We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Problems expand to fill available space

At any given moment, I have a set of open problems in my life. On my good days, I’m working on the most important one, aiming to solve it as quickly as possible. Otherwise, my most important problem is that I’m not working on my most important problem!

From time to time, I manage to solve a problem, and can remove it from the list. As a side effect, my #2 problem “gets a promotion” and becomes #1 (thanks to Jerry Weinberg for this analogy).

The problem at the top of the list, by virtue of being a focal point, can easily seem bigger than it is. As humans, we normalize our point of view based on what is happening to us. If we apply conventional productivity wisdom and focus exclusively on our most important task, that task consumes all of our attention. Being constantly in this state can be very productive, but also create a problem orientation. I experience this as a feeling that I am constantly surrounded by problems and never “catch up”.

At times like this (if I’m aware and realize that it’s happening), these are some of the things that help me recenter myself:

  • Devote some attention to reviewing what I’ve accomplished recently, to remind myself of progress
  • Ask myself if my #1 problem is actually urgent, or if I’m just on a roll. If it’s not urgent, consider taking a break from problem-solving and work on something else important for a while
  • Give away some problems that I’m holding onto but don’t need to own
  • Remind myself that this feeling as a side effect of where I focus my attention, and I can therefore influence it
  • Laugh

Written by Matt Zimmerman

October 6, 2009 at 14:00

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

    • I’m quite familiar with being overwhelmed by an infinite number of eternally growing problems. I’ve had little luck recovering thus far, I think primarily because I’ve been too focused on problem #1 to think about the big picture

      This makes a lot of sense, particularly reviewing progress– that’s made me comfortable with this situation in the past.

      Great post– I took notes!

      Todd Troxell

      October 11, 2009 at 16:56

  1. Does it help at all to think of them not as problems but as solutions waiting to be made? I wonder how much the negative spin that “problem” has effects our thinking of our todo list. I know I get very problem-focused in Ubuntu. I see *all* kinds of problems and forget about all the solutions we’re creating on a daily basis.


    October 6, 2009 at 15:07

  2. Another thing that helps me sometimes is recognizing how lucky I am that my #1 problem isn’t “where is my next meal coming from”.

    Michael Hudson

    October 6, 2009 at 21:08

  3. Life is one big problem. :) Solve one, then another comes along, then another, ….. :) Anyway, as they say, it’s all relative. I think the song ‘The Streets of London’ by Ralph McTell is a good one to listen to.

    Solve Bug#1, and I’ll be a happy chappy.

    Take a break from your problems, and make the world a more accommodating place. Cheers!


    October 7, 2009 at 10:47

  4. I work with projects all day long every day. I enjoy the challenge. I take on bigger and bigger projects, and I become more and more comfortable dealing with bigger and more complicated problems.

    Every now and again though, it bites me in the ass. I find myself in a situation where I have several large problems and there’s simply not enough concentration span to give any one of them the attention they deserve. At times like that it feels like I’m spending 100% of my time providing people on updates to these problems rather than actually solving. It’s stressful and frustrating. I end up trying to prove myself and I try to hard and eventually end up with (at least a mild case of) burn-out.

    I’m not sure if you know the story of the professor who told his class about the stones that he put in a glass jar, and that if you put the biggest rocks in first you can add the smaller ones easier and end up filling the jar better, the conclusion in the story is that life is easier if you solve your biggest problems first. I think that story is wrong.

    For most of my life, I used to prioritise my problems according to their size, difficulty and complexity. If a problem was really big, it had top priority above all else. What happened? I neglected more /important/ problems. Sometimes a problem that is extremely tiny in complexity and difficulty outranks all other problems in terms of importance, and I let many important things slide because I favoured the bigger and meaner problems.

    I learned that obsessing about big problems take up a huge amount of time and doesn’t always result in progress. I’ve found that it’s best to vary my problems. Working on small problems and getting them solved does a lot to motivate me on the larger problems. Often, fixing a problem gives me insight into the larger problems, and it seems to “open” up my brain to thinking more laterally.

    Sorry for the blabbering, good blog post, I’ve been enjoying latest blog entries.

    Jonathan Carter

    October 8, 2009 at 17:42

  5. […] Problems expand to fill available space (mdzlog.alcor.net) […]

  6. […] Seen on Planet Debian: an article for those of us who are always working on something. At times like this (if I’m aware and realize that it’s happening), these are some of the things that help me recenter myself: […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: