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Mental models: 13 thinking tools to boost your problem-solving skills

Mental models: 13 thinking tools to boost your problem-solving skills

Imagine you've gone out to dinner with friends. You’ve just sat down at your favorite table at your favorite restaurant, looking forward to the evening ahead.

The waiter brings over your menus and tells you about the specials. It sounds like one of the dishes is really good — you've always wanted to try it, and the way they've described it sounds amazing.

You're mulling it over in your mind while the others order, and then it's your turn — and you just ask for the same meal you always get.

Sound familiar?

Whether it’s your favorite meal or the perfectly worn-in pair of jeans in your closet, this tendency to fall back on what we know rather than risk something unknown is the result of a common thinking tool called a mental model.

Mental models, like the status quo bias in the scenario above, represent how we perceive something to operate in the world based on what we have learned in our lives. We all use them to help us understand complex situations and predict what will happen. If leveraged well, they can be powerful thinking tools.

This article will explore the concept of mental models as thinking tools and uncover 13 mental models you can add to your toolkit of thinking skills.

Mental models as thinking tools

Most of the time, we're not as thoughtful as we think. While many of us consider ourselves capable of critical thinking, researchers say we tend to make snap judgments without using our knowledge.

For example, let’s try an exercise. Take a look at this image:

Thinking tools: cat pouncing on a man

Did you immediately react based on what you think is about to happen?

Although there isn’t a picture showing what takes place next, most of us made a guess using a tool we weren't even aware of — a mental model. Through our mental model, we could predict a possible outcome (which hopefully didn’t involve any scratches or falls).

Many of our snap judgments and reactions — whether about a photo we see or a problem we encounter — are shaped by the mental models we use to view the world. We begin to develop mental models as soon as we are born and continue to develop them throughout our lives, using them as a thinking tool to make sense of life, solve problems, and make decisions.

We all start out with different sets of mental models — after all, we all have different experiences that shape our early lives. As we gain experiences and knowledge, we add more models to our toolkit and learn to see things in new ways.

Sometimes our mental models work against us. If we limit our thinking to only a few mental models, we can suffer from critical thinking barriers . However, when we actively pursue thoughtful learning and collect many mental models, they can be extremely valuable tools for critical and creative thinking.

Munger's Latticework of Mental Models

Mental models as thinking tools were first made popular by Charlie Munger in his 1995 " The Psychology of Human Misjudgment " speech at Harvard University. Entrepreneurs and thinkers have since embraced mental models to achieve success.

According to Munger's Latticework of Mental Models theory, we can use various thinking tools to see problems from several points of view. Combining mental models increases original thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills instead of relying on one frame of reference.

As Munger said , "All the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department ... 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90 percent of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight."

This is why we need to keep learning — to expand our toolbox. The more mental models we have in our toolkit, the easier it is to find one that works for the situation.

A well-stocked toolbox is more effective at solving a problem than a single nail.

problem solving mental models

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13 valuable tools for your thinking skills toolkit

Brain and a wrench

There are hundreds of mental models and thinking tools available, which can be overwhelming. Most of us are familiar with concepts like the Eisenhower Matrix and brainstorming. However, we can use many other mental models for creative and critical thinking. Here are 13 thinking tools to boost decision-making, problem-solving, and creative thinking skills.

1. First Principles

First principle thinking is a mental model that can be used for problem-solving by breaking things down to the most basic level. This thinking tool is based on the idea that all complex problems can be reduced to more specific, fundamental parts. Using first-principles thinking, you identify the underlying causes of a problem and then find the best solutions that address those root causes.

For instance, it would be impossible to pack up your entire house at once if you were moving. To pack efficiently and safely, you’d need to go room by room, tackling one room at a time.

2. Inversion

Inversion is a technique used to generate ideas of creative solutions to problems by imagining the opposite of them. Inversion is higher-order thinking that requires thinking about the solution you don't want. With inverted thinking, you consider how something might fail and then try to avoid those mistakes. This approach differs from "working backward," another way of doing things that encourages you to begin with the desired end solution in mind.

3. Occam's Razor

Occam's Razor is a mental model that can simplify complex problems and situations by determining which explanation is most likely. This thinking tool is based on the principle that the simplest answer is usually correct. When using Occam's Razor, you should look for the most obvious, straightforward reasoning that fits all facts.

4. Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom's Taxonomy is a mental model used for categorizing the knowledge levels of learners. The cognitive, affective, and psychomotor learning domains are grouped into three hierarchical levels, with each level encompassing the previous one. In a hierarchical structure, areas of knowledge begin with simple skills and progress to higher-order thinking.

The six levels of Bloom's Taxonomy are:

  • Knowledge: Recalling or recognizing facts and information
  • Comprehension: Understanding the meaning of information
  • Application: Using information in new ways
  • Analysis: Breaking down information into smaller parts
  • Synthesis: Putting pieces of information together to form a new whole
  • Evaluation: Making judgments about the value of information

By applying the actions from each level of this tool, we can analyze situations from different angles and find more comprehensive solutions.

5. Incentives

Incentives are a model that can be used to encourage desired behavior. Based on a cause and effect concept, people will be more likely to act if they are given an incentive to do so. The incentives can be monetary, such as a bonus or commission, or non-monetary, such as recognition or privileges.

6. Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is characterized by the tendency to focus too much on personal characteristics and not enough on circumstances when judging others. This mental model believes that people's actions reflect who they are without considering their point of view. This can lead to misunderstanding and conflict.

For example, it's easy to get angry and lash out at someone who cuts you off in traffic without considering that maybe they are rushing to the hospital for an emergency. Keeping this model in mind can help us avoid over-simplifying behavior.

7. Law of Diminishing Returns

Declining arrow

The Law of Diminishing Returns provides a way to determine when it’s no longer efficient to continue investing in something. This thinking tool is based on the idea that there’s a point at which additional investment in something will result in diminishing returns.

The law of diminishing returns is often used in higher-level business decisions to determine when to stop investing in a project, but it’s also used in other forms of decision-making. Research has found that decision-makers tend to use a "matching" strategy in which they make their choice based on the relative value each option has.

8. Redundancy

The redundancy theory suggests that learners retain less new knowledge if the same information is presented in multiple ways or if it’s unnecessarily elaborate. Studies have shown that using several sources to relay information, such as text, visuals, and audio can create a lack of focus and less learning. Integrating the redundancy model can help teachers and leaders make learning more efficient.

9. Hanlon's Razor

Hanlon's Razor is a mental model that suggests most mistakes are not made maliciously. The purpose of this tool is to remind us not to assume the worst in the actions of others. Hanlon's Razor can help us see the situation from another's point of view and have more empathy, therefore avoiding making wrong assumptions.

For example, friends who aren't answering their mobile phones most likely aren't mad at you. Maybe they're just busy, or perhaps there are various other reasons to explain their delay.

10. Common Knowledge

We usually think of common knowledge as universal facts most people understand. However, the mental model of common knowledge is a little different. Used as a thinking tool, it focuses on pooling together the knowledge we don't share and taking into account the wisdom of others to help us make better decisions. Brainstorming, creating concept maps, and integrating feedback are useful tools we can use to share common knowledge.

11. Survivorship Bias

Survivorship bias refers to the tendency to focus on successful people, businesses, and strategies while overlooking failed ones.

For example, the idea that all 21st-century Hollywood stars got there through hard work may underestimate the amount of networking used to achieve fame. The idea dismisses the millions of other actors who worked just as hard but didn't have the same connections.

This thinking process can lead to decision-making errors because it causes people to overestimate their chances of success. However, when used to frame thinking, understanding the survivorship bias can help us consider other points of view and avoid making incorrect decisions.

12. The Ladder of Inference

White ladder

The Ladder of Inference is a mental model that helps explain why we make judgments quickly and unconsciously. The ladder illustrates the rapid steps our minds go through to make decisions and take action in any given situation. The seven steps are:

  • Observations: The data or information that we carry in through our senses
  • Selected Data: The process of our brain choosing which information is important and which to ignore
  • Meanings: Making interpretations and judgments based on our experiences, beliefs, and values
  • Assumptions: The views or beliefs that we hold that help us interpret the facts
  • Conclusions: The decision or opinion that we form based on our assumptions
  • Beliefs: The convictions that we have about ourselves and the world around us
  • Actions: The way we act or respond based on our thoughts

Using the Ladder of Inference as a thinking tool can help us avoid rash judgments based on assumptions and ensure sound thinking.

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13. 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 Rule is a thinking tool that we can use to understand the relationship between inputs and outputs. This model is based on the idea that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. The 80/20 rule can be used to decide how to allocate resources.

Thinking tools are essential for a learner's toolkit

Every lifelong learner should have a toolbox of thinking tools. Mental models are helpful thinking tools that can enhance the creative and critical thinking processes. By having more tools at your disposal, you can approach any situation from various angles, increasing the probability of finding a successful solution.

Remember — building your thinking toolkit is an ongoing process. Keep learning, and you'll soon find that you're making better decisions consistently and solving problems more quickly.

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Erin E. Rupp

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Mental Models: Unlocking the power of effective thinking


As an ardent consumer of investment and decision-making content, I have come across numerous articles, books, and podcasts where the concept of mental models is hailed as a favorite among investors and experts in the field. Time and time again, the term would pique my interest, yet I never truly grasped the idea in its entirety. While I managed to piece together a vague understanding based on the contexts in which it was mentioned, I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I was missing out on a powerful tool for enhancing my ability to think effectively and make good decisions.

Fueled by curiosity and a desire to broaden my thinking tools, I decided to do some research and reading on the world of mental models to arrive at a better understanding of what mental models are and why they are so important. In this article, I share my findings on the importance of mental models, discuss useful examples, and provide tips on how to apply them to improve your thinking and decision-making.

Where does the idea come from?

The investment community's fascination with mental models can be traced in part to Berkshire Hathaway's long-time Vice Chairman Charlie Munger's enthusiasm for them. Munger often attributes his extraordinary investment success to his ability to evaluate investments using multiple "mental models," a concept he famously discussed in a 1994 speech at the USC Business School .

Although Munger popularized the term, mental modeling theory dates back to the early 1940s and has been extensively studied across various fields, including psychology, cognitive science, and system dynamics, in the decades since it was first introduced.

What is a mental model?

The concept of mental models varies across disciplines, leading to a vast and intricate literature on their definition, presence, understanding, and application. An in-depth account of this vast literature is not possible within the space of this article, but worth acknowledging that it exists. Bearing that in mind, what follows a somewhat cursory definition which I've pieced together from a brief review of the literature. Fortunately, at least in my experience, a precise scientific definition isn't necessary for understanding the importance of mental models and how to use them to enhance your thinking.

A cursory definition

Mental models are cognitive constructs that help us understand the world around us and make effective decisions. They are frameworks that simplify complex systems, provide context for new information, and help us process, analyze, and interpret experiences. Mental models can be thought of as mental shortcuts or "rules of thumb" that help us navigate our everyday lives.

Why are they important?

A broad base of mental models improves your ability to think clearly, rationally, and effectively. Mental models do this by:

  • Enhancing problem-solving skills: Mental models enable us to approach problems from different perspectives, identify patterns, and develop innovative solutions. They allow us to break down complex situations into smaller, more manageable parts, making it easier to evaluate options and determine the best course of action.
  • Facilitating better decision-making: Mental models assist in filtering relevant information and minimizing cognitive biases. By incorporating diverse mental models, we can analyze situations more objectively and make informed decisions.
  • Improving learning and retention: By providing a structure to organize and interpret new information, mental models promote better understanding and memory retention. They help us link new experiences to existing knowledge, facilitating faster and more effective learning.

