5 Steps to Problem-Solving

Finding Your Way from Worry to Resolution

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Whether you are an intermittent worrier, or suffer from the chronic, uncontrollable worry characteristic of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), the good news is that some of your worries may well be solvable. A solvable worry is a worry about a here-and-now (not future) problem about which you could theoretically do something, if you could get yourself to stop ruminating about it.

For examples of solvable worries, see this related post.

The initial phase of active problem-solving involves slowing yourself down and sorting out solvable from unsolvable worries. [Remember: unsolvable worries might respond to interventions such as challenging the premise or letting it go, even briefly, by applying relaxation.] Once you’ve picked a worry to target, it must be defined accurately and simply, with specificity and without bias or harsh self-judgment.

If you’ve got a clear, solvable worry, such as “I have two major exams and three papers that are longer than anything I’ve written before to complete by the end of this term,” it’s time to move through the five steps of problem-solving:

1. Brainstorm possible solutions. There are usually lots of ways to solve a given problem. Sometimes, people become fixated on the first solution that comes to mind. But the first idea is not always the best, so it’s worth your while to come up with a variety of possibilities.

In the brainstorming stage, do not be overly concerned with practicality or effectiveness. Focus on creativity and generating a reasonably extensive and specific menu of options. If you feel stuck at this step, consider asking trusted friends, family, or clinicians for help or doing some research online.

Sample options for the worry stated above include:

  • Asking for an extension on one of the papers at the outset.
  • Evaluating in the middle of the semester whether an extension will be necessary.
  • Breaking down assignments and study tasks into the smallest possible chunks and plotted intermediate goals on a calendar.
  • Dropping a course entirely.
  • Switching a more demanding course for a less demanding course.
  • Hand in papers late.
  • Feign illness on the exam day and make up the test at a later point.
  • Seeking guidance from campus academic tutoring resources and setting up regular check-ins with staff during the semester.

2. Decide on a solution. If you struggle with anxiety, picking a solution can be challenging. A need for the “perfect” solution might interfere with selecting one of many reasonable solutions. Remember, if a “perfect” solution was easily within reach, you would probably have already found it. Instead, make the goal a “best” solution.

If your list is still not narrowed down to a single choice, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of your remaining contenders with questions such as:

  • Will this solution fix my problem adequately?
  • How much time and effort will this solution (and its repercussions) require?
  • Will this choice cause more problems for me later on?
  • How will this option make me feel?
    • Some of the options brainstormed above (for example, faking sick or turning in papers late without explanation) might result in feeling guilty or more anxious. If the solution would make you feel very bad, it’s not the best option for you.
  • What are the pros and cons of this solution in short-term? And, in the long-term?

3. Implement the plan. When it’s time to act, you might be worried that you’ve selected the wrong solution or have not yet thought of the best solution. But at this point, it is truly better to something than to do nothing at all.

An action plan might be in order to help you carry out your solution.

Let’s say you’ve decided to break down your assignments into smaller parts. An action plan could include:

  • Creating a calendar for the semester with weekly goals related to your assignments.
  • Blocking off time every Sunday evening to use the weekly goals to develop a list of daily goals for the upcoming week.
  • Rearranging work or social plans to allow adequate time to meet goals each day/week.
  • Setting up a system to reward yourself along the way as you meet your goals.

4. Evaluate the outcome. After you’ve tried your plan, step back and reflect on how it’s going – what is and isn’t working. What doesn’t work could likely be explained in a number of ways. First, there may be unforeseen circumstances that arise. Or, there could be an aspect of the problem that was not fully understood. Perhaps the solution was too hard to stick to, or your goal was not realistic.

Remember, despite great plans and great intentions, solutions will sometimes fail. This need not be a reflection on you and if you’re thinking it is, you might be suffering from some misperceptions (also known as cognitive distortions) that need to be addressed before you proceed.

5. Revise and/or repeat. If you’re plan worked well, stick with it. If it didn’t, make some adjustments and re-evaluate the outcome. Or, depending on the reasons it didn’t work, consider trying to implement a new plan from your list of options.


Nezu A.M., Nezu C.M., & D’Zurilla T.J. (2007) Solving Life’s Problems: A 5-Step Guide to Enhanced Well-Being. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.

Wright J.H., Basco M.R., & Thase M.E. (Eds.) (2006). Learning Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Core Competencies in Psychotherapy Series (Series Ed.: Gabbard, G.O.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.

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