Simplicity vs Complexity: Part 2 – Individual Effectiveness

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Humans are complex beings living and working in a complex world. Just as the brain engages in synaptic pruning which allows it to change and adapt throughout life, so too, organizations must work to prune those kinds of complexity that do not add value.

Individually, it is our experience of complexity and its effect on our focus that can become problematic. The number of tasks assigned, the level of difficulty, the time required to complete, unanticipated obstacles, and interactions with co-workers and managers all add layers of complexity for any given job. Add distractions from emails and phones, and lack of clear priorities, and the result can be a real drain on both energy and morale.

Multitasking Myth

The modern solution to the complexity of technology and organizations seems to be doing more things at the same time. Media multitasking, such as responding to an email while listening to a podcast, is probably the most common. While it appears possible, multitasking is a myth. Yes, reading a book while eating lunch works, as chewing and swallowing do not require much attention. However, the brain is not actually capable of processing more than one task at a time. Multitasking forces the brain to engage in frequent fast task switching. In more complicated accounting or data entry tasks, this contributes to errors and reduces both creativity and energy. Appearing fast, it may be slower than doing one task at a time.

The American Psychological Association has followed multiple studies over several years and concluded that multitasking can reduce productivity by 40%. Multitasking: Switching costs

A study from the University of California found it can take an average of 23 minutes for individuals to recover focus on their task after being interrupted. The Cost of Interrupted Work

Novelty and stimulation are appealing to the brain. Therefore, starting another task before the other is completed seems like a good option. Sticking through the boring parts of a job can be tough! However, according to a study done by the BBC in 2005, the distraction of multitasking causes a drop in IQ twice that of smoking Marijuana! BBC NEWS

The dangers of multitasking are widely recognized in areas related to automotive safety. In Manitoba, it is illegal to use a cell phone for calls and texting while driving, except for hands-free methods.

Not convinced? Want to prove your multitasking skills? Try this simple test.

Single tasking

Multitasking is a mindset that should be pruned back. Single tasking, the discipline of intentionally focusing on one task, is simplicity at its best! Single tasking restores focus, increases creativity and productivity, and reduces stress.

Focus Management Tactics

Own Your Calendar

  • Use a fixed calendar. Plan in advance when to spend time on priorities.
  • Work on groups of similar tasks to reduce the amount of time in start up and transition phases. Reduce frame shifts.
  • We allocate time during early mornings or late evenings to focus on tasks and projects which can be done in a quiet home office. We then allocate days in client offices with the expectation of connecting with people. We expect little progress on projects during those days.
  • Make time for the right people. We schedule recurring appointments with key people at each organization with whom we can make the most impact.

Get the Right Things Done

  • Work from a task list rather then an inbox. Anybody can add an item to your inbox. Only you can add task list items. A task list removes the pressure of trying to remember important tasks. Develop a reliable system, use the system.
  • Avoid paper, as it is more liable to get lost. Scan paper documents, keep digital copies and have a reliable system for storing/retrieving them. A good file naming convention is critical. It should focus on who, what and when. For example: Client Name – Month-end Finance Summary – 2022-01.xlsx.

Manage Email

  • Turn email notifications off.
  • Decide when to work on email. Schedule times during the day to check email. Do not leave messages in the Inbox. Either Respond, Delete, or Defer by converting the message into a task for a later date / time.
  • If using Microsoft Outlook, open it in something other than the default Inbox. (In Outlook – File / Options / Advanced then change “Start Outlook in this folder:” to something else like “Calendar” instead.)
  • Be wary of email and give each one single tasking, full attention. Scammers take advantage of people who hastily clear their inbox and click on links.


  • Use task lists such as Microsoft “To Do” which integrates with Outlook.
  • Keep a clean workspace. Close unused applications or browser tabs on the computer. Put the phone out of sight.
  • Use a time tracker app like Toggl or a Pomodoro type tracker.
  • When stepping away from the computer, lock the desktop but leave documents open during breaks. This provides a way to decide in advance what the next task will be when returning. Apparently, Ernest Hemmingway was also in the habit of leaving his writing mid-sentence, so that he could pick up the thought again later.
  • Be fully present when in meetings or on phone or video calls.
  • Organize Tasks by Context. Some tasks can be better completed in one context than another. For example, the task to return a phone call might be best scheduled in the context of a drive (Hands-free calling, of course), while the task of writing a report is best done in the context of an early morning from the home office.


There is much good advice available, such as David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Allen acknowledges that there is “no single, once-and-for-all solution”, but recommends scheduling things by context. The At Your Best training offered by Carey Nieuwhof also offer valuable tactics.


Complexity is not a problem to be solved, but a facet of life to be managed. Recognize individuality and that which works for one may not work for another. Finding ways to prune complexity increases productivity and reduces stress. Simplicity of focus in tasks can help achieve homeostasis, or equilibrium – in the body, in your mind, in your tasks.

Join us in Part 4 as we look at anchoring ourselves in the presence of this tension.

Recommend for further reading…

Dealing with Complexity by Creating a Bias For Simplicity
Putting organizational complexity in its place

Single-tasking: A neuroscientist’s guide to doing one thing at a time

June 17, 2022

Written by the Plains Edge team

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