[ Question ]

How do you approach hard problems?

by Denis Drescher2 min read4th Jan 20211 comment


Research Methods


I used a recent Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) of Rethink Priorities to ask a series of questions about research in general (not limited to Rethink Priorities).

I’m posting these here severally to make them more visible. I’m not personally looking for more answers at this point, but if you think that readers would benefit from another perspective, I’d be delighted if you could add it.


I imagine that you’ll sometimes have to grapple with problems that are sufficiently hard that it feels like you didn’t make any tangible progress on them (or on how to approach them) for a week or more. How do you stay optimistic and motivated? How and when do you “escalate” in some fashion – say, discuss hiring a freelance expert on some other field?

Jason Schukraft

I’m fortunate that my work is almost always intrinsically interesting. So even if I don’t make progress on a problem, I continue to be motivated to work on it because the work itself is so very pleasant. That said, as I’ve emphasized above, when I’m stuck, I find it most helpful to talk to lots of people about the problem.

Alex Lintz

I have a maybe-controversial take that research (even in LT space) is motivated largely by signalling and status games. From this view the advice many gave about talking to people about it sounds good. Then you generate some excitement as you’re able to show someone else you’re smart enough to solve it, or they get excited to share what they know, etc. I think if you had a nice working group on any topic, no matter how boring, everyone would get super excited about it. In general, connecting the solution to a hard problem to social reward is probably going to work well as a motivator by this logic.

Michael Aird

I’m not actually sure if the precise problem you’re describing resonates with me. I definitely often feel very uncertain about:

  • whether the goal I’m striving towards really matters at all
  • even if so, whether it’s a goal worth prioritising
  • whether I should prioritise it (is it my comparative advantage?)
  • whether anything I produce in pursuing this goal will be of any use to anyone

But I’m not sure there have been cases where, for a week or more, I didn’t feel like I was at least progressing towards:

  • having the sort of output I had planned or now planned to produce(setting aside the question of whether that output will be useful to anyone), and/or
  • deciding (for good reason) to not bother trying to create that sort of output

Note that I’d count as “progress” cases where I explored some solutions/options that I thought might work/be useful for X, and all turned out to be miserable wastes of time, so I can at least rule those out and try something else next week. I’d also count cases where I learned other potentially useful things in the process of pursuing dead ends, and that knowledge seems likely to somehow benefit this or other projects.

It is often the case that my estimate of how many remaining days something will take is longer at the end of the week than it was at the beginning of the week. But this is usually coupled with me thinking that I have made some sort of progress – I just also realised that some parts will be harder than I thought, or that I should do a more thorough job than I’d planned, or something like that.

(But I feel like maybe I’m just interpreting your question differently to what you intended.)

(If one of the answers is yours, you can post it below, and I’ll delete it here.)


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Another strategy that goes about the problem from the side is what Tiago Forte of Building a Second Brain calls The Slow Burn approach (9 min audio explanation). It's basically the approach of letting hard and motivating problems flow with you for a long period of time, collecting insights, ideas, resources, and different view points along the way. 

Richard Feynman supposedly gave the advice of always keeping in mind 12 favorite questions, and see if anything new that comes up shines a light on any of them.

You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

In How to Take Smart Notes, the author discusses the Zettelkasten method. It is based on the method of a prolific social scientist (Niklas Luhmann) to research; Something like: Have a trusted system for storing and reviewing notes, and engage with whatever you find interesting (and keep everything in the system). Once in a while, some ideas will develop into something coherent which could be published. 

[This book] describes how [Luhmann] implemented [the tools of note-taking] into his workflow so he could honestly say: “I never force myself to do anything Idon’t feel like. Whenever I am stuck, I do something else.” A good structure allows you to do that, to move seamlessly from one task to another – without threatening the whole arrangement or losing sight of the bigger picture.