What are some examples of useful mental models?

Some mental models I've found particularly useful include:

  • The Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule): The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, is a mental model that can be applied across various fields, including business, economics, and time management. The principle posits that 80% of the outcomes are derived from 20% of the causes. In a business context, this may mean that 80% of a company's profits come from 20% of its customers, or 80% of a project's progress can be attributed to 20% of the tasks. By identifying and concentrating on the critical 20% of tasks or inputs, individuals and organizations can maximize their productivity, effectiveness, and resource allocation. The Pareto Principle can also help in prioritizing and streamlining decision-making processes, allowing people to focus on the most significant factors that will yield the most considerable impact.
  • First Principles Thinking: First Principles Thinking is a mental model that involves deconstructing complex problems into their most basic elements and questioning the underlying assumptions. By analyzing a problem from the ground up, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of the core principles and develop innovative, creative solutions that are not constrained by conventional wisdom or established practices. This approach can be applied in various fields, including science, technology, and business, to foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills. First Principles Thinking can help individuals overcome cognitive biases, question the status quo, and identify novel approaches or perspectives that may have been overlooked in traditional problem-solving methods.
  • Circle of Competence: The Circle of Competence is a mental model that emphasizes the importance of focusing on areas where an individual possesses expertise or deep understanding. By acknowledging one's limitations and concentrating on domains within one's circle of competence, individuals can make more informed decisions, minimize the risk of costly mistakes, and increase the likelihood of success. This concept can be applied to investing, career development, and personal growth, among other areas. To expand one's circle of competence, it is essential to engage in continuous learning, skill development, and knowledge acquisition. By understanding and respecting the boundaries of one's circle of competence, individuals can develop self-awareness, avoid overconfidence, and ultimately make better decisions in both personal and professional settings.

How should you apply them?

  • Develop a mental model toolbox: Expose yourself to various mental models across different disciplines to build a diverse cognitive toolkit. Reading books, articles, and attending workshops can help you acquire new models.
  • Choose the right model for the situation: Different mental models are better suited for different situations. Assess the problem at hand and select the appropriate model to guide your thinking and decision-making.
  • Practice using mental models: Apply mental models to everyday situations and challenges to strengthen your understanding and improve your ability to use them effectively.
  • Challenge your assumptions: Regularly question your beliefs and assumptions, and consider alternative perspectives. This helps to reduce cognitive biases and improve the accuracy of your mental models.

Mental models are powerful cognitive tools that can help us make better decisions, solve complex problems, and enhance our learning capabilities. By developing a diverse set of mental models and applying them effectively, we can unlock the full potential of our minds and achieve greater success in both our personal and professional lives.


  • Béland, F., & Cox, R. H. (2021). The Importance of Mental Models in Implementation Science. Frontiers in Public Health, 9, 680316.
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  • Groesser, S.N. (2012). Mental Model of Dynamic Systems. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA.
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  • Vikhornova, A. (2018, March 1). What We Can Learn from the History of Systems Thinking. Medium. Retrieved from
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  • Model Theory. (n.d.). What are Mental Models? Retrieved from
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Mental Models

What are mental models.

Mental models are representations of the world that help us understand complex concepts and make better decisions.

They provide a framework for thinking and problem-solving, allow us to view problems from different angles and generate creative solutions, and help us become more effective thinkers and problem solvers. 

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We create mental models based on past experiences, beliefs, and assumptions to understand how the world works. Mental models can be conscious or unconscious, varying in accuracy and usefulness depending on the context. 

Mental models are essential for decision-making, problem-solving, and learning, as well as effective communication and collaboration in group settings. However, mental models can also lead to bias and errors if they are incomplete, inaccurate, inflexible, or resistant to change.

Mental Models in UX Design

“Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know." — Jakob’s Law (Jakob Nielsen)

Mental models are important in creating user-friendly interfaces. Designers research users' mental models to create designs that align with their expectations and beliefs. Research takes various forms, such as ethnographic research through surveys or observation. If interfaces match users’ expectations, they do not have to learn new concepts or behaviors. For example, a shopping cart icon is a standard mental model for e-commerce websites. Skeuomorphic design elements, like virtual buttons that resemble real-world buttons, also help users. 

Mental models help people understand the world—they simplify complex concepts. Every individual forms their own mental model, and different people might form different models for the same interface. This is why we cannot rely on any one mental model to solve problems. Designers know this and have developed principles and methodologies like Jakob's Law and design thinking to understand their users' mental models better.

Jakob's Law emphasizes consistency in user experience design. Users may need support with unfamiliar design patterns, leading them to abandon tasks. Designs that align with users' mental models can address this issue. For example, if the designer places the navigation menu in an unexpected location, users may struggle to find it.

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that aims to understand users' needs and preferences by involving them in every stage of the design process. Designers using this method often conduct user research, create personas, and then conduct user testing to identify potential problems with their designs.

How to Communicate Mental Models

As mental models are abstract, we can use different formats to communicate them. Each form has its unique advantages and applications: 

Conceptual Models: Conceptual models are used in HCI and interaction design as a way for designers to communicate how they interpret users' mental models to stakeholders, team members, and developers. Some examples of conceptual models are diagrams, flowcharts, or narratives. They are often used in science, engineering, and design to develop and test hypotheses, communicate complex ideas, and guide decision-making.

For example, a conceptual model of a forest could include wildlife, insects, trees, etc., their roles, how they interact and the different life stages they go through. This model can predict the effects of, say, introducing a new species or climate change.

Visual Models: Visual models describe data, concepts, or processes, such as diagrams, charts, graphs, maps, infographics, and animations. Visual models are often used in science, engineering, education, and business to simplify and make information more accessible . Compared to conceptual models, visual models provide more detailed and specific information.

problem solving mental models

A user flow is a visual representation of a user's path to accomplish a task on a website or app. It shows the steps involved in the process, including any user's decision points or actions.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Applications of Mental Models in Everyday Life

We can use mental models in everyday life to understand our environment better and make more informed decisions. 

Problem-solving: An example of problem-solving through mental models is the 5 Whys. The 5 Whys can help you understand how a user thinks and diagnose the cause of a problem with a series of "why" questions.

Decision-making: Mental models help us analyze the potential consequences of different decisions and identify which is most likely to lead to a desirable outcome. An example is the "cost-benefit analysis," which evaluates the costs and benefits of different options regarding financial, social, or environmental impacts.

Critical thinking: Methods like the scientific or Socratic methods help you question your assumptions and challenge commonly held beliefs.

problem solving mental models

The Five Whys method is a problem-solving technique that involves asking "Why?" five times to uncover the root cause of an issue. It helps to understand the underlying mental models that inform decision-making process

Learn More about Mental Models

Learn how to use Mental Models in Mobile UX .

Read more about the importance of mental models in decision-making and critical thinking, using Charlie Munger's approach as an example.

Discover how to create user-friendly designs that align with users' mental models by applying Jakob's Law . 

Don’t miss this excellent masterclass to learn How To Design For The Way Your Users Think .

Learn about mental models and their role in user experience design in this informative article.

Read more about transforming Mental Models into Conceptual Models for Mobile UX .

Literature on Mental Models

Here’s the entire UX literature on Mental Models by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Mental Models

Take a deep dive into Mental Models with our course Mobile UX Strategy: How to Build Successful Products .

All open-source articles on Mental Models

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Unleash Your Inner Problem-Solver: Adopting Mental Models for Success

Unlocking your problem-solving potential.

When it comes to problem-solving, embracing mental models can be a game-changer. Mental models are frameworks or structures that help us make sense of the world and navigate complex situations. By adopting these models, you can enhance your problem-solving abilities and approach challenges with a fresh perspective.

Embracing Mental Models for Success

To unlock your problem-solving potential, it’s important to embrace the power of mental models . These models provide you with a set of tools and frameworks that can help you analyze problems, generate creative solutions, and make informed decisions.

Mental models are derived from various disciplines, including psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy. They are cognitive constructs that represent how we understand and interpret the world around us. By utilizing mental models, you can tap into a wealth of cognitive processes and decision-making models that have been developed and refined over time.

How Mental Models Can Enhance Problem-Solving Abilities

Mental models can significantly enhance your problem-solving abilities in several ways. First, they provide cognitive strategies and thinking frameworks that help you break down complex problems into manageable chunks. These models allow you to see patterns, connections, and relationships that may not be immediately apparent.

Second, mental models enable you to leverage cognitive shortcuts and mental shortcuts to quickly evaluate options and make effective decisions. By relying on these established frameworks, you can save time and mental energy, allowing you to focus on finding innovative solutions.

Third, mental models encourage critical thinking by challenging assumptions and biases. They provide a structured approach to problem-solving, helping you to identify potential blind spots and consider alternative perspectives. This promotes a more comprehensive and balanced analysis of the problem at hand.

By adopting mental models, you will expand your cognitive toolbox and develop a repertoire of mental frameworks that can be applied to various problem-solving scenarios. These models will sharpen your analytical skills, foster creativity, and ultimately empower you to overcome obstacles and achieve success.

In the following sections, we will explore specific mental models that are particularly useful for problem-solving. These models include Occam’s Razor, the Pareto Principle, and the Circle of Influence. By understanding and applying these mental models to real-life scenarios, you will gain practical insights on how to approach problems with clarity and efficiency.

Understanding Mental Models

To become a more effective problem-solver, it’s important to understand the concept of mental models . Mental models are cognitive frameworks or representations that help you make sense of the world and navigate complex situations. They are the mental constructs you use to interpret information, analyze problems, and make decisions. By adopting and utilizing mental models, you can enhance your problem-solving abilities and improve your decision-making process.

What are Mental Models?

Mental models are like mental tools that you can use to understand, explain, and predict various phenomena. They are the lenses through which you perceive the world around you. These models are derived from your experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and cognitive processes. They provide you with a structured way of thinking and reasoning about problems and situations.

Mental models can take various forms, such as logical reasoning models, thinking frameworks, critical thinking models, or problem-solving models. They help you simplify complex problems, identify patterns, and make connections between different pieces of information. By internalizing these models, you develop a set of mental shortcuts or cognitive strategies that enable you to approach problems more efficiently and effectively.

The Power of Mental Models in Decision Making

The power of mental models lies in their ability to facilitate decision making. They provide you with a systematic approach to problem-solving, allowing you to evaluate options, anticipate consequences, and weigh potential outcomes. Mental models help you organize your thoughts, analyze information, and make informed choices.

By adopting mental models, you can overcome cognitive biases and avoid common pitfalls in decision making. These models enable you to consider multiple perspectives, challenge assumptions, and think critically. They also help you to identify relevant information, filter out noise, and focus on the key factors that influence the problem at hand.

Internalizing mental models is a continuous process that requires practice and exposure to diverse problem-solving scenarios. As you develop your mental model toolkit, you can explore additional models that align with your specific interests or areas of expertise. Check out our article on cognitive processes for more insights into the cognitive strategies involved in problem-solving.

In the next section, we will explore some popular mental models that can enhance your problem-solving abilities and provide practical applications in real-life scenarios. By incorporating these models into your decision-making process, you can unleash your inner problem-solver and achieve greater success in various aspects of your life.

Popular Mental Models for Problem-Solving

When it comes to problem-solving, mental models can serve as invaluable tools to help you navigate challenges and find effective solutions. In this section, we will explore three popular mental models that can enhance your problem-solving abilities: Occam’s Razor , the Pareto Principle , and the Circle of Influence .

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor is a mental model that encourages simplicity in problem-solving. According to this principle, the simplest explanation is often the most likely one. When faced with a complex problem, Occam’s Razor suggests that you should prioritize explanations or solutions that require the fewest assumptions or elements.

