The writer shares her method for solving problems with Post-Its. Photo by Ximena Vengoechea

Last week, I was in trouble. I had no appetite. I couldn’t sleep. I was stressed in a way I hadn’t felt stressed in a long time. I was overwhelmed with things to do and think through, and I didn’t know where to begin.

For someone who considers themselves Productive with a capital P, this was jarring. Why wasn’t I moving through my projects as quickly as usual? Why was I finding myself stuck on small details that on any other day would have seemed minor? Why was I suddenly struck with indecision?

Like a good type A, I paused to reflect. What was on my mind? I pulled out a tool that has helped me many times at work, as well as in my personal life: Post-its. Then I started troubleshooting. Follow my method and troubleshoot your troubles in 5 steps:

1. Prepare your space. The first thing I did was prepare my space for thinking time. I silenced my phone, closed the door to my room, and set up camp with a pen and some Post-its. I chose to sit on my floor for maximum Post-it coverage, but pick the place that’s most comfortable for you.

2. Outline your thinking prompts.  I grabbed a Post-it and posed a question on each one. These would be the signposts to guide my thinking, and quickly. A word of advice as you follow along: don’t over-think your responses. The first set of answers that pop into your mind are often the most insightful. I asked the following questions (see my reasoning for these questions along the way):

      • What is the problem? This one sounds easy: Identify the problem. What does the problem appear to be? Your answer may change over the course of this exercise, and that’s fine. Note the surface problem to begin with.
      • Can I break it into small steps? I’m a firm believer that breaking big to-do’s into smaller ones is the best way to approach challenges and projects. (That’s how I got through an entire year of habit change.) Jot down potential action items, and schedule blocks of time on your calendar to work on them, setting deadlines for each. Get as specific as possible in detailing all of the actions needed you to solve the problem. Highlight any gaps or potential roadblocks, and note the steps you can take to address those, as well.
      • What’s standing in my way? Write everything that’s preventing you from solving your problem, no matter how big or how small. Some may be tactical (send calendar invite, buy batteries), some more strategic (call X for advice), but it’s helpful to note them all.
      • Where will I start? This one is straightforward: What’s the smallest thing you can do now to make progress towards your goal? No task is too small or insignificant to start on.
      • How will I stay on track? Do you favor self-imposed deadlines, or will you need extra prodding? Is there anyone you need to check in with? Who can help keep you on track?

3. Review your challenges and your intentions to solve them. What have you learned about the challenge before you? Does your plan of attack make sense? Is it doable? What’s the time frame? Will you need help from someone else? Which step can you get started on right now. Revise your plan as necessary.

4. Share your thinking with someone you trust. Whether you need help taking the next steps towards a solution or not, it helps to share your intentions with someone else. That person can support you by keeping you accountable, offering advice, picking up some slack in other areas of your life, or telling you you’re over-thinking the whole thing to begin with! Sometimes just sharing aloud what you’re struggling with and how you’d like to solve it can be helpful.

5. Note how you feel. Troubleshooting a trouble can knock the wind right out of you, or energize you, depending how far your thinking has come. Take a second to listen to how you feel. Acknowledge the feeling, write  it down, and embrace your current state. Note, too, the initial problem you identified was correct. You may find that after finishing this exercise, you uncover a different answer about what it is that’s truly bothering you. If that happens, all the better: you’ll be more attuned to the real problem at hand the next time around.

A final note: The above is a method I use that works for me, but if you find you’re still in search of answers after undertaking this exercise, you may want to explore having a deeper conversation about it. There are some troubles that can and should be thought through more deeply, with the help of trusted friends or a certified professional. In my experience, at least, a stack of Post-its and some time for introspection can go a long way.

Ximena Vengoechea is a design researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc, Newsweek, and the Huffington Post. She currently works at Twitter. Follow her on Twitter and Medium.

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