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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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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.

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Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

Reference

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