When Can You Recognize and Avoid the Trap of Either/Or Thinking?

I hear a lot of “either/or” language in work situations:

  • We “must” do this thing. Here’s an example: We’re not agile if we don’t do some practice, such as standups.
  • We “cannot” do exactly the same thing. We can’t do that practice, such as standups, and be agile.

I hear either/or language in personal situations, too:

  • We must choose a specific diet because it’s healthy.
  • We must not choose that same diet because it’s not healthy.

When we use either/or thinking, we shortcut our understanding of the problem itself. We miss the possible causes. When we don’t think through the problem well enough, we don’t create experiments or valuable solutions. Worse, we often create brittle solutions.

All because we box ourselves into shortcut thinking.

Smart people fall into the either/or trap all the time. Either/or thinking can trap anyone. The first step is to recognize the either/or trap.

How We Might Recognize Either/Or Thinking

Here’s what I’ve heard people say, when they fall into the trap of either/or thinking:

  • “I thought we had to choose between one thing or another.”
  • “There are only two options.”
  • “I don’t see any other alternatives.”

I recognize this trap for me when I don’t see more than two options. That’s because I trained myself in generating more options. (Sometimes, when I write, I add an “XX there must be another option here.)

However, too many people don’t think they need more than one or two options. Worse, they might be the way I was years ago. I often chose the first option. I was pretty good at solving problems, so the first option was often good. However, choosing that first option didn’t help me create more robust solutions.

I had to learn to avoid this trap.

How I Learned to Avoid the Trap of Either/Or Thinking

I learned the Rule of Three from Jerry Weinberg. I know I learned it from one of his books and definitely in person.

The Rule of Three discusses choices in this way:

  • One solution traps me into thinking I understand the problem. (I might. I might not.)
  • Two solutions create a dilemma for me—which one do I choose?
  • Three solutions breaks logjam thinking and help me think of more possible solutions.

I also realize that when I have just one solution, I might be attached to the process and not the outcome.

I still encounter the trap of either/or thinking. More often when I’m learning a new skill, but sometimes, when I think I know it all. (Yeah, being a know-it-all has plenty of downsides!)

That’s when I use the Rule of Six. Why six? Because it’s double three. I need to generate even more options. That helps me understand the underlying reasons and create more alternatives.

Do I ever use the first solution from the Rule of Three? Sure. However, I can use that solution because I’m pretty sure I understand the problem.

I recognized the trap of either/or thinking. I avoided it—even if I use the first idea. I increase my adaptability by considering other options.

That’s the question this week: When can you recognize and avoid the trap of either/or thinking?

5 thoughts on “When Can You Recognize and Avoid the Trap of Either/Or Thinking?

  1. Rebecca Wirfs-Brock

    I’m always suspicious of false dichotomies. Either/or thinking paints options as being ONLY “this” or ONLY “that” Arbitrary poles are just that (arbitrary). To counteract that thinking I try to hold what if I could do both in my mind when people present only two “opposing” options. And this leads me to think of blends of options by considering what aspects that I value–and turning up the dials on several of those variations.

    To get more concrete .. here is a recurring situation where I try push on my “habitual thinking”:
    Does it have to be a cardio workout day or a strength day? Can I do both today (for a change)? Or maybe I could something entirely new to me (so I don’t get in a rut)…and then the possibilities open up. Why not Yoga? Why not a Zumba zoom session led by a friend? Why not a mix?…

    And another example from work:
    I like working both solo and collaboratively But does it have to be just one or the other?The rhythms of my writing are examples of I am pretty good at mixing up options so we don’t always collectively work the same way.

    1. Johanna Post author

      Rebecca, I think of you as someone who can hold many possibilities in mind for almost everything!! (IME, the best architects do this. Yes, I think you’re one of the best.) I still have to practice :-).

      I’ve been trying intermittent fasting, which means I have to get out of my rut for always eating at the same time every day. I need to switch up my fasting, too. So far, so good.

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