Every day, we’re faced with a variety of problems that demand solutions. In order to be successful, we must be able to adapt rapidly to change, take the initiative, exercise our judgment, and solve problems creatively and competently.

Researchers have found that certain strategies can help people to solve problems more easily. These strategies are known as “heuristics.” Heuristics are techniques that can be used to aid in problem solving. They are mental shortcuts that can help you to arrive at a satisfactory solution more quickly and with less cognitive effort. Heuristics don’t guarantee success – they just provide problem solvers with some assistance and direction.

A few commonly used heuristics include the following (Halpern, 2003):

  • Trial and error – Make an educated guess, see what happens, adjust your approach, and try again.
  • Draw a picture – If a problem seems difficult or confusing, it can helpful to try and draw it. Create a graph, diagram, or chart.
  • Simplify – Difficult problems are often very complex. Try to ignore the distracting details, and view the problem in its simplest form.
  • Work backwards – Think about your ultimate goal. Starting from there, how can you get back to your present state? Working backwards can sometimes help you to see what needs to be done in order to solve the problem.
  • Use an analogy – Sometimes you can find a solution to a difficult problem by comparing it to a similar problem that you solved in the past.
  • Break it down – When a problem seems unsolvable, it can sometimes help to break it down into small sub-problems. Every sub-problem that you solve will bring you closer to your ultimate goal.
  • Focus on the outcome – Sometimes people become distracted by issues that are really not very important. Focusing on the desired goal can help you to sort out what is important and what isn’t.

Heuristics can be used in any type of problem situation. Try one of these techniques the next time you’re faced with a challenging problem and see if it helps you to arrive at a satisfying solution!

Halpern, D. F. (2003). Thought & knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (4th ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.