Simplicity vs complexity

We are of two minds: Simplicity versus Complexity. We observe the tension between them everywhere. It is present in music, architecture, art, design, and even computer programming. Think of the vast variety of options available at the store: the varied type, sizes, features, or flavors of items available for a simple bar of soap or loaf of bread. How to choose?

Tension is often seen as negative. However, it can be both positive and necessary. The continuous movement between simplicity and complexity is a rhythm of life. The move toward complexity begins with conception: one cell becomes two, two becomes four… eventually the brain of a newborn has 100 billion neurons. At adolescence, a type of simplification called synaptic pruning begins that sorts and makes room for the integration and efficiency of an adult brain with 500 billion neurons. This renovating of the brain continues throughout life. This mental ability to change and adapt is called neuroplasticity.

In the same way, complexity comes upon us gradually in our lives as we create and work to solve problems. The solutions are good, but unchecked complexity hampers further growth. A simpler idea is often required to prune the unproductive complexity vines and regain the focus of what really matters.

Benefits

Simplicity draws us with its benefits, such as regaining focus on priorities, clarifying by shutting out distractions, and allowing us to accomplish more with less stress. Sometimes simpler is just easier too!

The benefits of complexity also attract us with promises of efficiencies, improvements in products or processes and increasing value. We can see that the vast amount of information available online makes learning more accessible. Technology enables faster communication and greater accuracy. Medical advancements improve both our health and our quality of life, while the myriad of appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines and Roombas, take care of mundane tasks. Our complex society can do things that previous generations could only dream of! Think of the 1.2 million terabytes of data accessible from Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. The smart phones in our pockets have more processing power than the computers used to send astronauts to the moon.

Nature appears simple. It is energy efficient in its processes; nothing is wasted. Take the leaves on trees as an example. They grow and nourish the tree in season, then fall off and decompose giving nutrition back to the roots of the tree, which in turn allows it to grow more leaves. The water cycle is another example. Water falls to the earth in the form of snow and rain. As it runs off the surface it nourishes plants, eventually reaching creeks, rivers and finally the ocean. There it evaporates again into its purest form to begin again as precipitation.

Basic human needs are air, water, food, sleep, safety, love, and stimulation. To modern eyes, work before the invention of electric lights appears simpler. Tasks began at sunrise. At sunset the work halted, and as darkness fell, sleep was a natural response to the fatigue of the day’s efforts.

While life often appears simple, it requires engagement with the complex. The brain is complicated with its billions of neurons. Just like the brain, the entire body is composed of smaller cell units, together creating larger organs and tissues governed through various sub-systems. These systems are in turn affected by sensory input and hormones, intake of energy and excretion of waste. This internal equilibrium with all systems adjusting to maintain stability is often called homeostasis. This fragile balance is easily disrupted by illness.

Additional layers of complexity are created as we interact with others and through our desire to make and improve things. While the human need for relationships appears basic, experience quickly teaches us those human interactions are not simple. Our friendships, sibling rivalries, in-laws, family dynamics, and love are often fraught with misunderstandings and loaded with emotion which complicate matters. Efforts to reduce misunderstandings and tensions in relationships introduce new complexities in society in the form of accommodations and compromise. For example, multi-culturalism legislated through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows immigrants to preserve their culture and participate in society, sometimes at the expense of unity. Greater accommodations are required for so many different views. Tolerance of alternatives is insufficient, as minorities desire both acceptance and understanding.

Work is affected by the number of tasks, the level of difficulty, time required to complete, plus any unanticipated obstacles. In addition, there are also the interactions between co-workers and managers. Even belief in a Creator, which seems like a simple concept, is complicated by theology, morals and ethics. Faith shapes worldview and profoundly impacts all aspects of life. As complicated as that all is, there is the thread of simplicity too…humans have basic needs for relationships, for belonging, to be fully known. Thus, the pendulum continues to swing between simplicity and complexity.

Responses

Seeking solace in simplicity when overwhelmed by the complexity around us is understandable, but there are risks in letting the pendulum swing too far.

By ignoring details containing valuable information about a situation, simplifying may create additional problems. It may also result in lost opportunities to find improvements. A deeper understanding of the details of any situation leads to a more appropriate solution.

Over-simplifying is often seen in the “black and white” approach which media sometimes takes when reporting on issues. This also occurs in the short-term “band aid” solutions sometimes proposed by government for problems which require a longer perspective than a 4-year elected term. Short term management approaches can create a similar situation in long term intergenerational companies.

Nostalgia regarding the past is a common human experience. It is a way of validating our method of decision-making used in the past. An efficient self-defence mechanism, it combines various positive memories and filters out negative ones. This helps us cope with the tension changes bring, provides meaning and comfort by increasing our connectedness with the past and who we are, and offers a sense of continuity of ourselves moving through time.

Our digital society changes so rapidly that the computer bought last month is already out of date. It is hard to keep up. No wonder many feel nostalgia for the perceived simplicity of previous generations.

