I came home from a short vacation to discover tiny ants all over my kitchen floor. Not exactly what you want to see when you walk in the house. I was hot, tired, and wanted little more than to get everything in the house, unpack, and relax.

So I didn’t waste time.

I quickly got out my favorite weapon of ant destruction – the vacuum cleaner. Surely the 12amps of power would be no match for the tiny creatures and I quickly annihilated all visible ants.

My Anteater!

I went about my unpacking. But low and behold, just an hour later – more ants. Out came the vacuum. I was sure I didn’t miss any this time.

I continued unpacking, but yet again, you guessed it – more ants. This time I watched a few minutes and noticed they were heading into the pantry. I opened the door to investigate.

You see, the ants weren’t really the problem. They were merely a symptom of the problem.

After removing all the items on the floor of the pantry, I found it: part of a cracker was on the floor covered with ants. I quickly vacuumed up the entire mess and thought my job was done.

But in a few minutes I saw a few more ants. They seemed to be coming from a tiny crevice between the molding and floor. A quick shot of spray later and a check of cracks around the foundation of the house and hopefully I’m done with ants for at least a little while.

I could have vacuumed all night. It would have felt productive. After all, I could see the ants being removed from my kitchen. But it wouldn’t have helped. The ants would have kept marching back through my kitchen completely oblivious to my efforts to eradicate them.

Many things in life are like those ants in my kitchen. As long as I focused on the ants, I couldn’t really solve the problem. My focus had to be on the cause of my ant invasion.

Sometimes I work and work on problems and seem to be making no progress. If I really think about it, that is because I’m focused only on the symptom of the problem, not the cause. I need to change my thinking to make progress. In one of my favorite books, Thinking for a Change, author John Maxwell says that “The problem is always to identify the problem.” Instead of rushing to find a solution, he suggests doing a little strategic thinking to identify the real issue, something I need to remember.

What strategies do you use to solve problems? Are they working? What actually is the problem you are trying to conquer?

Yes, my ants were not a great ending to my vacation. (But it does beat the time I came home to find a dead mouse – a story for another day!) Problems are a normal part of life and learning to solve them is a skill I need.