Problems Within the Context of Goals: How to Hack Your Brain for Better Problem Solving

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Few things are inherently a problem. Problems can only be observed within the context of values, expectations, and goals. That is, something is a problem because we identify it as one. Does something help you achieve your goal or does it prevent you from reaching it? If it’s the latter, then it’s a problem. But, without a goal in mind, without a path and a finish line, there are no obstacles to be overcome, only scenery we walk past.

In order to better explain, let me borrow your imagination for just a minute. Imagine you’ve been working in an office for over two years. You like your job, you get along with most people, you like the pay. At the company parties, you always have a blast, and so does everyone else. Sometimes your boss treats you and all your co-workers to dinner at the local Indian restaurant. They award you with generous benefits, including three weeks of paid vacation which you’ve used to travel around the world (wherever you’d like to imagine yourself). You’re happy there. But, there’s one thing you don’t like about working here; you have to deal with Sam.

Sam is always saying or doing something that just aggravates you. He often belittles your opinions and makes you feel stupid about them. He constantly preys on your emotions. What’s worse, Sam always thinks he knows better than you and bullies everyone around him verbally. He has a high opinion of himself and as long as he gets his way, and gets the credit, he couldn’t care less about what others want. He’s loud, obnoxious, and the type of person that makes you tense up whenever he enters the room. And, he has a history of stabbing people in the back if he wants them out of the picture. The very sound of his voice causes you anxiety when you hear him coming around the corner.

Your goal is to be as happy as possible at work, and so you stay away from Sam. But, one day, while eating lunch alone in the break room, Sam enters. And, you immediately tense up. He says to you, “What are you eating? Is that ranch dressing in your salad? You know, you should really consider toning it down with that stuff. You ain’t looking like you did two years ago, is all I’m saying.” You immediately feel the pressure start to build, blood start to boil. You remember about all the times you wanted to say something to him but didn’t. All the times he got away with saying something rude to you or one of your friends. You explode, look up at him, red-faced, and shout, “What is your problem, Sam?!

This is, obviously, a rhetorical question. In this hypothetical, you don’t really want to find out what Sam’s “problem” is. We only want him to back off. Yet, whether Sam does, or does not, have a problem is not the question we should be asking. Instead, we should ask ourselves what his goal is. Maybe Sam wants to be nice, and he does have a problem with creating unnecessary conflict, but just doesn’t realize it. Or, maybe annoying others is something he does deliberately. Only by understanding what Sam seeks to accomplish can we understand why he does what he does, whether he has a problem or not, and how he can fix it. The same is true for ourselves.

Something is a problem if you value a given outcome enough to deem it one. But, without knowing what your desired outcome truly is, you can’t know whether something you do — or don’t — is a problem. We may think that something we do is a problem, but maybe it really isn’t. Or, we may be doing or thinking something and not know it’s a problem. Yet, many of us have no idea of what it is we want and so we never truly understand our problems. This is all getting a little bit too abstract, so let me try and illustrate my point with an example — a brief one.

Is a “bad” diet inherently a problem? Not necessarily. Follow me for a second. If good health is your desired outcome, then a bad diet is a problem. However, if you don’t desire to be healthy, or fit, then your bad diet is not a problem for you. If your goal is, instead, to eat what you want, when you want, and as much of it as you want, then eating “bad” foods is how you accomplish your goal — good health be damned. Maybe a healthy body is not something you consider to be a goal right now. If that’s the case, maybe you should ask yourself, “why not?” Maybe, for whatever reason, you’re just not ready to make good health a goal for yourself right now. That’s ok. Or, it might be a goal you have that you’re not working towards (that’s a problem). Your first step is to know your goal, then change your behavior if needed.

I’m not here to tell you what your goals should be. However, I am here to explain the importance of understanding your goals, and why you should have them be as clearly defined as possible. If you don’t, most of your action will be like trying to fill up a paper cup with water that has a hole at the bottom. Yea, you’ll be doing something, but you won’t really be accomplishing anything, not anything that matters, anyway. In the same way, if your goal is to, say, become a kinder person, you aren’t going to accomplish that by consciously being confrontational or not observing that you may sometimes come off as rude.

But, our circumstances can also change our goals. Conflict with others may, or may not, be a problem depending on the situation and your goal within it. Is your goal to find an emotional connection with someone? If so, you should adjust your behavior so that you can accomplish that instead of conflict. But, what if your goal, within a specific situation, is to “straighten” something or someone out. In that case, you’re going to have to be a bit abrasive and seek out some conflict. First, decide on what your goal is, then observe which of your behaviors are preventing you from achieving that goal, then change behavior to better align with reaching the goal. Don’t know how you’ll do it? Knowing your goal is often enough, the how comes later.

