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What is problem-solving?
Signs of problems with planning and problem-solving
What can I do about planning and problem-solving?

What is problem-solving?

As well as being able to take in and store information, our brain performs a whole range of other thinking processes. Many of these happen without us being aware of them, known as automatic processes. Together, many of these automatic processes are known as executive function.

Executive function isn't just about planning and problem-solving. It includes all the things that allow us to organise, make decisions and know when we need to do something. It also involves the way we monitor what's going on around us and adjust what we think and do in response to it.

Signs of planning and problem-solving problems

If a stroke affects your executive function, you may not be able to:

  • Work out how to do certain things. This could be a task that seems quite simple like changing the channel on the TV remote control, or it could be more complicated, like making a meal.
  • Plan how to complete a task. You may not be able to think of all the steps that are needed to do something, such as making a cup of tea, or put the steps in the correct order.
  • Begin or finish a task on your own. You may not realise that you need to do something, like get dressed, until someone tells you, or you may need someone to prompt you throughout a task to help you to complete it.
  • Solve problems on your own. You may not be able to work out what to do if something goes wrong.
  • Do more than one thing at a time (multitask). You may find it hard to switch between tasks, and remember where you were with each task.

What can I do about my planning and problem-solving?

Practise, practise, practise

Planning and problem-solving can be improved, but only with lots and lots of practice. Your occupational therapist or clinical neuropsychologist can help you decide what activities to focus on, as it will be different for everyone.

Once you've mastered one task, like making a sandwich, you'll move on to more difficult ones, like cooking a meal.

Keep to a routine

Dressing yourself in the same order every day will make it easier for you to relearn the steps and spot when you miss one.

Developing a weekly routine can also help. If you know that Tuesday is washing day or Wednesday is shopping day it will prompt you to do these things.

A daily timetable may also be useful. This can be especially helpful if you have problems getting motivated, also known as apathy, which is common after a stroke

Use prompts and reminders

Write out instructions or checklists for you to follow when you do something.

Stick up notes around the house to remind you of things that you may not think of on your own, like brushing your teeth.

You could use brightly coloured stickers on the microwave or remote control to remind you which buttons to press.

Prompts don't have to be written – use pictures or recordings instead. Some people make up songs or acronyms to help them remember how to do things.

Talk it through

It can help to talk through a task with someone before you do it, so that you can think of and sort all the steps in your head before you do it.

Also think about what could go wrong, so that you know what you need to do in case it happens.

'The best people to do things with are the kids. They don't judge and can break down the tasks because they are still learning themselves. I practised planning by baking fairy cakes.' Cath

Find out more about cognitive problems after stroke.