Unleash your creative problem solving to improve you work-life balance
As working moms, particularly for those of us who are in critical thinking or creative jobs, it seems as though our lives are full of problem-solving.
I feel like I spend a big portion of my day trying to come up with solutions and answers to develop new and innovative methods in my field. I spend a lot of time problem-solving for my clients. When I was a manager, I spent a huge amount of time problem-solving for my staff. At home, I feel like I spend a massive amount of time and energy problem-solving everything from camp schedules, meal plans, house organization, play dates, afterschool activities, and planning for trips…
Sometimes the planning and problem-solving can feel endless – as if I will never get a break from this huge mental load I carry around. Sometimes I just feel stuck. I don’t have new ideas, or feel like I’m just regurgitating the same ideas over and over, and not really making progress on the underlying issues.
Then I read this article by Mayo Oshin about how Elon musk solves problems. I’m often a bit skeptical of these articles about Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. These are obviously brilliant and super successful men, so I can see why we might want to emulate them in certain ways. But I don’t really feel like they experience the same kind of struggles that I do, as a working mother. For some reason, I don’t think Elon Musk looks like I did last night as I was making dinner, prepping lunches for the next day, with my 2 year old screaming “mama mama mama” and trying to order a gift on Amazon to arrive today (so that my son had something to bring to a birthday party). Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t really see his evenings looking like this – whereas that’s pretty normal for me.
All of that to say, I’m often skeptical of these articles, but when I read this article, I found the idea very interesting and relatable.
Using first principle thinking to change the way you solve problems
The idea is that most of the time we solve problems by building on existing strengths. Essentially you take the best practices from what other people have done, building on the best of what’s out there. The assumption is that something else worked reasonably well and we might be able to make it a little bit better.
First principle thinking takes a totally different approach, rather than building on what already exists, it gets you to step back and list all of the underlying assumptions that you have. Then you question every single one of those assumptions, allowing you to think totally outside of the box.
Netflix seems like a great example of first principle thinking in action. Most people would have tried building a “better” version of Blockbuster, but instead, Netflix and Reed Hastings broke down huge established assumptions (e.g., that you need to go to a store to get a new video) and instead started mailing them to your door. Then they broke down even more assumptions by streaming movies and TV straight to your computer and then your TV. The assumptions around how you received TV (through cable) and rented movies (at a store in-person) were so deeply engrained in us that it’s really hard to image how someone could have thought this far outside of the box – but if you use first principle thinking to list and question those assumptions, it starts to seem a little more feasible.
How can you use first principle thinking to improve your work-life balance?
If you are ready to make the kind of changes that Elon Musk or Reed Hastings have made (Netflix, flying into outer space for fun), that’s amazing. But for most of us, we want to solve much more mundane problems – but ones that impact our daily lives.
The morning after I read this article, I was really struggling with two big problems: a scheduling problem at home, and a work problem. I decided to try first principle thinking to see if I could come up with a totally different answer to these problems.
Let me start with a scheduling problem, because I cannot be the only person who has this problem.
I switched my son to a different school a year ago, in the middle of the school year, because I was unimpressed with his previous school, and learned that a brand new public school had opened that he was eligible to attend, for free. It’s a super small school and we have been unbelievably happy with our experience, but it is a full 15 minute drive away, which means that between driving there, getting him out of the school, driving back to daycare, picking up my other son, and driving home, it takes guaranteed 45 minutes to pick up both my kids (sometimes closer to an hour). This does not feel like a great use of my time, and I would much rather be doing something else than driving around every afternoon picking them up. Plus as I work started getting busier and Balancing Bravely started taking up more of my time, this 45 minutes really started to feel like it was cutting into precious minutes I could be spending working, doing Balancing Bravely, having “me time” or having better quality time with my kids.
So I sat down and started thinking about all the assumptions I had. I couldn’t believe how many assumptions existed in my mind.
I need to pick up my kids.
I need to pick them up at a specific time.
I want to minimize the amount of time they are in daycare/after school care.
I need to stop working by a certain time to spend time with my kids.
When I work from home, I need to be home alone to get work done.
The list went on and on.
What I really stepped back, one of the things I realized is that when my son started school I knew he couldn’t take the bus home, because at the time I was working full-time in an office, and wouldn’t be at home when the bus would drop him off.
Since then, I quit my job and started my own business, and I work from home at 3 to 4 days a week. When I switched to working from home three days a week, I briefly considered letting my son take the bus home, but at the time he was much less independent, and I wasn’t positive I would truly be home all of those days – I was brand new to being an entrepreneur. Now that I’m close to a year in to running my own business, it is clear to me that I can make my schedule so that I at least can pick him up at the bus stop, come home, and ask him to play independently for one more hour before we go and pick up his brother.
