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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Solve problems by writing a note to yourself

Dear, Merlin,

For someone so fond of lecturing other people about their problems, I have a lot of annoying tics (I mean, duh). One of my worst, at least back in the day, was seldom bothering to RTFM before demanding lots of time-consuming help from others.

For years, my court of first resort was almost always to email the smartest, often busiest person I knew about a given topic, alerting them as to their new role as the speed bump between me and solving my problem (cf: the classic Balloon joke). I've gotten better at it over the years, for sure, and, in the age of Google, it's a habit that's easy enough to shed.

The funny thing I eventually realized was that I could and often did find the solution to my problem -- part way through writing the email in which I was asking for help. I realize this sounds kind of silly, but the next time you're having trouble figuring something out, try writing a note to yourself.

Seriously, open up your email program, type in your own email address, then choose a brilliant subject line that perfectly encapsulates your particular problem.

In the body of the message, start by typing a 2-3 sentence paragraph summarizing the trouble you're having, with a focus not on your frustration or your dramatic need for immediate help -- instead concentrate on coolly describing exactly what you want to accomplish as well as what happens when you try the approach that hasn't been working for you. Remember: you're theoretically writing this to the smartest, busiest person you know, so don't waste their time with theatrics, melodrama, and passive-aggression; just give them accurate information that describes where you're getting hung up.

Next, explain the ways you've already tried to solve this problem, including any alternate solutions, workarounds, hacks, reboots, etc. Anything that will help this very smart friend rule out possible causes is useful. And don't be reluctant to use Google as you go; fact-checking yourself, choosing precise language, and ensuring that you've framed the right problem.

If you're still typing at this point (meaning you haven't stumbled upon 1 or 2 new solutions to try), outline 3-5 possible causes for the problem. Bullet out any recent changes, new software, theoretically related problems -- anything that you think might be contributing to the primary hang-up.

Now go back and read your email like you're the smartest, busiest person you know -- like it's not actually your problem. What's missing? What would you suggest they try first? Is it plugged in?

In an astonishing number of cases -- and at practically any point in this process -- one or several things are likely to occur to you:

  • You're overlooking something fundamental.
  • There's an insanely obvious solution you hadn't thought of.
  • You forgot about a configuration change.
  • You missed a dependency.
  • You're using an excellent solution...for the wrong problem.
  • You were getting so worked-up and clicking so many things that you were actually making a trivial problem much worse.
  • You, um, hadn't Googled for the Subject line of your message (or your error message, etc.).
  • You got so emotionally invested in solving the wrong problem that you didn't realize there's a simpler way to do what you ultimately need.
  • You don't really need to be doing this at all.
  • It's actually not plugged in.

This most definitely will not work for 100% of your problems, but you may be surprised at how well it works for most of them.

Alan Watts once wrote that once we understand a problem we've actually solved it -- that you make a dark room brighter by adding light, not by waving your arms around. Next time you're waving your arms around in the dark, make sure you understand the real nature of your problem -- and not just allow yourself to pout and stay fixated on the desire for your frustration to go away. You probably already know the answer to your problem or you at least know where to find it. Maybe you just don't know you know it yet.



Has anyone ever figured out that 90% of the posts on this site are actually (notes|pep talks|reminders) to myself? I sometimes think not. The site definitely makes more sense once you get this.

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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