Dealing with Frustration

Solving problems is ultimately a very rewarding enterprise, but every problem–solver has to deal with frustration at some time or another. We have all had the experience of being confronted with a problem that we just can’t solve. If you are working on a problem that just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and you find yourself going around in circles, consider the following strategies:

- Spend adequate time on the basic understanding phase before trying anything fancy.
- Step back and think about what you are doing. Ask yourself if your method is appropriate. Can it be applied in a different way? Is there information given in the problem that you haven’t used? *Be careful, there may be information given implicitly as well as explicitly.* Are there alternative ways to represent the information?
- Keep an eye on the big picture. Make yourself return to it periodically, if need be. Ask yourself, “Why am I pursuing this line of thought? What might I reasonably expect to gain by it?
- Do not perform complex or detailed calculations until you have explored alternatives and have determined that there is clear justification for them, or unless other stages of the problem solving process have lead you to the point where the results of the calculations are either necessary or will clearly prove useful.
- When all else fails, take a break from the problem. Chances are, if you have been going around in circles for a while, you are now tired and not at your best. In addition, ideas you have been working on are foremost in your mind. It is hard to let go and put them aside so that you can come up with new ideas. Do something else for a while and come back to the problem later. You will be more likely to come up with fresh ideas, or see something you missed the first time. If you have put sufficient effort into the problem before leaving it, you may find that your subconscious will continue working on the problem while you are away.