The Difference Between Challenges and Problems, and Why it Matters

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This morning I was talking with my daughter about a situation in our home. I needed to move my outdoor cushions into our storage area. I wasn’t sure how to do this because my storage area has been filled with other belongings since we removed the cushions last spring. My gut reaction was to say, “That’s today’s problem.” But then I stopped myself and rephrased, “Actually, that’s today’s challenge. It isn’t a problem.” there is a difference between challenges and problems, and it matters.


What comes to mind when you hear about a challenge? Typically, the word challenge represents something we strive to achieve or attain. Incorporated in a challenge is the mindset that if we put our mind to it, we have the ability to do it. Challenges can be goals, dreams, objectives, longings, projects, achievements, and/or accomplishments. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Running a marathon
  • Climbing a mountain or hiking to a peak
  • Starting a new job or volunteer position
  • Organizing a home or office
  • Having a baby
  • Creating a budget
  • Participating in a contest or endurance test
  • Performing a trick or activity
  • Raising a sum of money for charity
  • Planning a social event
  • Taking a standardized test
  • Seeking a new job or admission to college

Common to all of these challenges is a potentially positive outcome resulting from actively pursuing an endeavor. Also embedded in a challenge is some inherent difficulty. Challenges are not easy, automatic, or passive. They take effort and investment of time, money, and/or energy.

Challenges can be pursued by an individual singlehandedly or in partnership with others. For example, an Olympic athlete puts in a lot of his/her own effort, but also requires financial support, training equipment, coaching, opportunities to compete, proper attire, etc. Bringing home a medal is rarely (if ever) achieved by an individual functioning completely alone.


Problems are a bit different. Whether they result from external circumstances or because of our own choices, problems are issues that we wish we did not have. Problems need to be addressed, solved, fixed, managed, mitigated, or even simply survived. A few examples or problems include:

  • Home repairs
  • Loss of employment
  • Damage from a car accident or a flat tire
  • Identity theft
  • Mental or physical Illness
  • Misunderstanding in a relationship
  • Crime
  • Addiction
  • Debt

When problems present themselves, we are thrust into the position of having to figure out how to proceed. Dealing with problems can be painful, expensive, frustrating, embarrassing, and more. Often, problems make us feel powerless, or at least out of control. Furthermore, not all problems can be “solved.” In some cases, the best we can do is process our emotions, recoup our losses, extend forgiveness, or otherwise find a way to move forward. Few people voluntarily seek problems in their lives, although they might be willing to help others alleviate theirs.

Why does the difference matter?

Acknowledging the difference between challenges and problems helps us to figure out what we can and should be doing. How we perceive a situation impacts our mindset and expectations, which then drives our behavior. Both challenges and problems require some form of action, but the specific next step may differ depending on how we see the situation.

For instance, if we perceive a challenge, we may start making plans, consider options, acquire needed supplies, allocate time, and/or get others involved. We may speak openly about what we planning to do and take pride in our results. I imagine superheroes having a “challenge” mindset when saving the world.

In contrast, if we see a problem, it is natural for us to despair, complain, avoid, procrastinate, or withdraw. It’s easy to get stuck when facing a problem, or to become angry. Problems make us ask, “Why me?” While this is perfectly understandable, it probably will not alleviate our suffering.

What can we do when facing problems?

Since challenges are easier to tackle than problems, one helpful strategy is to consider what challenges might be embedded in a problem. For instance, I may need to get a new job. While I can’t create a job out of thin air, I can challenge myself to put together a resume, meet with a career counselor, confide in someone about the fear and anxiety I’m feeling, or attend a networking event. I might even challenge myself to volunteer to serve others while I wait for my job search to yield results.

As another example, perhaps I’m struggling with an addiction. I’m exhausted from hiding my problem and am isolating myself from others. While I may not be able to fix my addiction on my own, I can seek out a support group, call a therapist, or even share my situation with a friend.

A matter of perspective

In some cases, the question of whether a situation is a challenge or a problem may come down to perspective. For example, often my clients see their spaces as problems, situations that they have no idea how to address and which feel somewhat overwhelming and insurmountable. In contrast, when I walk in and see their space, I get energized. Because of my experience and training, I have vision for what can be achieved. For me, getting organized is fun and positive, and often I can help clients shift the way they are thinking as well.


  • A broken washing machine or dishwasher is a problem for me, but just a challenge for a qualified repair person.
  • Carrying a full wardrobe box up a flight of stairs is a problem for me, but a challenge (or maybe not even a challenge) for a professional mover.
  • A flat tire is a problem for me, but all in a day’s work for my roadside service repair person.

This is helpful to bear in mind because we may be able to turn our problems into challenges by bringing in the appropriate resources. Inviting others do what we cannot do ourselves is often the first step in moving toward positive results.

*     *     *

Are you facing challenges right now? Do you have problems? Do these words seem the same or different to you?

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24 thoughts on “The Difference Between Challenges and Problems, and Why it Matters”

  1. I agree that perspective is the key. It matters a lot whether it’s a problem we think we can solve — with or without help — or not. If we think we can, or we think we can’t, we are right (to paraphrase Henry Ford). But also, if we can intentionally re-frame a problem as a challenge, we might start feeling encouraged to start thinking of ways to solve it.
    Hazel Thornton recently posted…About the Photomyne scanning appMy Profile

    1. I’m becoming more and more convinced that mindset is key. Personally, if I can reframe my mindset to think about an issue as a challenge, I literally “feel” better about it. It’s kind of crazy!

