This 3-Minute Exercise Will Change the Way You Solve Problems
‘Structured thinking’ is about building a big answer by asking many small questions
How much toilet paper is sold in France each year? How many miles of train tracks are there in Germany? What percentage of people are standing up versus sitting or lying down at 9:45 a.m. in the United States?
In job interviews, you may face a brain teaser like one of these. “What’s the point of guessing the answer to a question when you can just take five seconds and Google it?” you might wonder. The purpose isn’t to make you sweat and scream curse words in your head, but rather to test your capacity for structured thinking and your ability to use logic, practice deduction, and build a big answer by asking many small questions.
With structured thinking, you methodically break down problems and solve them piece by piece, rather than worrying, relying on past assumptions, or shrugging in absolute cluelessness. Neil deGrasse Tyson once told a hypothetical story about asking two job candidates the same question: How tall is the spire on the building they’re in? In this scenario, one candidate happens to know the answer. The other steps outside, measures the building’s shadow against her own, and gives a rough estimate. “Who are you gonna hire?” Tyson said. “I’m hiring the person who figured it out. ’Cause that person knows how to use the mind in a way not previously engaged.”
Anyone can improve their structured thinking with practice. The best thing to do is ask yourself pointless questions, ones you can’t easily find the answers to online. Writer Hannah Yang shares a prompt that should take you about three minutes to figure out: How many customers visit your favorite restaurant every year? Here, I’ll give it a shot.
I live in Munich. My favorite restaurant is Lemongrass, a Vietnamese place around the corner.
First, I’ll start with what I know: I know 1.5 million people live in Munich. I’ll assume two-thirds live in the city center. That’s 1 million. Is this accurate? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that making an assumption allows me to further break down the problem. Then I can iterate from there.
- There are about 10 neighborhoods in the city. That’s 100,000 people per neighborhood — so that many live reasonably close to Lemongrass.
- If a person eats out every lunch and dinner, that’s 14 meals out per week. Knowing myself and other young professionals, 10 times isn’t a stretch. Older people and families with young kids don’t do so as much, and others don’t eat out at all. So a conservative average is three times a week. That’s 300,000 meals eaten in restaurants in my neighborhood each week.
- There are about 100 restaurants in our area. If meals were spread equally, that’d be 3,000 meals per restaurant.
- Now, it’s time for some vetting. Can Lemongrass serve 3,000 people per week? The restaurant is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s 84 hours. The place holds 25 people, and food is served quickly, within five minutes on average. At 100% capacity, they could serve 125 meals per hour, or 10,500 meals per week. Even if the place is full only 30% of the time, serving 3,000 customers per week is doable.
- Let’s say Lemongrass is closed two weeks out of the year for vacations or holidays. At 50 weeks, that’s 150,000 customers per year.
I started with big numbers and moved into smaller ones, but you could also do the opposite. Starting on either end works.
Is this answer 100% correct? Definitely not. Is it in the right order of magnitude? Probably. Based only on your limited experience, you can learn from extrapolations. For Lemongrass, we can now find potential problems and perhaps even solutions to those problems.
Structured thinking isn’t just smart — it’s innovative. The word “structure” makes it sound like you’re removing the creativity from your thinking process. Actually, the opposite is true. Creativity thrives on rules. Within boundaries, your thoughts can roam freely and build on top of one another.
With structured thinking, you can become an innovative problem-solver, which you can benefit from throughout your life. After all, as Tyson put it: “When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”