Gretchen Rubin

Identify the problem.

One of my Twelve Commandments for Happiness is “Identify the problem.” But, you might think, if I have a problem, how it is possible that I haven’t identified it?

But I’ve realized that I’ll put up with a problem or an irritation for years, because I haven’t actually examined the nature of the problem and how it might be solved.

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

One of my great “Identify the problem” breakthroughs was my invention of toy jars.

Ever since the Big Girl was born, I’d been annoyed by the maddening accumulation of small toys—the gimcracks that children attract. Glittery superballs, miniature pads of paper shaped like kittens or ducks, Hello Kitty keychains, small plastic zoo animals…this stuff was everywhere. It was hard to put it away, because where did it go?

Then I had my brilliant idea. I went all over the apartment to collect toy flotsam and stuffed it into two large Mason jars. Not only did this solve the clutter problem, but the jars looked terrific: colorful, festive, interesting.

Now I have seven jars, packed full. They look great on the shelf, and every once in a while the Big Girl and a friend will pull out a jar, dump out the contents, and have a huge amount of fun sorting through the treasure. They make a tremendous mess, but all I have to do is sweep everything back into the jar.

This solution worked so well that I upgraded my jars. I chose the Container Store’s glass canisters, which look just right, but in retrospect I wish I’d picked a plastic container. Safer for kids.

A real solution can only come with recognition of a problem’s true nature. Another example: I go to a very modest gym, where most of the gym-goers are over 70. But for a while I kept planning to upgrade to a much nicer—and more expensive—gym.

Then I pushed myself to figure out why I wanted to upgrade. And the answer was very specific: because although I knew the importance of weight-training, I never did it, because I hated going to my gym’s weight-training area. Why? My realization: it was because I suspected I wasn’t doing the exercises correctly and was wasting my time. If that’s the problem, obviously shelling out for a fancier gym wouldn’t have made any difference. Instead of using the money to upgrade my gym, I used it to work with a trainer on weight machines. Problem solved.

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