Optimize your life with 25 tools and tricks of an engineer.
Engineers have two objectives in life: solve problems and create the future. Funny enough, these are the same missions that most of us are trying to address when tackling the challenges in our own lives. We want answers and solutions. We want to beat the odds and overcome our weaknesses. We simply want more out of life. Thankfully, we can take advantage of the same tools that engineers use to design the world and apply them to ourselves, with or without the degree.
Here are 25 methods that engineers use to approach all of life’s problems:
1) Identify the Problem/Goal
The first step to solving any problem is to understand which problem you’re trying to solve. It’s like marking your destination so you can choose the correct path to get there. Engineers spend most of their time up front studying the problem at hand or brainstorming the future of what something could be. Before you jump ahead to potential solutions, focus on identifying your problem (or goal) and its source.
2) Define your Requirements
Now that you understand the problem, you need to determine what success looks like. What are you looking for in a solution? If you were designing an aircraft, you’d need to know how many seats you’d need, how far you’d need to go, and how much you could spend. If you’re searching for a new phone plan, you’ll need to determine how many minutes you’ll need, what features you want, and your monthly budget. Knowing your requirements helps you to rule out poor solutions later on so you can focus on comparing the ones that fulfill your needs.
3) Employ Project Management Techniques
The Project Management Institute breaks up projects into the following phases: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring/Controlling, and Closing. Engineers typically follow this process to focus on the different aspects of projects throughout their lifecycle. When solving a problem, treat it as a project: define your problem, develop a plan, take action, track your progress, and verify that you’ve achieved success.
4) Build a Knowledge Foundation
Whether facing a new subject or one you’ve known for years, it’s always best to base a solution on a solid foundation. Engineers use physics, calculus, and other elemental principles as building blocks for complex designs. You too can study the basics of the problem at hand, be it personal finance, nutrition, or time management. Look for beginner’s resources or even Wikipedia to get started.
5) Determine the Unknowns
It is just as important to know what you don’t know as it is to know what you do know. Unknowns equal risks, confusion, and procrastination. When engineers highlight their unknowns, they can make reasonable assumptions for them or identify points of further research. You can do the same by jotting down questions you have as they come up and then following through. In my experience, recognizing the information I’m missing and taking action on it is the best way to break out of being “stuck”.
Research has become an intelligent word for “look stuff up on the internet”. While every engineer has spent their days in a library poring over books, information is much more freely accessible by a quick web search. Once you have your goal and understand the basic concepts, start researching solutions that have worked for others or ideas for your own unique improvement. Take notes and brainstorm as you go. Set a limit (per day, or overall) so you don’t get caught in an endless research loop, but give yourself ample time to do your due diligence.
7) Establish Milestones
Large projects are frequently broken up into phases. Each phase has its own milestone, typically producing a form of deliverable and/or a review of the progress thus far. For example, at the end of a design phase a team may produce a final blueprint drawing and review it against the requirements. For a weight loss resolution, we may set milestones at the end of each month to introduce short-term goals and enable motivating rewards along the way.
8) Define Phased Approaches
Sometimes we don’t have the resources to solve our problems all at once. The Space Launch System is currently being designed as a base model that will be upgraded once it has proven itself and a larger budget is available. Similarly, when paying off debt, sometimes it helps to start off at an allowable level and then increase payments as income increases. Phased approaches let us focus on achievable goals while we plan for future updates.
9) Collect Data
Engineers love data. Whether quantitative or qualitative, data is the core to developing solutions. It’s more than just numbers in a spreadsheet; data is the information we derive from researching and testing that tells us whether or not we’re succeeding. The more data you can collect, the more you can learn about both your problem and your potential solutions. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, data like weight, calorie intake, body fat percentage, and exercise intensity can be measured to learn where to make the best changes. Data is key to accomplishing SMART goals.
10) Focus on Facts
While data is typically objective, other information doesn’t have to be. It is important to focus on the confirmed facts over speculation and opinion when solving a problem. This is just as crucial in performing biomedical research as it is in learning where to invest your savings. Look at the source of the information you’re getting and verify that their recommendations are based on fact.
Dry erase boards are our friends. Sketching, in any form, let’s us creatively illustrate ideas and form connections. Sometimes it helps to make a model of a potential solution, much like engineers build prototypes to test assumptions before plunging all of their funding into a full-build. If you invest all of your resources into a solution that doesn’t meet your requirements, you’ll waste all that effort. However, if you take the time to create a sample first, you can make changes as you go. Also, we are highly tangible beings. We better understand that which we can see and touch. So get to the drawing board, sketch to your heart’s content, and create samples until you find the right solution.
Engineers often view life as a giant experiment. We form hypothesis, create test beds, and experiment to see if our hypothesis are true. Experiment mentality works in the real world too however. There are dozens of weight loss strategies that have worked for different people, but in order to find the right one for you you’ll need to run a series of “tests” to determine which are the most effective. Try a strategy for a month, analyze the data collected, compare progress, and adjust as necessary or try a new strategy. Everything can become an experiment in optimization.
