99 Problems, But A Ranking System Ain’t One
Last week, I lost my glasses. Hunted high, low and everywhere in between. Not in my purse. Not in my bedroom. Not in either of the cars (visiting the parents, I’m not fancy like that on my own). Not on my head. It wasn’t even like I was rocking Oakley or Ray-Ban shades; these cost $5.99 at Claire’s three years ago, but they are the only ones I’ve found that stay up on my face properly. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else until I located these glasses. Never mind that it was cloudy that day, it was the principle of the matter.
Eventually they turned up under the couch, but not before I’d wasted a disproportionate amount of time and energy on a comparatively tiny problem. This incident started me thinking about how we view problems and how we frequently let minor annoyances take up major head space. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could refer to a handy classification or taxonomy of problems before launching the Spanish Inquisition over a pair of sunglasses? Yes, yes, it would. And that’s exactly what I’ve done below. Here are all of your potential problem supertypes arranged in a hierarchy according to their importance in terms of the resources you should devote to solving them:
This covers things like figuring out how to escape from an ax-wielding maniac (I first typed ex-wielding maniac, which is a whole ‘nother story, yes?) or realizing you can’t find your keys five minutes before you’re supposed to leave the house to get to an interview for your dream job. These problems need to be solved ASAP and before any other forward action can occur. As a rule, we assign far too many inconveniences to this top-tier category and, on the whole, show a tendency toward classifying problems as more pressing or grave than they actually are.
Quality of Life
These are big ticket items related to career, relationships, family, etc. My current job isn’t what I want to be doing, but how do I make a change? How do I meet someone? How can I stop arguing with my mother? You get the drift. They can’t be solved as quickly as the Urgent variety (would that they could!), but resolving them in a satisfactory fashion is integral to our personal happiness. Typically, the solution involves a hearty dose of introspection and requires a multi-step approach, the steps of which we often seem to uncover one at time using a trial and error method. As well, there are numerous ways to address these problems (satisficing vs. optimizing, for example) and no clear way to measure whether we’ve adequately solved them, other than being relatively content at a general and day-to-day level and not waking up in the middle of night feeling as if your heart is clamped in a vise.
This is a catchall for those problems that live beneath the surface. Maybe they’re recurring. Maybe they never really go away. Possibly, they’ll come to a boil, but most likely they’ll simply keep getting pushed to the back of our minds because they don’t demand immediate solutions and we can live quite well (for now, anyway) without addressing them. Questions of faith (What do I believe? What should I believe?) and desires for self improvement (better time management, improving your eating habits, becoming more assertive) fit nicely into this category. Would we be better for addressing them? Probably. But because they’re often ambiguous and not fully-formed in nature, we don’t quite know how to tackle them or if we’d just be borrowing trouble or rocking the boat by focusing on them when the majority of our life is on an even keel.
Often, we focus on pesky problems as a means of avoiding the Quality of Life or Simmering ones. They’re small, self-contained and usually able to be solved quickly. Unfortunately, we often mistake pesky problems for Urgent ones and devote far too much time to deciding what three ties to pack for that conference in Toledo or interpreting what it really means when our roommate “forgets” to put the milk back in the fridge for the fifth day in a row. Parsing the difference between Pesky and Urgent problems requires that we exercise a sense of perspective. What is the worst thing that can happen if we ignore this problem or pick the wrong solution? Will it have long-term consequences? The world isn’t gonna end if you don’t find a date for your cousin’s wedding (maybe there will be cute bridesmaids!) or if you can’t get tickets to Lady Gaga.