Identify the Problem.


My Eighth Personal Commandment is to Identify the problem. That is, when you’re annoyed, angered, or frustrated, ask yourself, “What exactly is the problem here?”

This rule seems so obvious that it’s hard to explain why it’s so tremendously helpful, but it has been the one of my most major happiness-project breakthroughs.

You might think, “This doesn’t make any sense. If I have a problem, how it is possible that I haven’t identified it?”

But I’ve realized that I’ve put up with a problem or an irritation for years, because I haven’t actually examined the actual nature of the problem, and therefore, hadn’t seen how it might be solved. Mindfulness! So much of happiness, in the end, boils down to mindfulness (unfortunate for me, because I find mindfulness very challenging).

Now I’m disciplining myself to ask, “What’s bugging me? Why is something not working? What’s the problem here?”

One problem I identified: I was snappish and frustrated in the mornings, because I felt so rushed. Solution? I started getting up earlier so I have time to get myself organized before my family awakes, and although that’s tough, it has transformed our mornings. Along the same lines, I’ve stopped checking my email before bed. I used to check it as the last step in my evening, to have as little as possible to deal with in the morning, but I realized that often, answering emails would wake me up, so I’d go to sleep later. Which I didn’t want to do, given that I’ve started getting up earlier! So now I try to resist email after 9:00 pm or so.

Maybe you hate your job. Why? What exactly is the problem? Do you dislike your boss or colleagues? Are you bored? Do you feel that your job lacks social value? Is it too stressful? Do you feel that you don’t have time for other priorities? Do you lack the tools, equipment, or training that you need? Are you anxious about getting fired? Are you doing this job instead of pursuing a dream? Once you identify the problem, possible steps to a solution may be clearer.

A lawyer friend of mine thought she hated her job, but when she identified the exact problem, she realized she really hated her commute. She started listening to books on tape, which she loved, and as trivial as that change was, just that one tiny step had a huge influence on her daily happiness with her work life.

Look for an area of your life that’s not working. Are you having trouble paying bills on time? Do you never manage to get to the gym? Are you chronically late? Do you dislike certain rooms in your house? Are you having conflicts with your colleagues? Take the time to pinpoint the actual source of the problem, and you may be astonished at how simple a solution might be.

  • What perfect timing, I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions lately. So much so that I had to write an ebook on it. When we stop asking ourselves questions, we just accept what is without fully comprehending the full impact of the situation or problem. At times, accepting what is is perfectly natural and fine. Other times, it’s not. It is during those times we need to ask why and then demand honest responses from ourselves.

  • Kathy

    I find that sometimes, when I’m angry or frustrated and I don’t know why, it’s because there’s something that I really want or need to do that I’m either 1) ignoring or 2) doing other things instead. John Barth wrote in a novel, “You always do what you want to do.” or something like that. Sometimes, when I’m in this “angry for some unknown reason” mood, it’s because I’m not doing what I want to do. When I realize that, I stop doing the the thing that’s interfering and do the thing I want to instead. Then, I can return to whatever else I was doing in a better mood. The trick is, as you point out, being mindful enough to sort out the thing you want to do.

  • Good tip for the morning, I get kinda cranky in the morning too just because I try to get out of the house earlier to avoid the morning traffic but usually I can’t because there are so many things to do, and its always hard to get up early…But i guess 30 minutes of stresful sleep(Stressful sleep is what I have in the morning right before I wake up, i would be in that half sleep half awake mode and worrying about getting up) in the morning is not going to help much really…

  • Oh identifying problems is so crucial, but often they take looking at ourselves, and others, with new eyes, which can be tricky. I wrote an article on seeing with new eyes. I’d love to hear how others go about achieving that.

    Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness. That is turning out to be my new mantra.

    My yoga teacher said today “I breathe, therefore I am.” Clearly that is biologically true, but it is also a great way to see your true identity. Breathe deeply, focus on your breath and the world around you becomes so much clearer.

    I so appreciate your practical approach to happiness. Thanks!

  • Melissa

    This is one of my favorite concepts from the book! I remember your example of hanging up your coat. Reason – you hate hangers. Solution – a coat hook. brilliant!

    This is small, but my example is unloading the dishwasher – I HATE IT. But then I examined what the problem was. The cupboards were too full and I hated try to shove everything in there. Plus, I am short and I hated trying to get cups and plates on the top shelves. Solution? I thinned out the cupboards and put the things I use most frequently on the lowest shelf. Helped tremendously.

    Another tip for dealing with dreaded tasks – I think I saw it on – is time your most hated task. So I timed how long it took to unload the dishwasher – 4 minutes. The thought being we think that anything we hate doing takes SUCH A LONG TIME. I can do anything for 4 minutes!

    • nielmalan

      Timing is a great tool! I never could make time to sweep out my tiny flat, until I discovered (by accident) that it took less time to sweep the floor than it takes for the kettle to boil.

  • Robyn

    Sometimes I think we avoid to Identifying the Problem b/c we are afraid of what it will take to seek a solution and solve the problem.

  • Qconklin

    So true. we get wrapped up in the feelings of the problems and do not take the time to look for the reason behind them. Taking a few minutes or hours as the case may be to analyze our likes and dislikes can be quiet powerful in helping us be happier.

  • LivewithFlair

    Very nice advice here. I’m still trying to figure out the root cause of my inability to lose the last 10 pounds. I think it might have something to do with the ice-cream that’s too accessible! Mindfulness!