So, does the office bully, Sam, have a problem if he’s continuously causing conflict in the office? That depends on what his goal is. Is his goal to be well-liked, to make others feel good or happy, to make their lives just a little bit better, or to energize them through his charisma? If so, then he is failing miserably; he has a problem. Or, is his goal to do the opposite? Does he seek to put others down to make himself feel better, to gain power over them and manipulate, or just a nihilist love of chaos? If so, his actions are not a problem for him, but instead the way he accomplishes his goals. But, that doesn’t mean he’s not an asshole, and someone you should seek to avoid at all costs — he’s still a potential problem for your desire for happiness. Maybe Sam should reconsider his goals, ask himself why he has them, and consider making his own repugnancy a problem.

Let’s practice for a bit using different desired outcomes as examples. As previously said, I’m not here to tell you what your goals should be. It’s up to you to find that out for yourself. But, for the sake of illustrating a point, and practice identifying problems within the context of goals, let’s just say that you’ve decided to make happiness your goal. Next is to identify which of our behaviors are problematic by understanding what behaviors are conducive towards happiness, and which are not.

So, how can you be “happy?” Having satisfying relationships is one way. Being more social has been shown — among many things — to improve your happiness. Don’t have very many friends at the moment? Being happier can also help you generate better relationships! People are more willing to approach you and talk to you when you appear to be happy. Sometimes we don’t have time for human friends, in which case an animal friend can also help. Pet ownership has been shown to be associated with a healthier heart, more human friends, lower rates of depression and, generally, more “happiness.”

And, although it’s a myth that money can’t buy happiness; after a certain threshold is reached, money no longer contributes to happiness. Research has also shown that focusing too much on money tends to cause us to isolate ourselves from others (that won’t make you happy). Also, just faking a smile, even if you’re in a bad mood, tends to make you happier and reduce stress — try it now and notice yourself feeling happier. Interacting with a pet has been shown to improve mood, decrease neurochemicals in the body, and increase happiness. Lastly, how are you sleeping? Generally, the more sleep deprived you are the worse your mood is, the less “happy” you are.

Now that we’ve established some of the behaviors that lead to happiness, it’s time to observe our own behaviors. Do our behaviors lead us towards this, hypothetically, desired happiness? Are we sleeping well, according to our preferred rhythm? Are we making enough money, having satisfying relationships, and smiling often? Behaviors which do not produce more happiness should be labeled as a problem.

What about being more productive? Most of us, for one reason or another, want to be more efficient with our time and work. So, let’s say that we’ve decided to shift our focus away from happiness for a bit and instead focus on being more productive.

It turns out, happiness is conducive towards improved productivity. Focusing on improving your mood can help you achieve more. Alongside the previously mentioned behaviors (sleep, friends, money, pets), practicing gratefulness has been associated with an improved mood, which in turn can lead to improved productivity. That is, remembering, and experiencing, moments in your life for which you are grateful for could help you live a better life. Better sleep, as well as producing better happiness, also leads to improved cognitive performance. In fact, according to psychologists, the cognitive effects of being sleep deprived can be as bad as being drunk!

And, regular exercise not only contributes to a better mood but also a healthier, more productive, brain. Exercise has been shown to relieve depression, improve memory, and increase your sense of self-worth and esteem. Almost all of the things which exercise helps produce are conducive to being more productive. And, in a study out of Penn State focused on finding links between exercise and increased productivity, the researchers arrived at some striking results. They found that people who worked out in the month prior to testing, compared to people who did not, had better memories. Even more interesting, they uncovered that people who worked out on the morning of testing scored even better! Exercise is a powerful tool for a better, more productive, life.

Similar to how we did with happiness as a goal, we’ve now established some behaviors that are conducive towards productivity. Now, it’s time to analyze our own behaviors. Are you sleeping well? Are you exercising? Are you grateful for what you have? If not, consider these things a problem. Change these behaviors.

Lastly, what about being more creative? Artists aren’t the only ones who benefit from a creative mind. Dictionary.com defines creativity as, “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas…” That is, whether you work in business, science, education, or almost any other area, you can benefit from a little bit more creativity. So, while using creativity as our hypothetical goal, how can we improve our creativity?

Happiness, once again, is on the road towards creativity. Research has shown that people who report being “stressed out” are less likely to come up with creative solutions to problems. They found this by lifting people’s mood, by giving them gifts for example, and then monitoring their performance on a few tasks which required problem-solving. Their conclusion is that an overly stressed mind restricts and distracts the mind from generating creative ideas in comparison to those who are in good moods. That is not to say that all stress is bad. Depending on how we frame our stress, it can actually help us perform. The problem, in relation to creativity, is when we experience too much stress or perceive it to be necessarily bad.

Other behaviors which are conducive towards creativity are going for walks, sleep management, and effective resting. Stanford researchers found that people are more creative while they are walking. Compared to people who were sitting, people who walked produced 60% more creative output. And, surprisingly, being sleep deprived has been shown to be associated with improved creativity. It’s hypothesized that sleep deprivation puts your mind in a similar state as when drunk, and facilitates a more “loose” mind. But, of course, too much sleep deprivation comes with its own set of drawbacks. Alongside sleep management, restorative rest has also been shown to help us be more creative. Rest, while not thinking about the things that cause you to stress, allows your mind to wander freely, which results in you often stumbling upon creative solutions and ideas. No rest leads to burnout, which leads to a diminished ability for creativity — as well as overall weaker productivity.