  2. What great distinctions you’ve made here – and I’m partial to the idea of finding the challenges within the problems. Perhaps that’s the coach in me. When a client brings their “problem”, it’s a “challenge” for us to collectively find the opportunities therein. And how many times do we look back at a problem we’ve solved, and recognized the benefits or growth that resulted. Excellent thoughts, Seana!
    Sara Skillen recently posted…Why Does It Matter?My Profile

    1. Lots of time we look back and see the growth!

      I love how you bring up the idea that it might take the participation of others to look into a problem and find the challenges. That’s another way that external resources can truly help bring solutions. Terrific. 🙂

  3. I really love the way you offer an explanation of what makes a challenge different from a problem. I totally agree that much of what is problematic can be made less threatening with a shift of your mindset. When you are stuck in the weeds ruminating over the awfulness of a situation, you can forget to look for small solutions – or at least helping hands. Shifting your perspective and making the problem a challenge provides hope that all is not lost.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…How To Declutter Your Christmas Decorations Without Getting Lost In Sentiment Or GuiltMy Profile

    1. Hope is so important in any situation, challenge or problem, but we especially need hope when we are feeling desperate. We all periodically need lifelines to help us find the path forward. I know I do!

  4. I, too, agree that perspective is critical. Years ago, I did a workshop, and they said using the word problem for a situation stops the ability to find new possibilities for solutions. So, instead, they recommended using the word “issue”. This word has less emotional energy and allows us to seek solutions. Great post! Thanks for sharing.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…False Assumptions About Professional OrganizersMy Profile

    1. Oh, that’s super interesting Sabrina! Just the use of the word “problem” can trip us up. That makes so much sense to me. Issue does seem more approachable somehow. I find it fascinating that using different words and reorienting our thinking can have such a big impact!

  5. Thank you for this clarification. I believe that I will use some of this rephrasing with my clients when it really is a challenge instead of a problem.
    I have a problem now because I have some expensive tree issues that need dealing with sooner rather than later. My challenges so far are that I have had an arborist out and today are having 2 companies come out and give me estimates. Then we schedule and get creative with paying for it.
    Jonda Beattie recently posted…Use Backwards Planning to Enjoy Your Holidays!My Profile

    1. Sorry for those issues. I’ve certainly been there with the giant trees here in CT.

      I am cheering you on for the challenges you have undertaken: finding arborists and have them come out. Sometimes we can be surprised by the results we get from our actions. I’m crossing my fingers that one of these vendors comes in with a financially attractive estimate!!

  6. I love your use of words to share what’s behind a situation. This post and last week’s post focus on this and it’s profound.

    1. I guess I’m focused on this topic in my own mind, hence the posts. Our words can really impact our thinking, which I choose to view as a positive. The thought that I can alter my experience of a situation by recasting my vocabulary and mindset is a comfort. As I said in the post, this doesn’t mean everything is suddenly “solved,” but it can mean I have an easier path through.

  7. When I read the words “challenge” and “problem,” the distinction I see is about mindset around the issue more than what the issue is. While I’m sure I use the word “problem” at times, I generally try to replace it with the word challenge. I do it for the reasons you mentioned. Challenge suggests something we can proactively do something about. While problem brings us to a negative place.

    Recently, one of my colleagues suggested a different word for problem. She’s opted to replace problem with “puzzle.” Like challenge, puzzle connects something to solve. So we begin from that framework in a more positive, proactive stance.

    1. Oooh, I love the word “puzzle.” That’s a great one, because puzzles are solvable!

      Sabrina mentioned the word, “issue,” which also seems more approachable than problem. It is surprising how much power a word can have, and how much it can influence our mindset. I completely agree that a challenge has a positive bent, if only because once achieved there is a payoff. Problems feel very negative and discouraging.

      A positive, proactive stance is what we want to be as much as possible!

  8. Oh my goodness, Seana, you’ve explained this so well. When we see things as problems, we see only the obstacles, the negatives, the lack of agency. The minute we see something as a challenge, it opens up opportunities and new vistas. I LOVE the washing machine comparison. We may not be able to solve a problem, but the minute we see it as a challenge, we can brainstorm and identify those who can help us achieve what we seek. This is an refreshing approach to changing one’s mindset!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Paper Doll Helps You Get By With a Little Help From Her (Brilliant) FriendsMy Profile

    1. I’m working on this in my own life, and finding it very empowering! I know that not all problems can be solved, but we do have some choice, at least about how we experience the difficulty.

  9. Oh that’s so interesting in that problems make you feel powerless and out of control and challenges actually are pretty awesome with their control, well, for some of them. Like running a marathon but maybe not having a baby. And this struck me: “A broken washing machine or dishwasher is a problem for me, but just a challenge for a qualified repair person.” Could it also be a challenge for someone who is trying to renovate their home, look for a new washing machine, or even get the guts to call a repair person? Or save for it?
    Tamara recently posted…This Too Shall PassMy Profile

    1. Absolutely it could be!

      That’s the beauty of a challenge mindset. It opens us up to considering ways to move forward, some of which may be things we can do for ourselves, while others may require a bit of assistance.

      I want to have a positive mindset, no matter what I’m facing. I find it empowering to think that I have some control at least over my thoughts.

  10. Thank you for this thought provoking post. I enjoy thinking about words we use interchangeably. It is important to phrase a situation in a mindset that helps you to accomplish the task. You explained the difference between challenges and problems very well. When I have a problem I usually see it as a challenge and figure out how to solve it and that gives me a feeling of control. That statement muddies the waters. I will start thinking of my problems as challenges.

    1. Your Mom sounds like a terrific lady!

      How we see what lies before us is definitely connected with how we proceed, and often how we will feel about the entire experience. I try and stay positive, looking for what I can do instead of focusing on what I cannot.

    1. One of the wonderful gifts we can give organizing clients is the mindset that improvement is completely within the realm of reality. Not only that, but also that the process can be positive. 🙂

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