The Joy of Solving Problems

When COVID-19 struck, it became a very real possibility that the business I’ve spent the past three years building might not survive.

The Weekend University is an events company that revolves around bringing large groups of people together for a monthly psychology lecture series.

Businesses that depend upon bringing large groups of people together aren’t exactly in a good position to thrive during a pandemic.

So, I had a problem on my hands…

But the weird thing is, having this problem has turned out to be a huge gift in disguise.

It’s kept me motivated and got me out of bed every morning with a sense of purpose, and given me something to work towards.

It’s also made the realise the value of the problems in my life and how important it is to be able to solve them.

Despite being such an important part of life, we rarely think about how we solve problems.

There’s no class in school on ‘Becoming a Better Problem Solver’.

Yet, this is one skill, that if we learned, would have the potential to improve just about every area of our lives.

So, in this post, I’m going to explore two approaches to problem solving that I’ve found helpful in my own life and business.

If you’ve got a problem that you’re currently struggling with, they might be useful for you too.

#1 – Reverse Thinking

‘Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.’

Shane Parrish

Thinking in reverse involves flipping the problem you are trying to solve on its head and thinking directly about what you want to avoid.

Instead of asking what you want to happen, you develop a crystal clear image of what you don’t want – the worst case scenarios, and then work your way back from there to solve the problem.

For the past two years, we’ve hosted our monthly event at The University of London.

In the week leading up to each one, I pull out a pen and a piece of paper, and ask myself two questions:

1.) What are the worst possible things that could happen this weekend?

2.) What would this look like if it were a complete disaster?

I then sit and brainstorm for about twenty minutes.

You’d be amazed at what you can come up with. E.g. the speakers don’t show up, the air conditioning malfunctions, my alarm clock doesn’t work so I sleep in, public transport strike, etc.

This list then enables me to develop a clear list of next actions to solve each potential problem:

Potential Problem
Speakers don’t show.Confirm speaking time with all three speakers in the week of the event.
Air con malfunctions.Contact the venue and ask their AV team to do a check.
Alarm clock doesn’t work.Buy back up alarm clock.
Public transport strike.Put local taxi number in phone.

Not only does getting my biggest anxieties out on paper help me take practical steps to prevent each potential problem from happening, it also frees up my mind for the rest of the week.

Paradoxically, the clearer you are on what you want to avoid, the more empowered you are to solve your problem and get what you want from the situation.

The power of reverse thinking is that you can apply it to almost any area of life.

Take mental health for example.

In ‘Lost Connections’ author Johann Hari outlines several scientifically proven causes of depression and anxiety – most of which are related to lifestyle factors.

Some of these include:

  1. Disconnection from meaningful work
  2. Disconnection from other people (loneliness)
  3. Disconnection from meaningful values (excessive focus on extrinsic rewards, materialism and consumption)
  4. Disconnection from the natural world
  5. Disconnection from a hopeful or secure future

If you know these factors can lead to mental illness, then it gives you a clear checklist of things to avoid if you want to safeguard your mental health.

For example, if you know that being disconnected from the natural world is likely to lead to depression, then you can proactively plan your week to spend time in nature.

Or, if you know that loneliness causes depression, then you can schedule time each day to spend with your loved ones.

The Not To Do List

‘Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.’

Steve Jobs

It can be tricky to know what will make you happy.

However, you probably have a pretty good idea about the things that get on your nerves, stress you out and cause you unnecessary suffering.

Therefore, another way to apply reverse thinking is to create a Not to Do List at the start of each day.

As the name suggests, this involves making a clear list of all the things (and maybe people) you know will make you unhappy, and then proactively taking steps to avoid them or remove them entirely.

For me, I know that the following activities generally get me down:

  • Meals alone
  • Watching the news
  • Excessive scrolling on social media
  • Overworking and not taking regular breaks throughout the day
  • Not getting enough sleep

When you’re clear on the things that cause you unnecessary suffering, you can proactively take steps to prevent them happening in the first place.

#2 – Ecosystem thinking

Often when we’re trying to achieve a goal, we aim directly at it.

We ask ourselves: How can I lose more weight? How can I make more money? How can I sell more of my products?

