Solving problems backward

I want to share one of my favorite mental models called inversion. Mental models provide shortcuts to higher-level thinking, forcing your brain to think about a problem or decision from different perspectives. Inversion helps you flip a problem around and approach it from the opposite end of the natural starting point. Instead of starting at the beginning and thinking forward, start at the end and think backward.

It’s a lot easier to identity something that is likely to fail versus something that will likely succeed. Therefore removing an obstacle is often easier than creating a new solution. To see this process in action, try doing a pre-mortem with key members of your work team at the beginning of your next important project. Imagine the end of the project and think backward to identify all of the ways the project could fail.

This exercise is opposite of the way most teams begin a project. Normally, you discuss goals, roles and responsibilities, tasks, and the timeline, but you rarely spend time identifying potential problems. Inversion helps you identify obstacles and develop strategies to avoid or overcome those obstacles.

Inversion also works to help you achieve goals. Instead of focusing on what actions or processes to add, focus on what should be removed. For example, I’ve wanted to invest more time writing on the weekends, so I set a weekly goal and allotted a specific time to write. Even so, I continued to struggle to meet my goal.

I decided to run an experiment. I cut out drinking alcohol. Removing this one behavior made a huge difference. Not consuming alcohol allowed me to sleep better, think more clearly, and increased my energy and motivation. I ended up doubling the amount of time spent writing. What’s the number one behavior you can cut to help you achieve your goals. Experiment with removing it and see what happens.

Next time you are facing a tough problem, try thinking about it forward and backward. You may find that it will be easier to reduce errors or remove obstacles than to create new solutions.


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