While the contractors were working to replace the siding on our new home last summer, they discovered a termite infestation outside the bathroom.
Further investigation revealed that the floor under the tub was not only wet and damp, but had actually completely rotted. So, we hired somebody to repair the damage. On the first day he was here, I went into the bathroom barefoot. Oops. I stepped on a shard of glass tile. That splinter was stuck in my foot for weeks.
At first, it didn't really affect normal activity. If I wore sneakers and socks, I barely felt it. But if I wore sandals, I got a sharp stabbing pain in the side of my left foot. If I tried to run, the same thing happened. And forget about going to the gym!
Now, the obvious response here is, “Why didn't you remove the sliver from your foot?” Great question!
On the very first night, Kim did try to remove the sliver, and we thought she got it. But the next morning when I took Tally for a walk, I realized the sliver was still there. But I didn't do anything about it. I lived with it for weeks, a constant source of low-grade irritation.
This, my friends, is a perfect example of a couple of things.
- First, it's my family's mentality in action. For some stupid stupid reason, we Roths don't like dealing with medical issues. When we're sick, we suffer for days (or weeks) before going to a doctor. When we're hurt, we just suck it up. When I was young, my mother sprained her ankle. She limped around for months before seeking medical attention. In college, I broke a finger playing touch football over Thanksgiving. I dealt with the intense pain until Christmas break, at which time I finally decided to see a doctor.
- Second, this a perfect example of putting up with a problem instead of finding a solution. Most people — myself included — are willing to tolerate a great deal of dissatisfaction and discomfort before deciding to remedy whatever is wrong in their lives. I'm not sure why this is the case, but it's true.
With the glass shard in my foot, most of the time I barely noticed. But sometimes the pain was especially bad. I remember one morning while walking the dog, it felt like somebody was stabbing me with a needle. “I just need to solve the problem,” I thought to myself — and that reminded me of some wise advice I once received.
Just Solve the Problem
About a decade ago, I worked with a life coach. Each week, we'd have an hour-long phone conversation about the ways I was trying to become a better person. I made great progress in some areas, but little progress in others.
One day, we were talking about my inability to eat a healthy breakfast. I've always been the sort of guy who knows he should eat a nutritious breakfast but doesn't actually do so. My coach had been encouraging me to make this a habit in my life, but I kept complaining about all the reasons it wasn't possible. Eventually, she'd had enough.
“J.D., you're being ridiculous,” my coach said, exasperated. “This isn't rocket science. Millions of people eat a healthy breakfast every day. You can too. You need to stop making excuses. You need to identify the problem and solve the problem. Just solve the problem!”
This advice hit me hard: “Just solve the problem.” Obvious, I know, but that doesn't mean it's not powerful. I began to recognize that, in so many ways, I deliberately lived in the problem instead of living in the solution. I realized that maybe I could fix the things that were broken in my life if I'd only take the time to do so. (After all, I'd already made the resolution to become a money boss — and that had worked wonders with my financial situation!)
With breakfast, for instance, the solution was to make it easy to have healthy choices. For me, that meant stocking the fridge with egg whites and chicken sausage. It meant learning to like yogurt. It also meant giving myself permission to spend a little extra on pre-packaged fruit and — not kidding — breakfast steaks. (I was eating paleo at the time, so a piece of filet mignon was perfectly acceptable…if somewhat expensive.)
Related reading: A few months ago, there was a thread on Reddit discussing why people choose long-term inconvenience over short-term inconvenience: “I just spent at least 10 minutes undoing several screws using the end of a butter knife that was already in the same room, rather than go upstairs and get a proper screw driver for the job that would have made the job a lot easier and quicker.” And I spent weeks limping around with a sliver in my foot rather than have Kim spend five minutes taking it out.
How Do You Solve the Problem?
“Just solve the problem” is terrific advice that can be applied to all aspects of life. For almost a decade now, it's been a mantra of mine. Admittedly, it's a mantra that I sometimes forget to repeat to myself. But when I do remember to heed these words, they help me get a hell of a lot done.
But just how do you go about solving the problems in your life? I believe there's a six-step process that you can use to tackle the things you've been neglecting for too long:
- Recognize a problem exists. You need to be conscious that a problem is present before you can figure out what that problem is. Sometimes this is easier said than done. It's easy to get complacent, to just accept that this is “the way things are”. For instance, you might be unhappy with your financial situation; you might realize that something with the way you're handling money isn't working.
