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Why You Should Kick the “Versus” Habit

Why You Should Kick the “Versus” Habit

A world painted only in black and white is a hard place to live or work
St. Michael and the Devil

In our time-starved, action-obsessed approach to work and life, we easily drop into the habit of seeing every choice or decision in terms of simple opposites: good versus bad, right versus wrong, success versus failure, winners versus losers. Every choice must be one or the other, with no options in between. Macho management thinking is full of such false dichotomies.

This makes for a tense and uncomfortable workplace, as well as a warped view of reality. Worse still, it produces that habitual “us versus them” mentality, which destroys relationships, undermines co-operation, and slowly renders us paranoid.

A world of self-induced paranoia

The urge is strong today to reduce everything to simple, “A versus B” choices. Essays and self-expression are replaced in schools by multiple-choice questions. Forms come full of boxes to check and sentences to be “crossed out where not applicable.” What we wish to say is reduced to choices between what others have already decided is appropriate (or acceptable).

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Such an attitude makes life less complicated — no subtleties to produce those annoying and confusing shades of gray — yet destroys it too; for in a polarized world, those who are not for you must be against you. There are only friends or enemies, allies or “evil empires.” What you choose to believe in, and the actions you embrace as “good,” must not — cannot — be questioned or faulted. There are no neutrals, no possibility that you — yes, you — may be mistaken. Those who choose another way are, by simple definition, wrong — too wrong even to contemplate what might be learned from them.

In the name of profit, speed, and efficiency, we tear up centuries of human thought. In the pursuit of “getting things done,” we lay aside our capacity for wonder and our curiosity for other ways.

The workplace as melodrama

Encouraged by the media, who love simple oppositions and melodramatic confrontations (witness The Apprentice), we demonize “the opposition” or “our competitors” and praise ourselves, “the good guys,” with thoughtless extravagance.

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In a bad novel, every circumstance becomes a life or death struggle, without a balance or subtlety. In a similar way, many leaders today assume every decision is important, simply because polarized thinking makes each appear so stark: winning or losing, support or opposition, love or hate, eager agreement or hostile condemnation, blind loyalty or base treachery.

And so, like ham actors, leaders “chew the scenery” of their workplaces in emotional paroxysms over the smallest setback, or fly into extravagant joyousness at the least triumph. When winning is all that matters, losing becomes an unthinkable horror. No space is left to honor those who have done their best, yet still fallen a little way short. They are lumped together with all the others in the simple category of “failure.”

Choosing to stay blind to our folly

As we dwell lovingly on the defects in “the other guys,” treating them as stereotypes at best (or downright stupid, evil, or dishonest at worst), we set ourselves free from the need to reconsider our own assumptions. There may be equal or even greater problems in the “right way” that we have chosen, as there are in the “wrong way” that they follow, but we will never see them — until it is too late. Our simplistic viewpoint cannot stay in place and allow this to happen.

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Why do so many corporations blunder into crazy ventures, then cling to them in defiance of sense? Why do leaders make it a test of loyalty for their subordinates to applaud every action, no matter how ill-advised? Why do people make truly bad career choices, then stick with them for years?

The answer is as sad as it too is simple: because there are, in their self-constricted minds, no acceptable alternatives. Because there are only two ways: what they have chosen and what has therefore to be, by definition, undeniably worse.

Getting back to reality

The reality of this world is that all extremes are uncommon to the point of invisibility. They aren’t just scarce; the more extreme they are — absolute good versus absolute evil, unquestionably right versus undeniably wrong — the more likely that they exist only in theory, if at all. Daily life plays out somewhere in the middle, between whatever extremes you care to name. This world, whether we like it or not, is a world of countless overlapping options and choices. In place of the black and white simplicities we try to impose upon it, there are nothing but the subtlest shades of gray.

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How to kick the habit of over-simplified thinking

  1. Slow down and recognize with Oscar Wilde that truth is “never pure and rarely simple.” Take your time to unravel at least some of its complexities. Subtlety and ambiguity are the first casualties of haste and short-termism.
  2. Be endlessly wary of convenient simplifications and false certainties. There are many people happy to tell you that they know the “one, right answer.” Why shouldn’t you believe them? Because no such answer exists. They are deluding themselves — and will delude you too, if you let them.
  3. Question, question, and question some more. Questions aren’t dangerous, answers are.
  4. If you are presented with an “A or B” choice, don’t take it, if at all possible. Synthesize these extremes to see the options that lie between them. Human creativity arises from taking things that first seem to be irreconcilable opposites, then discovering all the ways in which they work together.
  5. Whenever you think you have found the complete and final answer, lie down in a darkened room until you come to your senses. Every answer is provisional — every one. What you have found may be the best you can do at present, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find a better one sometime; or that others haven’t found a better way already.
  6. Ambiguity and uncertainty are your friends. They encourage you to go on searching. They try to save you from betting everything on what you know today. People treat them as enemies because they undermine our pompous and self-righteous belief in “certainties.” Yet, the greatest risk anyone can take is to imagine that they already know what’s most important.