Again, now that we’ve identified the types of behaviors that can help us be more creative, now we can start examining our own. So, want to be more creative? Are you resting well, managing your mood and sleep, and going for walks when possible? Look for other behaviors, which may be better suited for your life and schedule, which will help you be more creative and adopt them.

Identify your problems by looking at your behaviors within the context of clearly defined goals. The goal is yours to decide on. Replace behaviors which are not helping you achieve your clearly defined goal. Behaviors that aren’t helping you achieve your goals, whatever they are, should be labeled as problematic. That is, solve your problems by identifying your goals first.

I hope by now, It’s becoming a little more clear as to why it’s necessary to identify goals before you go about trying to problem solve. But, in order to hammer in my point, I’ll end with a short anecdote.

For years, I’ve dedicated myself to work. Constantly, I would be thinking about work, my next move, the next level, whatever. Even while I was resting I was thinking about getting back to work. I would plan out my greatness, visualize myself as a high-status individual, and take in all the imaginary clout and respect that came along with it. I wanted to achieve significance. I wanted to be someone. I put my head down, worked away, and I did manage to achieve some great things for my career and trajectory. Yet, I never felt satisfied.

After some soul searching, I realized that my desire for significance was, in fact, a desire to be loved. I wanted to be “high-status” not only for the sake of being respected and admired but for the sake of attracting someone that would actually consider me worthy of their attention and love. It was my low self-esteem, coupled with an unwillingness to confront the truth about my goals, that led me down this path. See, if I had confronted this truth I would be confronted with my true weaknesses, weaknesses which were too painful for me, at the time, to face. I didn’t feel strong enough to overcome them. Instead, I convinced myself that my path towards a better life was through achieving greatness through my work. I had no clear idea of what my true goals were, to achieve love, to feel worthy, secure. And because I didn’t understand my goal, I was unable to identify that my work habits were a problem.

Many people fail to identify their goals clearly and so they never get to find out what their true problems are. They work towards things that will never satisfy them but instead provide them with a temporary relief; eventually, it dissipates. In my race to become significant and successful through my work, nothing would’ve ever satisfied my true goals. And, sometimes reaching for one goal makes accomplishing others much more difficult, if not impossible. Which is why it’s so important to identify what you truly want. Sometimes what’s good for some, may not be good for you, or at least not across all situations.

Take, for example, chasing money. There are benefits to having money. Money can help you accomplish much. Families with more money have better health outcomes, their children go on to become better educated, their stress levels are lower and their relationships more stable. Money is a means to almost all ends. Yet, money as a goal unto itself has the power to change you and comes with costs. A study on the psychological effects of exposing to people to thoughts of money — known as money priming —revealed that even subconscious exposure to images of money made people more “selfish,” less willing to help others, more likely to cheat and steal, and more likely to opt to spend time alone! However, money-primed people were also more likely to attempt to problem-solve on their own before seeking help from others. Depending on what your goal is, a focus on money can either be a part of your solution or a big problem.

A messy room is another example of something that has costs but can also provide benefits. Psychologists at Indiana University recently discovered that a clean and orderly house is predictive of better health in the future. A clean house was an even stronger predictor than a safe neighborhood. Cleanliness has also been found to improve mental health, lead to lower levels of stress hormones, and increase our ability to focus. However, messiness is not all bad. Messy rooms have also been found to be correlated, in numerous studies, with greater creativity. Some social scientists argue that this is because a messy room leads people “away from convention,” and to constantly having to find “new directions.” So, room orderliness has many benefits, but at the expense of some of your creativity.

Even happiness has a cost. Smiling will make you happier and more approachable. But, is that really what you want all the time? There is value in being alone. Being without the constant positive or negative feedback from others allows us to discover what it is we want, and who we are. Happiness creates all sorts of positive outcomes for us, like improved intuition and creativity, but there might be times when it’s better to experience whatever emotion your brain wants you to feel — sadness, anger, regret are all functional emotions which exist for a reason.

Often, we fail to accurately identify our primary goals, as I did when I chased work, and it ends up costing us. Working to be more productive is great! But, what are you being productive for? Being productive is a goal within another goal, a means to an end, and identifying it as your primary goal could lead to you having an “empty” existence, without meaning. So, ask yourself these things: What is my true goal? What is it that I really desire? What exactly am I working towards? To understand this is to understand yourself and the trajectory of your future, where your actions guide you, and the things you should change about yourself. That is, without knowing what your goals are, you can’t fully understand your problems, let alone how to fix them.

Knowing this, I hope you will decide to use your new power for good. That the goal you decide upon is the one that will truly fulfill you, not guided by fear and hate and not the one that could drive you deeper into whatever hole you may be in at the moment. I hope that you decide to create positive change, for yourself and for others, rather than to destroy and tear down. Good luck, fellow traveler.

Sociology and Demography guy with hobbies in the finance world. Fatherhood and family structure research.

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