Our Mental Models Affect Our Problem Solving

One of the biggest potential stumbling blocks to our adaptability is our mental models, the way we see the world. I had a funny example of that this week, with my home physical therapist.

The good thing about a home physical therapist (PT) is that I get feedback on the way I am doing my home exercise program for my knee. This is good, because I’m not capable of driving to outpatient PT yet. I want to do my exercises right, because, darn it, some of them are just this side of pain. And, doing them right means I will recover faster.

The other thing my home PT does is provide advice. She advises me on shower chairs, the setup of my house, how to make my house work for me during my rehab.

So the first time my home PT came for a visit, I hadn’t been allowed to take a shower. I’d gotten a shower chair, and was looking forward to a shower the next morning. I’d practiced using a shower chair in the hospital with the occupational therapist, which is never the same as being at home. But after 6 days without a shower, I was ready.

So, one of the first things we did was go upstairs and look at my shower and shower chair. My home PT is tall, close to 6 feet. I am not, as you can see from Why I Never Use a Lectern. She took one look at me and one look at the shower chair and declared, “This will never work. The seat is too low and you have too far to bring your legs up and over.”

She carefully explained, as if I was a total idiot, that I should be able to sit in the shower chair, pick up my legs, lift them over the side of the tub, swing them into the tub, and be done. I asked, “No interim positions?”

She shook her head and looked at me as if I had three heads. “No, definitely not.”

“Well, what if I get on the side of the tub and then schooch into the shower chair.”

“The shower chair is not that stable. No, you will not be able to take a shower.”

I had just spent 6 days post-op. I wanted a shower. I turned the problem over to Mark. First, he raised the legs on the shower chair. That brought the seat up high enough so it was closer to a straight slide over from the tub side. Now we have solved the first problem. But I still can’t bring my legs over in one smooth movement.

But I realized what the problem really was. My home PT is close to 6 feet tall. She cannot imagine a life where you have interim steps because you are short. The question is: will the shower chair be stable if I do this in interim steps?

We test my hypothesis that the shower chair does not need very much weight to be stable the night before when I am still dressed. Half a tush is about enough! Now, I do this only under adult (Mark) supervision, because I don’t want to be stupid. Falling post-op would be stupid.

When my home PT arrived the next day, I explained that I was able to take a shower, and that we modified the shower chair and I was stable.

My mental model is there is always another solution, especially given my height. My PT’s mental model is that the patient should be able to sit on the chair and bring her legs over in one smooth move. My PT hasn’t been five feet tall for many years.

There is nothing wrong with my PT’s mental model. I bet it’s worked for her for many patients. I bet I am one of the shortest patients with more than one challenge to work through.

But this little problem and its solution was another illustration of how our mental models of the world can drive our problem solving.

When you see yourself saying, “No, this is an unsolvable problem,” consider your filters and mental models. You may have to apply the rule of three. You may want to consider another perspective–maybe the short one! Maybe there is some other way to look at the problem. I thought it was funny that neither the PT nor I considered the first thing Mark did–extend the legs on the shower chair. Neither of us thought of it.

We all have these filters. We all have models of how the world should be. In my PT’s world, adults should be able to lift their legs over the tub sides and into the tub in one fell swoop. But I’m short and we have a jacuzzi tub (which was a great idea at the time). Two strikes against me. But the tub sides are working for me now, so it’s okay.

If we allow our mental models and our filters to prevent us from solving problems, we will become stuck. We can ask for help, as I did with Mark. We can use the rule of three. We can choose another perspective. But staying stuck is a real problem. You need to find a transforming idea so you can see if it will work.

I’m clean now. And quite happy about it.

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