By applying Occam’s Razor, you can streamline your problem-solving process and avoid unnecessary complexity. This mental model helps you focus on the key factors and underlying causes of a problem, enabling you to arrive at a more efficient solution. To learn more about critical thinking models and other cognitive tools, check out our article on cognitive tools .

The Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states that approximately 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This mental model suggests that a small number of factors or actions often have a disproportionately significant impact on the outcome of a situation.

By understanding and applying the Pareto Principle, you can prioritize your efforts and resources to focus on the most influential aspects of a problem. This allows you to maximize efficiency and achieve optimal results. To explore more mental models for decision-making and problem-solving, visit our article on mental models for decision-making .

The Circle of Influence

The Circle of Influence is a mental model introduced by Stephen Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” This model encourages individuals to focus their time and energy on things they can control or influence, rather than wasting resources on things beyond their control.

When applying the Circle of Influence to problem-solving, it’s important to identify the aspects of a problem that you have the power to change or influence. By directing your efforts towards these areas, you can make meaningful progress and increase your chances of finding successful solutions. To explore more mental models for self-improvement and success, check out our article on mental models for self-improvement .

By incorporating these popular mental models into your problem-solving process, you can enhance your ability to tackle challenges effectively. Remember to apply Occam’s Razor to simplify complex problems, leverage the Pareto Principle to focus on the most impactful factors, and utilize the Circle of Influence to direct your efforts towards areas within your control. These mental models will empower you to approach problem-solving with a strategic mindset, leading to more efficient and successful outcomes.

Applying Mental Models to Real-Life Scenarios

Now that you have a good understanding of mental models and their significance in problem-solving, it’s time to explore how you can apply these models to real-life scenarios. Let’s dive into three popular mental models: Occam’s Razor , the Pareto Principle , and the Circle of Influence .

Problem-Solving with Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor is a useful mental model that suggests the simplest explanation is often the correct one. When faced with a problem, applying Occam’s Razor encourages you to prioritize the solution that requires the fewest assumptions or steps. By eliminating unnecessary complexity, you can streamline your problem-solving process and increase your chances of finding an effective solution.

To apply Occam’s Razor, start by identifying the core issue and focusing on the most straightforward explanation or solution. Avoid overcomplicating the problem by introducing unnecessary elements. This mental model helps you avoid getting lost in intricate details and guides you towards a more efficient problem-solving approach.

Maximizing Efficiency with the Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, is a mental model that suggests that approximately 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Applied to problem-solving, the Pareto Principle reminds us to focus on the vital few factors that have the most significant impact.

When faced with a problem, consider identifying the key factors or causes that contribute to the issue. By focusing your efforts on addressing these critical elements, you can maximize efficiency and achieve more impactful results. This mental model helps you prioritize your resources and avoid wasting time and energy on less influential aspects of the problem.

Focusing on What You Can Control with the Circle of Influence

The Circle of Influence is a mental model that emphasizes focusing on what you can control rather than what you cannot. When encountering a problem, it is essential to distinguish between factors within your control and those outside of it. By directing your attention and efforts towards the aspects you can influence, you can increase your effectiveness in problem-solving.

To apply the Circle of Influence, evaluate the various elements of the problem and identify the ones you have the power to change or influence. By focusing on these areas, you can take proactive steps and make a meaningful impact. This mental model helps you avoid expending unnecessary energy on factors beyond your control and empowers you to take charge of the problem-solving process.

By integrating these mental models into your problem-solving approach, you can enhance your ability to tackle challenges effectively. Remember, mental models are tools that can help guide your thinking and decision-making, but they should be used in conjunction with your own judgment and experience. Explore additional mental models to expand your problem-solving toolkit and incorporate them into your daily life.

Developing Your Mental Model Toolkit

Now that you have a solid understanding of mental models and their application in problem-solving, it’s time to expand your toolkit by exploring additional mental models and incorporating them into your daily life.

Exploring Additional Mental Models

There are numerous mental models available, each with its own unique perspective and benefits. By exploring a variety of mental models, you can enhance your critical thinking skills and approach problem-solving from different angles. Here are a few additional mental models that you may find useful:

Cognitive Processes : Understanding the underlying cognitive processes involved in decision-making and problem-solving can provide valuable insights into how our minds work. Dive deeper into the intricacies of cognitive processes by exploring articles on cognitive processes .

Decision-Making Models : Decision-making models offer structured frameworks for making sound decisions. These models provide a systematic approach to evaluate options and consider various factors. Learn more about decision-making models by visiting our article on decision-making models .

Cognitive Strategies : Cognitive strategies help optimize our mental processes and improve our problem-solving abilities. They involve techniques such as goal setting, brainstorming, and organizing information. Discover effective cognitive strategies in our article on cognitive strategies .

By exploring these additional mental models, you can gain a broader perspective and develop a diverse set of tools to tackle various challenges.

Incorporating Mental Models into Your Daily Life

To make the most of mental models, it’s essential to incorporate them into your daily life. Here are some practical ways to do so:

Practice Awareness : Start by cultivating awareness of the mental models you have learned. Recognize when and how you can apply them in different situations.

Reflect and Evaluate : Take time to reflect on past experiences and evaluate how specific mental models could have been applied to improve your problem-solving outcomes.

Seek New Perspectives : Continuously seek out new mental models and perspectives. Explore articles and resources on topics such as cognitive frameworks and mental patterns to expand your understanding.

Experiment and Iterate : Apply mental models in various scenarios and assess their effectiveness. Adjust your approach as needed and refine your problem-solving skills over time.

Remember, the key to mastering mental models is consistent practice and application. The more you incorporate them into your thinking process, the more natural they will become. With time and experience, mental models will become an integral part of your problem-solving toolkit, empowering you to unleash your inner problem-solver.

Continue to explore different mental models and their applications in various aspects of life, such as self-improvement , productivity , creativity , leadership , and communication . The more you delve into these concepts, the more equipped you will be to tackle challenges and achieve success in your endeavors.

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Monique Danao

10 Mental Models Developers Can Use to Get Unstuck

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Mental Models

What Is a Mental Model?

How do mental models help developers think better.

  • Mental Model 1: Rubber Ducking

Model 2: Circle of Competence

Model 3: feedback loops, model 4: mindmaps, model 5: hill charts.

  • Model 6: Parkinson’s Law

Model 7: 5 Whys

Model 8: inversion.

  • Model 9: Occam’s Razor

Model 10: Lean Startup

Pick the right mental model, frequently asked questions (faqs) about mental models for developers.

Start experimenting with ten mental models you can use to get unstuck, look at difficult problems from new angles, verify your assumptions, and understand systems more deeply.

How do you quickly recover when you’re stuck in a rut? 

Naturally, you could sit down and brainstorm solutions. Unfortunately, it may take time for inspiration to come when solving a complicated challenge with your code.

What can we do to think better and solve problems faster?

Whether you want to identify the root cause of a problem or understand the ideal way to prioritize, mental models could offer valuable insights. 

A mental model is a way for us to understand the world. Mental models are frameworks that help us understand how our minds work and why we think the way that we do. We can also use mental models to rationalize concepts.

Mental models are not always right. They are a simplified way of thinking that can help us understand things better. We can use these insights to take action.

Mental models are powerful because they’re flexible. Like metaphors, mental models let us understand things that we don’t know by comparing them to what we already know.

For example, game theory is a branch of mathematics focused on analyzing the actions and counteractions of individuals or groups. It’s a rigorous form of mental modeling that allows us to explore concepts such as decision-making, strategy, and even reciprocal relationships with others.

As human beings, it’s easy for us to underestimate the power of these tools. We often forget how much thinking goes into our daily routines. In fact, mental models can help us examine how we work and why we think the way we do.

Our brains’ mental models determine the quality of our thoughts. Understanding which mental model best fits a situation can help you work and think smarter. 

For developers, mental models can benefit your productivity and efficiency. It could enable you to understand the problem, correct high-level issues in the code, and avoid potential bugs.

Consider this scenario.

You’re in the zone and writing code at a fast pace when something goes wrong. You check the source code, iterate potential solutions, invoke a debugger, or analyze stack traces.

When done right, you can find the root cause of the issue. But this can take a lot of time and effort.

Now, consider an alternative scenario.

Let’s say you encountered a problem with a code. 

Instead of using a variety of random strategies, you can analyze the mental model of a system. Think about the conditions that led to the bug and find areas where the code isn’t aligned with the mental model. 

A developer could identify the solution even without a Google search with this approach. 

Now, what are the mental models that can help you get unstuck? Here are some notable mental models for developers that can help you get the job done. 

Mental Model 1 : Rubber Ducking

Rubber ducking is a shorter term for “rubber duck debugging.” 

The concept originated from a tale wherein a programmer described their code line-by-line to a rubber duck. 

While its original inspiration seems odd, the rationale is simple.

Explaining your code to another individual or an inanimate object lets you break down the problem and determine where you got stuck. You’re compelled to think outside the box.

Eventually, you’ll arrive at the point where you went wrong with your code.

Just to clarify, you don’t need to talk to an actual rubber duck or a toy plushie to get this done. You can also gain valuable insights by rubber ducking with a colleague or a friend. As you attempt to explain your code in-depth, they might brainstorm potential solutions.

The Circle of Competence is about differentiating “what you know” from “what you don’t know.”

The Circle of Competence

To put it simply, this mental model helps you remain aware of your areas of expertise. At the same time, you can accept your weaknesses or sectors where you are at a disadvantage. 

No matter how long you’ve worked as a developer, you won’t be able to know everything. 

An example would be a gaming developer moving on as a developer in the finance industry. 

You need to be proficient in C# and C++, user interface design, and program terrains or AI for non-playable characters as a game developer. Some of these skills may be useful in your current role, but you later discover you need to understand bank laws or manage security services too. 

With the Circle of Competence, developers can predict the challenges they may encounter when starting a new project or moving on to a new job. Once you know what’s outside the circle, you can seek help or contact experts that could help you conquer the areas where you’re not confident. 

A feedback loop happens when an output of a system re-enters the system as inputs. 

It usually occurs in the “ plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle,” an iterative process for improving products and services. 

This process involves four steps:

  • Plan : Determining what needs to be done
  • Do : Following the initial plan
  • Check : Assessing your plan’s execution and evaluating its effectiveness 
  • Act : Putting the plan into action

In software development, feedback loops can occur during the development phase. 

This process may involve aggregating feedback from a sample group of customers to determine whether the output solves what it’s intended to. Otherwise, we may waste time and money in the development phase without satisfying customer expectations. 

Developers may apply feedback loops during pair programming or code reviews.

Imagine a junior developer writing the code while a senior developer reviews it. The process improves the skills of junior developers, helps identify bugs, and improves subsequent outputs of the team. 

A mindmap is a diagram that offers a visual representation of concepts or ideas. 

Try kicking off a project by making a mindmap. Begin with a central idea or concept. It might be the main problem or the project’s title. 

Next, you can add branches or subtopics related to the central concept. These could be the main tasks that need to be done by each team. 

Mind maps

You can then add more subtopics or branches. These could encompass tasks assigned to each member, contributing to the overarching goal. 

A mind map is also helpful in the testing process in software development. Testers could use it to explore an application and list passed or failed tests. 

Along the way, you could even include questions in the sub-branches. This way, the feedback and issues are organized in an easy-to-understand format. 

Hill charts are a mental model that can help you identify what’s in motion and what’s stuck. 

Like the shape of a hill, the chart is composed of two phases – an uphill slope and a downward slope.

The first phase is “Figuring Things Out,” situated on the uphill slope. At this stage, you have a basic understanding of the project, but you still need to settle some unknowns or finalize your overall strategy. 

