4 Steps to Break Down Stressful Problems into Simpler Parts

When facing our biggest obstacles and tackling major projects, it’s easy to miss an important preliminary step. Have you ever gotten yourself all worked up about a big life challenge and jumped right in… and promptly smacked your face against a brick wall? I know I have (and I’ve got the brick-shaped face injuries to prove it). Though a preferable first step may have been to break that problem down into smaller parts. Then later, you can bash those in with your face. 

A big goal, such as a major life transition or an important professional project, can feel totally overwhelming – especially at first. And even in comparatively smaller pursuits, making progress in the face of obstacles can go from mildly challenging to stressful in no time at all.

Usually, the first problem we need to solve is to realize that our big problem isn’t what we think it is: it’s actually a collection of smaller problems all wrapped up into one.

Surmounting the Insurmountable

Just like I always say when people start getting too chummy with me at social gatherings, let’s talk about software engineering for a minute.

When you work in software, you are often faced with projects that, on the surface, seem practically insurmountable. Fortunately, what’s on the surface is something of an illusion.

via GIPHY

When someone asks you to build an app, you don’t simply sit down and start building an app. There’s something far more important that you need to do first:

Install at least ten more monitors and keyboards.

Access the mainframe.

Launch an IPO to raise funds.

MAKE A PLAN. 

You get it done the Smarter way. You break down the problem before you dash in trying to solve anything. This starts with foundational questions:

  • What features does this product need to have?
  • What will be its components?
  • Which platforms or services does it need to communicate with?
  • What is the most basic version of this that we can call “done,” and add more to later?

Before the first line of code can be written (but, for some reason, months after the product has already been widely sold to investors), you start with questions like these to figure out the individual components that will make up the project. 

In all likelihood, each of these questions will yield multiple answers; each one a project of its own. And each of those projects, in turn, will contain many separate tasks.

The moral of the story is, when you are faced with a massive project or problem, the best course is usually to make money off it ahead of time break it down into components, and handle them one by one.

One Problem, or a Family of Sub-Problems?

This phenomenon, in which clusters of small problems masquerade as giants, occurs constantly. Consider some of these more relatable examples:

  • Moving to a new house
  • Changing careers
  • Planning a wedding or major event
  • Losing weight
  • Tackling a major work project
  • Improving your finances

Imagine facing any of these challenges as a single task to simply “do” in one fell swoop. A few words that may come to mind are: exhausting, terrifying, and “miss me with that.”

But that’s because, you guessed it, none of these is a single problem. Rather than some towering 7-foot monster, each is more like a bunch of little baby problems (problem-itos, if you will) standing on each other’s shoulders wearing a trench coat to fool you.

smarter and harder graphic breaking down problems into smaller problems

Take the first example, buying a new house. 

Though a huge and emotionally charged undertaking, it is something that most people go through at least once in their lives. Except for millennials, of course (got ‘em). As potentially overwhelming as it is to buy a new house, people still get through it (or so I’m told. Wouldn’t know, I’m a millennial. Why is this even my example?)

How do they do it? By taking on each component separately:

  • Figuring out what the budget will be
  • Deciding preferences for type/style of home
  • Looking at areas to live
  • Finding an agent or realtor
  • Viewing possible houses
  • Listing the current home for sale
  • Packing up to move
  • Loading the moving truck with packed boxes
  • etc…

Just because a collection of obstacles come nicely wrapped with a cover page and a single title, doesn’t mean they must all be faced as a single unit.

How to Break a Problem into Simpler Parts (4 Steps)

This type of thinking may seem obvious when we talk about buying a house, or building a large business product. After all, who simply grabs their hat and coat, steps out the door and says “see you later, I’m off to buy a house!” Again, NOT millennials. But also no one else.

These massive initiatives help to illustrate the idea. But they’re not the only times that this type of obstacle-decomposition can make a difference.

The next time you feel intimidated by any challenge in your life, I encourage you to give the following steps a try. See if you can’t divide it into smaller problem-itos and conquer those. Whether it’s an obstacle in your career, a problem with your physical, emotional, or financial health, or any other daunting project, there is usually a different story hidden behind the trench coat.

1. Figure Out the Requirements

If you survived the section above on app development (don’t be ashamed, very few ever do), then you know the importance of understanding the obstacle before you start to attack it.

If you’re feeling terrified, or even just a bit stressed out at the start, take a step back. Ask yourself a few questions about the problem at hand. Even if you think the answers will be all too obvious, they may illuminate some gaps that you hadn’t yet considered:

  • What exactly am I trying to accomplish?
  • Are there any obstacles I need to resolve?
  • What will I need to do to solve the problem?

This conversation with yourself will vary greatly from one goal to another. But the idea here is always the same: to be very explicit with yourself about what sort of outcome you are aiming for, and how you intend to reach it. Get as specific as possible.

2. Take a Look Under the Trench Coat

With a clear picture of the end goal in mind, and the overarching plan to reach it, you can start to see some of the individual little problems that are pretending to be one big problem so that they can get into an R-rated movie. Shame on you, problem-itos.

At this stage, try to look for small wins that can eventually be combined into bigger wins. For instance, with buying a new house, choosing an area where you want to look is one small win. You know how to do the research, and you can approach this one thing as its own little challenge. It is completely independent of hiring an agent, packing the moving boxes, or scheduling tours.

One win at a time is all you need. Pull one component out of the big problem, and the big problem isn’t quite as big anymore. Repeat.

Keep pulling this thread, revealing one sub-problem after another. Many, once discovered, will lead to others. Eventually, there is no big problem anymore. Just a name for the campaign you will lead against all these little ones.

3. Make a Plan

Take your list, all of the sub-problems you need to conquer, and figure out your plan of attack. At least a few of them should be ready to go right from the start. These will be independent of the others, and can begin at any time. Other tasks may rely on you finishing these ones first.

Staying with the house example, you can start packing up your boxes to move pretty much anytime. But you can’t really start looking at individual houses before you get an idea of what kind of house you want to look for, or where you want to look.

Another thing to consider is the value of low-hanging fruit. Small wins that are easy to accomplish early on can create big momentum that fuels the later wins.

This step doesn’t need to be too heavily involved, but it does help to give yourself some understanding of how the different pieces of the project interact with each other, and what should happen when.

4. Divide and Conquer

By this point, things should be looking quite manageable, if not flat-out easy. You have decomposed your big scary problem into its meaningful components. You have your to-do list. All that’s left is, and stay with me here, to-do it. Hyeahhhh!

Now that you’ve taken the time, broken it down, and made a plan, your path should be clear. You’re ready to go! Now, instead of facing an insurmountable wall of stress, you can start capably surmounting each brick, one at a time. 

Think like a general first, and then like a soldier: once you have the high-level strategy for your campaign in place, only then is it time to dive into the individual battles.

By internalizing these basic steps and learning how to approach the biggest problems in your life, you’ll quickly start to realize that there are no big problems – just lots of little ones in big trench coats.

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