How to Solve an Unsolvable Problem

Posted on February 7, 2013

coffeeFeeling stuck in a bad situation?
Two simple questions may be your ticket out.
by Amy Yeager

Until a few days ago, I had an unsolvable problem. Or at least, I was fully convinced that my problem couldn’t be solved. The subject of today’s post is the strategy that gave me an answer in less than 10 minutes.

Here’s my problem: I have no relaxing down-time by myself. I’m a working mom of twin babies, which means my waking life is divided between three places: my home (where I’m constantly with babies or cleaning and prepping for them), my office, and, once a week, the grocery store. So while I do have a happy life—I love both my family and my job, and even my grocery store—the introvert in me fantasizes about lounging in a café with nothing but a mug of chai for company.

For weeks I’ve had this issue simmering in the back of my mind, but I never did anything constructive about it. I couldn’t imagine there was anything constructive I could do. The turning point for me was realizing that I did have a strategy to try. It’s right in our book, in the chapter on complaints. The idea is simple: When you’re feeling stuck and helpless, you ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do I want?
  2. What proposal can I make to help get that to happen?

You often need to repeat those questions several times, probing a little deeper each time.

When you take the time to think deeply about what you want and how you could get it, the results can be amazing. However, when you feel really stuck, this may be challenging to do. In the remainder of this post, I’ll share a few tips that can help you reach a solution, just as they did for me.

Tip #1: Admit that your negative prediction might be wrong.
You might not even bother trying the two-question strategy because you’re convinced it won’t work for your particular situation. Trust me, I understand. Even though this strategy had worked for me many times in the past—even though I teach it, and I’ve seen it work for dozens of other people—I was sure that my down-time problem couldn’t be solved. Fortunately, all I had to do was muster up a faint hope that I might find a solution, and the awareness that it was tough to do that alone. Which brings me to the second tip.

Tip #2: Ask for help.
When you’re having a hard time thinking through your problem on your own, get someone else to coach you. Have them ask you the two questions, as many times as necessary, and help you refocus if you get off-track. I was lucky to have a great coach available right in my office: Ben Benjamin (co-author, co-trainer, and supremely level-headed person).

Tip #3: Tackle one issue at a time.
Do you ever find that as you’re trying to solve one problem, your mind keeps wandering to another related problem that’s bothering you? For me, that problem is sleep. In addition to wanting time to myself, I also long for more restful nights. It’s difficult for me to talk about anything else that I want without relating it to the sleep issue. (For instance, “Maybe I should be using any alone time just to sleep more.” “Maybe I won’t feel such a need to relax once I’m sleeping better.” And so on.) Your coach can help you, as mine did, to stay focused on just one topic.

Tip #4: Focus on yourself, not on other people.
To come up with practical solutions, it’s important to think about what you want for yourself, rather than what you want from someone else. That hasn’t been a problem for me in thinking about down-time, but it does come up with the sleep issue. In considering what I want, my first thought is always “I want them to start sleeping through the night.” As anyone with children knows, hoping for spontaneous positive change from a baby is a recipe for disappointment. I have a much better chance of success when I think instead, “I want six hours of uninterrupted sleep.”

Tip #5: Come up with the answers yourself.
Ask your coach to avoid the temptation to give you advice. Not only is it much more empowering for you to come up with a solution yourself; you’re the only one who really knows what type of solution will work for you. For example, Ben would never have thought up the solution that ultimately worked for me.

What was my solution? How did I manage to arrange that elusive private time I so desired? As I kept answering those two questions (we did three rounds), I realized that what I really wanted was time at a relaxing location doing something engaging that I enjoy. Like writing. Which is part of my job. So I can get exactly what I want just by doing what I get paid to do, somewhere else. You might notice that next week’s blog seems a little more energized; I plan to write it at a café, caffeinated beverage in hand. (Oh, and I may also be better rested. I’m solving my sleep problem by going to bed an hour earlier.)

Now it’s your turn. Go ahead and try this strategy for your own problem. If it doesn’t work for you, let us know. Often just a little bit of coaching does the trick. If it does work, spread the word! Share the two-question solution with anyone you know who could use fewer unsolvable problems in their life.


February 8, 2013 at 8:28 pm by Shea

Dear Amy
That was just good. A good simple set of ideas for some our most stuck moments.
Thank you,

February 9, 2013 at 8:08 am by Crystal

You are the boss of your life. Awesome.

February 9, 2013 at 1:19 pm by Amy Yeager

Thank you! Glad you liked it!

February 12, 2013 at 11:56 am by Juli Fellows

There was a subtle but very powerful bit in there that spoke to me and I hope everyone notices. I think the difference between asking what you want for yourself and what you want from other people is missed by most of us AND can be a real turning point. Thanks for highlighting that big difference!

February 12, 2013 at 9:20 pm by Judy Ng

Thank you for sharing useful tips though they are not new. Sometimes, we just need to know we are not going through such overwhelmed feelings alone. 😉

February 13, 2013 at 11:04 am by Amy Yeager

I agree, Juli. I think this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in trying to get what we want. I too hope others note this point!

February 13, 2013 at 11:11 am by Amy Yeager

And Judy, I feel the same way. Often challenges that feel very personal are actually shared to some extent by many others, and it can help to be reminded of that. (Repeatedly!)