As time goes by, you’ll eventually reach a point where you’re ready to put your strategy into action. Then, the downhill phase is about “Making it Happen” or implementation. 

Developers can utilize Hill charts by coming up with to-do lists for their projects. As you fulfill or add more items on the list, identify where they should be situated on the Hill chart. 

Senior developers working on multiple projects or managing several teams can use this to gauge where a team is focusing its efforts. It could also help identify stuck groups and what they need to move forward. 

Model 6: Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s law is a mental model which states that work expands to fill the time allotted.

Take, for instance, a developer team that’s given three weeks to add or tweak a specific feature in the product. The team is delighted to find that they have more than enough time to finish the project. They start slow and require three weeks to complete the task, but they discover more issues to finish after receiving feedback. 

Parkinson’s law states that teams should set deadlines for maximum efficiency, even if they’re imperfect. 

In the first example, the team seems too relaxed because of the illusion of time. Questions and minor tweaks could slow them down, but the output may still be imperfect.

However, if they were allotted a realistic two-week deadline, the same team could get more done in less time. They’ll even have sufficient time to work on feedback from testing, if necessary. 

The 5 Whys is a mental model which requires asking “Why” five times. 

The rationale is when you identify a problem, the most obvious solution may not address the root cause of the issue. 

Identifying the leading cause will enable developers to save time and effort. Otherwise, they would merely apply band-aid solutions while the real problem is left unaddressed. 

An example that seems relatable to developers could be the following:

Why couldn’t the user access the calendar feature in the app? There was a bug in the recent update.

What led to the bug in the recent update? The team was unable to test all the features. Why was the team unable to test all the features? New testers on the team were unable to test all the features properly.

Why did new testers fail to perform well? They were also not provided with resources and adequate training. Why were they not provided with proper training and resources? Most new testers worked remotely.

The team in charge of training them is having a hard time because there’s no tried and tested onboarding process yet for fully-remote workers.

During the problem-solving process, we often think forward. 

This may be effective when solving simple issues. However, it may be challenging to tackle a complicated issue that needs to be broken down. 

Inversion helps us break down problems and brainstorm solutions by thinking backward.

Let’s say your software product has launched a free trial to boost your customer base. Yet, the free trial conversion rate is only a dismal 2%. 

The standard thought process for brainstorming solutions would involve asking, “What can I do to get more people to use my product even after the free trial ends?”

Instead of thinking forward, invert the problem and ask, “Which features did users try the most during the free trial? How can we improve the user experience in our free plan?”

The solution to the first problem may solely involve improving your onboarding experience and creating tutorials. Yet, you may uncover underlying issues that significantly contribute to the low conversion rate by inverting the problem. 

Model 9: Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor, also known as the law of parsimony, is a mental model for problem-solving. To put it simply, the model states that when there are several ways to solve a problem, the simplest solution is likely more correct and ideal. 

Consider a developer that can write both simple and complex code to accomplish the same outcome. Even if two options exist, the most ideal would be the simpler code because it is faster to review and easier to update.

While the result is the same, the more straightforward solution is easier to execute and more advantageous in the long run.

Lean Startup involves the build-measure-learn feedback loop.

Most startups start with a great idea, but it can take weeks or months to realize this product. 

Lean Startup processes solve this problem by encouraging the development of a minimum viable product (MVP) that potential customers can test.

Once selected target customers try it, the startup will measure results and ask for feedback. The cycle continues until the startup has a high-quality product that they can confidently release en masse to target consumers.

Lean Startup

The team can build the ideal product with continuous feedback from target consumers. Otherwise, it could take weeks or months for startups to get a product beta tested.

Worse, they may discover significant issues during the testing process. However, they’ve already invested thousands of dollars into building a product and can’t afford to stay in this stage for a more extended period. 

Understanding the right mental model for each situation helps us work smarter, not harder. 

Dealing with a complicated issue can cost us a lot of time and effort. Mental models help us break down the big problem into much smaller ones. This way, we can get to the heart of the matter and develop the most practical solutions. 

I know it may take time to ingrain these mental models in your daily life. But once you learn the process and actualize it, you can instantly get unstuck and steered in the right direction.

What are mental models and why are they important for developers?

Mental models are essentially frameworks or representations of how something works. They are crucial for developers as they help in understanding complex systems and processes, making problem-solving more efficient. By using mental models, developers can simplify complex problems, predict outcomes, and make better decisions.

How can mental models help me get unstuck in coding?

Mental models can provide a fresh perspective when you’re stuck in coding. They can help you break down the problem into smaller, manageable parts, and allow you to approach the problem from different angles. This can lead to new insights and solutions that you might not have considered before.

Can you give an example of a mental model that is useful for developers?

One example of a mental model that is useful for developers is the “First Principles Thinking”. This model encourages you to break down complex problems into their fundamental parts and then rebuild them from the ground up. It’s a powerful tool for understanding problems at a deeper level and coming up with innovative solutions.

How can I develop my own mental models?

Developing your own mental models involves a lot of reading, thinking, and practicing. Start by learning about existing mental models and applying them to your work. Over time, you’ll start to see patterns and develop your own models.

Are mental models only useful for coding?

No, mental models are not only useful for coding. They can be applied to any area of life where problem-solving and decision-making are required. This includes personal life, business, and even learning new skills.

How many mental models do I need to know?

There’s no set number of mental models you need to know. The more models you understand, the better equipped you’ll be to tackle different problems. However, it’s more important to understand and apply a few models well than to know many models superficially.

Can mental models be wrong or misleading?

Yes, mental models can be wrong or misleading if they’re based on incorrect assumptions or incomplete information. That’s why it’s important to constantly review and update your models based on new information or experiences.

What’s the difference between mental models and frameworks?

While both mental models and frameworks help us understand and navigate complex systems, they are not the same. A mental model is a representation of how something works, while a framework is a set of tools or methods used to solve a problem or achieve a goal.

How can I use mental models to improve my coding skills?

Mental models can help you understand complex coding concepts, break down problems, and come up with efficient solutions. They can also help you learn new programming languages or frameworks more quickly, as you can relate new information to what you already know.

Are there any resources where I can learn more about mental models?

Yes, there are many resources available online where you can learn more about mental models. Some recommended books include “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows and “Super Thinking” by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann. There are also numerous articles and blogs on the topic.

Monique Danao is a contributing writer for Sitepoint. She writes about tech, social media, content marketing, and ecommerce.

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Preorder my new book and get $400 of bonuses, ten mental models for learning.

A mental model is a general idea that can be used to explain many different phenomena. Supply and demand in economics, natural selection in biology, recursion in computer science, or proof by induction in mathematics—these models are everywhere once you know to look for them.

Just as understanding supply and demand helps you reason about economics problems, understanding mental models of learning will make it easier to think about learning problems.

Unfortunately, learning is rarely taught as a class on its own—meaning most of these mental models are known only to specialists. In this essay, I’d like to share the ten that have influenced me the most, along with references to dig deeper in case you’d like to know more.

1. Problem solving is search.

Herbert Simon and Allen Newell launched the study of problem solving with their landmark book, Human Problem Solving . In it, they argued that people solve problems by searching through a problem space.

A problem space is like a maze: you know where you are now, you’d know if you’ve reached the exit, but you don’t know how to get there. Along the way, you’re constrained in your movements by the maze’s walls.

problem solving mental models

Problem spaces can also be abstract. Solving a Rubik’s cube, for instance, means moving through a large problem space of configurations—the scrambled cube is your start, the cube with each color segregated to a single side is the exit, and the twists and turns define the “walls” of the problem space.

Real-life problems are typically more expansive than mazes or Rubik’s cubes—the start state, end state and exact moves are often not clear-cut. But searching through the space of possibilities is still a good characterization of what people do when solving unfamiliar problems—meaning when they don’t yet have a method or memory that guides them directly to the answer.

One implication of this model is that, without prior knowledge, most problems are really difficult to solve. A Rubik’s cube has over forty-three quintillion configurations —a big space to search in if you aren’t clever about it. Learning is the process of acquiring patterns and methods to cut down on brute-force searching.

2. Memory strengthens by retrieval.

Retrieving knowledge strengthens memory more than seeing something for a second time does. Testing knowledge isn’t just a way of measuring what you know—it actively improves your memory. In fact, testing is one of the best study techniques researchers have discovered.

problem solving mental models

Why is retrieval so helpful? One way to think of it is that the brain economizes effort by remembering only those things that are likely to prove useful. If you always have an answer at hand, there’s no need to encode it in memory. In contrast, the difficulty associated with retrieval is a strong signal that you need to remember.

Retrieval only works if there is something to retrieve. This is why we need books, teachers and classes. When memory fails, we fall back on problem-solving search which, depending on the size of the problem space, may fail utterly to give us a correct answer. However, once we’ve seen the answer, we’ll learn more by retrieving it than by repeatedly viewing it.

3. Knowledge grows exponentially.

How much you’re able to learn depends on what you already know. Research finds that the amount of knowledge retained from a text depends on prior knowledge of the topic . This effect can even outweigh general intelligence in some situations.

problem solving mental models

As you learn new things, you integrate them into what you already know. This integration provides more hooks for you to recall that information later. However, when you know little about a topic, you have fewer hooks to put new information on. This makes the information easier to forget. Like a crystal growing from a seed, future learning is much easier once a foundation is established.

This process has limits, of course, or knowledge would accelerate indefinitely. Still, it’s good to keep in mind because the early phases of learning are often the hardest and can give a misleading impression of future difficulty within a field.

4. Creativity is mostly copying.

Few subjects are so misunderstood as creativity. We tend to imbue creative individuals with a near-magical aura, but creativity is much more mundane in practice.

problem solving mental models

In an impressive review of significant inventions, Matt Ridley argues that innovation results from an evolutionary process . Rather than springing into the world fully-formed, new invention is essentially the random mutation of old ideas. When those ideas prove useful, they expand to fill a new niche.

Evidence for this view comes from the phenomenon of near-simultaneous innovations. Numerous times in history, multiple, unconnected people have developed the same innovation, which suggests that these inventions were somehow “nearby” in the space of possibilities right before their discovery.

Even in fine art, the importance of copying has been neglected. Yes, many revolutions in art were explicit rejections of past trends. But the revolutionaries themselves were, almost without exception, steeped in the tradition they rebelled against. Rebelling against any convention requires awareness of that convention.

5. Skills are specific.

Transfer refers to enhanced abilities in one task after practice or training in a different task. In research on transfer, a typical pattern shows up:

  • Practice at a task makes you better at it.
  • Practice at a task helps with similar tasks (usually ones that overlap in procedures or knowledge).
  • Practice at one task helps little with unrelated tasks, even if they seem to require the same broad abilities like “memory,” “critical thinking” or “intelligence.”

problem solving mental models

It’s hard to make exact predictions about transfer because they depend on knowing both exactly how the human mind works and the structure of all knowledge. However, in more restricted domains, John Anderson has found that productions—IF-THEN rules that operate on knowledge—form a fairly good match for the amount of transfer observed in intellectual skills .

While skills may be specific, breadth creates generality. For instance, learning a word in a foreign language is only helpful when using or hearing that word. But if you know many words, you can say a lot of different things.

Similarly, knowing one idea may matter little, but mastering many can give enormous power. Every extra year of education improves IQ by 1-5 points , in part because the breadth of knowledge taught in school overlaps with that needed in real life (and on intelligence tests).

If you want to be smarter, there are no shortcuts—you’ll have to learn a lot. But the converse is also true. Learning a lot makes you more intelligent than you might predict.

