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Make Better Decisions
Using the Systematic Problem-Solving Method

If you have a difficult decision to make, try this well-tested method

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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The Systematic Problem-Solving (SPS) Method:

Make Better Decisions

Tom G. Stevens PhD


Solving problems is important in every area of human thinking. Learning general problem-solving skills can therefore help you improve your ability to cope with every area of your life. All disciplines of philosophy, business, science, and humanities have developed their own approach to solving problems. Remarkably, the problem-solving models developed by each of these areas are strikingly similar. I describe a simple problem-solving process that you can use to solve almost all problems.

Stages of the problem-solving process. The famous psychologist, Dr. Carl Rogers, was one of the first to help us understand how important self-exploration and problem-solving are for overcoming all types of personal, psychological, and daily-living problems.(1);

Consciously going through each of these four stages when solving any complex problem can be very useful. Following are the five stages of the problem-solving method.








During this stage, we gather all of the information we can about both external aspects of the problem and internal aspects. Good information gathering is not an easy process. Scientists spend their whole lives trying to learn about some very small piece of the world. The type of information-gathering process we use will depend upon the type of problem we are trying to solve. For information about the world the following are powerful skills to use.

  •  Library reference skills
  •  Observational skills
  •  Informational interviewing skills
  •  Critical thinking skills
  •  Scientific method skills
  •  Data analysis and statistical skills

Learning how to become an expert at identifying problems and finding causes is essential to become an expert in any field. The above skills are useful in solving many types of problems--even intra-personal ones. However, the focus of this book is how to be happy; and the key to happiness almost always involves not just external causes but internal ones as well.

It is usually much easier for most of us to observe an external event than an internal one. We have our external sensory organs to see and hear external events, but not internal ones. How do we observe that which we cannot see? We can learn to be better observers of our emotions, self-talk, and images.

The self-exploration process described above provides enough information to make you an expert at self-exploration. That is one of the most essential parts of developing your own inner therapist.


Gather all the best information you can about possible solutions. Use brainstorming techniques, observe and consult with people who have overcome similar problems, read relevant material, consult experts, and recall your own relevant past experience. Look at both internal and external solutions.


Once you learn so many different routes to happiness, then you will be truly free to choose to be happy in almost any situation you face in life. The actual choice is made in stage 3 of the /problem-solving process. The appendix contains a very useful decision-making model for helping you make complex choices such as choosing a career or relationship. The following is a simple approach to making a decision between alternatives. (See Carkhuff Decision-Making Model, below, for a method for making complex decisions--for career or life planning.);

(1); List all the alternatives you are considering

(2); List all of the values or criteria that will be affected by the decision

(3); Evaluate each alternative by each criteria or value

(4); Choose the alternative which you predict will satisfy the criteria the best and lead to your greatest overall happiness

STAGE 4:  PLANNING AND ACTION (Experimenting);

Many decisions are made, but never implemented. See that you follow-up with good planning. Once you have made your choice, you can use some of the planning methods suggested in the O-PATSM method from chapter 11 to make sure that you follow through with your decision.

This is the stage of acting on your decision. Many people fear making mistakes and failure as if these were some terrible sins that they should never commit. That view of life of life makes every decision and action seem very serious and they often become very timid people who lack creativity and are plagued by guilt and fear of failure. Instead we can view every action as an experiment. If one of our overall goals in life is learning and growth, then we can never fail to learn. All people who have accomplished great happiness for themselves and contributed to others have shared the courage to act on their beliefs.


Many people hate to be evaluated and dread finding out the results of what they have done out of fear that the feedback will be negative. These fears can be serious impediments to the growth that can only happen through getting open, accurate feedback.

However, once learning and growth are important goals, then getting feedback becomes highly desirable. How else can we learn? Even negative outcomes can provide valuable information. Of course, almost everyone would rather have outcomes that maximize happiness; but when we don't, we can at least try to maximize our learning. Learning can help maximize happiness in the future.

We can also make the mistakes of dwelling on past mistakes that goes beyond constructive learning and reasonable reparations to victims and of punishing ourselves unnecessarily. Normally, there is no value to punishment--once a lesson has been learned.(2); Keep clear at all times that this problem-solving process is only a tool to serve the overall life goals of increased health, growth, and happiness.



This particular decision-making model is based upon one by Dr. Robert Carkhuff and follows the general guidelines of a considerable amount of research on how people can make more effective decisions. It can also be used for any other type of decision--from buying a new car to choosing a mate.


The decision-making model will be illustrated in a way which you can use aa an analogy for making your own career decision. In this example, Henry is trying to decide whether to major in psychology or in computer science. Thus he has narrowed his alternatives to the following two:

1); majoring in psychology with a career goal of either going into high school counseling or teaching or 2); majoring in computer science with a possible goal of working as a computer programmer.

These are represented along the top axis of the following matrix.





