Want To Achieve More by Working Less? Stack Your Problems How to figure out the right problem to solve so you can stop doing busy work and start doing your lives work

In my previous article, I discussed why it’s more important to make sure you are solving the right problem, rather than doing your work efficiently. If you want to get a $100 bill on the other side of a brick wall, sure it’s more efficient if you bring a sledgehammer. But there is likely another room down the corridor with an open door to a stack of ten $100 bills. Even if you crawled your way to that door, you’d still make more money in less time compared to knocking down the brick wall.

But how do you know whether you are working on the wrong problem? And more importantly, how can you find a better problem to solve instead?

The answer is a technique I call problem stacking. The way it works is that you start with your current problem, and then ask:

“What outcome am I trying to achieve by solving this problem?”

Then you keep asking this question five times to uncover the root problem you are trying to solve. For example, this is how problem stacking would have looked like for me while I was building the online math academy Eureka:

Me: “I’m so busy this morning because I need to…

  1. Email hundreds of college students. What outcome am I trying to achieve by emailing hundreds of college students?

  2. To get more volunteers to contribute to Eureka. What outcome am I trying to achieve by getting more volunteers?

  3. To get more math courses for the Eureka website. What outcome am I trying to achieve by getting more math courses?”

  4. To build an online math academy to help understimulated students realize their potential in problem-solving. What outcome am I trying to achieve by building an online math academy?

  5. To create something that impacts as many people as possible as deeply as possible, and that leaves a lasting legacy. What outcome do I aim to achieve by impacting many people?

  6. To feel that my life had a purpose.

When you keep asking: “What outcome am I trying to achieve?” five times, you eventually arrive at the true reason for why you do what you do. Why was I sitting hunched over my computer and firing off emails, rather than doing something more enjoyable? Because I wanted my life to have a purpose.

This is the point of problem stacking, to help you:

  1. Step back and examine what you actually are trying to accomplish, and
  2. Evaluate whether your current approach is an efficient way to accomplish that goal.

In my case, my problem stack had two critical weak links.

First, cold-emailing hundreds of college students was an incredibly inefficient approach to getting people to sign up as volunteers. Why? Because 99% of the people I was emailing hadn’t themselves experienced the pain point I was asking them to help, so they had no motivation to contribute their time for free. Also, they didn’t know me, so they also didn’t have any motivation to contribute just as a kind friendship gesture. After 40 hours of emailing, I had gotten just one volunteer to write one math course. It would have been faster to write the course material myself.

I instead started to reach out to a few people I had personally met at math contests. That took me just 1 hour of messaging, but I got several volunteers that ended up writing a total of five math courses. I went from 1 math course per 40 hours of work to 5 math courses per 1 hour of work. Changing the problem from: “Email hundreds of college students”, to: “Send targeted requests to people in my own network” made my productivity multiply 200 times!

The second weak link in my problem stack, however, went much deeper. The reason I started Eureka was to: “Create something that impacts as many people as possible as deeply as possible, and that leaves a lasting legacy.” But would an online math academy for understimulated students allow me to good impact many people at scale?

The honest answer was “no”. There were just too few people who would want that service. And even if I created the world’s best math website for them, would that impact their lives in a profound way? Again, the answer was “no”.

This realization hit me shortly after the Eureka website went live. By this point, I had poured more than one thousand hours into making this vision a reality. But all this time, I had not realized that I was working on the wrong problem. Eureka was never going to achieve the scale and depth of impact that I desired. So a few months after going live, I decided to stop working on Eureka entirely.

I don’t regret having started Eureka at all. It was an incredible learning experience that taught me both grit and how to communicate a vision that inspires others to join. But could I have realized that my ladder was pointing toward the wrong wall a lot sooner? Absolutely. In fact, it was this process of problem stacking that helped me understand that Eureka wasn’t the right problem to solve. But had I only done it earlier, I would have saved myself hundreds of hours that I’m never getting back.

Do you want to achieve more by working less?
Then stack your problems.

Do you want to replace your busy work with your life’s work?
Then stack your problems.

Do you want to make a difference and also have time to enjoy life?
Then stack your problems.

And how do you stack your problems? Just pick any problem you are currently facing, and then ask:

“What outcome am I trying to achieve by solving this problem?”

Ask that question five times to uncover the core problem you are trying to solve. Then step back to examine whether your problem stack is strong at every point, from the base to the top.

If you discover that one of the problems in your stack is actually not a good way to achieve the outcome you want, then you must:

  1. Replace the weak problem with a stronger one.

  2. Rebuild a completely new stack of problems on top of the one you replaced.

This means that everything you have built on top of the weak problem must go as well. Once I realized that a math academy was the wrong problem for me to solve, it didn’t matter how many volunteers I managed to recruit. It didn’t matter if I built the best math website the world had ever seen. Because it would never achieve the outcome I set out to accomplish: “Create something that impacts as many people as possible as deeply as possible, and that leaves a lasting legacy.” The only right thing for me to do was to stop working on Eureka, and instead find a better organization to build.

This kind of deep change is painful. But the sooner we make it, the sooner we can stop wasting our time doing busy work – and start doing our lives work.

What change will you make once you begin asking: “What outcome am I trying to achieve?” five times?

Change Your Questions – Change Your Life: Part 4 Be aware of what’s happening around you – but focus on what you can do

We all have a large circle of things that are outside our control, and a smaller circle of things that are inside our control. I believe we should be aware of the large circle, but that we should focus on the small circle – what we can control.

To illustrate, let me share a story from the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where the author Stephen Covey talks about a strategy seminar he held for a struggling business:

“I was working with a group of people in the home-improvement industry. A heavy recession was taking a toll on their business, and they were discouraged as we began the seminar.

The first day, we talked about: “What’s happening to us?” The basic answer was that they were laying off their friends just to survive. The group finished their first day even more discouraged.

On the second day, we talked about: “What’s going to happen in the future?” They concluded things were going to get worse before they improved. They were more depressed than ever.

On the third day, we focused on the proactive question: “What is our response?”. In the morning, we brainstormed ways of managing better and cutting costs. In the afternoon, we talked about how to increase our market share.

By concentrating on a few doable things, everyone was able to wrap up the meeting with a new spirit of excitement and hope, eager to get back to work. We all had faced reality, and discovered we had the power to choose a positive response.”

Lesson: Focus your questions on what you can do to improve the situation. Have 25% of your questions be about the larger circle, so that you understand what is happening around you. But then focus the rest 75% of your questions on what you can do about it.


Some proactive questions to add to your vocabulary:

  • What is my goal?

  • What do I need?

  • What can I do?

  • What are my options?

  • What are my unique strengths?

  • What can I learn from this?

  • What if I…?

  • What’s possible?


If we focus more on such proactive questions when faced with challenges, I believe we can avoid digging ourselves further down into the hole, and instead see the best way to climb out of it.