Working with multiple problems at once

I have a friend who works in a charity which deals with people who are on the streets.  She was telling me about the struggles they face and the difficulties they are working with.  It seems like every person out there has not just a mental health problem (sometimes without diagnosis), but also a finance problem, a relationship problem and often also a substance problem.

How does this happen?  Do all people facing ill health suddenly also have relationship problems?  Do all people with credit card debt also start having issues of mental stability?

Yes.  But also no.

Keeping in mind the problem of joint over and under diagnosis, taking examples of people in this situation is looking at rock bottom.  Enough of the time their troubles only started with one or the other problem.  And we are talking a bit of credit card debt, or a few bad days every now and again, having some arguments with their partner.  But that’s where it begins.

One problem represents a bit of trouble.  Imagine.  A small unresolved credit debt causes half an hour of angst a day.  That’s maybe okay.  There are what? 24 of them a day.  plenty time to handle the problems.

Then work piles on.  So you got a 9-5.  that’s (168-3.5-40=124.5hrs) out of 168 hours left to hold your shit together.

Everything is going fine.  You go drinking with friends on Friday nights, lose a bit of sleep but hold your life together.  maybe you get hungover and lose 14 hours from Saturday.  juggling 110.5hrs of time.  Alcohol is a merely legal substance right?

Getting enough sleep?  8 hours a night.  that’s (8*7=56hrs) 54.5hrs left.

Managing your home life.  Exercising half an hour a day, showering ritual half an hour a day…  Cooking breakfast and dinner half an hour each.  (39.5hrs)

When do you go shopping?  Buy food…  Buy clothes, the rest of #life… A few hours a week?

Seasons change?  Need more sleep…

Injure yourself? add in a break up…

Negative time is not actually possible.  That’s when you try to cut sleep.  or anything that can get cut just to stay above water.

It’s not a pretty picture.  But maybe just maybe that’s how it happens.  Problems stack up, life doesn’t cut you a break or give you a chance to catch up.  Question is – how do you get out of it?  Or how do you help someone get out of it?

Realise you are dealing with a lot of different problems.  This is unsurprising.

Do you have a root cause or not?

You can try spend a bit of time chasing a root cause.  Maybe solving the mental health is the key to solving all the problems that involve talking to other people which includes the finance, the substances and can get you on your way.  Maybe learning a skill and becoming employable is enough to solve the finance problems which will enable the rest of the problems to resolve.  But beyond the early hacks its time to reduce the wishful thinking to something more realistic.

If you don’t have a root cause.  Several problems are independent enough that you need a different tack.

Dealing with several problems is a lot like dealing with several fires.  Your life is metaphorically burning down right now.  On the one hand – you might be able to put out one fire, but by the time you are done with that it’s not like the whole house hasn’t burnt down, making all your efforts on the wrong fire pointless*.

On the other hand if you spend the whole time not extinguishing any fires and only keeping them manageable, chances are you will never get on top of things.

So what can you do?

*Some problems may only feel like they are burning things down, if you have any ability to discern that they are not actually burning down, or maybe at least not getting worse, this can maybe help you prioritise the dangerous problems.

Some ways to think about this might include checking in on the consequences of you doing nothing about the problem for a while.  For example the problem of feeling lonely.  By not doing something about the problem you probably won’t get more lonely than already “too lonely for my liking”.  Feeling suicidal because you feel lonely might make this a problem worth dealing with right away.

So which is it?  Make a list of the problems, consider which ones are higher priorities and then…

Some things will get worse

Pick one thing to work on.  The ideal thing is neither to solve each problem until it’s perfect (remember perfect is the enemy of the good), nor to deal an insignificant blow to it that it’s just managing the flames.

If you do this, I guarantee the other problems on the list will get worse.  It is an unfortunate conclusion that things will go from bad to worse before getting better.  Let’s say you work on your finance.  Mental health might flare up in the meantime.  You can probably spend a little extra effort fixing finance before stopping to calm the mental health problem.  It’s going to also need your attention soon.

No one but you can really say what you should be working on most.  If they all seem equally like the biggest problem, they probably are.  Don’t spend forever picking which one to work on.  Being equally important means that they are equally valuable to solve.  It doesn’t matter which one you solve or which one you work on first.  Working on one is far better than working on none.

Pick one problem.  Take a good stab at it.  Try to define what, “a few steps forward” would look like.  Accept the fact that other problems will get worse or go bad.  And you are not working on them.  So be it.

Pick one problem.  Get somewhere.  Pick the next problem.  Get somewhere.

There is probably not an easy way to solve all your problems.  That’s why this post is called working with, and not “gotta fix em all”.  This can’t be done over night.  but maybe you can do it the hard way…

Social progress

No one is going to understand if you say, “I know I am broke but I want to work on dieting first”.  No one is going to stop you either.  s’your life, it’s already got problems..  Using social support is one of the best things you can do for yourself.  Tell people what you are working on, ask for a little help and try to learn from what happens.

Track details

If you take this medication does it actually help?  Are you getting enough sleep?  On a scale of 1-10 how did you find today?  Ask yourself these questions and more.  Then write down the answers.  Asking the question helps, answering helps more, looking back at the data helps even more.


At some point you will lament that, “everything is terrible”.  That may be true, and that’s okay for now.  Lament for all the lamenting that you need, stare into the void, hitting rock bottom and feeling like it.  Admitting you have fallen and need to get up.  That is a step on the journey to recovery.  But the worst part about thinking and concluding that everything is terrible is that the idea that everything is terrible doesn’t mean anything.  “everything is terrible” is an applause light, and applause lights only exist in the map.  You want to solve it?  Summaries have their place, but no one solves a problem by thinking about the summaries.

Break things down

At some point you will be asking something as mundane as, “why can’t I go to work”.  Well… Going to work is a larger problem that entails parts of:

  • getting out of bed problems
  • getting presentable problems
  • getting out of the house problems
  • talking to other humans problems
  • convincing yourself that you are not an imposter problems
  • working out how to transport yourself problems
  • managing time problems so you are not late
  • doing your job problems (which are their own category of problems, but there are probably domain experts for that one)
  • eating lunch while at work problems
  • going home problems
  • managing money problems
  • managing medication and substances problems.

Just to name a few.  If someone said to me, “I have an odd problem.  It appears that I am unable to go to work” and were unable to break that down any further (save for the inability to explain themselves) I would be surprised and maybe very very confused.

Is it time to switch to another problem?

I can’t answer that for you, but I can suggest thinking about Value of information, knowing what you know after working on the problem for the period of time that you have already spent on it – is it time to switch?  Or is this still the most urgent or deadly problem?

It is worth asking – how would you know it was time to try the next problem?  Some indication of having this one, under control.

Make a list

Write out your problems.  Ideally consider formatting them as SMART goals. Break them down.  Do the obvious next steps, then re-evaluate.

Next up: making lists

Meta: it’s easier to write things out when your brain is functioning.  This probably took 3 hours or more over 2 days to pull together.  I feel like it’s missing extra insights, advice and development but they will have to come in another post because sitting on this post is bothering me.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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