However, the past was not as simple as we tend to believe. Anthropologists confirm that ancient Maya, Inca, and West African tribes were both non-literate and remarkably complex. Traditional societies of the past would have argued that their lives were equal to, or even harder, than ours because they had to grow their own food, make their own soap, sew their own clothes and all with no insurance for losses they encountered along the way.

Simpler is not necessarily easier. While previous generations did have simpler governments and economies based on traditional industry, they had significant challenges. How about Imperial Munitions Board controlling 600 munitions factories across Canada through World War I without the ease of modern communication? What about the 1920’s era neurosurgeon who required 4 full-time secretaries to keep his work organized?

While nostalgia serves a purpose, life must be lived in the present, recognizing the value of both simplicity and complexity.

While surrounded by simplicity and complexity and the tension they create, we accept that neither are negative. Both have benefits and are necessary in the rhythm of life. The challenge is to achieve the internal stability of homeostasis, or equilibrium, when responding to challenges.

Occam’s Razor

The desire for balance is not a recent idea. The Rule of Occam’s Razor is used for problem-solving when there are competing hypotheses about the same prediction. It prefers the simplest solution, or the one with the fewest assumptions, over the more complex. While William Occam (1287-1347) did not invent the principle, it is named for him because of his passion for its use. It became known by its modern name in 1852, during a nostalgic, “simpler” era!

Simpler is not always right

While the simpler explanation is often more appealing given the complexity of issues in our world, it might not always be the right one. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein says, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Join us in Part 2 to explore implications in an organizational setting, Part 3 to explore multi-tasking and helpful time management tools for individual effectiveness, and Part 4 to explore anchoring ourselves in the presence of this tension.


Simplicity vs Complexity: Part 3 – Strong Foundations

We are caught in the tension of engaging with the complex while being drawn drawn to simplicity. This reality is present in our bodies, organizations, and individual lives. Our bodies seek to maintain equilibrium. Organizations prune layers of complexity that add no value. Individuals learn to cope with complexity by seeking structure and focus.

This natural swing of the pendulum affects everything, including the emotional and spiritual areas of our lives. Emotion and spiritual dimensions are the foundation on which the rest of our lives and organizations are built.

Emotional Foundation

Emotions are varying mental states that are experienced. These are affected by thoughts, circumstances, habits, inhibitions like shame or fear, and opportunities for excitement. The limbic system in the brain controls emotions and behaviors. It is the first responder, arriving on the scene of a new circumstance before logic. This is the reason people frequently make decisions based on emotions. Later, when logic has a chance to inform the brain of risks or potential problems, there may be regrets. Things can seem so much clearer in hindsight!

Emotional stability skills can be learned

Emotional stability varies among individuals and from day-to-day, as well as over the stages of life. While some personalities may be naturally more or less stable, the neuroplasticity of the brain ensures that everyone can learn new ways to cope during challenging periods of life.

Build a strong emotional foundation for life by simplifying, releasing control, embracing vulnerability and community, and finding time to rest.

Simplify

When the complexity of life makes you feel emotionally off balance, simplify the things you can control.

For instance, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama, and Steve Jobs are among those who chose to wear a “uniform” of sorts ranging from heather grey t-shirts, grey or black suits, to black turtlenecks with jeans in order to focus their “decision-making” energy on more important things.

Release

Learn to say “no.” Delegate tasks that others could accomplish while you focus on your own job strengths.

Let go of what you can not control. Embrace the unpredictability of life. This current moment in time and its accompanying feelings (good or bad), will not last. Focus on what is most important.

Embrace Vulnerability and Community

Recognize the power of vulnerability and community. Humans are all imperfect beings. All make mistakes, all long to be loved and known, to belong, to be part of something larger than themselves. It is important to acknowledge shortcomings and seek forgiveness. Authenticity builds real connections with others. Find supportive people to walk with on life’s journey.

Rest

Rest is an important part of training to run a marathon. During interval training, a runner increases speed for a short distance, then slows down significantly to rest, then increases speed again. Rest allows muscles to rebuild and creates endurance in the athlete. Rest is also essential in the marathon called life. It is not the opposite of productivity, but an important aspect of building both physical and emotional endurance. Taking the time for self-care, for rest and renewal is crucial to balancing the tensions in life.

Spiritual Foundation

Everyone has spiritual needs, regardless of whether they consider themselves religious. The spiritual side in each of us needs to find meaning or purpose in our day to day lives. Just as people benefit from taking an emotional inventory when faced with complex circumstances, it is also beneficial to take a spiritual inventory, examining assumptions about spiritual matters.

Spiritual topics can be complicated. Every faith has specific beliefs and moral codes. For example, some version of a Golden Rule is aspired to in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Even belief in a Creator, which seems like a simple concept, is full of complicated assumptions of by whom, why and how creation happened.

Simple Practices

Though spiritual beliefs can be complex, some simple practices can be profoundly meaningful.

Build a strong spiritual foundation for life by pursuing wisdom, praying, seeking forgiveness, belonging to a community, practicing gratitude, and embracing rest.