Sometimes this works.

However, in ‘The Great Mental Models, Shane Parrish argues there’s a better way to go about it.

Instead of asking: ‘how can I achieve [X]?’ It can be much more effective to ask:

‘What would the world look like if [X] were already true?’

If you have a clear description of what the environment and circumstances will look like when your goal has already been achieved, you can begin to develop a clear plan for all of the smaller next action steps that will help to make it a reality.

Why Women Started Smoking

One of the best examples of this way of thinking in action is how women started smoking in the early part of the 20th Century.

Up until the 1920s, it was a taboo to smoke as a woman as it was seen as a predominantly male activity.

The American Tobacco company wanted to change this, so they hired Edward Bernays – a leading Public Relations Expert and a nephew of Sigmund Freud.

Bernays approach to solving this problem is one of the best examples of ecosystem thinking in action.

Instead of asking: ‘how can we sell more cigarettes to women?’, he asked: ‘If it was already commonplace for women to smoke, what else would need to be true?’ In other words, what would the world (culture, environment, popular beliefs) look like if smoking was already desirable and socially acceptable for women?

Bernays knew that if he could develop a clear picture of that, then he could reverse engineer the process for getting there.

This led him to reframe cigarettes as a ‘slimming aid.’

He created anti-dessert advertising campaigns in which doctors advocated smoking after meals instead of having dessert, persuaded hotels to add cigarettes to their sweet menus, and even approached kitchen cabinet companies to redesign their cabinets to include special compartments for cigarettes. Tin companies that made containers for tea, coffee, sugar and flour now added a fifth container for cigarettes to their offering.

Bernays then linked smoking with the women’s emancipation movement by labelling cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’ and persuading leading suffragettes to smoke during a famous Easter Day Parade in New York. To light a cigarette as a woman was now an act of rebellion against an oppressive male patriarchy.

For Bernays, it wasn’t just about persuading women to start buying cigarettes.

It was about reorganising society in such a way that cigarettes became an inescapable part of a woman’s daily experience.

‘The hero is a product of a situation rather than the result being a product of the hero. It is demand that brings out the exceptional qualities of man.’

Will Durant

Ecosystem thinking goes against much of our cultural conditioning.

In the West, we’ve been brought up to think of ourselves as separate isolated entities; cut off from the world around us.

However, in his 2018 book, Willpower Doesn’t Work, Dr Benjamin Hardy debunks this myth.

Dr Hardy argues that if you want to achieve a goal, you need to focus on your environment and set up external circumstances that support it.

For instance, let’s say your goal is to lose weight. How might you create external circumstances that support your goal?

First, you could make your goal public (social pressure is a powerful thing).

Second, you could hire a personal trainer for accountability.

Third, if you snack late at night, you could remove your usual ‘go to snacks’ from your environment, which also removes the need for willpower.

Fourth, instead of telling yourself that you will go for that run early tomorrow morning, you could arrange to do it with a friend. That way, not only will you be letting yourself down by not showing up, you also run the risk of letting your friend down too.

Finally, you could place a wager on against not achieving your goal. Research from Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman has found that we are much more motivated by the fear of loss than we are by the pleasure of gain.

In other words, the prospect of losing £100 is much more painful (and therefore more motivating) than the pleasure feel about the prospect of gaining an additional £100.

So why not use this to your advantage?

In a nutshell, an ecosystems approach involves setting up your external circumstances in a way that are maximally supportive of your goal.

If you’re wondering how things turned out, The Weekend University had its first online video conference today.

We had a bigger attendance than would usually fit into our lecture theatre at the University of London.

So not only has having (and solving) this problem been a source of meaning and motivation, it’s been good for business too.

Benjamin Franklin famously said that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes.

I’d agree with Franklin, but also add a third to this list:


No matter where you go in life, what you do, or who you do it with, you’re going to have them.

Therefore, one of the most valuable skills you can develop is to learn how to become better at solving them.

Reverse and ecosystem thinking are two of the best approaches I’ve found for doing that.

What about you?

How do you approach solving the difficult problems in your life?

Leave a comment and let me know.

Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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