Both and, not either or

Unfortunately, there is very strong tendency for many people to think in black and white terms – a sort of ‘all or nothing’ approach. It is as if there is a strong urge to assign things to one category or another. This is what I call either/or thinking. Others have referred to it as ‘binary’ thought.

In reality, life is much more complex than that, and so either/or thinking prevents us from appreciating the subtleties of the situations we find ourselves in. It places a sort of straitjacket on our way of understanding whatever it is we are trying to make sense of.

Of course, an important thing to recognise is that thought is so often the basis of action. If we think in unhelpful, restrictive ways, there is a very real danger we will behave in unhelpful, restrictive ways too. Consider the following examples:

  • Jean had always found Bill to be honest and reliable, so when it appeared that he had behaved dishonestly, she just would not accept it. As far as Jean was concerned, Bill was to be assigned to the category of ‘trustworthy’. The idea that he could be trustworthy for the most part, but capable of acting dishonestly in certain circumstances was a possibility she was not prepared to countenance. The consequence of this was that Bill was able to get away with some pretty unpalatable things because Jean had become blind to the possibility that he could behave in anything less than a totally honest and noble way.
  • Rajeev was a very confident and competent person highly respected by his colleagues. He seemed to have an incredible capacity for getting through a heavy workload. His manager was therefore amazed when Rajeev’s wife rang in one morning to say that he was too stressed to come into work and was really struggling to cope. People had assigned Rajeev to a category of ‘highly competent’ and had not considered that even he might have a limit to how much work he could reasonably cope with. And, of course, the fact that people saw him as so competent meant that he found it really difficult to go against that perception and to ask for support or acknowledge that his workload had grown too big and was now unmanageable even for someone as competent as he was.

So, it is important to replace either/or thinking with both/and thinking – that is, to recognise that people can be honest and dishonest, depending on the circumstances, safe and dangerous, depending on the context, happy and sad according to the situation.

Is this a matter of intelligence, then? Is it the case that less intelligent people will rely on problematic either/or thinking, rather than the more productive both/and thinking? There may well be an element of this involved, but we need to be careful not to oversimplify here.  There are two issues involved. First, it isn’t simply a matter of intelligence or thinking processes – there are also emotional issues involved. In the first example, above, for Jean to change her line of thinking would not simply be a rational matter, it would also involve a change in how she felt about Bill. Even very intelligent people can fall foul of either/or thinking, especially where emotions are to the fore. Second, there is the ironic danger of falling into either/or thinking in relation to either/or thinking itself: either you rely on either/or thinking and are therefore assigned to the category of ‘unintelligent’ or you do not rely on such thinking and are assigned to the category of ‘intelligent’. Of course, the very point I am making is that it is not that simple! We need to be aware that no one is immune, but, by being tuned in to the potential problems involved, we can avoid a number of significant difficulties.

Start here and now

Sadly, I have known several people who had various things they were keen to do when they retired, but died either before being able to retire or soon after they retired. What I learned from that is that I really must make space for the things I want to do and do them sooner rather than later. Putting all the eggs in the one basket of retirement is a risky strategy.

But it isn’t just about retirement – the issue is broader than that. It is likely, for most of us, that there will be things that we are not putting on hold for retirement, but we are not getting round to them either. This is more than everyday procrastination (which is usually about things we would prefer not to do). These are generally things that we want to do, but, for whatever reason, we are filing them under ‘one day’, rather than under ‘now’.

There can be a whole range of reasons why we do this, different reasons for different people and perhaps different reasons at different times. But, what is common across the board is that there is a very pronounced tendency for people to stand in their own way when it comes to doing things they want to do.

Largely what it comes down to is getting our priorities right. A common mistake when it comes to time and workload management is to allow pressing, but relatively unimportant, matters to ‘jump the queue’ and to get done at the expense of things that are less pressing, but much more important.

This can apply to work-related issues or things that relate to our private lives. Consider these two examples:

• Sam had always wanted to have an article published: ‘It would be great to see my name in print. I would love that. I don’t see myself as having a career as a writer, but I would love to be a published author at some point’. The obvious line of questioning from this is: Why ‘at some point’? Why not now, or soon at least? If it really is something you would love, what is stopping you doing it now? What things that you don’t love are you doing instead of what you would love? What is distorting your priorities and what can you do to stop that happening?

• Chris had been very keen for a long time to spend more time in London: ‘I often go to London on business. I go in on the train and then come home again when the job is done. There are so many things I would love to see in London, but never get chance to when I am there for work reasons. I could afford to do it. I just never get round to it’. Of course the same questions apply here. In both cases, it is a matter of priorities. If this really is something that you are so keen to do, what process is happening that stops it from happening? Maybe there is a genuine and understandable reason why it isn’t happening (perhaps Chris is overwhelmed by the choice of so many things in London that could be part of the proposed trip). But perhaps it is more a case of needing to get priorities clear, take control of the situation and make it happen.

Not only will this mean that, in most cases, at least, we get the benefit of doing what we want to do, but we are also likely to feel good about having taken control of the situation – a positive and empowering experience in its own right.