Writing to Solve Personal Problems

An incredibly powerful technique for solving problems is by simply writing it down. It seems rather simple, but it can often allow you to solve problems you previously thought were impossible.

I remember in the first computer science class I took, I had to do an assignment where I was to take the task of cooking pasta and write out completely the steps required to complete the task. This was my first formal introduction to algorithms. For those who aren’t aware, an algorithm is basically just the process you need to use to solve a problem.

So for my pasta example I started with:

1) Boil Water
2) Add dried pasta
3) Cook for several minutes
4) Drain
5) Serve

But by writing it down you start to notice even more sub-steps you hadn’t thought about. So your pasta process could get incredibly complex, even to details such as:

1) Find Pot
2) Fill Pot with Water
3) Place Pot on element
4) Turn Element to High
5) Place Lid on Pot
6) Wait until water in Pot is boiling

The process of determining out how to cook pasta wasn’t difficult, however it was done to illustrate a point. The point was that solving problems, in this case culinary, and designing solutions was easier when you wrote it down. This skill would then be applied to computer programming, where it was beneficial to design code on paper first before trying to type it into the compiler.

While this method of problem solving would seem obvious, I’m amazed at how few people actually use it. If you aren’t sure why this method of solving personal problems is obvious I’ll explain.

Calculate 9024 x 2045 = ? in your head.

Can you do it? I know I can’t. But I’m sure if you wrote the problem down on paper you could solve it.

This is why it amazes me why so few people actually write down their thoughts when exploring a personal problem. If you can’t solve a simple arithmetic problem in your head, I don’t see how you can adequately solve an often immensely complex personal problem.

I think that one of the major reasons that this form of problem solving isn’t used more often is because we aren’t used to using it. Most of us are used to solving problems in our heads. This can work great when the problem is relatively easy to solve, but it can create a mess when we try to solve difficult problems.

There are two methods I like to use to write for solutions.

The first method of writing is just to take a piece of paper out (I prefer a word processing program because I type much faster than I can write manually). Then simply write down, in words, whatever thoughts you are having.

I think many of us are conditioned to write in proper grammatical sentences and use coherent thoughts in paragraphs. Don’t worry about that! You are trying to write your thoughts not compose an essay. Spending your mental resources editing your work will just take longer, so just write uninhibited. If you are using a word processing program, you might want to take grammar and spell checks off so that you don’t feel compelled to auto correct.

The key here is to just keep writing. Don’t stop until your problem is solved. Unless you have passed into a coma and stopped thinking, you always have thoughts you can write. Just commit yourself to keep writing until your problem is solved. If you can’t write or type fast enough use sentence fragments or shortened words to keep your writing speed and thought speeds comparable.

I usually start this process by writing about the problem. By writing about what my problem is I usually can obtain a lot more clarity on how to fix it. Usually after I write the problem down my thoughts automatically center on solutions, even to partial problems.

I continue this process until I am confident I have an answer. If my answer is long and complex (which it often is), I often write a good copy of my answer to further refine my solution and also to serve as a record in case I want to refer back to my solution.

The second method I like to use is more visual and less linear. I usually use this process for solving computer programming oriented problems as they tend to be geometric, requiring me to think in branching directions rather than a straight path.

To start this method take a pencil and a piece of paper (computers won’t work for this one) and start using words, shapes and quick illustrations to draw your problem. This process is like a less rigid form of brainstorming. Just write things anywhere on the paper.

If you want to make a connection between several thoughts then draw an arrow connecting them. By creating this map of pictures, shapes and words you can form a mental map of your problem and it becomes a lot easier to see possible solutions.

Remember not to stop writing and think inside your head. You should be writing what your thinking, not thinking about what to write! This can be tricky to keep up, but it will keep you focused on a solution.

I keep a journal in a word processing document in my computer. This way I bring it up and simply write all of my thoughts whenever I have a problem, or if I simply feel confused and I don’t know what my problem is! Usually after twenty minutes of writing I feel much better about the problem and have some ideas for how to resolve issues in my own life.

This blog itself is even an extention of that writing process. Although my articles here are done with more precision and care than a journal or brainstorming session, this writing process allows me to clarify my own thoughts and intentions.
Do you currently have a problem in your life you have been unable to solve? Try writing it out and I think you will be surprised at how much more effective it is than simply trying to solve it inside your head.

  • Iris

    Thanks for this post, it helps out alot 🙂

  • Tia

    Amazing post!! I have used this technique before, and it worked before, I just stopped using it. Thank you

  • Sathyanand S

    Thanks for the brilliant post Scott!
    Freewriting or Expressive writing – it is called. I first learnt about it from Mark Levy of Levy Innovation.
    Besides solving problems, there are quite a variety of uses writing (freewriting) can help one with.
    I use it for ideation (proposed by Mark Levy, James Altucher), for goal achievement (by Scott Adams, Henriette Klauser), for therapy (Morning pages by Julia Cameron, James W.Pannebaker).