 +5 (45)

 +2 (18)

+4 (36)



 +5 (35 )

 +5 (35)

 +2 ( 14)

Helping Others 


 +5 ( 50)

 +4 ( 40)

 +4 ( 40)

Future job options


 +5 ( 50)

 +3 ( 24)

 +4 (32)



 +5 ( 30)

 -1 ( -6)

 0 ( 0)

Working hours 


 +5 ( 15)

 +4 ( 12)

 +3 ( 9)

Opportunity to teach others 


 +5 ( 45)

 +5 ( 45)

 +4 (36)

Helping personal interactions 


 +5 ( 50)

 +5 ( 50)

 +1 ( 10)

Security/retirement plans


+5 ( 25)

 +4 ( 20)

 +3 ( 15)

Enjoyment socialize with peers 

+5 ( 25)

 +4 ( 20)

 +4 ( 20)

Opportunity to make own decisions 

+5 ( 45)

 +4 ( 36)

 +3 ( 27)

Freedom for personal life as want 

+5 ( 40)

 +5 ( 40)

 +5 ( 40)

Opports for continued learning 


 +5 ( 30)

 +4 ( 24)

 +4 ( 24)

Physical work environment 

+5 ( 10)

 +3 ( 6)

 +2 ( 4)

Psychological environ & stress 


 +5 ( 15)

 0 ( 0)

 -1 ( -3)

Variety of work 

+5 ( 25)

 +2 ( 10)

 +3 ( 15)

Opportunities for creativity  7 +5 ( 35)  +3 ( 21)  +4 ( 28)

   TOTAL POINTS (add "happiness points" in parentheses) 



      ( 347)



  ( 405)**


  ** is the WINNER-it has the most points of the two alternatives



STEP 1-- LIST YOUR CAREER ALTERNATIVES. This is your refined list of alternatives of which majors or occupations you are trying to decide between. Remember, that you can list as many as you want. You can list unusual combinations of simpler alternatives. For Henry those narrowed alternatives were psychology and computer science.

STEP 2--CAREER SELECTION CRITERIA. Review your Career Selection Criteria list and write all the important career selection criteria in the far left column. Note that repeating the same idea or leaving out an important idea can affect the decision outcome.

STEP 3-- CRITERIA WEIGHTS. Evaluate the relative importance to you of each of your Career Selection Criteria on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the most important);. Write your answer in the column next to the selection criteria.

STEP 4--ALTERNATIVE EVALUATION SCALE. Each alternative is to be evaluated from the point of view of each selection criterion. You need to think about what this means for each selection criterion. For example Henry determined that for the selection criteria of income, a "minimally acceptable" income would be $25,000 starting with prospects of making up to $50,000 eventually. An outstanding salary would be starting at about $40, 000 with prospects of making up to $100,000.

+5 = Maximum evaluation--outstanding (example: income begin $40,000 go to $100,000 +4, +3, +2, +1 = intermediate values

0 = Minimally acceptable value. (example: income = begin $20,000 go to $45,000);

-1, -2, -3, -4 = intermediate values

-5 = Minimum evaluation--worst possible (example: income < $10,000

STEP 5--EVALUATE EACH ALTERNATIVE BY EACH SELECTION CRITERION. Use the evaluation scale from step 3 to evaluate each alternative from the point of view of each Career Selection Criterion. Give it rating from -5 to +5. In the example above, both alternatives were evaluated on the criterion of "income": Henry gave the psychology income an evaluation of "+2" and computer science income an evaluation of " +4."

STEP 6--MULTIPLY THE CRITERIA WEIGHTS TIMES THE EVALUATIONS. In the example above for the selection criterion of "income," Henry multiplied the criterion weight of "9" times the evaluation of " +2" for "PSYCH" to get a result of "18." That is its SCORE OR POINTS for psychology on the criterion of income. Put it inside of the parentheses. This score of 18 is an overall prediction much Henry's income in psychology will contribute to his overall happiness. Since he had a score of 36 in computer science, he his predicting that he will be much happier with his income in that field.

STEP 7--FIND THE OVERALL SUM OF THE SCORES FOR EACH ALTERNATIVE. Add together the numbers inside the parentheses for each alternative. In the example above, the overall sum for the "PSYCH" alternative is "405."

STEP 8--COMPARE THE ALTERNATIVES WITH EACH OTHER AND WITH THE "IDEAL." The "ideal" is the maximum possible number of points. Once you have determined all the totals and compared them to each other, try to figure out why one alternative came out ahead of another--where it got its points. Play with the points until you think the points match your true feelings and values.

* The alternative with the most points is the one you are predicting will make you the happiest person.

1. 1 Some might argue that Freud was the first. He clearly did describe many helpful techniques. I think that some of his free association techniques are still very useful for helping to find underlying beliefs, images, or cognitive systems which are related to the problem. However, Rogers was the one that more clearly described the stages of self-exploration and problem-solving and the conditions of unconditional positive regard, empathetic understanding, and genuineness on the part of the therapist which seem to be important to the therapeutic process or to any person attempting to feel better.

Robert Carkhuff (one of Roger's pupils); has developed a structured training system for helping people learn these skills. Robert Cash, a personal friend, has further elaborated these skills in his own courses and introduced me to this process. There is a good deal of research supporting the effectiveness of these techniques.

2. 2 This statement does not address the use of punishment as a deterrent to prevent some persons from profiting from their dysfunctional behaviors. For example if behaviors such as murder, robbery, or selling drugs are not given sufficient punishment, some people will engage in these behaviors. A person whose ultimate concern is money and pleasure may deal drugs to make money with little regard to how it affects others. Increasing the cost for a person with those beliefs can reduce the chances they will sell drugs.



The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

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