Added On: Sunday, November 04, 2007

Concentrate on problems you actually have

We all have things about the world we wish were different. If pressed to write a list of problems we wanted solved, it wouldn't take long for most of us to fill a page or more. Many of our efforts are focussed on fixing the challenges we face - from being hungry to avoiding ending up in poverty.

Because of this, our brains are wired to be problem solving machines. We obsess over what's wrong in our lives to the point where it can sometimes be unhealthy. It's typical for people who have all sorts of good things in their lives to virtually ignore them and instead focus exclusively on some relatively minor problem.

In short, if you're looking for something to spend your efforts on fixing, you generally don't have to look far.

And smart people go one step further. They look past the problems they have today and try to anticipate problems they may have tomorrow that would be easier to avoid with a little effort today. This is all well and good, as long as you are prioritizing properly.

One mistake I see a lot of smart people make is becoming obsessed with the problems they might have tomorrow, to the point of neglecting those they already have. When divvying up your time, it makes sense to concentrate on problems that are real rather than those you imagine may occur. Sure you should spend time on both, but the former is much more important than the latter.

Let me give you an example. Working in information technology, I often come across people who are thinking of starting up a web business in some form. When I listen to them speaking about the challenges they may face, I'm often surprised at where they're concentrating their efforts. Typically, they'll waste large amounts of time worrying about somebody stealing their idea, hackers attacking their website or not having enough infrastructure to cope if their service becomes popular.

These are all genuine problems that any web-based business should consider. But they are not the biggest problems facing them. In fact, they have one big challenge that is going to be extremely difficult to overcome. Put simply, nobody cares about some new web-based business started up by some guys in a garage. Much more likely to occur - and in fact occurring right now - is that they're going to be ignored completely by the world. No business can survive without customers. And without customers, having your website hacked or servers overloaded is extremely unlikely to happen.

They're so busy concentrating on what "might" happen that they've lost sight of where they should be investing their resources, in what "is" happening.

I also see this happening in relationships. I remember one love affair between a couple of people I knew, where the guy was always obsessing about the possibility of his girlfriend meeting somebody else while out. It was pretty clear that hadn't happened and seemed unlikely to happen. But the mere possibility obsessed him.

Meanwhile, they were having serious financial problems which were affecting their relationship badly. In fact, these immediate problems made the other problem much more likely to occur. Yet, he willfully ignored do anything to address this challenge. Instead, he preferred to prevent her from going out and meeting other men.

Needless to say, it didn't end well.

Anticipating problems and dealing with them before they arrive is a smart strategy, but it should take a minority of your resources. Instead, concentrate on challenges you already have. Your certain to find no shortage of them to occupy you.

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