  • i COMPLETELY identify with this post! sometimes ‘the problem’ can be as trivial for me as ‘too much surface clutter on the desk where i am working’ or ‘need to drink some water/eat a snack’ or ‘uncomfortable shoes’. but it’s so easy to just sit there and be annoyed without thinking about WHY sometimes!

    recently, when i start to freak out about something (receiving a whole bunch of pages in a row while i’m on call, for example) i think of your advice to put myself in jail and carefully step back to dissect the situation as to why i feel so bad at that moment. often the answer is something simple like the above.

    excellent post!

  • I am not a morning person. But I was constantly trying to get up earlier to have time to work on creative writing projects — and failing miserably. But I discovered that what I needed was a writing outlet, so I started a blog. I haven’t been successful at it for long, but now that I have a reason to get up earlier in the morning (as early morning is a good quiet time to write), it’s starting to become easier to get out of bed!

  • Ayah

    After reading “The Happiness Project,” this simple idea has been one of the most helpful. As you pointed out in one of your examples, I am constantly LATE, which is a huge source of stress whenever I am going anywhere…work, appointments, and social events. It certainly detracts from the fun aspect of an activity when I’m speeding like a maniac and yelling at my husband, “We’re going to be late for canoeing!!” When I finally stopped to ask myself ‘what’s really going on here?’ I realized that I’m usually late because I’m always trying to squeeze in one last thing before I go. One more email, one more chore, one more page in my book, and on and on. Things have been going much better since I’ve started telling myself, ‘just leave it and go now.’ It’s amazing how much more enjoyable driving has become!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve heard that this is a very frequent issue for people who are often late
      — the desire to take care of just one more thing before leaving.

      One solution that was suggested was to think of a task to do once you arrive
      someplace; that way, you can feel that you’re getting that one thing done,
      but on the other end.

  • nielmalan

    I’m quite ‘attached’ to my laptop and the internet. I had the problem that I would check my email before work. This would then lead to surfing the web and then working, encroaching on my private time.I think I identified the problem as the fact that checking my email is a pretty automatic reaction.The solution I came up with is not to waste willpower on preventing myself from going online, but to simply pack away my laptop ready to leave for work in the morning.

  • SarahHP

    I always found mornings hectic (as every working mum does). I realised that my totally messy closet and my super disorganised underwear was eating into my getting ready time. Inspired by Gretchen’s closet cleaning I had a total blitz (evicting all of the random non clothes stuff that had snuck in their – including a massive super man costume that my husband bought last halloween). I’ve cleared out all of the winter items that were taking up all of the space. The star of the show is my new super organised underwear basket. No more searching for socks when I should have already left to catch the early train.

    I also used to use my blackberry as my alarm clock. Because I needed to switch on to activate the alarm I always ended up checking work emails too and getting my head into work mode instead of winding down to sleep. I’ve started using a regular alarm – much better!

  • Joless

    I realised fairly recently that I get easily ‘over-peopled’ and I need some silent and alone downtime to recover. I didn’t mention this to my SO for ages as I thought she should be able to work it out herself, so she carried on thinking I was being grumpy and rude (I tend to hide away when I feel like this which is seen as rude when staying with her family). Once I explained how I felt, she now understands and will defend me when I just need a break.

  • Another great reminder about how to live proactively in life. I always try to catch your blog during lunch time, and it reminds me of ways to keep focussed.

    I think that a lot of times we can’t identify what the real issues are in life because of all the stress that we have. There never seems to be enough time to relax and enjoy life.

    I think when we can relax, our “problems” become clear. And when we can deal with those mental blocks one at a time is when life is great.

    Like your book states. Focus on having a mental diet and only think about positive and productive thoughts. I’ve found that so helpful in my own life recently and for business.

  • I should learn this lesson Melissa – the solution becomes obvious once you get to the root of the problem.

    The timing method is great too; I should teach my husband that one because he’s always leaving things because he thinks it will take too much of his evening up.

  • I think I’ll spend some time today considering my root problem. I don’t know what it is, but the symptoms are not wanting anything to do, watching mindless TV, not wanting to go to bed, not wanting to get up, not wanting to interact with anyone (except my husband).

    I do have a couple of chronic conditions and experience a lot of pain, but I manage that area quite well; this is definitely a problem rooted in my mind somewhere…

    • Georgia

      Ryah, pain is the answer to the problem, not just teh symptom. Have you tried Louise Hay’s little blue book of symptoms? she’ll give you a clue as to what you’re ignoring consciously. She changed my life with ‘you can heal your life’.
      Good luck!

  • I just loved this post! We always waste our time being upset about something, when in reality we don’t even know exactly what it is that’s making us so unhappy. Just taking a few minutes to really think over our problems can be one of the most helpful solutions. I’m making a promise to myself right now that I won’t be angry unless I know exactly what I’m angry about (and by that time, maybe I won’t even want to be angry about it anymore)!

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Tzipi

    Why is it always the simpliest questions that make the biggest difference? This is a great tip for breaking a negative thought pattern and to stop being a complaint waiting to happen or angry waiting to happen.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Georgia

    Hi Kathy! your comment really resonated with me, I’ve been really grouchy for about three days and driving my husband crazy. Started a blog actually to talk it out! Just have to listen to my heart, but it’s been buried under ‘shoulds’ and ‘ have tos’ for so long…

  • Georgia

    Hi Taron, ME TOO!! I think this is exactly what gets me down, the feeling of not getting anywhere, or writing. what’s your blog address? if you’re interested I’d be really happy to swap addresses?

  • Linda

    This is a good post, I stumbled across your post while looking for downloads. Thanks for sharing, I’ll be sure to come back.

  • janice

    My saying is ‘escape a problem, by BEING the solution.’ Something I live by.

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