Break Big Problems Down

If I had to pick the most valuable thing I’ve learned as an engineer, I think it would have to be this:

Big problems are really just collections of smaller, easier problems.

A big problem is overwhelming. It’s complex. Often there are no clear and obvious solutions. Big problems need to be broken down into smaller problems.

It seems obvious enough. Many people probably do this naturally. And yet, I am often confronted by people that are stuck, feeling overwhelmed and helpless because they can’t reframe their big problem into manageable chunks.

Learning to program MATLAB in university is probably the reason why I now try to break all problems down. I started with no programming knowledge and a research advisor telling me to program things. Complex things. Big problems. It was overwhelming. If I thought about it too much, I could convince myself that I wasn’t capable of doing it. The only way to learn and keep motivated was to break the problem down into the most minute, laughably simple tasks, and then break down the task and research the MATLAB functions that would be required to complete it. It was a slow process. But not only was I making progress, I felt like I was making progress, which is arguably more important.

Another advantage of reframing a big problem into smaller ones is that small problems are achievable in minutes and hours, not days and weeks. The ability to cross tasks off my mental (or physical) checklist and the sense of accomplishment that comes with it is super important to my motivation to continue. Small problems can also be tackled intermittantly because the mental overhead required to jump into and out of the problem is minimal. Anyone who has tried to work on a complex problem can probably attest to the uncanny ability of distractions to cause a day to fly by without any meaningful progress made, because these distractions cause the problem to be unloaded and reloaded in our working memory, which has a non-negligable time associated with it. Spend one or more days in this viscous cycle and motivation will dwindle and frustration will arise from lack of progress.

The next time you are faced with a big problem, I highly recommend trying to break it down into manageable chunks.

Jeremy Atkinson
Jeremy Atkinson
Structural Engineer

My interests include tall buildings, seismic design, and computer programming.