Define every problem: how to write a personal problem statement

To solve a problem, you first need to understand the problem. As Irish author Derek Landy puts it: “Every solution to every problem is simple. It’s the distance between the two where the mystery lies.”

A problem statement can help bridge that gap. It’s a brief summary of a problem you want to address. It’s most commonly used in research to clearly identify the problem to be solved before taking action. However, it has many benefits that can be harnessed outside of a research context, and can be especially helpful to tackle personal problems.

The power of defining your problems

In research, problem statements are valued because they crystallize the issue at hand, help researchers to avoid preconceived ideas, and ensure that each study has a clear direction before work begins.

Researcher Max Kush explains that problem statements should explore the gap between your current state and your future goal. The concise description should emphasize all of the facts that need to be addressed to move forwards.

However, he goes on to highlight that unfortunately, problem statements often incorrectly assume that everyone understands the issue, leading to weak, error-laden or incomplete statements. Using a series of ‘five W’ questions (who, where, what, when and why) that ensure a comprehensive understanding of the problem can help avoid that pitfall.

You will notice that the problem statement doesn’t include a ‘how’ question. The statement can suggest options, but it doesn’t define the final answer. In a team setting, the problem statement is a tool for constructive conversation: it allows group members to discuss potential solutions together.

According to physics Professor Mahyuddin Nasution and colleagues, designing a problem statement can work for any “interests that require answers.” That’s why this powerful method can be adapted to better understand problems you face in your personal and professional life.

A bridge between problem and solution

Whether you’re facing a challenge or feel like there’s a potential area of growth you’d like to explore, writing a problem statement for a personal or professional issue can be beneficial in many situations.

Problem statements are often helpful during times of transition. If you’re considering a career change, a problem statement will help you to fully understand the crux of any issues you might be facing now.

By looking ahead to the future you envision, you can identify the gap between your current position and your ideal work situation. Having a problem statement in place will help to avoid rushed decisions into a new role which might not truly deliver the growth you’re looking for.

Problem statements work In your private life as well. For example, you may feel stuck in a relationship. Writing a problem statement will help to identify communication gaps, and the mismatch between your current situation and how you feel your relationship should be.

You can also explore how to improve your physical and mental health with a problem statement. It helps you reflect on why you want to take better care of your health, and how you might go about it. It’s a way to investigate why your behaviors do not always match your intentions, so that you can begin to address this disparity.

By reflecting on the gap between ideal and reality, it becomes easier to understand the crux of a problem and lay the groundwork for potential solutions.

With a personal problem statement in place, it’s also far easier to communicate the issues to others who may be able to help you. Rather than feeling anxious or overwhelmed, you will start to see the issue as a puzzle to be solved, rather than a source of stress.

Writing your personal problem statement

Crafting a personal problem statement involves an audit of the current situation, followed by an assessment of how this differs from the state you’re aspiring to.

To write your problem statement, open your note-taking app or start a fresh page in your notebook or journal before exploring the following questions:

  • What is your ideal?
  • What is your reality?
  • What are the consequences of your current situation?
  • What can you propose as improvements?

A personal problem statement might be: “I would like to read more books (ideal), but I spend two hours scrolling on social media everyday while commuting (reality), which impacts my mental health and my creativity (consequences). Instead, I should put my phone in my backpack and take my Kindle out as soon as I get on the bus in the morning (potential solution).” 

Another statement could be, “I want to improve my fitness (ideal), but I am too tired to exercise when I get home from work (reality), which impacts physical health and mental wellbeing (consequences). Instead, I could start walking or cycling to work to fit exercise into my day more easily (potential solution).”

If you’re struggling to articulate your answers to the above questions, you may in addition go through the series of ‘five W’ questions (who, where, what, when and why) to get to the core of the problem at hand:

  • What is the problem? (the gap between ideal and reality)
  • Who is experiencing the problem? (you, a friend, family member, colleague…)
  • Where is the problem occuring? (at home, at school, at work…)
  • When does the problem occur? (every day, week or month, during specific events, when around certain people…)
  • Why does the problem occur? (gap in skills, knowledge, communication…)

While problem statements are typically used in research, writing a statement for the issues you face in your personal and professional life can also be a powerful way to better understand those issues. With a crystalised view of the problem, you can explore potential solutions to close the gap between ideal and reality. And, who knows, one of these may become a favorite problem of yours.

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