How to Avoid Common Mistakes in Problem Solving

Problem solving is a skill that is essential for many aspects of life, whether it is personal, academic, or professional. However, problem solving is not always easy, and there are some common mistakes that people make when they approach a problem. In this blog post, I will discuss some of these mistakes and how to avoid them.

Being biased towards the outcome

One of the most common mistakes in problem solving is being biased towards the outcome. This means that we have a preconceived idea of what the solution should be, and we ignore or dismiss any evidence that contradicts our expectation. This can lead us to jump to conclusions, overlook important details, or make faulty assumptions.

To avoid this mistake, we need to be objective and open-minded when we analyze a problem. We should not let our emotions, preferences, or beliefs cloud our judgment. We should also use root cause analysis to identify the underlying cause of the problem, rather than focusing on the symptoms or the effects. Root cause analysis is a method of finding the fundamental reason why a problem occurs, and it can help us avoid solving the wrong problem or creating new problems.

Ambiguous/inaccurate problem definition

Another common mistake in problem solving is having an ambiguous or inaccurate problem definition. This means that we do not have a clear and precise understanding of what the problem is, what the goals are, and what the constraints are. This can lead us to waste time and resources, pursue irrelevant or unrealistic solutions, or miss important aspects of the problem.

To avoid this mistake, we need to spend enough time and effort to understand the problem and plan for the solution. According to Polya, a famous mathematician and educator, problem solving consists of four steps: understand, plan, execute, and reflect. He suggested that we should spend 90% of the available time and resources in the first two steps, i.e., understanding and planning. Why? Because understanding a problem is half the solution, and what is left is just implementing the solution, which is usually not that costly.

Polya's problem solving steps

Scope overreach

A third common mistake in problem solving is scope overreach. This means that we try to solve a problem that is too big, too complex, or too vague. This can lead us to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or confused, and to give up or settle for suboptimal solutions.

To avoid this mistake, we need to break down the problem into smaller and more manageable subproblems. This can help us focus on the essential parts of the problem, simplify the solution process, and track the progress. We can use various techniques to break down a problem, such as brainstorming, mind mapping, chunking, or divide and conquer.

Lack of coordination, discipline, strategy, organization

A fourth common mistake in problem solving is lack of coordination, discipline, strategy, or organization. This means that we do not work well with others, follow a systematic approach, use appropriate tools or skills, or manage the resources effectively. This can lead us to encounter conflicts, errors, delays, or inefficiencies in the problem solving process.

To avoid this mistake, we need to cooperate, communicate, and coordinate with the relevant stakeholders, such as team members, clients, or experts. We also need to follow a disciplined and structured approach to problem solving, such as the scientific method, the engineering design process, or the agile methodology. We also need to use the right tools and skills for the problem, such as data analysis, software development, or creative thinking. Finally, we need to organize and optimize the resources, such as time, money, or information, to achieve the best results.

Thinking every problem is solvable in default assumptions

A fifth common mistake in problem solving is thinking that every problem is solvable in default assumptions. This means that we assume that the problem has a unique and feasible solution, and that we have all the necessary information and resources to find it. This can lead us to overlook the limitations, uncertainties, or trade-offs that are inherent in the problem.

To avoid this mistake, we need to be realistic and flexible when we solve a problem. We need to acknowledge that some problems may not have a solution, or may have multiple or partial solutions. We also need to recognize that we may not have all the information or resources that we need, or that we may face cognitive biases, confirmation bias, emotional states, external pressures or constraints, or conflicting goals or priorities that affect our problem solving. We need to adapt to these challenges and use strategies such as trial and error, guess and check, working backwards, using a formula, eliminating the possibilities, or using direct reasoning to find the best possible solution.


Problem solving is a valuable skill that can help us achieve our goals and overcome our challenges. However, problem solving is not always straightforward, and we may make some common mistakes that hinder our performance. By being aware of these mistakes and learning how to avoid them, we can improve our problem solving skills and become more effective and efficient problem solvers.

: Polya, G. (1945). How to solve it: A new aspect of mathematical method. Princeton University Press. : Schoenfeld, A. H. (1992). Learning to think mathematically: Problem solving, metacognition, and sense making in mathematics. In D. A. Grouws (Ed.), Handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 334-370). Macmillan.

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