An approach to Problem Solving – Solving Simple Problems First

I have fond memories of the good old days solving numerous problems in examinations. Often times I ran into really facile problems whose solutions were comparable to eating meat pie. However, there were other instances where things just weren’t that simple. Yep, you got it. I’m talking about complex problems. In this article I discuss how I tackle problems of varying difficulty in limited time. This technique I will cover is actually quite simple and very powerful and it is as follows: solve simple problems first. I will discuss a few reasons why you should take this principle seriously.

First, by solving simple problems first, you increase your productivity and sense of accomplishment. Imagine trying to solve ten problems each carrying equal marks. Let’s assume the first two are deviously difficult for whatever reason (maybe lack of preparation) while the next five are very simple. Should you try to solve these first two completely before moving on to anything else, you may very well realize that by the time you are done with those questions time is up. And guess what? You only score a maximum of 20%. On the other hand, if you skim through the first two questions, find quickly that these are beasts and just move on to the third without solving the first two, then you will found to your delight five easy questions to solve and a maximum of 50% if that’s all you are able to solve.

Apart from the obvious reason that you stand a chance of getting better output by solving simple problems first, there’s an even more interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive reason one should leave the harder problems for later and it is as follows: Leaving a challenging problem for later actually increases the likelihood of you solving the problem. When faced with a really challenging problem, it has been shown scientifically that by taking one’s mind off that problem and doing some other things, one gives the brain time to subconsciously find a solution to the problem. This principle is called Incubation. Now there is no guarantee that this will work 100% but it definitely beats spending arbitrary amounts of time trying to solve the problem in one go without even a guarantee one will be arrive at the right solution.

Thus we see that when confronted with several problems to solve in time-constrained situations, it pays to tackle the easier ones first as this increases our potential output and also gives you a better chance of solving even the initially difficult problems. While I first learnt this principle while taking examinations in school, I have found it quite invaluable in everyday life.