6. Mental bandwidth is extremely limited.

We can only keep a few things in mind at any one time. George Miller initially pegged the number at seven, plus or minus two items . But more recent work has suggested the number is closer to four things .

problem solving mental models

This incredibly narrow space is the bottleneck through which all learning, every idea, memory and experience must flow if it is going to become a part of our long-term experience. Subliminal learning doesn’t work. If you aren’t paying attention, you’re not learning.

The primary way we can be more efficient with learning is to ensure the things that flow through the bottleneck are useful. Devoting bandwidth to irrelevant elements may slow us down.

Since the 1980s, cognitive load theory has been used to explain how interventions optimize (or limit) learning based on our limited mental bandwidth. This research finds:

  • Problem solving may be counterproductive for beginners. Novices do better when shown worked examples (solutions) instead.
  • Materials should be designed to avoid needing to flip between pages or parts of a diagram to understand the material.
  • Redundant information impedes learning.
  • Complex ideas can be learned more easily when presented first in parts.

7. Success is the best teacher.

We learn more from success than failure . The reason is that problem spaces are typically large, and most solutions are wrong. Knowing what works cuts down the possibilities dramatically, whereas experiencing failure only tells you one specific strategy doesn’t work.

problem solving mental models

A good rule is to aim for a roughly 85% success rate when learning. You can do this by calibrating the difficulty of your practice (open vs. closed book, with vs. without a tutor, simple vs. complex problems) or by seeking extra training and assistance when falling below this threshold. If you succeed above this threshold, you’re probably not seeking hard enough problems—and are practicing routines instead of learning new skills.

8. We reason through examples.

How people can think logically is an age-old puzzle. Since Kant, we’ve known that logic can’t be acquired from experience. Somehow, we must already know the rules of logic, or an illogical mind could never have invented them. But if that is so, why do we so often fail at the kinds of problems logicians invent?

In 1983, Philip Johnson-Laird proposed a solution : we reason by constructing a mental model of the situation.

To test a syllogism like “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal,” we imagine a collection of men, all of whom are mortal, and imagine that Socrates is one of them. We deduce the syllogism is true through this examination.

problem solving mental models

Johnson-Laird suggested that this mental-model based reasoning also explains our logical deficits. We struggle most with logical statements that require us to examine multiple models. The more models that need constructing and reviewing, the more likely we will make mistakes.

Related research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky shows that this example-based reasoning can lead us to mistake our fluency in recalling examples for the actual probability of an event or pattern. For instance, we might think more words fit the pattern K _ _ _ than _ _ K _ because it is easier to think of examples in the first category (e.g., KITE, KALE, KILL) than the second (e.g., TAKE, BIKE, NUKE).

Reasoning through examples has several implications:

  • Learning is often faster through examples than abstract descriptions.
  • To learn a general pattern, we need many examples.
  • We must watch out when making broad inferences based on a few examples. (Are you sure you’ve considered all the possible cases?)

9. Knowledge becomes invisible with experience.

Skills become increasingly automated through practice. This reduces our conscious awareness of the skill, making it require less of our precious working memory capacity to perform. Think of driving a car: at first, using the blinkers and the brakes was painfully deliberate. After years of driving, you barely think about it.

problem solving mental models

The increased automation of skills has drawbacks, however. One is that it becomes much harder to teach a skill to someone else. When knowledge becomes tacit, it becomes harder to make explicit how you make a decision. Experts frequently underestimate the importance of “basic” skills because, having long been automated, they don’t seem to factor much into their daily decision-making.

Another drawback is that automated skills are less open to conscious control. This can lead to plateaus in progress when you keep doing something the way you’ve always done it, even when that is no longer appropriate. Seeking more difficult challenges becomes vital because these bump you out of automaticity and force you to try better solutions.

10. Relearning is relatively fast.

After years spent in school, how many of us could still pass the final exams we needed to graduate? Faced with classroom questions, many adults sheepishly admit they recall little.

problem solving mental models

Forgetting is the unavoidable fate of any skill we don’t use regularly. Hermann Ebbinghaus found that knowledge tapers off at an exponential rate —most quickly at the beginning, slowing down as time elapses.

Yet there is a silver lining. Relearning is usually much faster than initial learning. Some of this can be understood as a threshold problem. Imagine memory strength ranges between 0 and 100. Under some threshold, say 35, a memory is inaccessible. Thus if a memory dropped from 36 to 34 in strength, you would forget what you had known. But even a little boost from relearning would repair the memory enough to recall it. In contrast a new memory (starting at zero) would require much more work.

Connectionist models , inspired by human neural networks, offer another argument for the potency of relearning. In these models, a computational neural network may take hundreds of iterations to reach the optimal point. And if you “jiggle” the connections in this network, it forgets the right answer and responds no better than if by chance. However, as with the threshold explanation above, the network relearns the optimal response much faster the second time. 1

Relearning is a nuisance, especially since struggling with previously easy problems can be discouraging. Yet it’s no reason not to learn deeply and broadly—even forgotten knowledge can be revived much faster than starting from scratch.

What are the learning challenges you’re facing? Can you apply one of these mental models to see it in a new light? What would the implications be for tackling a skill or subject you find difficult? Share your thoughts in the comments!
  • These networks are trained via gradient descent. Gradient descent works by essentially rolling downhill. Correct knowledge is like the gently-sloping bottom of a steep canyon—the correct direction is down the canyon, but the sides are quite high. Unlike a three-dimensional space, as would describe a physical canyon, most networks are in an extremely high-dimensional space. That means any imprecision in the direction results in running up the side of the canyon. The result is that networks typically slosh around a lot before getting to the bottom of the long canyon. However, when you add any noise to the system, the “downhill” direction usually goes straight back to the optimal point.

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Master High Performance, Innovation & Leadership

Framework vs. Mental Model: Understanding the Differences and How to Use Them Effectively

Framework vs. Mental Model

“The more models you have in your head, the more you can pick and choose and use the appropriate model for the problem.” — Charlie Munger

As a strategist, innovator, and futurist at Microsoft for more than two decades, I’ve used frameworks and mental models to learn faster, think more critically, and make better decisions.

These tools have allowed me to empower teams and individuals to think better together and approach complex problems with greater clarity and confidence.

In this article, I’ll explore the differences between frameworks and mental models, how they can be used effectively, and how they can help you take your thinking and problem-solving skills to the next level.

Whether you’re a business leader, entrepreneur, or just looking to improve your critical thinking skills, understanding frameworks and mental models can help you make better decisions and achieve your goals more effectively.

What is a Mental Framework?

You might hear some frameworks referred to as “mental framework”, “thought framework” or “mental model”.

Frameworks help people start from common ground.   In fact, to start from common ground, let’s define what is a framework:

A framework is a structure to build on. It could be the structure of a building, a project, a system, or anything else.

A framework serves as a foundation versus starting from scratch.

Here are a few ways dictionaries define what is a framework:

  • A framework is a particular set of rules, ideas, or beliefs which you use in order to deal with problems or to decide what to do.
  • A framework is a structure that forms a support or frame for something.
  • A supporting structure around which something can be built.
  • The ideas, information, and principles that form the structure of an organization or plan.

Here are a few examples of frameworks:

  • A legal framework for resolving disputes.
  • Most biologists use the same basic framework for classification.
  • The building has a flexible framework so that it can survive an earthquake.
  • The steel framework supports the copper covering.
  • The U.S. Constitution established a broad framework of government.

What is a Mental Model?

A mental model is a lens.  A mental model is effectively a representation of how something works.

Mental models shape what we think and how we understand.  Mental models also shape the connections and opportunities that we see.

Mental models serve as a basis and starting point for 3 key things:

  • How we simplify complexity
  • Why we consider some things more relevant than others
  • How we reason through a challenge or problem and solution

We can’t keep all the details in our heads, so we use mental models to simplify complexity down into understandable and organized chunks.

Frameworks vs. Mental Models

A framework is a structured approach or system that provides a way to organize and interpret information or solve problems. It is often a set of guidelines or rules that define how to approach a particular situation.

A mental model, on the other hand, is a cognitive framework or mental construct that helps to explain how something works or how to approach a situation. It is a way of thinking about the world that is shaped by our experiences, beliefs, and assumptions.

While both frameworks and mental models can be used to organize information and solve problems, they differ in their scope and application. Frameworks tend to be broader in scope and can be applied to a variety of situations, while mental models tend to be more specific and focused on a particular topic or problem.

Why Use Mental Frameworks?

Becoming a better thinker means understanding the way you think.   It means developing a better way of approaching problems.

You approach problems better when you can see things from multiple lenses and perspectives.

The more lenses you have, the more you can see.

  • Start from a foundation .   Mental frameworks help you start from a foundation, see a problem from multiple perspectives, and pivot your perspective for new insights.
  • Multiple lenses and multi-disciplinary view . Mental frameworks help you see from multiple lenses.  The real power of a thought framework is building a shared mental model where you can leverage a multi-disciplinary view and be more inclusive of thinking differently.
  • Better collaboration.   You can use mental frameworks to create shared models of a problem so you can collaborate better.  That’s what makes canvases so popular such as the Business Model Canvas or the Strategy Canvas.
  • When to converge and when to diverge .  Mental frameworks, or thought frameworks, also help you better understand when to follow conventional wisdom, and when to reject it.  For example, the Strategy Canvas from Blue Ocean helps you determine how to zig, when others zag.
  • Suspend disbelief .  Sometimes the ultimate power of a mental framework is the ability to suspend disbelieve while exploring a challenge that requires new ways of thinking.   This can be especially important when working through biases, building empathy for other perspectives, and rising above your own thinking and thought habits.

How Mental Models Help You Learn to Think Better

The quality of your thinking is proportional to the models in your head and their usefulness in the situation at hand.

The more models you have, the more likely you are to have the right models to see reality.

You build a bigger your toolbox, by learning mental models and thought frameworks.

It turns out that variety matters when it comes to improving your ability to make decisions.

That’s why diverse teams that embrace cognitive diversity outperform homogenous teams when it comes to solving complex problems.

This is leaders who embrace diversity and inclusion win.

Charlie Munger on Mental Models

I remember learning about Charlie Munger long ago.   He’s Warren Buffet’s right-hand guy when it comes to financial wizardry, market analysis, and investment advice.

What surprised me is that Charlie Munger said that he’s not smart, he just has more mental models in his toolbox (he said something like 80+ mental models at the time).

He said that no matter what problem somebody throws at him, he can slice and dice it, and make sense of it better, faster, and easier through mental models and thought frameworks.

Here is how Charlie Munger summed up his better approach to learning with mental models:

“Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back.

If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head.

And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models.

You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered.

Well, they fail in school and in life.

You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”

How To Use Frameworks and Mental Models Effectively

To use frameworks and mental models effectively, it’s important to follow a few key steps:

  • Understand the problem or situation : Before applying any framework or mental model, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the problem or situation you’re trying to solve. This includes defining the problem, identifying the stakeholders involved, and determining the scope of the problem.
  • Choose the appropriate tool : Once you have a clear understanding of the problem, you can choose the appropriate framework or mental model to apply. Consider the specific characteristics of the problem, the desired outcome, and the strengths and weaknesses of different tools.
  • Apply the tool : Once you’ve chosen a tool, it’s time to apply it to the problem at hand. This may involve adapting the tool to fit the specific context, gathering data or information, and working through the problem step by step.
  • Evaluate and refine : As you work through the problem using the framework or mental model, it’s important to continually evaluate and refine your approach. This may involve testing assumptions, seeking feedback from others, and making adjustments to the approach as needed.
  • Learn and apply : Once the problem has been solved, take the time to reflect on the process and the outcomes. Identify what worked well and what could be improved for future use. Apply the lessons learned to future problems or situations.

