7 Mental Models For Problem-Solving To Avoid Catastrophic Mess

Problem-solving rarely comes to mind until we’ve implemented a fix. That’s why we often say: “Oh, I had to do this, instead. Not go with the usual fix.” We think more about alternative solutions after we’ve encountered a problem, not before that. Why this is the common way we act? And can we do something about it?

To solve problems faster and better. It’s not enough to have experience in a given field. After all, life places us in all kinds of situations. Incidents where we don’t always have prior knowledge, but we still need to act in some way.

This is among the reasons why it is so difficult to emerge successful in every possible situation. We fail. And we fail often.

Fortunately for us. We can learn basic rules that can be applied to virtually everything.

No, I’m not talking about wishy-washy things like “Believe in Yourself!”

I’m talking about something more practical.

I’m talking about the process of problem-solving.

Good problem-solving is good thinking. And good thinking happens when you add more cognitive shortcuts to your mental toolbox. That is, understand the best mental models for problem-solving.

Why Mental Models Are Important In Problem-Solving?

Mental models are exceptionally useful when dealing with problems. They provide a cure that prevents our flawed way of thinking from steering us towards the wrong choice.

The main benefits are the following three:

  1. Pause and don’t allow your initial solution to be the actual solution.
  2. Understand what type of biases can distort your thinking.
  3. Find better solutions by avoiding assumptions and focusing on real facts.

Now, since we know how mental models help with problem-solving. Let’s see what are the best tools you should consider adding to your mental toolbox:

The 7 Mental Models For Problem Solving:

1. The Map is Not The Territory

The meaning of the expression the map is not the territory is the following: Maps are representations of reality, but they are not reality.

The latter is extremely important.

You can’t blindly trust your GPS device when you drive. You use it for navigation. But you still need to keep your eyes on the road.

With this in mind, think about a recent problem you’ve encountered.

Looking solely at the “map” – statistic, data, what people share. Won’t always solve the problem. Most of the time, you need more information. More real-world data.

Rarely things are exactly like the map. After all, maps don’t show fallen trees and flooded rivers.

Similarly, a resume doesn’t show the actual skills of the person. They only represent what the person thinks he knows. Two different things.

So, when there is an unpleasant situation. Don’t simply stare at data and statistics. Explore the terrain by yourself to see what’s actually happening.

2. Do Something Syndrome

The do something syndrome explains that we are taught to act. When something happens, we want to “do something” with the intention to solve the problem faster.

But doing something is not always the best decision. A lot of times, not doing, is way better.

To illustrate this, think about investing your money in stocks.

If you always do something when stock prices go down, you will not only lose money. You will lose your sanity.

Doing things is a wonderful method to create the illusion of making things better. Making progress. But always doing something is a sure way that will lead to inefficiency and confusion.

When problems arise. Before you act. Pause for a moment and consider doing nothing. You will find out that the opposite of doing – not doing. Is way better on a lot of occasions.

3. First-Conclusion Bias

The first-conclusion bias mental model is an interesting way of thinking we all have.

Charlie Munger explained it best: “The mind works a bit like a sperm and egg: the first idea gets in and then the mind shuts.”

Even if your first idea sounds good. Don’t settle.

Remember that the mind is always trying to save energy. When we’re looking for new solutions to old problems – or problems in general. The moment an idea morphs in your brain is the moment you’ll stop trying hard to find new ideas.

Once you understand that first ideas are the things that block our thinking. Strive to come up with something fresh. Go to a different place. Take a shower. Go for a run. Change your location to stimulate your thinking.

4. Social Proof (Safety in Numbers)

When we see a lot of positive reviews for a product. We are immediately sold on the idea that “this” product is the right one because it has the right amount of reviews.

But before you try to solve your problems with the most expensive solution because it’s flooded with 5-star ratings that we are not sure if they are real. Think about alternatives. What else can you do? Are the reviews real?

When we don’t know how to act, we turn to others for advice. And when many people are doing the same thing, we tend to mimic their behavior.

But is their behavior the thing we should do in our situation?

The safety in numbers mental model explains that we look at the crowd – what others are doing – to justify our behavior. But this doesn’t mean that it’s the right behavior.

For example, if we smoke, even though we know that smoking is bad. We feel fine because there are these other people who do the same. “We can’t all be wrong,” we tell ourselves.

If your thinking is based on the thinking of other people. You’re not thinking at all. 

Don’t accept things simply because they have a nice rating, for example. Or because a lot of people are doing a certain activity. Question everything to find the best solution.

5. Tendency to Distort Due to Liking/Loving or Disliking/Hating

We tend to favor comments and suggestions from people we like and disregard the same things from people we are not particularly close to.

You might be skeptical, but even the people we dislike have things to teach us. 

Conversely, the ones we adore often suggest absurd solutions.

We adjust the way we think about what someone said based on our relationship with the person. How is this helpful, though?

Well, it’s not.

Our tendency to distort our thinking based on how much we like someone is detrimental.

Being objective is crucial when you communicate with others. Don’t add or reduce the value of the statement simply because of how you feel about the person. Think about what the person said. Not who said it.

6. Two-Front War

When you need to make a couple of important decisions. Pause. Don’t try to solve different problems at the same time. Don’t split your cognitive power in different locations. Focus your efforts.

The two-front war mental model explains that when our forces are split, we weaken their power. The same thing happens when we try to solve – or try to do – a couple of things at the same time.

We are stronger when we’re fully concentrated on one thing. So, when confronted with a two-front war, avoid one.

But there is an additional application contrary to the above.

You can deliberately open a two-front war to focus your efforts.

If you’re trying to quit social media, for example, but if you’re too tempted when your smartphone is with you. You can replace the smart device with a flip phone to focus your efforts on something else – figure out how to operate in the smart world with an unsmart device.

7. The Law of Diminishing Returns

When we have a problem, we don’t always need to add more people or more resources to solve the situation. Often, it’s helpful to reduce units or the number of people working on the issue to correct the situation.

Theoretically, the law of diminishing returns means that after a system reaches an optimal level of productivity, adding additional adjustments can result in smaller gains.

For example, let say that you are a construction worker. To increase your salary, you start working 2 hours extra a day. This might work for a bit but after a while. This might lead to burnout and even get you sick. Therefore, more hours do not always mean more pay.

Here’s another example:

Technical progress might allow us to extract more resources from forests, but if we don’t plant trees. And if we don’t wait for them to grow. Eventually, we won’t have forests to extract resources from.

When approaching problems, it’s useful to think about this principle for a lot of reasons. The main one is that you can reduce efficiency by trying too hard to be more efficient.

Some Closing Thoughts

What’s the best solution when facing a problem?

It’s difficult for a person to know. We rely on our prior experience and on what’s visible.

But these two are only part of the reality. To be a bit closer to the best solution depending on the situation. Besides being active learner, we need to consistently challenge our initial assumptions.

Consider the list of mental models above and the shared examples every time when you’re facing a problem.

We don’t make poor decisions. We have a poor decision-making process.

Improving the process will improve the quality of our choices.

Hopefully, the mental models for problem-solving will give you extra power when facing an issue.

For more on mental models, consider the following:

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