, not outside, which for most is a very hard jump to take – our thinking habits invariably place her on the wrong side of the door.

3rd Pitfall: Not Having a Proper Plan of Action. (“Why was I doing this in the first place?”)

And we come to the last (but not any less frequent) pitfall in problem solving. Fortunately or unfortunately, everyone has to consistently deal with problems that can’t be tackled without first delineating a plan. However, society has become very impatient – so much that a lot of people come to a fight bare-handed. Our planning skills are one of our greatest intellectual assets, and even the most advanced intelligent systems strive to make a good impression of human brain planning. Yet we still try to avoid using those skills as much as possible – everyone talks about “getting their hands busy”. Not having a proper course of action is the greatest cause of wasted effort – why not spend a little time thinking about what we’re going to do next, so you make sure its relevant?

My perception is that this pitfall often occurs as a result of an incorrect assessment of a task’s complexity. We have a task that seems rather simple and try to tackle it directly (let’s say we were trying to fix the latest computer crash). We think the task is simple, when in reality it isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with incorrectly determining a problem’s complexity – it can be as hard as the problem itself. Now the pitfall is that, too often, our stubbornness kicks in here and we continue to try solving the problem without a plan – even though we’re clearly aware of the task’s true complexity by now. Of course, we’ll probably stop a few hours later, sweating frustration by every pore. And then we’ll delineate a plan. To avoid this we should, when faced with a problem of greater complexity than expected, stop and reevaluate our position and plans (even if you had a good plan already). It will surely consume much less time and resources than having to change it later anyway.

Here, the opposite side of the spectrum is getting over-analytical. There are a lot of tasks that can be solved outright – no need to waste time making a storm out of a cup of water. However, if you’re already 3 hours down trying to solve that “simple” problem, I assure this won’t be the case at all.


I hope this short essay will help the readers avoid frustration in everyday problem solving. The whole premise of the essay is that our thinking patterns, just like our emotions, become much more manageable when we understand their form and causes. The pitfalls I  covered here are very common, and I’m also sure everyone has come to recognize personal pitfalls they themselves have to watch for. Analyzing these pitfalls, figuring when they come up, why, and how to avoid them is a quick path towards self awareness and increased productivity, which naturally comes in inverse proportion to frustration.

[1] I’m aware of the irony of this sentence.

David Baptista is Guest Blogger for PickTheBrain. This is his first guest post, so show him some LOVE!

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