Six Steps To Troubleshooting Your Life

Troubleshooting is an effective way to fix technical problems—but more importantly, you can apply the same techniques to your career and colleagues as well.

What do you do when your computer won’t connect to the Internet? What do you do when your washing machine stops mid-cycle or the TV remote stops working? Besides tearing your hair out or going postal, there actually are some constructive options. One is to troubleshoot the problem.

Troubleshooting denotes a methodical, systematic approach to isolating, identifying, and then fixing the problem. Turns out the same techniques that help technicians repair electronics, home appliances, and cars can help us streamline daily dealings with family, friends, and work colleagues as well. When things aren’t going right with relationships, troubleshooting the problem may be the most efficient way to make things right. So here is how you can apply the six steps of troubleshooting to your everyday life.

1. Reboot the system to see if the problem goes away. The computer screen freezes. Hitting the On/Off switch and letting the system cool down often makes the problem go away (even if you don't understand how). In life, daily frustration can often be dealt with using a healthy "reboot." If a colleague hits your hot button, take a break, distance yourself and give yourself a chance to cool down. Rarely does it pay to respond to provocation. After a healthy period of circumspection, problems don’t usually appear as serious as they first seem. Cooling your system down may go a long way to getting back on track.

2. Describe the symptoms of the problem accurately. In the technical world, there is a big difference between "the washing machine is broken," and "when using the permanent press setting, the machine does not drain the water after the second spin cycle." In the technical world, a detailed description of the problem allows technicians to focus on likely causes. In the personal world, defining a problem accurately means figuring out what is really bothering you when your system goes out of whack. Statements like "I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," "I am out of sorts," or "I am in a bad mood" do nothing to help you get back on track. Try writing down a description of your problem and reading it aloud. Seeing it in writing may help you focus on the problem.

3. Isolate the problem. When your computer won’t turn on, technicians will tell you to make sure the computer is turned on, the plug is connected to electrical socket, and finally that there is power in the electrical outlet. These steps help isolate the problem to the computer, to the electrical cable, or to the electrical outlet. The same is true in life—the key to solving problems is to figure out the root cause of anger or frustration. Taking your frustration out on the wrong person because they are convenient (like a parent, spouse, or child) is like kicking the dishwasher when the washing machine acts up. Not a very efficient strategy for success.

4. Apply a fix to see if the problem goes away. If the printer connection doesn’t work, downloading a new driver may help. In life, taking a fresh approach to dealing with a situation is what is needed. Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” We certainly know that won’t work with technology. So why do we constantly approach our personal and work relationships this way?

5. Test to make sure nothing else has been impacted by the fix. Troubleshooters know that the first fix often doesn’t work. If the new printer driver doesn’t fix the problem, perhaps you need to delete and then reinstall the printer from scratch. In life, not every attempt to a personal problem is a successful one. If the first one doesn’t work, take a step back and try again.

6. Always keep a healthy perspective. Good advice in any case. Not all problems are as serious as they seem. And just like the TV remote whose volume button doesn’t always work, learning to live with minor annoyances and accepting things we can’t change—with a smile—is not a bad idea.

Author David Lavenda is a high-tech product strategy and marketing executive. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr user Matthew Rogers]

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1 Comments

  • IMSHO

    Good approach & thoughtful rules to keep in mind. However, the title of #5 doesn't match the description. Making sure the fix didn't cause other problems is an important part of debugging as every good programmer and tech knows, and perseverance in trying different solutions is also crucial. Perhaps this needs to be two separate items.

    #6 is good, but the TV remote example is not. One doesn't "learn to live with" a malfunctioning remote when a universal remote can be had for $9, and it's certainly not an example of "things we can't change."