All life is problem-solving, as Karl Popper said. How do we solve problems? We guess at solutions, and try to see how they might fail. That may involve argument or experimental test.
These questions should be always on your mind.
- What's the problem?
- What are some potential solutions?
- How can I tell if a solution is wrong?
A problem generally takes one of these forms.
- Well being. It hurts.
- Beauty. It's ugly.
- Technology. It can't yet be done.
- Explanation. It doesn't make sense.
We don't know enough about our minds to know how they generate ideas, but there are a few tools that could help you when you're stuck. They're all ways of varying the problem you're working on.
- Solve the opposite problem. Instead of trying to make something happen, try to prevent it.
- Try to solve a bigger, more difficult problem. Instead of making something for a few people, think about making it for millions.
- Solve a smaller, more focused problem. Solve a special case, where there are fewer options.
- Think about a higher-level problem. If you're trying to lose weight to be happier, focus on being happier, not just losing weight.
- Break up your problem. If you're trying to write a book, break it into chapters.
- Change some parameters of your problem. Cost, quality, and time are often important factors. What if you have far less time, and fewer resources, or far more? What if only a poor solution is required, or a perfect one?
- Introduce an absurd, arbitrary element. If you're deciding how to run a social event, imagine it has to be centered around chips and salsa, or alien abductions. :)
- Imagine you're a different person. You know a bit about the ideas and behavior of friends, mentors, and authors. Use your knowledge of their habits and worldview to guide your choices.
- Change the context. If you're at work, imagine you're actually working on a personal hobby, training for a competition or competing in one, or writing a book.
Changing your problem can lead to new ideas. You've still got to eliminate the bad ideas, though. You might see whether an idea is logically incoherent, or inferior to its alternatives in some way - perhaps by being more expensive.
Although generating ideas is difficult, we often fail to criticize our ideas to see if they may be flawed. It's hard work. Ironically, this process is easier if you have more ideas. You'll have more to think about, but you'll be less protective of any one idea.
So, be careful in selecting your problems, prolific when coming up with ideas for solutions, and disinterested when looking for errors in those ideas.