13) Run Trade Studies
Trade studies are used when engineers need to compare a series of potential solutions in order to determine which is best for the given problem. Unfortunately, this answer isn’t always east since we must always weigh competing constraints such as quality, cost, and schedule. Different decision matrices and trade study formats exist to help us make the best quantitative-based decisions (my favorite is AHP). At a basic level, make a chart and compare the features of each of your solutions against the requirements you defined at the beginning. Whichever meets your needs and provides the most advantages is your winner.
14) Create Checklists
From planning out items to research to implementing instructions for operating new technology, we thrive on checklists. They clear our heads and affirm that we’ve acknowledged all necessary actions. They are also handy for contingency plans should something go awry. Let’s say you’re trying to improve your family’s preparedness: you could create checklists for items to pack in an emergency, important family documents, and annual maintenance checks in your home.
15) Build Kits
“Kitting” is a practice used by engineers and other professions to assemble all of the materials you need to complete a project in advance and in one location. A kit for assembling a spacecraft door may include the frame, the hatch, and the installation bolts. A kit for going to the gym may include workout clothes, a towel, a water bottle, and extra sneakers. Create kits for as many of your daily routines as possible and you’ll be sure to improve your efficiency and pick up a few extra minutes in your day.
16) Develop Algorithms
Algorithms are essentially logic statements that can be as simple as “if this, then that”. By definition they are a series of step-by-step operations, and are frequently used in mathematics and engineering development. You can employ it too, however, by using them to create contingency plans. For example, if you miss a workout, you can put in an exercise DVD at home. If you leave your planner at home, you can type your three to dos in your phone. Algorithms can also be more complex, such as filing system flows like the GTD method.
17) Use the “5 Whys”
“5 Whys” is a concept used to determine the root cause of an issue. You start by asking yourself why something went wrong, and then keep asking yourself “why” until you’ve reached the true cause (and it doesn’t always take all five). Issue: birds leave a mess all over the Jefferson Memorial. Why? Because they sit on the memorial. Why? Because there are gnats in the area. Why? Because the lights are left on overnight. In this case, instead of focusing on the birds themselves, you can see that by turning off the lights, you’ll reduce both the gnats and the birds and thus the mess. When faced with an issue keep asking yourself questions until you’re satisfied you understand the root of the problem, and then address the root.
18) Organize with Six Sigma
Six Sigma is a set of tools used for process improvements across a wide array of industries. Engineers use the techniques to reduce defects in their products and improve efficiency. One of the simplest techniques is its focus on organization. The idea is to create labeled “parking lots” for every item you need to store, and then place those spots near their point of use. This can mean trays in desk drawers, cubby holes for shoes, or even foam shadow boxes for tools. Never waste time looking for anything again.
Engineers love to optimize and improve everything. If it’s not broken, they’ll just take it apart and try to make it better. The same concept can be applied to most areas of our lives. Sometimes we feel discontented not because something is actually wrong, but because we want to experience more out of life. Perhaps certain tasks can be done more efficiently, or we want faster progress. Look for ways to make even small improvements over time.
20) Integrate Tasks
Engineers know that all knowledge areas of projects are interdependent: quality, cost, schedule, etc. The same is true for our regular lives. How we feel at work trickles down to how we act at home and thus how we relate with our families. When solving a problem, it is best to remember that everything interacts. This can be a major advantage however when you solve key problems. For example, learning to meal plan can lead you to cook more meals at home, reduce your grocery budget, and eat healthier.
21) Become a Subject Matter Expert (SME)
Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are the go-to people when you have questions on a subject, such as a computer program or mechanical system. When solving a problem or improving a process, you can learn to become the master of that problem. Then, when someone else faces that same issue down the line, you are equipped to pass down your knowledge and help them.
22) Document Everything
Documentation is key. Notes, sketches, brainstorming sessions, draft copies, samples, and data are all items that you should keep on hand while working towards your goals and save for future reference once you’ve solved your problem. This way, if you’re ever faced with a similar issue or you’re looking to improve your solution, you will remember your original thought process.
23) Validate against Requirements
Once you think you’ve found your solution, you need to check to see if it really meets your original requirements. Engineers do this through full-scale testing, dress rehearsals, and reviews. Take a look at what you wrote down initially for your project and compare it to what you’ve come up with. If it doesn’t meet your requirements, either check them for feasibility or keep working at it.
24) Question Everything
One of the identifying signs of an engineer is their habit of questioning everything. Questioning leads you to test assumptions, challenge existing norms, and gain deeper understanding of life. One of the greatest joys is in starting down a research path based on a single questions and seeing where it leads you. The search is a thrill in and of itself.
25) Always Keep Learning
Whether it seems things are going great for you or perhaps not as well as you’d like, always keep learning. There are always new skills to develop, new books to read, and new concepts to comprehend. We advance as a civilization on the shoulders of those who are in constant pursuit of knowledge. Be one of those giants, and always keep learning.
I hope this list of tools, methods, and techniques will give you some new ideas to “engineer” your life. If you’d like to know more about any of these methods, please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.