What’s Your (Biggest) Problem? Start There

Stop worrying about perfection for a bunch of unimportant details. Focus on solving your biggest problem or dealing with whatever is preventing you from improving. You'll experience dramatic change as a result.

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Whenever I’ve considered a new endeavor, I know I’d feel more comfortable knowing the big picture along with details of all elements needed to be successful. But what I’ve discovered is that something new comes with lots of unknowns. Knowing everything in advance could mean years of research. Actually taking steps, though scary and uncertain, is often the best way to get going. Then I can identify more readily what I need to do next.

I’ve read that God may not reveal all the details of a plan, wanting me to simply trust and take steps. Psalm 119:105 (World English Bible) says: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light for my path.” The message is that the God provides guidance for my steps but I may see just where the light is shining (the next step only), not where the path leads.

There are certainly projects in which I need to see the entire path, times when I need to be able to count the cost and determine whether I have what it takes to move to completion. But there are situations in which I simply need to take a step.

Recently, I realized that dealing with the most obvious and pressing issue is the best place to start when making changes that lead to transformation. This aha moment happened soon after a friend mentioned that she needed a 5K training plan, after successfully completing a walk-run program.

A way to approach this process is to ask myself: What’s my biggest problem (and the one with the most apparent solution)? Answering that question gets me going and is essential to change. Here are some lessons from this process:

Tackle the biggest and most obvious problem to move toward transformation

I thought about what has worked for me: identify and address a major struggle, again and again, achieving significant and then small, yet steady, improvements.

For example, here is what I did to run faster:

  • Improved my overall fitness level through running, taking part in indoor cycle classes, cycling outdoors, and working out on cardio equipment, after concluding that nearly any cardiovascular workout would be helpful
  • Pushed myself to train at a faster pace using a Garmin Forerunner watch that reported my speed, after realizing that training at my usual 12-15 minute per mile pace would not yield more improvements
  • Started speed-based workouts that generally involved running at a noticeably faster pace for 1-3 miles and occasionally shorter segments at a nearly all-out pace, when I noticed that my endurance seemed fine but my quickness was lacking
  • Began doing negative splits (running 3 miles at a pace of 10 minutes per mile the first mile; 9 minutes, second mile; and 8 minutes, third mile), after feeling that I couldn’t sprint toward the 5K finish line when everyone else could

My 5K time improved from about 40 minutes to less than 26 minutes over several years. Sure, there may have been more effective ways to get better. But having a simple, comprehensible, and easy to execute plan was helpful to me.

Do what makes sense to you right now; move to more advanced techniques later

And even more useful was focusing on my area of weakness in a way that made sense to me. If someone had told me to run negative splits several years ago, I would have been completely lost. Just running repetitively was really all I needed at first; later I moved to more advanced techniques.

When you’re trying to get better — whether you are hoping for a faster pace when running, greater attendance at your weekly event, or deeper engagement among participants in a group — you may be inundated with ideas for improvement.

Advice is available from your friends, coworkers, bosses, coaches, and customers as well as your favorite online forum, social media outlet, website, and print magazine. However, some tips may be confusing or difficult to implement at your current level of capability.

When researching online training plans, for example, I noticed that many seemed hard to understand. There were complex schedules and charts and explanations of various running concepts to be applied to these schedules and charts. One that required running just three times each week and seemed to be easy to follow was a 5K plan by Jeff Galloway, who champions the walk/run method. I really liked the simplicity of his approach, especially compared to plans that involved 5 runs per week at various types of paces, which could be overwhelming to the new runner.

Likewise, when I considered other areas of my life, I discovered that I typically have the most success when I address the biggest and most obvious hurdle. This approach is similar to but not precisely the same as grabbing the proverbial low-hanging fruit or taking simple, easy steps that quickly produce results with minimal effort.

Realize that some problems have more difficult-to-implement solutions than others

In some cases, solving the most evident problem is the same as the picking the fruit at your fingertips. But sometimes dealing with these issues require deeper thought, greater effort, and longer time frames than anticipated.

For example, a big challenge in launching a small groups ministry was determining what’s needed from leaders and how we might qualify them. On the one hand, we didn’t want to discourage anyone by establishing lofty barriers. On the other hand, we needed to maintain integrity of the ministry.

After studying best practices, we learned that requiring (and approving) an application for both leading in general and organizing a group could enable us to establish appropriate screening. It would also allow us to offer freedom from bureaucracy and avoid micromanaging for those who completed the process because we knew we could trust the leaders and their efforts. Upon reflection, I realize that nearly all other activities would be ineffective without this one crucial step.

I have noticed that the solve-my-biggest-problem method has been useful in other areas of my life. For example, a big step with managing my blog has been becoming technically savvy (or at least unafraid to approach technical support) and in cycling, increasing my prowess has involved learning the skill of spinning (moving the pedals faster with less resistance, rather than exerting loads of effort at a slower rate). Gaining competence at just one new thing at a time has been instrumental in taking me to the next level of performance.

Solving any problem is useful to moving forward (so don’t worry if you don’t solve the biggest one first)

Sure, sometimes there is more than one thing that is holding me back from reaching my goals. And often, instead of focusing on the precisely right element, I make improvements on items that don’t have the grandest impact.

Still, approaching problems strategically, one at a time, has moved me forward in ways that allowed me to achieve greater effectiveness. And the next time I feel stuck (or overwhelmed considering all the things I should improve), I’ll remember to focus on my biggest problem and one that I know how to solve.

Through the process of tackling the most obvious issue, I’ve improved my skills in knowing when to research, when to take action, and when to seek counsel and what type of advice to request. I want to be like the wise man in Proverbs 1 (World English Bible): “the wise man may hear, and increase in learning.”

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