Only by slowing down and taking time to question and think — really think — shall we return to dealing with business reality, in place of those simplistic, misleading, cardboard-cutout, Hollywood melodramas we are becoming used to putting in its place.

Photo credit: Nils Tubbesing

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Published on July 17, 2018

How Productive People Compartmentalize Time to Get the Most Done

How Productive People Compartmentalize Time to Get the Most Done

I’ve never believed people are born productive or organized. Being organized and productive is a choice.

You choose to keep your stuff organized or you don’t. You choose to get on with your work and ignore distractions or you don’t.

But one skill very productive people appear to have that is not a choice is the ability to compartmentalize. And that takes skill and practice.

What is compartmentalization

To compartmentalize means you have the ability to shut out all distractions and other work except for the work in front of you. Nothing gets past your barriers.

In psychology, compartmentalization is a defence mechanism our brains use to shut out traumatic events. We close down all thoughts about the traumatic event. This can lead to serious mental-health problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if not dealt with properly.

However, compartmentalization can be used in positive ways to help us become more productive and allow us to focus on the things that are important to us.

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Robin Sharma, the renowned leadership coach, calls it his Tight Bubble of Total Focus Strategy. This is where he shuts out all distractions, turns off his phone and goes to a quiet place where no one will disturb him and does the work he wants to focus on. He allows nothing to come between himself and the work he is working on and prides himself on being almost uncontactable.

Others call it deep work. When I want to focus on a specific piece of work, I turn everything off, turn on my favourite music podcast The Anjunadeep Edition (soft, eclectic electronic music) and focus on the content I intend to work on. It works, and it allows me to get massive amounts of content produced every week.

The main point about compartmentalization is that no matter what else is going on in your life — you could be going through a difficult time in your relationships, your business could be sinking into bankruptcy or you just had a fight with your colleague; you can shut those things out of your mind and focus totally on the work that needs doing.

Your mind sees things as separate rooms with closable doors, so you can enter a mental room, close the door and have complete focus on whatever it is you want to focus on. Your mind does not wander.

Being able to achieve this state can seriously boost your productivity. You get a lot more quality work done and you find you have a lot more time to do the things you want to do. It is a skill worth mastering for the benefits it will bring you.

How to develop the skill of compartmentalization

The simplest way to develop this skill is to use your calendar.

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Your calendar is the most powerful tool you have in your productivity toolbox. It allows you to block time out, and it can focus you on the work that needs doing.

My calendar allows me to block time out so I can remove everything else out of my mind to focus on one thing. When I have scheduled time for writing, I know what I want to write about and I sit down and my mind completely focuses on the writing.

Nothing comes between me, my thoughts and the keyboard. I am in my writing compartment and that is where I want to be. Anything going on around me, such as a problem with a student, a difficulty with an area of my business or an argument with my wife is blocked out.

Understand that sometimes there’s nothing you can do about an issue

One of the ways to do this is to understand there are times when there is nothing you can do about an issue or an area of your life. For example, if I have a student with a problem, unless I am able to communicate with that student at that specific time, there is nothing I can do about it.

If I can help the student, I would schedule a meeting with the student to help them. But between now and the scheduled meeting there is nothing I can do. So, I block it out.

The meeting is scheduled on my calendar and I will be there. Until then, there is nothing I can do about it.

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Ask yourself the question “Is there anything I can do about it right now?”

This is a very powerful way to help you compartmentalize these issues.

If there is, focus all your attention on it to the exclusion of everything else until you have a workable solution. If not, then block it out, schedule time when you can do something about it and move on to the next piece of work you need to work on.

Being able to compartmentalize helps with productivity in another way. It reduces the amount of time you spend worrying.

Worrying about something is a huge waste of energy that never solves anything. Being able to block out issues you cannot deal with stops you from worrying about things and allows you to focus on the things you can do something about.

Reframe the problem as a question

Reframing the problem as a question such as “what do I have to do to solve this problem?” takes your mind away from a worried state into a solution state, where you begin searching for solutions.

One of the reasons David Allen’s Getting Things Done book has endured is because it focuses on contexts. This is a form of compartmentalization where you only do work you can work on.

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For instance, if a piece of work needs a computer, you would only look at the work when you were in front of a computer. If you were driving, you cannot do that work, so you would not be looking at it.

Choose one thing to focus on

To get better at compartmentalizing, look around your environment and seek out places where you can do specific types of work.

Taking your dog for a walk could be the time you focus solely on solving project problems, commuting to and from work could be the time you spend reading and developing your skills and the time between 10 am and 12 pm could be the time you spend on the phone sorting out client issues.

Once you make the decision about when and where you will do the different types of work, make it stick. Schedule it. Once it becomes a habit, you are well on your way to using the power of compartmentalization to become more productive.

Comparmentalization saves you stress

Compartmentalization is a skill that gives you time to deal with issues and work to the exclusion of all other distractions.

This means you get more work done in less time and this allows you to spend more time with the people you want to spend more time with, doing the things you want to spend more time doing.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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