The Three Clocks of Trial and Error

I am not very good at troubleshooting. I get impatient and end up either giving up or breaking something by trying to force a solution too quickly (for example, in assembling a piece of Ikea furniture where the parts don’t seem to match the drawings).

But I’ve been getting better slowly over the years.

The key to effect trial and error processes is to switch from your regular sense of time to a sense of time governed by three clocks. If you do this right, the process should feel like time standing still for the most part, as in the movie Groundhog Day, where the character of Phil is stuck in the same day until he gets everything exactly right and wins the girl, via a trial and error process that takes months in experienced time.

In normal situations, one or two clocks will do.

  • When you’re doing something you already know how to do, and doesn’t evoke strong emotions, one clock — the physical clock — will do. Up to a point, you can speed up and slow down, pay more or less attention, depending on the urgency.
  • When you are dealing with churning emotions, you need two clocks: the physical clock and the emotional one (which runs faster when you are experiencing positive emotions, and slower when you are experiencing negative emotions).

But in trial-and-error you need three clocks.

  1. progress clock, which stands still until you make an irreversible improvement in your situation (for example, while solving a jigsaw puzzle, you get a configuration that you know for sure is right and won’t need to be undone).
  2. The emotion clock that tracks time pressures as deadlines and goal pressures mount. You need to manage this so it provides a useful signal of urgency, but doesn’t overwhelm you.
  3. The physical clock, which is what you need when you need to plan actions. For example, if you’re exploring a city downtown in search of a specific shop whose name you can’t remember, you may need to estimate distances and times.

The thing about any trial-and-error process, and troubleshooting in particular, is that you don’t know how long it will take. You may be up against an unsolvable problem or something that can be resolved in seconds. If you operate under only clocks 2 and 3, you will get frustrated. The key to remaining effective is to work primarily by clock 1, the progress clock. While engaged in trial and error, no matter how much people are screaming at you, it should feel like time is standing still for the most part, except when you actually make progress, at which point the clock jumps ahead a bit.

One way to visualize this is to think of all trial and error processes as exploring a tree of branching possibilities that weave through various states. “Progress” is about gradually uncovering a path to the solution a sequence of states. During this process, there are some known states you will you will keep returning to, along known paths, and others you will move beyond irreversibly and “lock down” (in a jigsaw puzzle, that’s pieces that are joined for sure). The trial-and-error part is the unstable, non-repeating things you do.

Your progress clock only moves forward when you either lock down a state, or a firm path between known states that you have convinced yourself will need to be traversed in a particular sequence in the final solution.

Of course, you could be blindsided by some unexpected new discovery. In which case, what you’ve locked down might unravel. The progress clock then jumps backwards. Sometimes all the way to Square One.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Tempo


  1. The challenge I’ve found, is that most of my troubleshooting falls into one of two pits:

    1. The pit of zero-or-full information. Here you get little indication of which strategies are successful or unsuccessful until they either work or don’t. Wasted effort is only identifiable in retrospect, from a position of success or (alternately) surrender.

    2. The pit of infinite regress. You find that problem x requires problem y to be solved, which requires problem z to be solved… eventually you find yourself stuck in problem theta, massively over your head, and possibly in an intractable situation.

    In these cases, “progress” isn’t a helpful clock, as it only shows two times: 0 and 12.