When (and When Not to) Use Your Brain’s “Problem Solving App”

Brain problem solvingMuch like a computer, our brains have many different functions. They store our memories, they control our physical movements, they silently monitor our environments for important or dangerous stimuli, and, of course, they help us solve problems. You might even think of these varied functions of our brains as different programs or apps. And believe it or not, knowing when and how to use these various apps is not always obvious. This is especially true when it comes to our “problem solving app.”

Our ability to solve problems is amazing. We are extremely adept at analyzing the various parts of a problem, identifying potential solutions, and putting a plan into action. It’s what allows us to figure out a childcare solution on a snow day, handle a semester of 20 credits, and plan and successfully carry out that Florida vacation. It’s also what has allowed us to cure diseases and send a rover to Mars. But this amazingness can also lead us to overuse this function of our brains. We can start to see everything in life as a “problem” to be fixed, and our “problem solving app” as the solution. And when we use the problem solving app in situations when it’s not helpful, that’s when we get stuck, trying and trying and trying to fix problems that refuse to be solved.

Here are some tips for breaking free of the problem-solving app addiction…

1. Realize that not everything you dislike in life is a problem. Here are some characteristics of a normal life that we can often mistakenly perceive as “problems:”

  • Making mistakes. Far from being a problem, mistakes are essential to learning and success.
  • Not saying the perfect thing in social interactions. You’ve done it before and you will definitely do it again. No matter how many times you review your performance in your head.
  • Not having the physical appearance you want. Small changes are possible. You can always excercise, diet, get a makeover. But you’ll never be able to trade in your body for a completely new one. To some degree, what you see is what you get.
  • Being faced with risk. It is not possible to live your life without taking on some risk.
  • Not knowing what decision you should make. Until someone invents a time machine, we’ll all have to accept some uncertainty in this area.
  • Being anxious and/or uncomfortable. Life causes anxiety.
  • Watching others think and behave in ways you don’t like. Another inescapable part of life, no matter how much you dwell on it.
  • Not having as much time as you would like. If you’re living a full life, you will not have the time to get everything perfect.
  • Having thoughts and feelings you don’t like. You’re brain is a creative, thought generating machine with no filter. And it’s also a mess of emotions that don’t always make sense.
  • Being unsure / Feeling confused / Not knowing exactly what you should do. You are one person in a big, complex universe. Don’t expect to be on top of things at all times.

2. The brain’s problem solving app is not always the answer. For many “problems” there is not a thinking solution. Look at the list above and ask yourself how much your thinking will ever change any of those aspects of reality. Keep an eye out for the following habits. These may be signs that you may be using your “problem solving app:” Trying to “figure things out” all of the time, reviewing past situations over and over in your head, trying to predict what will happen in the future, trying to change things about the world that are outside of your control, over-thinking, constantly analyzing, and being overly critical.

3. Stop thinking. Start living. You’ve got to know when to close that “problem solving app” in your brain. And you also have to know what to do instead. Get out there and live your life. Do something that stimulates your senses. Listen to others without analyzing their every word. Have thoughts and feelings you don’t like without trying to get rid of them. Tap into that part of your brain that simply observes and accepts the world without judgment, and doesn’t analyze everything. Keep moving. Keep doing. And realize you’re going to slip. You’re going to keep turning on that “problem solving app.” Just catch yourself doing it, and see if you can gradually reduce your screen time.