Do you have a circuit that doesn’t work?
Do you feel you’ve done everything you could? You’ve reconnected the circuit 100 times, and it still doesn’t work?
You’ve put in so much effort, but still no reward…
How does that feel? Are you starting to feel like building electronic circuits might not be for you?
Don’t worry, I’ve been there.
And I have the solution for you.
The solution is being smart. It’s by not giving in to the feeling of giving up, or the feeling of trying to work harder.
I started out writing this for myself as a reminder for next time. But then I figured, hey – maybe more people could benefit from this.
These tips are a mix of what I’ve learned from experience and from reading about solving problems.
If you really want to get good at problem-solving I highly recommend the book Problem Solving 101 by Ken Watanabe.
You won’t solve your problem using more force
Here’s one of my favorite stories about trying solve a problem by using more effort:
I’m sitting in a quiet room at the Millcroft Inn, a peaceful little place hidden back among the pine trees about an hour out of Toronto. It’s just past noon, late July, and I’m listening to the desperate sounds of a life-or-death struggle going on a few feet away.
There’s a small fly burning out the last of its short life’s energies in a futile attempt to fly through the glass of the windowpane.The whining wings tell the poignant story of the fly’s strategy—try harder.
But it’s not working.
The frenzied effort offers no hope for survival. Ironically, the struggle is part of the trap. It is impossible for the fly to try hard enough to succeed at breaking through the glass. Nevertheless, this little insect has staked its life on reaching its goal through raw effort and determination.
This fly is doomed. It will die there on the window sill.
Across the room, ten steps away, the door is open. Ten seconds of flying time and this small creature could reach the outside world it seeks. With only a fraction of the effort now being wasted, it could be free of this self-imposed trap. The breakthrough possibility is there. It would be so easy.
Why doesn’t the fly try another approach, something dramatically different? How did it get so locked in on the idea that this particular route, and determined effort, offer the most promise for success? What logic is there in continuing, until death, to seek a breakthrough with “more of the same”?
No doubt this approach makes sense to the fly. Regrettably, it’s an idea that will kill.
“Trying harder” isn’t necessarily the solution to achieving more. It may not offer any real promise for getting what you want out of life. Sometimes, in fact, it’s a big part of the problem.
If you stake your hopes for a breakthrough on trying harder than ever, you may kill your chances for success.
Sometimes you’re so eager to solve the problem, so you take action on anything and forget to figure out what the problem really is.
What’s the problem?
Don’t make the same mistake as the fly. Ask yourself:
“What is the problem I’m trying to solve here?”
Try to get to the root of the problem.
On the surface, your problem is that your circuit doesn’t work.
Then you can start reasoning: “I’ve measured the input voltage, so I know that’s right. But can my power supply give enough current for this circuit? Also at peak power draws?”
Try to come up with several specific hypotheses like:
- Maybe the circuit is not connected exactly as in the circuit diagram?
- Maybe one of the components I’m using is a defect?
- Maybe my power supply can’t supply enough?
A great way of finding the specific problems of your circuit is to ask for help.
Sometimes the greatest value of asking for help is not actually in the help you receive, but in the effort you make to explain your problem.
Write down what you think is the problem, how you’ve tried to solve it so far, and what theories you have.
By doing this process you’ll become more clear about the problem itself and you’ll find new ideas for solving the problem.
Even if you don’t know anyone to ask for help, it will be helpful to just write down a request for help.
But it’s always much more effective to be part of a community where you can ask for help, such as Ohmify.
Decide on an action plan
Now it’s time to decide on an action plan to solve your problem.
Is there anything you could do to eliminate some of your hypotheses?
For example, do you think that the integrated circuit you are using is faulty? What about creating a circuit to test it and find out?
Do you think that there’s an error in how you’ve connected your circuit? Well, then you can check that you’ve connected everything right.
Write down an action plan.
Go to work.
Pitfall: Working on the wrong problem
I just wasted a couple of days.
I’m working on a radar project where I need to write a lot of code. And I’m using some undocumented features. It’s a totally new product and the documentation is not complete, so I have several things to battle with.
I was getting some strange data, but I was also getting some data that looked OK…
So, I spent my time trying to develop elaborate filters that could remove the “strange” data I was seeing.
But then – after days of frustration – I decided to chat with the support guys. It turns out the weird data I am getting is not supposed to be there.
And suddenly I realized I was working on the wrong problem:
I don’t need to develop filters to remove strange data, I need to find the source of the strange data and fix it.
With that in mind, ask yourself:
“Am I working on the right problem?”
Maybe the problem you’re working on disappears when you solve the “correct” problem.
Need help with your circuit?
If you’re new to the world of building electronics, finding the correct problem to work on (and the solution) isn’t always easy.
Ohmify, my exclusive electronics builder club, is a place you can get help.
You’ll learn electronics from scratch and you’ll get help with building your own projects. It also includes Build-instructions to practice building things like a robot, a music amplifier, a simple synthesizer, a touch sensor, and much more.
I usually don’t have time to give elaborate answers to emails I receive (because I receive so many), but on Ohmify I do. I’m committed to help all the members of Ohmify, so that they make progress quickly on their favorite project.