Newsletters and Podcast Transcripts

Solving Problems by Giving Up

September 2nd, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

Sometimes when you have a big problem or challenge to deal with, you just aren't capable of solving it with your current knowledge, skills, motivation, and discipline. You were probably taught that it's a bad thing to give up, but what if you're just not making any progress after months of trying? In such situations it's perfectly okay to give up temporarily and come back to the problem later, perhaps even years later.

There was a time when cosmologists couldn't agree on the age of the physical universe. Oh, they had lots of theories about it, but they lacked the tools to make accurate measurements of the necessary data. Many of their theories were little more than guesses. There was insufficient data to prove or disprove their theories either way.

Then along came the WMAP satellite, which was launched in 2001. This satellite collected data about microwave radiation, dark energy, dark matter, and much more — with an unprecedented scope and precision. Using that massive amount of solid data, scientists were able to calculate the age of the universe to be 13.75 billion years since the big bang, accurate to within less than 1%.

Now that technology has finally caught up with the theorists, it's likely that we're entering into another golden age of cosmology. A lack of accurate data is no longer such a barrier to coming up with the right theories. Now the challenge has become one of figuring out theories that can accurately explain the massive amount of data that's still being collected and analyzed.

Since I've been working on my own personal growth consciously for at least 20 years, I've encountered a number of similar problems — problems that at one point I couldn't solve but which eventually became solvable.

For many years I struggled to become an early riser and then eventually had a breakthrough, stumbling upon a method that worked for me, as I wrote about in How to Become an Early Riser in 2005. In that case the key was figuring out the right method. My earlier attempts failed because I was trying to use a method that just wasn't a good fit for me. So setting this problem aside for a number of years gave me the opportunity to incubate a better solution, one I might not have discovered if I was constantly trying to force a solution.

You may have a personal timetable for achieving certain goals, but as with the case of the cosmologists, the universe may have its own timetable that doesn't necessarily agree with yours. This doesn't mean your goal is impossible, just that it may take longer than you'd like.

At any given time, we have the opportunity to work on many different lines of growth. Sometimes progress is easier and faster in one area than it is in others. And since growth often occurs holistically, a breakthrough in one area can trigger breakthroughs in other areas.

Don't hammer away incessantly at problems where you aren't making progress. If you aren't seeing measurable improvements within about 90 days, consider setting that problem aside for a while. Give up on it — temporarily. Know that you can always revisit it later.

For instance, if you're struggling to improve your physical fitness, stop pushing so hard on that front for a month or two, and shift your focus to another part of your life. Work on advancing your career. Spend more time with your family. Or dive deeply into your spiritual growth.

I like to consider the following areas when working on my personal growth: health & physical body, mental development & learning, relationships & social life, career & finances, spiritual growth, travel & adventure, and home & household. I review these areas periodically, and when I'm feeling stuck in one area, I turn my attention to an area I may have been neglecting.

I've noticed that when I focus too intensely on one or two areas for several months, my progress usually stagnates after a while. I get stuck, and it's hard to keep moving forward. I have this tendency to keep pushing against resistance, but when I take a step back and look at what's actually happening, I have to admit that I'm not making much progress anyway, so I might as well stop pushing so hard. I may be exerting a lot of effort, but I'm not being effective, so why keep pushing?

Then I remember that there are other aspects of my life to attend to, so I switch my attention for a while. Often I pick the most neglected area. Suddenly I'm making very fast progress in that area — it was ripe for a breakthrough.

When I turn my attention to some new area for a while, quite often the stuck area will gradually become unstuck all on its own. New opportunities will arrive, new connections will be made, and old problems will die off. Progress will start being made once again, and in an easy and flowing manner.

The passage of time alone is sometimes enough to create a breakthrough. A problem that seems sticky and troublesome may eventually succumb to time. Maybe you'll grow into a stronger, more capable person who can finally handle it. Maybe the problem will partially solve itself. Maybe you'll stumble upon new information or a solution you'd never considered. Or maybe you'll just become a little more open-minded — or possibly more desperate — and you'll be willing to try solutions you'd have previously dismissed.

Forcing a solution rarely works. And complaining about it is a waste of time. So if you're really stuck, refocus yourself on some other area where you can make progress. Rebuild your self-confidence, and rack up some new successes. Then when you feel ready for it, take another crack at the challenge that once discouraged you. You may find that even if you still can't solve it, you may at least be able to wound it. :)

Can you identify one of those neglected areas of your life where you have the opportunity to make substantial progress with a small investment of time? Have you been reading as many good books as you'd like? When was the last time you enjoyed a long bike ride? Have you been expressing your appreciation for the people in your life? How about that new travel adventure you always wanted to experience?

Interestingly, the Big Bang Theory actually got its name from Fred Hoyle, who was one of the theory's biggest opponents. By fighting against it, he ended up naming it. So worst case... if you really can't solve some particular problem, perhaps you can come up with a cool name for it that everyone else can use. :)