One of the many reasons problem-solving is beset with anxiety is that so many problems come with a deadline. When panic to meet the deadline sets in, we feel blocked and pray for the lightbulb moment, for the answer to appear in a flash of inspiration. If you're suffering from deadline anxiety, stop, take a breath, and try this approach.

What you need to do is actually quite simple: investigate the cause of the dilemma rather than feeling pressed to find a solution now. Albert Einstein famously said: "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions". Here are some ways in which you might turn detective. You can set 55 minutes for your investigation, or have open-ended time - the point is to spend proportionately longer considering the problem than being solution-driven:

  • Is the problem yours to solve? Have you taken it upon yourself to resolve something you didn't create?
  • What opportunities does the problem offer? For example, might it lead you to think in new ways or break new ground - or will you gain benefit or a reward when the problem no longer exists?
  • Check your language: Is there negativity and/or pressure in the questions you're asking yourself? Try rephrasing the problem in a more positive light. For example, 'How do I get this essay/report written now?' could be rephrased as, 'What's the best approach I can take to this work now?'
  • Break it down and get some distance: Break down the problem into chunks and name each chunk, then draw a box naming each one. This helps you to define the elements of the problem while creating some distance between yourself and it. Then draw boxes for all the possible solutions you can think of, and brainstorm as if it's not your problem. Imagine you're helping another person, and offering them creative solutions.
  • Check your assumptions: Can a deadline change? Is a contract irrevocable? Can you break the rules? Cancel an agreement? If a situation is causing far too many problems, investigate if there will be enough reward in the long term to warrant you solving the problem that's been created.
  • Change your environment: Changing your environment helps you alter your perspective.

When you've done your investigative groundwork, spend your last five minutes (or any time you allocate) on deciding what action to take to break through the problem. Make the decision.