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Problem solving

Everybody has problems. They’re just part of life and cannot be prevented. While we can’t avoid problems from cropping up, we do have some control over how we deal with them, as they rarely go away on their own. More often, a problem ignored just continues to get worse – but don’t worry, finding solutions to problems is an inherent part of our human nature.

Problem solving

Some common problems people might face include:

  • Communication difficulties in your family
  • Difficulty with training
  • Finance issues
  • Relationship problems
  • Lacking motivation
  • Negativity
  • Lacking pleasurable activities
  • Trouble sleeping

Finding ways to effectively deal with problems is essential in both your work and personal life. However, there are many hurdles, including your own (and others’) mind-sets, the amount of control you actually have over the situation and also your own desire to make changes.

Break down the problem

When problems mount up and there's no clear solution, they can lead to feelings of stress, frustration, sadness and anger - and put strain on important relationships.

It can all seem overwhelming, but one way to approach a big problem is to break it down into manageable chunks.

For example:

Person A: My problem is I'm always feeling tired.

Person B: That's a big problem! Try breaking it down into smaller problems.

Person A: Well, I don't sleep well. I'm too busy with work. I have no time to myself.

Person B: Okay, so now you have some smaller problems to solve.

Once you have broken down the problem, you can decide which problem to tackle first, and decide which actions to take to solve a problem.

Apply a 5-step process to solving the problem

Once you have broken the problem down into any possible smaller chunks, you can start addressing each one using the following 5-step process:

  1. Define the Problem - The more a problem is clarified in precise terms, the easier it is to solve
  2. Brainstorm possible strategies - Get down as many ideas as you can, don’t worry if they are good, stupid or bad
  3. Choose the best strategies - Decide which ones seem to you to be the most realistic and potentially effective
  4. Set goals - Action plans need to be based on goals
  5. Review Progress - It is important to take a few minutes to consider whether you have met your goals

Do these steps seem familiar? You may have used them to meet difficult challenges in your work - they are just as effective for problems we face in our personal lives.

Look at each step in more detail below. Try thinking of a problem you have experienced or are currently experiencing as you go through each step.

1: Define the problem

It is important to clearly define the problem you are going to solve. The clearer you can be about what the problem is, the easier it will be to solve.

Sometimes, the very act of writing down or verbalising a problem is a positive first step towards solving that problem.


  • If the problem appears to be too difficult, you will need to break it down.
  • Stay focused on one problem at a time. You can deal with other problems later.

Now, take a minute and write down one specific problem that you are currently facing.

2: 'Brainstorm' possible strategies

The next step is to list any ideas or strategies you can think of which might help solve the problem. Include some creative ideas that seem a bit far-fetched (sometimes they contain the seed of a good idea). This is often easier if you do it with a friend or family member.

You may like to draw a concept map when brainstorming. 

3: Choose the best strategies

Start by crossing off any of the strategies that you think will not work, or don't appeal to you.

Of the strategies that are left, look at the advantages and disadvantages of each, and rate them as to their likely success.

Now write down the strategies that you have chosen.

It's a good idea to have more than one strategy on your list. Some problems may require more than one strategy. Put them in preferred order from first to last.

4: Set goals

Even the best solution to a problem can be difficult to work if you don’t break it down into a series of practical steps or realistic goals.

Set some goals that include:

  • The review date by which you will try to achieve each goal
  • What actions you need to take
  • Where (what location) you will take the action
  • Who else needs to be informed and involved

Set goals based on your strategies. For example: “My family has no fun together anymore”, therefore goals are:

  • Go to a water park
  • Have your own Master Chef competition
  • Have a games evening once a week
  • Call John and invite his family over next Saturday
  • Buy some tickets to the movies

Remember, positive activities might become more pleasurable or give you a greater sense of achievement as you get used to engaging in them. However, if you were very disappointed with an activity, then consider returning to Step 1 or 2 to select new activities to try.

Some tips with goal setting:

  • If some of your goals appear quite difficult, it will help to mentally rehearse the actions you need to take. Imagine yourself carrying out the activity successfully.
  • If you find it difficult getting started on a goal, break that goal down into smaller steps.

5: Review progress

On your review date, take a few minutes to consider whether you have met your goal.

Has the problem been:

  • Totally solved?
  • Partly solved?
  • Not solved at all?

If the problem has been totally solved - congratulations!

If the problem has only been partly solved, or not solved at all - consider whether you need to:

  • Return to Step 4 and refine your goals
  • Return to Step 3 and try another strategy from the list that you made
  • Return to Step 2 and brainstorm more strategies

Now that you've had some experience, try out a few ideas. This will help you to come up with new and better strategies.

When we don't confront problems, more and more problems can pile up over time. If you have other problems to tackle, choose one and repeat the 5 Steps for that specific problem.

Need further help?

One of the most important things to remember is that you do not have to solve all of the problems all by your self. Talking problems over with friends or family is a great way to get clarity on a problem, but there are also a host of services within the NZDF and in the civilian world that you can contact for help with problems.

If your problems are impacting on your health talk to your local medical doctor, or another mental health professional. They can help you to decide what assistance you need and arrange appropriate support.

Other self-help techniques to improve your resilience 

You can find more information about building resilience in the other pages in this section, or by downloading the complete toolkit below.

View pdf
Everyday Resilience - NZDF Resilience Toolkit
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