- Identify the problem. After you've recognized that things aren't right, ask yourself why. What is the specific problem that's leading to your unhappiness? Is there more than one problem? Using the previous example, once you've realized you need to do something different with your dollars, you might find that debt is dragging you down.
- Diagnose the source of the problem. Next, try to figure out why your problem exists. How did it start? Why does it continue? Why does it make you unhappy? With our financial example, you'd quickly discover that your debt exists because you spend more than you earn. But why do you spend more than you earn? When did you start doing this? Why do you continue to do so?
- Brainstorm solutions. Now that you've identified the problem (and its source), it's time to figure out how to fix things. This is the fun part. Come up with a list of ways you can overcome the problem that's been holding you back. To get out of debt, for instance, you might take a two-pronged approach: boost your income by taking a second job while also cutting back temporarily on some non-essentials.
- Formulate a plan. Once you've come up with a solution to your problem, make a plan to turn these dreams into reality. How specifically are you going to implement your solution? What steps can you take today and tomorrow to solve the problem? If you're trying to trim your budget, you might draft a prioritized list of places you can cut your spending. Then you can write down concrete steps to take toward each of these goals.
- Take action. The last step is the most important. To solve any problem, you must take action. It doesn't do any good to identify the problem, to brainstorm solutions, and to formulate a plan if you're not going to do the work necessary to make things right. You'll never get out of debt if all you do is tell yourself you ought to spend less. You must truly spend less in order to eliminate the problem.
Here's one way I'm currently using this “just solve the problem” methodology in my own life.
As you may recall, Kim and I both packed on the pounds during our 15-month trip around the U.S. We've been home nearly two years now, but we haven't lost any weight. We're both aware that a problem exists: We're uncomfortable with how we feel.
Why are we fat? Why aren't we fit? What's the source of the problem? Well, alcohol is a big culprit. We drink far too much beer and wine. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that all the extra weight that each of us is carrying comes from booze. The lack of fitness, however, is because we got out of the habit of exercising. When we first met, we both went to the gym five times a week. That's dropped to zero times a week. Yikes.
So, how can we solve the problem(s)? First, we can drink less. Second, we can choose healthier foods. (Our diets aren't terrible, but they aren't great either.) Third, we can look for ways to make exercise happen instead of coming up with reasons that it can't.
Now that we have some solutions, we can develop a plan to put them into action. Kim recently spent a couple of weeks doing a medically-supervised water fast to reset her system. When I return from this road trip, I'm going to make fitness my top priority. (Sorry, GRS. You'll drop to number two.) I'm going to return to my trusty “paleo-ish diet”, commit to cycling every day, and do what I can to avoid alcohol.
The Bottom Line
I have a terrible tendency to overthink things. I make them more complicated than they have to be. That was certainly the case back when my life coach was trying to teach me how to eat a healthy breakfast. I mean, how hard is it to pull a yogurt from the fridge?
I get frustrated when people come up with reasons that something can't be done instead of thinking of ways it can be done. Yet I'm guilty of the same thing when I fall into the trap of overthinking the problems in my life.
Taking my foot as an example, I used all of the following as reasons not to remove the sliver:
- “Oh, the contractors are still here. We should wait until they leave before we remove the splinter.” (But, of course, by the time they'd left I'd forgotten about it.)
- “Oh, my feet are dirty right now. We should wait until I've had a chance to clean them.”
- “Oh, Kim just got home from work. I should give her a chance to rest before I ask her to remove the splinter.” (But, of course, I'd forget to ask her to help me later.)
- “Oh, we're about to leave. It'd be inconvenient to take the time to get the splinter out now. We should do it when we get home.”
- “Oh, I'm tired. We should just go to bed. We can always remove the splinter in the morning.”
Looking back, it's clear to me that these were lame excuses. I'd come up with reasons not to remove the sliver of glass instead of looking for an opportunity to get it done.
Eventually, I recognized how foolish I was being. Kim and I sat down one night and she spent 45 minutes searching for the splinter in my foot. And you know what? As soon as she pulled it out, everything felt so much better. Hard to believe such a tiny splinter could cause so much pain. And hard to believe I'm so stubborn and stupid that I'd live with that pain for a couple of weeks instead of simply solving the problem.
Author: J.D. Roth
In 2006, J.D. founded Get Rich Slowly to document his quest to get out of debt. Over time, he learned how to save and how to invest. Today, he's managed to reach early retirement! He wants to help you master your money — and your life. No scams. No gimmicks. Just smart money advice to help you reach your goals.