By following these steps, you can use frameworks and mental models effectively to improve your problem-solving skills and make better decisions.

Remember, these tools are just that – tools. It’s up to you to use them wisely and adapt them to fit the specific context and situation at hand.

Example of Using a Framework to Think Better

Let’s say you’re trying to launch a new product in a highly competitive market. You’re not sure how to approach the challenge and need to use frameworks and mental models to guide your decision-making process.

  • Understand the problem or situation : You begin by defining the problem. You need to identify your target market, understand their needs and preferences, and determine the competitive landscape. You gather information on customer demographics, market trends, and competitive products.
  • Choose the appropriate tool : Based on the information you’ve gathered, you decide to use the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) framework. This framework will help you analyze your company’s strengths and weaknesses, identify potential opportunities in the market, and assess the threats posed by competitors.
  • Apply the tool : Using the SWOT framework, you conduct an analysis of your company’s strengths and weaknesses. You identify several key strengths, such as a strong brand and a loyal customer base. You also identify weaknesses, such as a lack of market research and limited distribution channels. You then analyze the market and identify potential opportunities for growth, such as a new untapped customer segment. Finally, you assess the threats posed by competitors and identify potential strategies to mitigate those threats.
  • Evaluate and refine : As you work through the SWOT analysis, you gather feedback from colleagues and stakeholders. You make adjustments to your approach based on this feedback and test assumptions to validate your findings.
  • Learn and apply : After completing the SWOT analysis, you have a better understanding of the market and the competitive landscape. You use this information to develop a product launch strategy that leverages your strengths, addresses your weaknesses, and capitalizes on opportunities. You continue to monitor the market and adjust your strategy as needed based on new information and feedback.

By using the SWOT framework, you were able to approach the challenge of launching a new product in a structured and effective way.

You gained valuable insights into the market and were able to make informed decisions based on a systematic analysis of your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Master Frameworks and Mental Models to Unlock Your Creative Problem-Solving Potential

Frameworks and mental models are powerful tools that can help you think more critically, make better decisions, and approach complex problems with greater clarity and confidence.

By understanding the differences between these two tools and following a structured approach to their use, you can unlock new levels of creativity and innovation in your thinking.

Remember, these tools are not magic solutions, but rather guidelines and systems to help you approach problems in a structured and effective way.

With practice and persistence, you can use frameworks and mental models to achieve your goals and make a positive impact on the world around you.

Get Charlie Mungers Ultimate Almanac

If you want to learn all about Charlie Munger’s mental models he actually created an almanac:

Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, Expanded Third Edition Hardcover , by Charlie Munger

I have the second edition, and it’s one of the heaviest books I own.  I’m not sure how to describe this book as it seems like an eclectic collection of the mind of Charlie Munger and what he draws from to inspire his thinking in work and life.  I actually like that it’s one of those physical books where you flip through, look at some pictures, read some text, and glean some insight.

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What Is Problem-Solving Therapy?

Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of The Anxiety Workbook and founder of the website About Social Anxiety. She has a Master's degree in clinical psychology.

problem solving mental models

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

problem solving mental models

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Problem-Solving Therapy Techniques

How effective is problem-solving therapy, things to consider, how to get started.

Problem-solving therapy is a brief intervention that provides people with the tools they need to identify and solve problems that arise from big and small life stressors. It aims to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression , among other conditions. It can be administered by a doctor or mental health professional and may be combined with other treatment approaches.

At a Glance

Problem-solving therapy is a short-term treatment used to help people who are experiencing depression, stress, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and other mental health problems develop the tools they need to deal with challenges. This approach teaches people to identify problems, generate solutions, and implement those solutions. Let's take a closer look at how problem-solving therapy can help people be more resilient and adaptive in the face of stress.

Problem-solving therapy is based on a model that takes into account the importance of real-life problem-solving. In other words, the key to managing the impact of stressful life events is to know how to address issues as they arise. Problem-solving therapy is very practical in its approach and is only concerned with the present, rather than delving into your past.

This form of therapy can take place one-on-one or in a group format and may be offered in person or online via telehealth . Sessions can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours long. 

Key Components

There are two major components that make up the problem-solving therapy framework:

  • Applying a positive problem-solving orientation to your life
  • Using problem-solving skills

A positive problem-solving orientation means viewing things in an optimistic light, embracing self-efficacy , and accepting the idea that problems are a normal part of life. Problem-solving skills are behaviors that you can rely on to help you navigate conflict, even during times of stress. This includes skills like:

  • Knowing how to identify a problem
  • Defining the problem in a helpful way
  • Trying to understand the problem more deeply
  • Setting goals related to the problem
  • Generating alternative, creative solutions to the problem
  • Choosing the best course of action
  • Implementing the choice you have made
  • Evaluating the outcome to determine next steps

Problem-solving therapy is all about training you to become adaptive in your life so that you will start to see problems as challenges to be solved instead of insurmountable obstacles. It also means that you will recognize the action that is required to engage in effective problem-solving techniques.

Planful Problem-Solving

One problem-solving technique, called planful problem-solving, involves following a series of steps to fix issues in a healthy, constructive way:

  • Problem definition and formulation : This step involves identifying the real-life problem that needs to be solved and formulating it in a way that allows you to generate potential solutions.
  • Generation of alternative solutions : This stage involves coming up with various potential solutions to the problem at hand. The goal in this step is to brainstorm options to creatively address the life stressor in ways that you may not have previously considered.
  • Decision-making strategies : This stage involves discussing different strategies for making decisions as well as identifying obstacles that may get in the way of solving the problem at hand.
  • Solution implementation and verification : This stage involves implementing a chosen solution and then verifying whether it was effective in addressing the problem.

Other Techniques

Other techniques your therapist may go over include:

  • Problem-solving multitasking , which helps you learn to think clearly and solve problems effectively even during times of stress
  • Stop, slow down, think, and act (SSTA) , which is meant to encourage you to become more emotionally mindful when faced with conflict
  • Healthy thinking and imagery , which teaches you how to embrace more positive self-talk while problem-solving

What Problem-Solving Therapy Can Help With

Problem-solving therapy addresses life stress issues and focuses on helping you find solutions to concrete issues. This approach can be applied to problems associated with various psychological and physiological symptoms.

Mental Health Issues

Problem-solving therapy may help address mental health issues, like:

  • Chronic stress due to accumulating minor issues
  • Complications associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Emotional distress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Problems associated with a chronic disease like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
  • Self-harm and feelings of hopelessness
  • Substance use
  • Suicidal ideation

Specific Life Challenges

This form of therapy is also helpful for dealing with specific life problems, such as:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Dissatisfaction at work
  • Everyday life stressors
  • Family problems
  • Financial difficulties
  • Relationship conflicts

Your doctor or mental healthcare professional will be able to advise whether problem-solving therapy could be helpful for your particular issue. In general, if you are struggling with specific, concrete problems that you are having trouble finding solutions for, problem-solving therapy could be helpful for you.

Benefits of Problem-Solving Therapy

The skills learned in problem-solving therapy can be helpful for managing all areas of your life. These can include:

  • Being able to identify which stressors trigger your negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger)
  • Confidence that you can handle problems that you face
  • Having a systematic approach on how to deal with life's problems
  • Having a toolbox of strategies to solve the issues you face
  • Increased confidence to find creative solutions
  • Knowing how to identify which barriers will impede your progress
  • Knowing how to manage emotions when they arise
  • Reduced avoidance and increased action-taking
  • The ability to accept life problems that can't be solved
  • The ability to make effective decisions
  • The development of patience (realizing that not all problems have a "quick fix")

Problem-solving therapy can help people feel more empowered to deal with the problems they face in their lives. Rather than feeling overwhelmed when stressors begin to take a toll, this therapy introduces new coping skills that can boost self-efficacy and resilience .

Other Types of Therapy

Other similar types of therapy include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) . While these therapies work to change thinking and behaviors, they work a bit differently. Both CBT and SFBT are less structured than problem-solving therapy and may focus on broader issues. CBT focuses on identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts, and SFBT works to help people look for solutions and build self-efficacy based on strengths.

This form of therapy was initially developed to help people combat stress through effective problem-solving, and it was later adapted to address clinical depression specifically. Today, much of the research on problem-solving therapy deals with its effectiveness in treating depression.

Problem-solving therapy has been shown to help depression in: 

  • Older adults
  • People coping with serious illnesses like cancer

Problem-solving therapy also appears to be effective as a brief treatment for depression, offering benefits in as little as six to eight sessions with a therapist or another healthcare professional. This may make it a good option for someone unable to commit to a lengthier treatment for depression.

Problem-solving therapy is not a good fit for everyone. It may not be effective at addressing issues that don't have clear solutions, like seeking meaning or purpose in life. Problem-solving therapy is also intended to treat specific problems, not general habits or thought patterns .

In general, it's also important to remember that problem-solving therapy is not a primary treatment for mental disorders. If you are living with the symptoms of a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia , you may need additional treatment with evidence-based approaches for your particular concern.

Problem-solving therapy is best aimed at someone who has a mental or physical issue that is being treated separately, but who also has life issues that go along with that problem that has yet to be addressed.

For example, it could help if you can't clean your house or pay your bills because of your depression, or if a cancer diagnosis is interfering with your quality of life.

Your doctor may be able to recommend therapists in your area who utilize this approach, or they may offer it themselves as part of their practice. You can also search for a problem-solving therapist with help from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Society of Clinical Psychology .

If receiving problem-solving therapy from a doctor or mental healthcare professional is not an option for you, you could also consider implementing it as a self-help strategy using a workbook designed to help you learn problem-solving skills on your own.

During your first session, your therapist may spend some time explaining their process and approach. They may ask you to identify the problem you’re currently facing, and they’ll likely discuss your goals for therapy .

Keep In Mind

Problem-solving therapy may be a short-term intervention that's focused on solving a specific issue in your life. If you need further help with something more pervasive, it can also become a longer-term treatment option.

Get Help Now

We've tried, tested, and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, BetterHelp, and ReGain. Find out which option is the best for you.

Shang P, Cao X, You S, Feng X, Li N, Jia Y. Problem-solving therapy for major depressive disorders in older adults: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials .  Aging Clin Exp Res . 2021;33(6):1465-1475. doi:10.1007/s40520-020-01672-3

Cuijpers P, Wit L de, Kleiboer A, Karyotaki E, Ebert DD. Problem-solving therapy for adult depression: An updated meta-analysis . Eur Psychiatry . 2018;48(1):27-37. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.11.006

Nezu AM, Nezu CM, D'Zurilla TJ. Problem-Solving Therapy: A Treatment Manual . New York; 2013. doi:10.1891/9780826109415.0001

Owens D, Wright-Hughes A, Graham L, et al. Problem-solving therapy rather than treatment as usual for adults after self-harm: a pragmatic, feasibility, randomised controlled trial (the MIDSHIPS trial) .  Pilot Feasibility Stud . 2020;6:119. doi:10.1186/s40814-020-00668-0

Sorsdahl K, Stein DJ, Corrigall J, et al. The efficacy of a blended motivational interviewing and problem solving therapy intervention to reduce substance use among patients presenting for emergency services in South Africa: A randomized controlled trial . Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy . 2015;10(1):46.

