Simplify – How complex can that be?

I’m one of those people who doesn’t get annoyed with much. No. Wait. I’m one of those people who others look at and think, I bet they don’t get annoyed with much. But I do. And one thing that really pushes my buttons is something I’ve labelled “complexification”. At one point I thought I’d invented that word, but I guess I didn’t.

I want to look at some examples, to understand what complexification is both at work and home, show how it can be a real de-motivator and give you some practical strategies to deal with things. Of course the usual disclaimer is that I’ve not got this sorted at all, but I meet many people in my coaching who want to see improvement in an area but struggle because of the amount of stuff they have going on, and the amount of complexity within that stuff. Life (see the law of Entropy) has a habit of running away and tending towards more complexity. In addition, trends in technology which should make life simpler can, if we are not very careful, and we’re not, have the opposite effect. Mobile phones are replacing fixed telephones, and apps are taking over many aspects of our life.

I love this quote from Steven Pinker, from one of his books “this idea is brilliant”

“The ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.”

— Steven Pinker

And I agree. The first step to fighting back, is to identify the tide in the first place. So let’s start with some areas to look at, examples that when you find them indicate complexification at work, and show you that you need to simplify.

Once you start to look for these, you’ll see them everywhere. I once went to a meeting which was organised to determine if we needed to have a meeting to make a future decision. I kid you not. A meeting about having a meeting. Wow. So complexification comes in many forms in your work and personal life. Look out for these ones:

Complexification Examples

Full calendars – Each individual meeting might be important, and you may be able to come up with valid and sensible reasons for each one, but when grouped together how much time do you have to think, to get on with actions or to move yourself into doing work that is important but non-urgent. When I looked at my own calendar for this last week I found that well over 70% of space was taken up with 1:1 and group meetings.

For managers you should consider:

  • Does it really need to be face to face?
  • Is now the best time to hold it?
  • Does it really need a 30 minute or 1 hour slot?
  • What would happen if you didn’t have it?

For people considering (and you should consider) attending consider:

  • Do you know why you are being invited and what you will be able to contribute?
  • Do you know what the goal and purpose of the meeting is?
  • Is someone allocated to prepare and organise the meeting?
  • What would happen if you didn’t attend?

And of course this issues occurs, in my experience to a lesser but still important extent in home calendars. I’m a dad of two boys and so lots of calendar time is taken up with running kids about to various events, and that’s valuable. However, I also note the same kind of issues occurring. Meetings that are not really needed or overly long, and things that I’m not 100% sure of why I’m there.

Asking some simple questions, and having a regular audit in your calendar can help to free up time and make you more productive.

Crazy Processes – Here’s another example that really pushes my buttons. I recently had to deal with a set of internal staff awards. There were 5 categories of awards and each one had separate, multi-page paper forms which had to be wet signed, scanned and emailed to the HR department. Or how about if you needed a new IT account you had to fill out and have signed by three different people, a paper form (choose from Pink, Green, Purple if you can work out which one you need). And I challenge you to book a meeting room in less than 2 minutes without breaking a sweat. It just can’t be done.

Getting rid of these, is actually pretty challenging as sometimes the organisation has put them in your way, but there are things that you can do to make things better. Here are some ideas:

  • Challenge (gently!) examples of crazy processes
  • Use automation to get round them if you can (take a look at tools like TextExpander and Hazel (windows alternatives are available), the automators podcast is also excellent.
  • Consider the use of Delegation (the most powerful “D” of all) to avoid crazy processes if you can.

Lots of stuff – Looking around whilst I write this I can see a random stack of paper, a toolkit that should quite clearly not be where it is, a random paid of binoculars and about 1/3 of a pack of playing cards. That’s all without moving from my seat. Clutter can be a sign that simplification could be overdue.

The book “The life-changing magic of tidying” is something that’s been a real eye opener in my life and has been so successful that it’s also spawned it’s own Netflix series.

Physical Signs – Our body is quite good at letting us know when things are getting on top of us, but we’re not always good at reading those signs or taking action. I’ve seen a number of people who seem to be stuck in a vicious cycle which goes something like: Complexification -> Stress – > De-motivation. Failing to deal with stress can end up with serious physical and mental health issues, and in many cases looking for ways to simplify can be a real turning point. Signs to look out for physically include:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Poor sleeping patterns
  • Frequent colds and infections

Of course there are also emotional and cognitive symptoms to watch out for, but the point here is that physical signs can be an important trigger that we need to renew our focus on simplification.

A Simplify Exercise

Perhaps you can spot some of the examples above, or perhaps you need help identifying them for yourself. This very simple but potentially powerful exercise can really help. It’s adapted from a great, and very practical book on productivity.

Ready? Here goes.

  1. Download (or just draw out on a bit of paper) the worksheet. It’s really just some boxes and headings… so go nuts.
  2. Start by filling out the essentials, the things that you really need to get done in your life or work. The key here is to be critical on if something is really needed. Practicalities like food (think shopping), home (think paying the mortgage go here, but pay attention also to other needs like family time, hobbies etc.
  3. Compare this list you’ve just made to how things are for you currently. What’s extra? Are you already seeing things that you could cut out? Write the simplified list of essentials
  4. Fill out the routines section. I found that I have loads of routines that I didn’t really think about. Running around after those kids, even doing the weekly budget.
  5. Reflect on the list you’ve just created and identify any routines you could add in order to make things simpler, and any routines that you might be able to remove.
  6. Finally fill out the unnecessary complexity section, reflecting on stuff, processes, calendar appointments and anything else that you’ve brought to mind that is causing complexification. Resolve to do something about it.

Suggested ACTION steps (do them now!)

  1. Schedule some time (yes I know!) to review your calendar with the aim of trimming unnecessary meetings.
  2. Take a few minutes to think about any processes that are unnecessarily complicated.
    1. Can you work around them?
    2. Can you find a way of automating them?
  3. Consider purchasing “The life-changing magic of tidying” or at least considering some of the principles that lie within.
  4. Complete the Simplifier Exercise, and implement the results.

I wish you every success on your journey of simplification.

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