Use of problem solving rules

Power of Rules in real life problem solving

Problem solving rule

Highly efficient problem solving special rules are created from successful problem solving experiences. Some of these personal or not so personal but nevertheless unwritten rules may be quite powerful.

During our lives we create useful rules that we have found to work well for us. Some of these rules are known to most people around, but when we believe in such a rule, we own it for personal use more effectively.

For example, the following rule works well while making a point to another person,

Always keep a confident eye contact while talking to the other person.

Most people know and use it. But those who have more belief in such a rule, naturally gain more by using the rule.

Belief in a rule or concept increases confidence, and increased confidence increases performance in using the concept.

Sometimes we find a rule to help us in a problem situation unexpectedly. Such a rule is more personal and not known or followed by most people.

Ability to create and use such effective rules usually cut short our decision making time and improve quality of decision, thus improving our overall problem solving ability.

Case example of a special problem solving rule

Everyone around follows this rule

We have shortage of small coins in our city. Small daily tasks need small coins. It is not a critical situation, but still a widespread problem.

Just before boarding the train from the terminal station, I wanted to have a hot cup of drink, it was chilly this morning. A few steps away stood a busy tea stall thick with people. I went ahead and asked for a cup of tea. As the train may arrive soon, I offered 5 rupees in coins at the same time. It would speed up the transaction—that was my reckoning. I knew that a cup of tea costs 5 rupees and no one will accept a 10 rupee note when the price of item bought is 5 rupees. Getting change is a real difficulty here.

The tea stall was crowded. After a few minutes, the man in the stall at last looked at me. In his hand was a steaming paper cup. His response was short and precise, “Coffee – eight rupees”. Well, coffee instead of tea won’t hurt. I accepted the cup and quickly produced three rupees more in coins. I could see the train approaching.

I turned and moved towards the place where my porter stood.

Soon after boarding the train (I managed to drink the coffee on the go) I realized that I violated my own principle and one rule that everyone around follows.


Anyone is expected to commit violations of rules that are known as the right rules to be followed, but one should try to know reasons why a violation happened.

  • The generally known rule I violated is: never produce a 10 rupee note when the price of item is 8 rupees (oh it is nearly 10 rupees in change!). More general expression might be: if the price to be given is more than 5 rupees (rounding off principle – domain mapping), at 6 you might try your luck. But not always the man on the other side will accept it without some grumbling. At the figure of 8, there can’t be any question regarding who is on the winning side. It was kind of  a criminal offense on my part to violate this golden rule that everyone knows and unfailingly follows.
  • The second violation is still worse. It is the violation of the principle of zero-based problem solving that only a few days back I had first theorized.

This principle prescribed:

When facing a new problem or situation, start fresh, don’t continue to think like before.

As soon as the man uttered “Coffee – rupees 8”, I should have re-evaluated the situation, taken back 5 rupees change and should quickly have produced a 10 rupee note. I still had time to take this course of action. An adept decision maker should have done that.

Why did I make these two violations?

I reckoned I made the violations because:

  • I was in a hurry and tended to continue with previous pattern of thought and behavior rather than stop for a second and think fresh, “Oh, it is getting back coin change scenario, I must produce a 10 rupee note”.

It follows:

When you are in a hurry, you tend to follow the path that you were in and stay in the comfort zone, rather than take the pressure of evaluating a new situation.


Be in a hurry, but never be in mental hurry.

I mean act fast and precise, but keep control. Never feel the hurry.

There is a golden saying for car drivers: Drive fast if you need to, but never hurry while driving. A sense of hurry while driving increases the chances of accident.

  • Also I went into affective decision making mode where I was driven by extraneous cognitive impulse and was drawn away from the problem at hand.
  • Lastly, it is always more than a possibility that when I am the DA and DM combined and in a time-tight situation, I may lose my neutrality of mind that would usually not happen when I am the DA analyzing a problem of someone else. This gives rise to another rule some doctors follow:

Never treat a patient when the patient is yourself or someone very close to you.

Exceptions to a rule: all rules are supposed to have exceptions

All of us know the cliche: every rule has an exception. When we are trying to become pragmatic and systematic problem solvers, we need to be more specific than this. For the coin shortage rule, we might follow an exception:

When your wallet is filled up by religious hoarding of coins and you have started to feel the difficulty of sitting down on a hard seat with the bloated wallet in your hip pocket, you might decide to give away even 9 rupees in coin change once or twice before reviewing the stock and falling back to the hoarding mode again.

Like many other rules, this coin change rule is known, agreed to and being followed by most of the members in a specific domain. It is kind of public rule but nevertheless a useful unwritten rule.

But there are also some rules which only you and not most of the people follow because you have discovered it and made it a part of your problem solving armory. These are personal rules.

We pause here with a parting question for you:

Can you identify any personal rule that you found useful and probably you are the only one following the rule?

If you cultivate a culture of identifying explicitly a special rule that you have used in solving a problem, not only will you be able to apply the rule with more promptness and confidence for the second and subsequent times, but also gradually you would build a nice rich set of useful problem solving rules in your problem solving armory resources.


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