99 Problems at Work? Try the One-Pound Strategy

Sometimes our problems look so big that whittling them down seems impossible. It may be time to stop focusing on The Solution and take it one pound at a time.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read

True confession—my heart’s bleeding, and it’s for Jay-Z. Sure his life and wife look all sorts of glam, but let’s get real—he’s got 99 problems. The internet says, so it must be true.

Ah, problems. They’re all around us, haunting and taunting us without an ounce of shame. Much like Jay, we’ve all got ‘em in every facet of our lives. My expertise doesn’t qualify me to advise on who you date, what you should binge-watch on Netflix, or whether or not to go paleo, but I'm never shy about diving into a conversation on solving problems in the workplace.

Everyone has problems at work

In my practice, I hear all sorts of issues plaguing those around the water cooler. Comments like:

  • I have 17 hours of meetings today and I still have to get that brief written up
  • I am so bored in my job. Every day feels like I’m on autopilot
  • My big project is totally stuck because everything is caught up in an approval process and I can’t move forward

Any of these sounds familiar, or even familiar-adjacent? If yes, we’ve all been there with you. And if no, please give me a call—QDT may need you to host your own podcast on living problem-free!

No one gets through their working life without problems. And while it's nice to know you're not alone in your workplace struggles, what do you do about them? Many of us groan and grumble around the water cooler to blow off steam and then rage-eat the stale donuts leftover from the morning’s staff meeting (definitely not paleo, btw). But then what?

Finding solutions is hard work. Unless … the word “solution” is actually the problem.

Are we too focused on solutions?

At a client organization several months ago, I was talking to a product manager named Liz. No disrespect, but poor Liz was not looking well. Under-eye circles, chewed-up cuticles … Liz bore all the signs of burnout.

I sat down with her and she showed me her calendar. It looked unwell, too. Overlapping colored boxes showing meetings on top of meetings. No wonder Liz barely had the will to move.

I said “Liz ... that’s a lot. Is there maybe just one meeting you have this week that you can find a way to opt out of? Like, literally, just one?”

Do you know what Liz said? “I don’t think that’s really a solution.”

Solutions are all around us, often disguised in one-pound increments.

I invited Liz to sit by me while I told her a quick story, and I promised that, in the end, it would be relevant. Because she was too tired to move anyway, Liz was a captive audience. So I told her about something I'd recently read. It was about a man who, after many failed attempts at losing 100 pounds, finally found a path to sustainable success.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a magic diet. It was a massive mindset shift.

His big ah-ha was this: He finally stopped trying to lose the mind-boggling total of 100 pounds. Instead, he set out on a quest to lose 1 pound. And then repeat that victory 99 times.

A not-at-all-overweight and somewhat perplexed Liz eyed me warily. Fair enough. But here was my point: If we continue to challenge ourselves to find The Solution, then we'll continue to be disappointed. Solutions are all around us, often disguised in one-pound increments.

Did I believe that crossing a single meeting off of her horror-movie of a calendar would solve Liz's problem? I didn’t. But I did think it could have the potential to be that first pound, that first tiny victory upon whose momentum she might build.

That created precisely the momentum she needed. Having shed that first corporate pound, she felt great. She tasted success and she wanted more.

So let me tell you: She did it. That week she found one single meeting in which she was going to be nothing more than a fly on the wall. She told the organizer she’d be unable to attend, but asked that he shoot her a few summary points after the meeting, which he graciously did.

And that created precisely the momentum she needed. Having shed that first corporate pound, she felt great. She tasted success and she wanted more.

So she started challenging herself to do more of the same. Each week, she targeted a handful of meetings that seemed extraneous or irrelevant and she worked her muscle memory. Now, several months later, I won't say that her calendar is so full of holes that it looks like Swiss cheese, but on average, she has easily freed up about 5-7 hours per month that she's been able to put fabulous use.

Liz hasn’t "solved" anything, per se. But she has created a win worth celebrating. And she has flipped her mindset. Now, when a meeting invitation arrives, rather than defaulting to yes, she defaults to no unless she can articulate to herself a need to be there.

How to use the one-pound strategy

So, how can those of us facing other challenges leverage the one-pound strategy?

Let’s return to our friend at the water cooler who is nearly falling down from boredom, feeling like he’s running on autopilot. I'll call him Fred.

The 100-pound solution might be to look for a new job. But landing a new gig requires that opportunity come knocking. And although Fred can look for a way out, ultimately he doesn't have complete control over whether opportunity shows up on his doorstep or not.

What are some 1-pound solutions he might consider to add a bit of sizzle back into his day?

  • He could identify a new skill he wants to learn and find ways to begin developing it. Whether through in-person training, online learning, reading a book, finding a peer mentor, or shadowing someone in the company, there are many creative ways to begin to grow a new skill. And learning brings new energy.
  • He might volunteer for a task force or a cross-team project. Getting involved in something bigger than our day-to-day while also getting exposure to colleagues in other parts of the business can spark fresh energy.
  • Or he might try new ways of doing old things. Can he find a small new efficiency in the work he’s already doing? Can he automate something or take a fresh approach to the work? Sometimes the boredom comes not from the work itself, but from the routines we let ourselves fall into. Finding one routine to break will provide that first tiny taste of victory.

If you want to make a change, stop focusing on a big, overarching solution and take it one pound at a time. Think about the challenges at work that send you running most frequently for the Advil. Ask yourself, what could a one-pound solution look like for me?

Remember, victory isn’t binary. We aren’t either winning or losing. Every incremental improvement we make deserves its own celebration. Even if it’s just a paleo donut.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.