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Why You Should Kick the “Versus” Habit

Why You Should Kick the “Versus” Habit
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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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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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