Reframing complex issues into small, solvable logical puzzles can drastically improve your motivation and enjoyment. Learn how to turn daunting tasks into fuel for success.

When I was a kid, I quickly discovered I really enjoyed logic puzzles. In high school, we had a casual “IT basics” class that I mostly spent playing “The Incredible Machine“. That game was basically a Rube-Goldberg Simulator on steroids.

In this one you have to shoot the cat. Good job, teacher.

To this day, I still get a real dopamine kick out of solving logical puzzles. No wonder I found a career path in software engineering. 90% of my job is turning a business need into a series of puzzles to be resolved.

Nagged by broken things

I get really irked when I see a system in a non-working state. I’m compulsed to find out what doesn’t work, tinker with it until it works, then ensure it will keep working. It’s both a matter of personal satisfaction (success feels good) and professional ethics (I’m hired to turn problems into solutions).

I practice what I call “Fuck you-based development“. I’m motivated by the feature request, or the bug report nagging me until I’m done with it. It’s like a fight. When it’s finally down, I can say “you thought you had me? Well, fuck you, code.”

Until recently though, I only applied this approach to software. Fortunately, it can work with everything, from business development to human interaction.

Reframe a problem into a puzzle

A problem is a vague, undefined circumstance, with lots of entry points, and distant potential exits. It’s something that you have, and until you can grasp why it exists and how to deal with it, it’s practically unsolvable.

When you reframe any complex situation into one (or more) puzzles, it becomes something that first, you can understand on logical terms, second something you can actually solve.

The process comes in 3 steps :

3 steps for solving problems

#1: Identify the root causes

We’re used to looking at symptoms of problems, and as soon as we find a symptom, we address it without searching any further. This approach is almost always flawed. A bug can be caused by a change several dozens files away, weight gain can be caused by sleep deprivation, etc.

The underlying cause can be hidden, and it also can be multiple. A combination of seemingly unrelated events, changes, can compound into a problem somewhere else. When you think you have found the root of the issue, keep digging. There might be an aggravating/contributing factor hidden deeper or further.

#2: Solve the underying puzzle

Armed with the knowledge of the underlying cause, you can now solve an actual problem. Formulate a hypothesis, then implement your solution. Restrain yourself to the scope of your puzzle. Wanting to change too many things at once is a mistake.

Think carefully about the scope of your solution. Will it affect other areas of the system? Does it come with drawbacks? Are you creating a net positive, rather than unbalancing your sysem as whole, in essence shifting the problem elsewhere?

#3: Verify continued success

You’ve implemented your hypothesis to solve the problem, now you need a way to be sure that it was the right one. In software development, you would write automated tests to check that your code does the right thing. For a diet, you’d weigh yourself every day over a month to check if you lost weight.

This last step is often forgotten. It’s easy (and comforting) to blindly believe you have solved a problem, but if you don’t have any sort of before/after metric, you have no way of knowing if you actually solved anything. You might even have made things worse.

Feelings don’t count. “I think that…” or “I feel that…” don’t mean anything.

Without any insurance of success, you also don’t get that victory dopamine rush.

Solving problems is addictive

That “fuck you!” moment is a reward you give yourself, in the form of a surge of dopamine. This process is both chemically and psychologically addictive. Once you start framing your job, your personal life and pretty much everything you do in solvable puzzles, you’ll get in a habit of self-reward for solving them.

This mechanism is a huge boon for productivity and self-esteem. 

As with all addictions, you’ll crave problem solving after a while. That’s where that nagging feeling I get when I come across a broken system comes from. You will have a need, on a physical level, to fix things around you.

That’s a good thing. Things around you that don’t work take a toll on you.

Machinery Mechanical Cogs Gears Machine
Even one broken cog can make a system crumble.

Broken systems are unhealthy

I used to wait until the last minute to do important tasks, and live within a storm of unfinished business and pending disasters. I’d think about them at night to the point of keeping me awake.

Every one of these pending issues is quite literally a permanent muscle ache. I could physically feel them taking their daily toll. Compare that with an irresistible urge to solve them, and the choice comes easy.

Easy issues that I would agonize over turned out to be 5-minute fixes. Don’t let broken pieces of your systems accumulate to the point you grind to a halt. When there are too many things to think about, you can’t reason clearly.

Fix the easy ones first, amp up your motivation for the more complex, time consuming issues. 

With time, solving small puzzles compounds into incredible motivation, and the more things you fix around you, the easier complex issues appear. Decomposing issues becomes second nature, and you’ll crave trickier challenges. That’s how you move up.

Lessons learned

I’ve gained a lot by applying the Puzzle Method to all areas of life, from health & fitness to learning new professional skills. Problems don’t have to be black boxes of unknown quantities.

I’ve found that I get substantial personal rewards from reframing complex issues into solvable chunks. Not only that, it makes any task easier to approach and more enjoyable.

You need a technique to move forward through life. This one certainly works.

Do you have similar techniques? I’m interested in comparing notes. Comment below or hit me up on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

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