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How to reframe (and solve) a tricky life problem

Introduce yourself to the concept of “gravity” vs. “anchor” problems.

An illustration in bright colors shows two identical people in blue pants and white shirts, walking through two different red doors with arrows next to them. The left door opens to the left, and the right door opens to the right. KIMI for Vox

Most of us have found ourselves staring down a life problem that makes us feel like we’re absolutely trapped. You ruminate and look for solutions, but the whole affair is mired in a feeling of constraint. Just thinking about the problem can cause a tight feeling in your chest, as though you’re being squeezed by giant rubber bands, or feelings of numbness or stomach upset.

When this happens, you may be dealing with an “anchor problem” or a “gravity problem.” This terminology comes from Dave Evans and Bill Burnett, co-authors of the book Designing Your Life and co-founders of the Stanford Life Design Lab, who form a useful framework for breaking out of that hellish loop.

Anchor problems tend to occur when we’ve turned an assumed answer into a question. Evans offered me this example: Now in his late 60s, he has found love again after his wife died several years ago, and he may wonder whether he wants to write a book about, as he put it, “two old people falling in love.” This kind of question restricts Evans’s options because it assumes that he has to turn his experience into a book. Instead, he might release that “anchor” — it has to be a book — and in doing so, open himself up to different solutions. “I might ask a question like, this experience has been so life-giving. What do you want to do with that story? A book is one outcome,” says Evans.

Gravity problems are defined by immovable circumstances, either because they’re beyond your control or because you’re not willing to change them. Here, Evans generously pulled from his own life again: He lives in Santa Cruz, and his sweetheart is, depending on the day, about 75 minutes up the coast in San Francisco. “I really want to stick with this partnership, but I don’t want to have to change my lifestyle,” he said. “That’s a gravity problem.” These kinds of problems require you to accept the situation and find a way to compromise or work around it — splitting time between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, for instance.

Not all problems fall into the categories of gravity and anchor problems. They’re just two types of problems that have a special ability to make you feel stuck. Fortunately, the key to dealing with both anchor and gravity problems is acceptance, followed by reframing the problem to make it more actionable, then prototyping solutions to figure out what really works for you. “Then there’s a feeling of expansiveness, like your chest blows open,” Burnett told me. “There’s a rush of endorphins, because you see possibilities.”

Acceptance can be its own problem, too.

Before you can start brainstorming solutions to your problem, you have to accept that you want to make a change in your life. “‘Accept’ is probably the hardest part,” says Burnett. When it comes to gravity problems in particular, a lot of us find comfort in believing that we’re simply unable to achieve the thing we want, because that allows us to keep our dream in pristine condition — untouched by compromise or the threat of real-life failure.

Acceptance is also difficult to maintain. When you start prototyping solutions to your problem, you may find that the journey is much more challenging than expected, and you may sink into wishing that your circumstances were different. (Why can’t I have gotten into a relationship with someone who lives in my city?) “When you fall out of ‘accept,’ you’re back to stuck,” says Burnett.

To make acceptance a little easier, Burnett suggests thinking of it as a short-term deal: You don’t have to accept your circumstances for the rest of your life, you just have to accept them while you’re running a three-week experiment.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that acceptance is not endorsement. For a young person who’s fresh out of school with a desire to change the world and a mountain of student loans, it’s okay to accept that your priority is to get a job that will help you pay off your debt faster, rather than one focused on activism or creativity. “It doesn’t mean that you accept anything that’s wrong in the world, it just means it’s not your time to make it the sole focus of your career and life,” says Burnett.

Burnett and Evans share a background in engineering and product design, and in their books and Stanford courses, they apply the tenets of formal design thinking to finding your way through your life and career. As they like to put it, design happens in reality. “Acceptance is the door into reality,” says Evans.

Reframe, then buckle up for prototyping.

If you have an anchor problem on your hands, you’ve probably buried an answer inside your question, and in doing so, severely limited the options available to you. In order to move forward, reframe the question so that there’s no answer hidden inside it. “Do I want to go back to school to become a therapist?” might become: “How can I channel my desire to be of service to others?”

If you have a gravity problem, the reframe may simply involve accepting your constraints and moving on with your life, or it may mean figuring out how you can work around them. Say you want to earn a living as a poet. “They’re not paying poets really well right now,” says Evans. “What are the most commercially viable forms of creative writing going on in the post-internet world? That’s an actual question. As opposed to: How do I make $200,000 a year as a poet?”

Once you’ve reframed your quandary, brainstorm solutions and come up with at least three options that you can commit to testing out. Prototyping is a key part of Evans and Burnett’s approach to design, because it allows you to fail and learn. As you run each experiment, pay attention to how it’s working and how it feels.

There are two classic types of prototypes, according to Burnett and Evans. One is a mock-up, where you actually do the activity or simulate it in as realistic a way as possible. (If you’re considering joining your long-distance honey in the city where they live, you could spend your next visit only doing the mundane activities that would comprise your everyday life there.)

The second form of prototyping involves talking to people who already have the kind of lived experience that you’re after. “By hearing their story, you get this thing called narrative resonance. You know when you have two tuning forks and you hit one and the other starts vibrating? If there’s something about their story that feels true to you, you’ll feel it,” says Burnett.

Remember that prototyping is an iterative process. “You’re moving yourself to the next place, getting some data about that place, figuring out what your next options are, and moving to the next place, until eventually you solve it,” Burnett says. But even though getting to that solution can involve a significant amount of work, Burnett and Evans find that the prototyping process tends to give people an energetic boost, inspiring feelings of curiosity and engagement. It’s the exact opposite of feeling stuck.

Eliza Brooke is a freelance journalist covering design, culture, and entertainment.

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