Perspective is a funny thing. It’s also the most important problem solving technique I know of.

So, a while ago I decided to get all handy and spackle and caulk the entire house. The entire freakin’ house. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that imminent doom is right around the corner. Top to bottom, any and all cracks – they were gonna get filled. That’s all fine and dandy, except that reaching some places requires a ladder.

It’s worth mentioning here that I am deathly afraid of heights.

At the end of the day, I finally stopped procrastinating – it was time to tackle the highest wall in our house.

So, I bravely charged up the ladder. In my mind, I was one of those rockstar climbers at the gym scaling the 30 foot climbing wall with grace and ease. Never mind the time I fractured a bone in my foot jumping off a ladder after unsuccessfully spraying a wasp nest. Belay on, bitches – I got this.

My wife later informed me that it was more reminiscent of a dog running from the vacuum cleaner – up a ladder.

Whichever version of that story you choose to believe, know this: I spackled the crap out of the highest wall in our house.

Climbing down to admire my work, I moved the ladder and noticed the rubber tips of the ladder had smudged the wall. If you know me, you know I have only two mortal enemies: unfinished work and smudges.

Two black smudges. Looking down on me. Me looking up at them. A showdown. Like Clint Eastwood and a folding chair. Like I said, perspective is a funny thing.

My day-long spackle-and-caulk rampage and monkey-esque scaling of the ladder left me with no other choice than to decide they were too high for anyone to really notice. Translation: I had no freakin idea how I was going to reach the smudges if I couldn’t use a ladder.

I didn’t have a gripper (you know, one of those things short people like me use to get cans off of high shelves) long enough, the mop wasn’t long enough, and anything else extendable didn’t have the right kind of attachment to even hold a wet rag.

As an aside: you might be sensing that problem with “smart people” is that “smart people” don’t do obvious things like place shop towels over the ends of the ladder to avoid smudging the wall. That’s a story for another day.

So there they were – two black smudges. Unfinished work and smudges. My mortal enemies.

Mocking me.

I berated myself for not using shop towels, for leaving the most difficult task to the end, for leaving embarrassing smudges up on the wall.

Does this sound familiar? Maybe your project isn’t spackling your house. Maybe it’s relaunching your website. Maybe it’s figuring out how to get another 100 subscribers. Or sell another widget. You struggle and winge and hem and haw. Then you blame yourself for screwing around and not fixing the problem and letting it get worse and worse and take up more space in your head.

So what’s the deal? How do you get out of this problem-solving death spiral? Give yourself some perspective.

  1. Realize that Anxiety is Natural – anxiety is healthy, but in excess, it can cause you to shut down completely. Self-doubt, panic, and frustration aren’t inherently useful emotions. If you shut down completely, you can’t…
  2. Find the Core of the Problem– the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath outlines three resources that are available to solve problems: The Elephant, The Rider, and The Path. The Elephant is your emotional attachment. The Rider is your intellectual attachment. The Path is the process to get from A to Z. If any one of those resources is missing or conflicted with another, you get stuck – that’s the core of the problem.The “core” of the problem in my case was really simple (the smudges are too damn high to reach and my tools and thinking weren’t giving me a solution). In short, I didn’t have a clear path to solve my problem. I was motivated emotionally. I knew tactically how to solve the problem, if only I could get in the right position.A minor note here: Often times, the “core” is not going to be visible to you until you get rid of the emotional attachment to being stuck. Everybody loves an underdog story, so people naturally have an attachment to being stuck. It’s easy to find people who can sympathize with you about their own roadblocks – and by doing so, keep you stuck longer.
  3. Reframe and Leverage – reframing the problem is pretty simple. Sometimes it’s about cataloging your tools or finding a new point of view. In my case, I inventoried a larger array of tools – everything from duct tape to mops. I also tried different angles, smaller ladders, anything I could to reach the smudges. I realized that I needed a mop with an extra-long handle. I had a lightbulb changer – the kind that can reach thirty feet, but the grip meant to hold a lightbulb couldn’t hold anything that would clean the smudges off – or so I thought. Because I’d gone to the trouble of inventorying all my supplies, I knew I had duct tape and Mr. Clean Magic Erasers. Leveraging my supplies, I had my solution.

I had figured out what to do. I snagged the lightbulb pole and stuffed a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser in the lightbulb holder. I wrapped some duct-tape around the gripper to hold the eraser in place.

Graceful as swatting flies with a sledgehammer, I managed to get the scuffs off the wall.

Problem Solved. You’re next, Bacon Shortage.

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnivals, a round-up of small-biz bloggers writing on a common theme. This month’s theme: The Art and Science of Problem Solving. Check out all the Carnie bloggers here!

(Photo credit: Perspective)