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Want To Tackle Problems At Work Like A Boss? Learn This Thinking Approach From Elon Musk

Want To Tackle Problems At Work Like A Boss? Learn This Thinking Approach From Elon Musk

If you’re eager to improve your work performance, you probably consider yourself an ambitious and forward-thinking contributor to the world of business. But let’s face the fact: ambition and hard work alone are not enough to help us overcome numerous hurdles on our career paths. What sends some people to the pinnacle of success is their strong problem-solving ability.

Totally clueless about how to improve your problem-solving skills at work? Maybe you learn and practice the thinking approach adopted by many successful entrepreneurs including Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and owner of Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Solar City.

What is the thinking approach? It’s called First Principles Thinking.

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What Is First Principles Thinking?

There are two types of thinking when it comes to brainstorming and tackling problems; one is comparison thinking and the other is first principles thinking.

Comparison thinking is when you come up with a solution using a mixture of pre-existing ideas. We tend to do this because our minds can become quite limited and often tries to find the easy way out by building on or tweaking an idea that is already out there. The problem with this is we begin the brainstorming or problem-solving from a space of assumption rather than questioning – we build on what has already been established rather than finding and questioning from a new basic level.

First principles thinking is about starting from a clean slate and free from any pre-existing ideas making it a much better approach to problem-solving and creating innovative ideas. It’s about starting with the core fundamental basics and working your way up from there.

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What Are The Benefits Of First Principles Thinking?

By following first principles thinking, it helps you gather a better understanding of complex problems and better knowledge of the unknown leading to unique innovative thinking. Comparison thinking leads us to think in terms of analogy whereas first principles thinking allows us to potentially see something in much finer detail.

How Can I Apply First Principles Thinking?

The best way to use this way of brainstorming is for improving performance at work. Whatever career path you’re on – coming up with new ideas, ways to improve your business or presenting a potential new business strategy to your boss – using first principles thinking will allow you to fully research and understand what will be successful and what won’t be.

The three questions you should use to focus your mind and break free of limited assumptions are:

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  • What am I trying to accomplish?
  • What is the fundamental problem?
  • What really matters to the people I’m reaching with this?

This allows you to get to your core motivation and understanding rather than using an existing idea and trying to see how to make it better.

For example, Musk talked about his thinking behind Tesla, his electric car company. An example of comparison thinking would lead someone to say “electric cars will never take off because batteries are too expensive.” This thought process holds limitations and could well lead to the company not going down a profitable route.

Instead, Musk would ask: What are the materials used to make these batteries? What is the market value of these individual materials? Could we, therefore, produce the batteries much cheaper?” He found it was much cheaper through using the strategy of first principles thinking. By taking this route we are able to break down the components and rebuild them in an affordable way showing the original assumption that batteries are not economical enough is, in fact, wrong.

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First principles thinking is about breaking out of limited thinking and the assumptions that we tend to conclude from previous evidence. It’s about looking at something from a new angle. It’s about questioning until you reach the core answer. Try applying this to your work life and see how the possibilities can multiply.

Featured photo credit: Nicolas Bariteau via nicolasbariteau.com

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Jenny Marchal

A passionate writer who loves sharing about positive psychology.

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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

3. Move Your Body

A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

4. Connect With Another Person

Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

5. Use Your Imagination

When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

Final Thoughts

Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

More on the Importance of Taking a Break

Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

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