Some problems are tougher to solve than others. Knowing when you’re up against a difficult one is helpful because you can be more patient with yourself as you look for a solution. Knowing you have a tough problem on your hands lets you adopt a more forgiving philosophy that centres on the knowledge that “this is going to take some time.”
I like to refer to difficult problems as “three day-ers” because, by definition, it’s going to take at least three days, give or take some number, to come up with a solution. Three days is a good general number to head into the process with. The number of days it actually takes isn’t the key idea here. Rather, the term three day-er is effective because it directly states, “this problem isn’t going to be solved in a day.”
It’s funny, but most of us aren’t that quick to realize when we have a tough problem on our hands. Instead, we lose patience and can even begin to panic. “Why don’t I have an answer yet? This is bad…. I’m feeling out of control… I’m starting to sweat this.”
I personally recognize I have a three day-er when it dawns on me that I won’t be able to find a solution before I go to bed that night. It’s often then that I’m able to step back and say, “Oh. It’s one of those problems.”
Once this realization is made, I immediately relax and my confidence returns. Knowing I won’t have an answer any time soon allows me to let the decision-making process evolve slowly, the way it needs to. A friend calls the time that’s needed to need to mull over the known facts, track down missing information, and arrive at an answer “soak time.”
I love the expression soak time because it’s descriptive. Our brains need time to let all the information soak in, or sink in. Here are a couple of stories to help illustrate the idea.
(Information in the following stories has been modified to protect privacy.)
Kathleen managed a group of software programmers. One member of her group, Margaret, was in the habit of coming to her in a panic, saying “the project must be stopped. It can’t be done.”
Were it anyone else saying this, Kathleen would have put everything down and listened. But with Margaret, she had learned that Margaret’s agitation simply meant that Margaret needed to be spoken to in a calm and supportive way. Kathleen was able to help Margaret by saying, “Wow. It sounds like you have a three day-er on your hands. I’d like you to put down everything else you’re currently working on. I’d like you to focus all of your attention on addressing this one problem. I’d like you to continue to do so for three entire days before you return to see me. After three days, if you still don’t have a solution, I will give the problem my full, undivided attention.”
Not once was Margaret unable to find a solution to her problem within the three-day time period Kathleen set for her. Margaret simply needed to be told that she had a three day-er on her hands.
Here’s a second story that illustrates a related idea. In this story, Beryl isn’t solving a tough problem. Rather, she has to make a hard decision.
Beryl thought she was taking her cat to a routine veterinarian appointment. During the appointment, however, Beryl learned that her cat, which had a heart grade 4 murmur, was not in good health. The vet urged Beryl to take her cat to a cardiologist so that the cat could receive optimal care. The vet estimated that the cost would be under $1000 for an initial consultation.
The vet’s recommendation created a dilemma for Beryl. She had already known about the heart murmur but felt obligated to give her animal good healthcare. The problem, besides the obvious financial cost, was that bringing in a cardiologist went against Beryl’s values. She was inclined to let her cat live whatever years it would have naturally, and to mercifully put the cat down when it’s qualify of life had declined to an unacceptable level.
Beryl’s dilemma in this case was not that she didn’t know what to do. It was that she felt unsure of herself when faced with pressure from the veterinarian to have her cat treated. Once Beryl realized she had a three day-er, and required soak time, she was able to stop trying to force a decision and to simply “go with it.”
It took Beryl about 10 days to explore her options. Ultimately, she decided to honour her own feelings about the situation. In the 10 days she allowed herself to mull over the problem, she realized that her cat was always going to be ill. She also realized she had needed the majority of the soak time to emotionally grieve the future loss of her pet.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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