Margolis SA, Osborne P, Gonzalez JS. Problem solving . In: Gellman MD, ed. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine . Springer International Publishing; 2020:1745-1747. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39903-0_208

Kirkham JG, Choi N, Seitz DP. Meta-analysis of problem solving therapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder in older adults . Int J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2016;31(5):526-535. doi:10.1002/gps.4358

Garand L, Rinaldo DE, Alberth MM, et al. Effects of problem solving therapy on mental health outcomes in family caregivers of persons with a new diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia: A randomized controlled trial . Am J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2014;22(8):771-781. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.07.007

Noyes K, Zapf AL, Depner RM, et al. Problem-solving skills training in adult cancer survivors: Bright IDEAS-AC pilot study .  Cancer Treat Res Commun . 2022;31:100552. doi:10.1016/j.ctarc.2022.100552

Albert SM, King J, Anderson S, et al. Depression agency-based collaborative: effect of problem-solving therapy on risk of common mental disorders in older adults with home care needs . The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry . 2019;27(6):619-624. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2019.01.002

By Arlin Cuncic, MA Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of The Anxiety Workbook and founder of the website About Social Anxiety. She has a Master's degree in clinical psychology.

Book cover

Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems pp 165–200 Cite as

Cognition: Mental Representations, Problem Solving, and Decision Making

  • Frank E. Ritter 4 ,
  • Gordon D. Baxter 5 &
  • Elizabeth F. Churchill 6  
  • First Online: 01 January 2014

100k Accesses

There are several higher level structures built upon the basic structures of memory, attention, and learning in the user’s cognitive architecture. These representations and behaviors include mental models, problem solving, and decision making. These structures and processes form the basics of higher level cognition when interacting with technology, and describe some of the ways that users represent systems and interfaces, and how users interact with and use systems. Mental models are used to understand systems and to interact with systems. When the user’s mental models are inaccurate, systems are hard to use. Problem solving is used when it is not clear what to do next. Problem solving uses mental models, forms a basis for learning, and can be supported in a variety of ways. Decision making is a more punctuated form of problem solving, made about and with systems. It is not always as clear or accurate as one would like (or expect), and there are ways to support and improve it. There are some surprises in each of these areas where folk psychology concepts and theories are inaccurate.

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7 Mental Models In Systems Thinking To Progress In Pretty Much Everything

Ivaylo Durmonski

  • Self-improvement

Only when you realize the importance of systems thinking you can understand why it’s crucial to embed useful systems in your life. Moreover, you see how bad systems can cause destruction.

Yes, bad systems can lead you to unexpected places of agony.

For me as a writer, the worst thing I can do is not have a writing system. And honestly, I didn’t have one a few years ago. I just wrote sporadically.

The results of this careless behavior?

There weren’t any.

No traffic. No engagements. No sales.

Only when I started to approach my blog as a business and then as a system, I was able to attract more readers to my curated library of ideas and bizarrely insightful newsletter .

All of this talk about systems begs the question: What is systems thinking?

In simple words, this is a repetitive behavior that leads to somewhat predictable results.

Depending on the system, you can become a better decision-maker , more productive , develop adaptive thinking , improve the revenue of your business , or “just” gain more muscle.

To make systems thinking sound more applicable. In this post, I’m observing mental models in systems thinking.

Consider the below as ready to implement mental frameworks that can change the way you think (and act) for the better in a specific area of your life.

Once you get to know them, you’ll spot in advance the hidden traps of life, regroup, and find a better way to react to the current situation.

Keep in mind that the application of the mental models discussed below are more than what I’m suggesting. It’s up to you to find a way to use them in your life to gain the most of them.

7 Mental Models In Systems Thinking:

1. the tragedy of the commons, 2. drift to low performance, 3. success to the successful, 4. shifting the burden to the intervenor, 5. seeking the wrong goal, 6. balancing feedback loops, 7. reinforcing feedback loops.

In a world with limited resources. We pursue unlimited gains.

The tragedy of the commons explains something we all try to do. We lock ourselves in an ever-expanding system – a job, a hobby, a relationship(s) – that initially seems achievable but eventually hurts us.

Here’s a summary of the famous example from the ecologist Garrett Hardin explaining the tragedy of the commons concept:

Picture a herdsman in a small village with 50 heads of cattle. The cost for the pastor to add one extra animal to his herd is insignificant. Business-wise, it will surely increase his profits. But what will happen if he adds another one, and then another one, and then one more…

At some point, he won’t have enough energy to take care of his (now) big herd.

But there is something else. What will happen if all the other pastors in the village do the same to compete with him?

Eventually, the extra animals will deplete the resources of the village. Hence, the tragedy.

To avoid a state of disaster. We should realize that there is usually at least one limited resource used by everyone – the pasture in the example above. Then, ensure that the resource won’t be overused. We need to allow the resource to regenerate itself.

On a global scale, educating people on which are the limited resources is crucial if we want to protect our planet – water, energy, waste, etc.

From a personal angle, you need to pinpoint what type of resources are limited and not overuse them. 

A relatable example is the following: We get a job and we let it consume our personal lives. We get so caught up in the race to the top of the corporate ladder that we forget that there are other things in our life besides working – kids, friends, spouse, the need to rest. At first, taking one extra project doesn’t feel like a big deal, but all the tasks add up. Eventually, all we do is work.

Here are a couple of other examples: Trying to please everyone; Taking more work than what you can accomplish; Spending more money than what you earn.

Drift to low performance is a mindset that prevents us from seeing the ugliness of our pathetic performance.

When you don’t have high standards that keep you pushing towards doing better. You get comfortable with doing an average job. You, subconsciously, say to yourself things like: “Well, I’m not doing much worse than what I was doing last month, that’s why I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”

This not-expecting-anything-more loop keeps you doing the same old things, which eventually leads to even poorer performance.

Why is that?

Why can’t we spot how we are slowly heading downhill?

Mainly because our goals are not high enough. When our targets are low – or non-existent – the perceived state is also low and there are no actions to correct the underperforming loop.

The main problem, however, is a bit more sophisticated.

When not maintained, our projects, the work we do, body, gradually becomes worse. After all, you don’t wake up 50 pounds heavier. You add the extra weight slowly over a course of a year, for example.

To avoid the downward spiral of mediocrity, do this: Have high standards for yourself.

Instead of comparing yourself with the worst people around you. Look at the people who are performing well and attach yourself to them.

This mental model is quite popular but under another anecdote: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

If you’re already rich, you can use your wealth to create more wealth.

You can use it to provide better education for your children. Invest. Start different businesses that will earn you even more money. You can even – while surely unethical – win lawsuits by bribing judges.

This loop creates an unhealthy balance in the universe where winners keep winning while losers keep losing.

Obviously, if you are rich, you don’t have to worry about this mental model. You won’t even read blog posts like this one.

If you are not extraordinarily wealthy, though, you have a lot of work to do. You have to do everything possible to escape the rat race where you are solely working to survive.

In an environment with limited resources. If you don’t have an edge, you can’t win. The solution, therefore, is to penetrate a new market.

Don’t compete with the rich for the same thing. Change seats. Play a different game.

While governments try to prevent corporations from becoming monopolies by passing antitrust laws. You can’t expect governments to improve your personal situation. It’s up to you to make the change.

Shifting the burden is a devilish system archetype that prevents you from actively thinking about your problems.

Plainly, when you have a problem. Instead of facing it and finding a solution, you shift the burden to someone else – or something else.

That’s how we become addicted to drugs or alcohol, for example.

Instead of facing our problems. We fill the hole. We consume beverages that intoxicate us and divert us from thinking about the oppressing issues.

This goes beyond just addictions. Big corporations get attached to advisors or routines that make it appear like they are fixing a problem. But in reality, they are just patching holes.

For instance, instead of teaching your staff members how to handle a specific situation. You hire an expert to make the needed corrections. However, what will happen when the consultant is gone? You are back where you left.

The more you are trying to avoid a problem – by binging series on Netflix or refreshing social media like a lunatic . The more it will consume you.

The solution is rather simple: Stop deceiving yourself. Face your problems and take responsibility.

When new obstacles arise . Don’t immediately think about what you can purchase to feel better and forget about the issue or who you can hire to solve it. Try to handle the situation as soon as you can with what you have available – both on your shelf and in your mind.

Systems thinking is like creating an assembly line that leads to a specific outcome with the same quality.

A basic example is this: If you want to gain muscle, you will form a daily system – a routine – that will prompt you to exercise regularly and also ensure that you are careful with the type of food you intake.

If, however, you set the goal like this: I want to become visually stronger to impress girls. Your daily behavior will include supplements that will probably buff you up in the short term but hurt you in the long term.

Seeking the wrong goal mental model emphasizes the importance of setting the correct goal from the start.

The goal is the direction-setter of the system.

If you fail to adequately outline where you want to end up, you will define your goal badly. This, in turn, will lead to undesirable results. Plainly, you will end up in a place you don’t want to be.

Here’s another example:

If you conclude that you want to read more books . You will measure that goal by the number of books you finish. As long as you stack books everywhere in your house, it will appear as you are progressing towards your goal. But is simply reading books a desirable goal?

Sure, it helps to be a prolific reader. You learn new words. You can post about this on your online profile. But reaching your target number of books won’t lead to sustainable changes in our life. Your goal should be more specific.

For example, “Improve my writing skills,  negotiation skills , or critical thinking skills to crush critical thinking barriers .”

Defined like that, your goal changes from simply reading books to reading to express yourself better on paper. Or, reading books to close more deals. Or even, if that is what you want, read more books on mental models to learn how to think better .

As you can see, the just mentioned things are sustainably different from the first goal of merely reading.

So, don’t confuse effort with results. 

Take your time to think. Take as long as you need to figure out what you actually want to start producing results, not only effort.

Balancing feedback loops are of extreme importance in systems thinking. They are protective mechanisms that can save you from destruction.

The most simple example is a fire sprinkler. If a fire is detected, the fire sprinkler system will discharge water.

Institutions will never allow a hotel to operate without numerous anti-fire measures. This means that hotel owners must meet all regulations to open business. And while this is good for us as hotel visitors, we often neglect the need of balancing feedback loops in our lives.

Regularly changing your fire extinguisher in your car, paying for insurance, having an emergency fund. These are all things that can literally save your life. But since most of these loops are inactive most of the time, we don’t consider them important. That’s why we tend to spend money instead of save money.

What will happen if you lose your job, and you don’t have any savings?

A huge mistake is to strip away your emergency loops because they are not used for years.

Yes, in the short term they seem expensive and useless. But in the long term, we absolutely require specific systems triggered when there is an emergency.

The idea of reinforcing feedback loops is that they are self-reinforcing.

The more this type of system works, the more it gains the power to work in the same direction.

And depending on the loop, it can be either a source of growth or erosion.

Here’s a basic example: The more you spend and depend on loans, the further you will deteriorate your financial situation. Conversely, the more money you invest, the more interest you earn.

Identifying both the good, the bad, and the evil reinforcing feedback loops in your life is crucial for your long-term success.

If left unchecked, a bad (or evil) reinforcing loop will ultimately lead to destruction.

It might sound like over-exaggeration, but something simple as unmanaged social media usage can cause great pain. The more you engage in pointless online discussions, the more you will do it in the future. Therefore, the less time you will have to read and improve your skills that can lead to growth.

Take a seat and note down the reinforcing loops in your life.

Which one you should keep and which ones you should abandon?

Some Closing Thoughts

When I started writing this piece, I didn’t know where exactly I was going to land. I never know where I’m going to land when I start writing something. In fact, I’m deeply skeptical of any writer that claims they have the precognition to know where they’re going to end up before they’ve even started.

I believe that things are surprisingly similar in our lives…

Regardless of what we do, we don’t know exactly where we are going to land. We can only predict and hope that our prediction will turn out somehow accurate.

Blind hope and inflated self-belief feel good. But these can only carry you so far.

Eventually, reality will pull the rug from under your feet and leave you naked on the cold floor.

To progress. To avoid destruction. It helps to think in systems.

The mental models above are helpful companions that will allow you to implement loops that are not only helpful once. But lead to regular results.

