Don’t Quote Me: Identify the Problem

Identify the problem.

Gretchen Rubin

Nearly a decade ago I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project for the first time. It remains one of my favourite books – from any genre – to date.

Her insights were both revelatory and relatable. On every page I found something that made me stop and ask: “Why have I never thought of things this way? It’s all…so obvious!”

Of everything she wrote in that book, the following comes to mind most frequently: “Identify the problem.”

She calls this one of her Twelve Commandments and it hangs out with statements like:

  • Act the way I want to feel
  • Let it go
  • Do what ought to be done
  • Enjoy the process

Anytime I’m struggling with a mental block, am feeling unusually irritated, or find some perpetual annoyance is impeding my productivity or happiness, it helps to stop and think: “What’s really going on here?”

Maybe I yelled at the kids for a minor issue that wouldn’t normally raise my ire. Identify the problem.

I can’t focus on an important work e-mail. Identify the problem.

Often the problem is very simple and unrelated. I’m cold. I’m tired. I’m feeling unappreciated.

If I’m cold – take a hot shower, put on an extra sweater, turn up the heat.

If I’m tired – take a nap, get a cup of coffee, go to bed early, delay that meeting that demands full concentration.

If I’m feeling under-appreciated, tell my loved ones, add items to my gratitude list, give myself a gold star by writing a “Ta-da” list in my daytimer.


Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Often, we’re most of the way to a solution if we’ve accurately identified the problem. Or, in the words of John Dewey, “A problem well put is half-solved.”

I frequent a lovely local trail system with my family. It winds along gorgeous coastline and through wooded forests. It is expertly groomed and maintained, covered in a layer of fine crusher dust. Somehow – perhaps my cadence and foot strike or some unlucky combination of footwear and faulty genetics – I always end up with rocks in my shoes. Always. Usually, I tolerate the discomfort, sometimes for hours, without really paying attention to the fact the solution is simple. I have rocks in my shoes. That’s why my feet hurt. That’s why I’m wishing this walk were over.

So I bend over, shake the rocks out of shoes and keep on keeping on.

Next time you find yourself feeling unproductive or irritable – snapping at your kids, coworkers, or spouse – how about trying to identify the problem.

Go ahead. Try it.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Quote Me: Identify the Problem”

  1. I need to read The Happiness Project – learning to love the process is a lifelong struggle, but I’m getting better at it as I’m getting older:) Your blog looks great – very streamlined, and great profile picture/intro! May your readership grow like dandelions:)

    1. Thanks, Jan! You’ve been an inspiration to me since I first read Rainbows in the Dark; didn’t imagine then I’d end up swapping stories over coffee with you. Sure appreciate your encouragement and have enjoyed following along with your creative journey. Happy illustrating 🙂

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