I took me two days to think through and discuss this new schedule. Then I called the bus company and set it up that he started taking the bus home three days a week. The other two days the week his dad picks him up (it’s an extra hour at after-school care, but since he’s home with me 3 days a week and actually loves after-school care, it will be okay).
Looking back as I write this all down, it seems sort of obvious, but it isn’t always obvious. We often have these deeply held assumptions about what we should or shouldn’t be doing that drive or decisions and actions, and often create more complicated problems, particularly work-life balance problems that we don’t need to have.
How can you create a schedule to maximize your work-life balance?
I definitely see this in other people’s schedules. To maximize our time with the kids, our time at work, and to minimize the time our children spend in daycare, my husband and I trade drop off and pick up. He is fully responsible for morning drop off, and I have been fully responsible for evening pick up, since I went back to work after mat leaves with my first (who is now 5.5 years old).
This kind of schedule (one parent working really early mornings) wouldn’t work for everyone, but it is surprising how often I tell people that this is how I’m able to leave the office at 3:30 pm (because I arrived at 7:30 am), and people look at me as if it never occurred to them that one parent could do drop off and the other parent to go to work super early.
Do you have a scheduling problem that you could solve with first principle thinking?
Using first principle thinking to solve work problems
This approach also works extremely well for work problems. The other major problem I was trying to solve, was figuring it out how to better scale up and leverage my teaching to a broader audience.
In my day job, I spent a large amount of time teaching and training people, through workshops and webinars. In our new digital age, I know that I am not maximizing on online learning the way that I could be, but because of my target audience (organizations, mostly government organizations), I couldn’t really reconcile how all these pieces fit together.
I stepped back and wrote all of the assumptions that I had on my whiteboard (I have one of those small whiteboards that I absolutely love for brainstorming – it’s almost like I’m not afraid to write outside of the box ideas on it, since they can so easily be erased). I’ll be honest the first few assumptions were hard, I bet you it took me close to 10 minutes to get the first three, but once I started it, they started piling up. I eventually had 12 assumptions listed on my whiteboard, and realized that a whole bunch of them probably didn’t need to be there.
As a result I realized I can shift and transform who my target audience is. When I started teaching professionals through in-person workshops, they were much more expensive, so no individual person would ever pay that much money personally to attend. That’s why our target audience was really organizations who were prepared to support their employees or teams to adopt this new approach to creating change in their organizations.
But, if we create shorter, cheaper, online courses, then we can market them to both organizations and individuals (who often have access to a small pool of money for professional development or sometimes might choose to use their own funds to pay for the course). This would also allow me to go way outside of the normal spectrum of people I target. I work with healthcare and public health organizations, and really value contributing to that space, so I don’t want to spend my time helping people and more corporate organizations, if it detracts from the time that I can help people in public health and healthcare implement evidence-based programs. But if I can provide training and online environment to more people without detracting from the consulting time in health, I am much more open to sharing this contact with a much broader audience.
Again, this is a super specific example, but it is not always obvious. It is so easy to get stuck in the assumptions that we are making and not realize that they don’t necessarily need to be there. Or the reason they were once assumptions that we needed to work with might not be valid anymore.
What work problem have you been struggling with?
How can you use first principle thinking to unleash your own creative problem-solving and improve your work life balance?
Step 1. Pick a problem.
It shouldn’t be a brand new problem, but more like something that you have been thinking about for a while, that doesn’t really seem solvable, you either feel stuck, or maybe even stopped trying to solve it.
Step 2. Brainstorm and write down all of your assumptions.
This is going to take some time, honestly I think this is the longest and hardest step. I highly recommend taking part in whatever activities help you think the best. For me it is taking a walk, or a shower. Seriously, sometimes if I need to think really hard, I take a shower just for the purpose of thinking not for the actual shower. That’s because in these moments we are able to do automatic habitual behaviors [link] that allows our brain to think in different ways and start connecting ideas.
Step 3. Look at every assumption with a new critical perspective.
Does it really need to be there? Is there a way you could break down that assumption and approach this totally differently? Create a new assumption? I recommend first doing this by yourself, but then bringing those assumptions to someone else who understands the problem, and getting them to also question the assumptions.
Step 4. Create a new plan.
Based on the fact that you should’ve identified at least a few assumptions that don’t really need to be there, develop a new plan and a new solution. I recognize that this may not be the one and only answer, chances are you’re going to have to question the assumptions again, but at least you have a new and different way to approach this problem,. That will probably also help you realize other assumptions you are making that don’t necessarily need to be there either.
What are the work-life balance problems that you really want to solve? Did you come up with amazing solutions?