After all, being good once won’t win you a gold medal. It requires stamina and mighty will to continuously improve your craft.

For more on mental models, consider the following:

  • Mental Models For Problem-Solving
  • Mental Models in Psychology
  • Mental Models for Learning
  • Mental Models in Business
  • Mental Models for Decision-Making

Trouble Saying No to Temptations?

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Common Problem-Solving Models & How to Use Them

Problem – solving models are step-by-step processes that provide a framework for addressing challenges. Problems arise in every facet of life. From work. to home. to friends and family, problems and conflicts can make life difficult and interfere with our physical and mental well-being. Understanding how to approach problems when they arise and implementing problem-solving techniques can make the journey through a problem less onerous on ourselves and those around us.

By building a structured problem-solving process, you can begin to build muscle memory by repeatedly practicing the same approach, and eventually, you may even begin to find yourself solving complex problems . Building a problem-solving model for each of the situations where you may encounter a problem can give you a path forward, even when the most difficult of problems arise.

This article will explore the concept of problem-solving models and dive into examples of such models and how to use them. It will also outline the benefits of implementing a problem-solving model in each area of life and why these problem-solving methods can have a large impact on your overall well-being. The goal of this article is to help you identify effective problem-solving strategies and develop critical thinking to generate solutions for any problem that comes your way.

Problem-Solving Model Defined

The first step in creating a problem-solving plan is to understand what we mean when we say problem-solving models. A problem-solving model is a step-by-step process that helps a team identify and effectively solve problems that they may encounter. This problem-solving approach gives the team the muscle memory and guide to address a conflict and resolve disputes quickly and effectively.

There are common problem-solving models that many teams have implemented, but there is also the freedom to shape a method to fit the needs of a specific situation. These models often rely on various problem-solving techniques to identify the root cause of the issue and find the best solution. This article will explore some common problem-solving models as well as general problem-solving techniques to help a team engage with and solve problems effectively.

Benefits of Implementing Problem-Solving Models

Before we discuss the exact models for problem-solving, it can be helpful to discuss why problem-solving models are beneficial in the first place. There are a variety of benefits to having a plan in place when a problem arises, but a few important benefits are listed below.

Guide Posts

When a team encounters a problem and has a guide for how to approach and solve the problem, it can be a relief to know that they have a process to fall back on when the issue cannot be resolved quickly from the beginning. A problem-solving strategy will serve as a guide for the parties to know which steps to take next and how to identify the appropriate solution.

It can also clarify when the issue needs to stay within the team, and when the issue needs to be escalated to someone in a position with more authority. It can also help the entire team solve complex problems without creating an issue out of the way the team solves the problem. It gives the team a blueprint to work from and encourages them to find a good solution.

Creative Solutions That Last

When the team or family has a way to fall back on to solve a problem, it takes some of the pressure off of coming up with the process and allows the parties to focus on identifying the relevant information and coming up with various potential solutions to the issue. By using a problem-solving method, the parties can come up with different solutions and find common ground with the best solution. This can be stifled if the team is too focused on figuring out how to solve the problem.

Additionally, the solutions that the parties come up with through problem-solving tools will often address the root cause of the issue and stop the team from having to revisit the same problem over and over again. This can lead to overall productivity and well-being and help the team continue to output quality work. By encouraging collaboration and creativity, a problem-solving technique will often keep solving problems between the parties moving forward and possibly even address them before they show up.

Common Models to Use in the Problem-Solving Process

Several models can be applied to a complex problem and create possible solutions. These range from common and straightforward to creative and in-depth to identify the most effective ways to solve a problem. This section will discuss and break down the problem-solving models that are most frequently used.

Standard Problem-Solving Process

When you search for a problem-solving technique, chances are you will find the standard model for saving problems. This model identifies and uses several important steps that will often be used in other models as well, so it can be helpful to begin the model-building process with an understanding of this model as a base. Other models often draw from this process and adapt one or more of the steps to help create additional options. Each of these steps works to accomplish a specific goal in furtherance of a solution.

Define the Problem

The first step in addressing a problem is to create a clear definition of the issue at hand. This will often require the team to communicate openly and honestly to place parameters around the issue. As the team defines the problem, it will be clear what needs to be solved and what pieces of the conflict are ancillary to the major issue. It helps to find the root causes of the issue and begin a process to address that rather than the symptoms of the problem. The team can also create a problem statement, which outlines the parameters of the problem and what needs to be fixed.

In addition to open and honest communication, other techniques can help to identify the root cause and define the problem. This includes a thorough review of the processes and steps that are currently used in the task and whether any of those steps are directly or indirectly causing the problem.

This includes reviewing how tasks are done, how communication is shared, and the current partners and team members that work together to identify if any of those are part of the issue. It is also the time to identify if some of the easy fixes or new tools would solve the problem and what the impact would be.

It is also important to gain a wide understanding of the problem from all of the people involved. Many people will have opinions on what is going on, but it is also important to understand the facts over the opinions that are affecting the problem. This can also help you identify if the problem is arising from a boundary or standard that is not being met or honored. By gathering data and understanding the source of the problem, the process of solving it can begin.

Generate Solutions

The next step in the basic process is to generate possible solutions to the problem. At this step, it is less important to evaluate how each of the options will play out and how they may change the process and more important to identify solutions that could address the issue. This includes solutions that support the goals of the team and the task, and the team can also identify short and long-term solutions.

The team should work to brainstorm as many viable solutions as possible to give them the best options to consider moving forward. They cannot pick the first solution that is proposed and consider it a successful problem-solving process.

Evaluate and Select

After a few good options have been identified, the next step is to evaluate the options and pick the most viable option that also supports the goals of the team or organization. This includes looking at each of the possible solutions and determining how they would either encourage or hinder the goals and standards of the team. These should evaluated without bias toward the solution proposed or the person putting forward the solution. Additionally, the team should consider both actual outcomes that have happened in the past and predicted instances that may occur if the solution is chosen.

Each solution should be evaluated by considering if the solution would solve the current problem without causing additional issues, the willingness of the team to buy in and implement the solution, and the actual ability of the team to implement the solution.

Participation and honesty from all team members will make the process go more smoothly and ensure that the best option for everyone involved is selected. Once the team picks the option they would like to use for the specific problem, they should clearly define what the solution is and how it should be implemented. There should also be a strategy for how to evaluate the effectiveness of the solution.

Implement the Solution and Follow Up

Once a solution is chosen, a team will often assume that the work of solving problems is complete. However, the final step in the basic model is an important step to determine if the matter is resolved or if additional options are needed. After the solution has been implemented by the team, the members of the team must provide feedback and identify any potential obstacles that may have been missed in the decision-making process.

This encourages long-term solutions for the problem and helps the team to continue to move forward with their work. It also gives the team a sense of ownership and an example of how to evaluate an idea in the future.

If the solution is not working the way that it should, the team will often need to adapt the option, or they may get to the point where they scrap the option and attempt another. Solving a problem is not always a linear process, and encouraging reform and change within the process will help the team find the answer to the issues that they face.

GROW Method

Another method that is similar to the standard method is the G.R.O.W. method. This method has very similar steps to the standard method, but the catchiness of the acronym helps a team approach the problem from the same angle each time and work through the method quickly.

The first step in the method is to identify a goal, which is what the “g” stands for in “grow.” To establish a goal, the team will need to look at the issues that they are facing and identify what they would like to accomplish and solve through the problem-solving process. The team will likely participate in conversations that identify the issues that they are facing and what they need to resolve.

The next step is to establish the current reality that the group is facing. This helps them to determine where they currently are and what needs to be done to move them forward. This can help the group establish a baseline for where they started and what they would like to change.

The next step is to find any obstacles that may be blocking the group from achieving their goal. This is where the main crux of the issues that the group is facing will come out. This is also helpful in giving the group a chance to find ways around these obstacles and toward a solution.

Way Forward

After identifying the obstacles and potential ways to avoid them, the group will then need to pick the best way to move forward and approach their goal together. Here, they will need to create steps to move forward with that goal.

Divide and Conquer

Another common problem-solving method is the divide-and-conquer method. Here, instead of the entire team working through each step of the process as a large group, they split up the issue into smaller problems that can be solved and have individual members or small groups work through the smaller problems. Once each group is satisfied with the solution to the problem, they present it to the larger group to consider along with the other options.

This process can be helpful if there is a large team attempting to solve a large and complex problem. It is also beneficial because it can be used in teams with smaller, specialized teams within it because it allows each smaller group to focus on what they know best.

However, it does encourage the parties to shy away from collaboration on the overall issue, and the different solutions that each proposes may not be possible when combined and implemented.

For this reason, it is best to use this solution when approaching complex problems with large teams and the ability to combine several problem-solving methods into one.

Six Thinking Hats

The Six Thinking Hats theory is a concept designed for a team with a lot of differing conflict styles and problem-solving techniques. This method was developed to help sort through the various techniques that people may use and help a team find a solution that works for everyone involved. It helps to organize thinking and lead the conversation to the best possible solution.

Within this system, there are six different “hats” that identify with the various aspects of the decision-making process: the overall process, idea generation, intuition and emotions, values, information gathering, and caution or critical thinking. The group agrees to participate in the process by agreeing on which of the hats the group is wearing at a given moment. This helps set parameters and expectations around what the group is attempting to achieve at any moment.

This system is particularly good in a group with different conflict styles or where people have a hard time collecting and organizing their thoughts. It can be incredibly beneficial for complex problems with many moving parts. It can also help groups identify how each of the smaller sections relates to the big picture and help create new ideas to answer the overall problem.

However, it can derail if the group focuses too heavily or for too long on one of the “hats.” The group should ensure that they have a facilitator to guide them through the process and ensure that each idea and section is considered adequately.

Trial and Error

The trial and error process takes over the evaluation and selection process and instead chooses to try out each of the alternatives to determine what the best option would be. It allows the team to gather data on each of the options and how they apply practically. It also provides the ability for the team to have an example of each possible answer to help a decision-maker determine what the best option is.

Problem-solving methods that focus on trial and error can be helpful when a team has a simple problem or a lot of time to test potential solutions, gather data, and determine an answer to the issue.

It can also be helpful when the team has a sense of the best guess for a solution but wants to test it out to determine if the data supports that option, or if they have several viable options and would like to identify the best one. However, it can be incredibly time-consuming to test each of the options and evaluate how they went. Time can often be saved by evaluating each option and selecting the best to test.

Other Problem-Solving Skills

In addition to the methods outlined above, other problem-solving skills can be used regardless of the model that is used. These techniques can round out the problem-solving process and help address either specific steps in the overall method or alter the step in some way to help it fit a specific situation.

Ask Good Questions

One of the best ways to work through any of the problem-solving models is to ask good questions. This will help the group find the issue at the heart of the problem and address that issue rather than the symptoms. The best questions will also help the group find viable solutions and pick the solution that the group can use to move forward. The more creative the questions , the more likely that they will produce innovative solutions.

Take a Step Back

Occasionally, paying attention to a problem too much can give the group tunnel vision and harm the overall processes that the group is using. Other times, the focus can lead to escalations in conflict. When this happens, it can be helpful to set aside the problem and give the group time to calm down. Once they have a chance to reconsider the options and how they apply, they can approach the issue with a new sense of purpose and determination. This can lead to additional creative solutions that may help the group find a new way forward.

Final Thoughts

Problem-solving can be a daunting part of life. However, with a good problem-solving method and the right techniques, problems can be addressed well and quickly. Applying some of these options outlined in this article can give you a head start in solving your next problem and any others that arise.

To learn more about problem-solving models, problem-solving activities, and more, contact ADR Times !

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