My 12 favorite problems

I get a lot of ideas from podcasts lately. I sort of rediscovered them years after an initial foray into some true crime series when Serial was the cultural phenomenon. Based on a recommendation from a fellow productivity nerdette, I started listening to Hurry Slowly on my daily walks (which is more about exploring your true nature than it is about getting things done), and that led me down a podcast rabbit hole.

Among my favorites on the productivity spectrum is the Focused podcast. While they definitely discuss their systems and tools, it is really more about how to focus on what matters in life. The tools and systems all support that central intention.

It was on Focused that I first heard about defining one’s “12 favorite problems.”

It’s not a problem

The word problem is somewhat problematic. When I hear “favorite problem,” I think, “well, I don’t really like problems, usually.” But that’s not the kind of problem we’re talking about. A problem is not, in fact, an irrevocable deficiency.

A favorite problem is something you like working on and thinking about. For example, one of my favorite problems is, “What infrastructure or system do I need to support meaningful work?” Thus my nearly obsessive consumption of productivity podcasts. I enjoy thinking about and experimenting with infrastructure and systems. I like tweaking and optimizing systems. There is no one right answer or definite solution, but over time I learn what works for me and what doesn’t.

Perhaps a better way to frame “12 favorite problems” is “12 favorite things to think about or spend energy on.” That’s how I’m thinking about it anyway. These are not necessarily things that will ever be solved or finished, but the are the things I care about enough to put some attention toward them on a regular basis.

I’ve got 99 problems, and here are 12

  1. What have I learned that I can teach or share with others?
  2. How can I cultivate a meaningful network of close friendships? Who are my people? Where’s my community?
  3. Where and when is the right place and time for us to retire?
  4. What are the best ways for me to optimize my physical and mental health and wellbeing?
  5. What is my path to financial independence and lifelong security?
  6. What can I write and publish that will mean something to others?
  7. What infrastructure or system do I need to support meaningful work?
  8. How can I integrate more visual art-making into my life?
  9. How can my work contribute to a better world (justice, equality, preservation of nature, human thriving and innovation)?
  10. What do I need to live a simplified, uncluttered life?
  11. How can I break the cycle of comfort consumption?
  12. What is my important and interesting work?

Our brains like problems. Go for a little while without something to mentally chew on and you’ll find yourself bored, listless, driven to distraction. By writing down your 12 favorite problems, you can give your brain an enticing snack—and you may just find some new ideas or better ways to live.

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