Along with many of our clients, staff at Plains Edge embraces the Judeo-Christian perspective of God. Following are examples of how we incorporate simple spiritual practices to provide spiritual stability. However, it is not that these practices themselves have any transformational power, but they serve as a means of personally connecting with God.

Pursue Wisdom

Spiritual foundation begins with wisdom. Many people use inspiring quotes from individuals they admire or who were wise, such as Socrates, Mahatma Ghandi, St. Augustine, or Albert Einstein, to encourage them during difficult times. We look to the person of Jesus and his words as our ultimate source of wisdom. An example is his simple challenge from the Bible: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”1

Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. Since we understand the Bible to be a historical document revealing Jesus’ life and teachings, we regularly spend time reading it to get to know him. Starting the day by reading the Bible provides a reminder that how we live is important. Just as choosing to wear a “uniform” focuses decision-making energy, so too meditating on scripture helps focus thoughts on things that are meaningful. Meditating on scripture can displace negative thought patterns and bring calmness. It can also aid us in falling asleep at the end of a stressful day.

Pray

Prayer is spiritual communication and is as simple as carrying on an inner conversation with Jesus as we go about our day. We ask for help with problems, express thanks for the good around us and seek wisdom and direction for planning.

Prayer is also a way of letting go of what is not in our control. Acknowledging and expressing what we are worried about in this way helps us process difficult emotions and cope with the unpredictability of life. Vulnerability and trust are important aspects in both human and spiritual relationships. Our dependence on God gives us a unique sense of freedom.

Seek Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a spiritually significant topic. Being imperfect, forgiveness is essential in human relationships. It is also essential in a spiritual relationship with God. Experiencing spiritual forgiveness inspires us to be more gracious and forgiving with those around us.

Join a Community

People do not thrive in isolation. We are wired to live in community, longing to be part of something bigger and meaningful. Knowing others who share beliefs and who encourage and support through life’s difficulties develops both emotional and spiritual stability. We have found our faith in Jesus to be a common denominator with others, helping us find belonging in new communities and new situations.

Practice Gratitude

A daily gratitude journal is an effective way to help take our focus off current problems or stressors and look for the good that is still present all around us. Writing down just 3 items every day, results in over 1,000 blessings in the year to look back on when feeling discouraged! Expressing that gratitude to others increases our awareness and joy.

Embrace Rest

Just as rest promotes physical and emotional endurance, being at rest in our spiritual dimension brings us a true sense of peace. God invented rest and self-care and modeled it for us by refraining from work on the Sabbath. Jesus invites us to experience rest and peace through faith in him, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” 2

When emotions and feelings are in flux, we are uncertain and unsettled. At difficult times like these, our spiritual foundation can provide stability. We can choose to continue to trust what we know to be true of faith.

Conclusion

We are of two minds: simplicity and complexity. The tension is everywhere, the movement between them is part of the rhythm of life. There is good to be found in both. Intentionally build a strong emotional foundation through simplifying, releasing control, embracing vulnerability and community, and finding time to rest. Acknowledge your spiritual dimension too. Embrace the simple faith practices of wisdom, prayer, forgiveness, community, gratitude, rest and find true peace in Jesus.


1Bible, Matthew 6:27 New International Version
2Bible, Matthew 11:28 New International Version

Additional Reading

What are spiritual needs?
How to Trust God, Even in Difficult Times


Simplicity vs Complexity: Part 2 – Individual Effectiveness

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.

Focus

  • 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.

Learn

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.

Conclusion

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
how_do_i_manage_complexity_in_my_organization

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


Simplicity vs Complexity: Part 1 – Organizational Applications

As growth and development in the human body bring about natural, healthy complexity, so growth of customer base, product lines, and employee count naturally increases complexity of the organization.

The Cost of Complexity

This increase in complexity incurs costs in several different ways.
Government agencies issue and enforce standards for quality, privacy, and public safety. While this is generally supported by society, the day-to-day implementation results in additional administration and expense. Regulations may yield a safer workplace but result in a less flexible work environment. This environment demands higher skill levels for employees, affecting wages and profits. These additional costs may pose barriers to smaller organizations, thereby reducing competition and increasing prices.

To understand and guide a larger organization management requires more sophisticated reporting. Additional software and systems required to track and report on this complexity adds cost for software licensing, staff training and more complex procedures. For example, a small charity may track some basic donor information, allocate gifts to a single or small number of funds, and issue simple receipts. However, as the charity engages in more projects and offers more methods of accepting donations, the systems and staff required increases, sometimes resulting in a reduction of operational efficiency. Reporting then requires additional time to prepare and understand.

Technology solutions promise increased operational efficiency. Unfortunately, the systems are frequently more complex to use, require additional dedicated staff to manage and secure, and incur higher licensing costs. The increasing risk of security threats over recent years requires more effort and investment to protect systems and insure the organization against data breaches.

Every industry has its own unique regulations, such as the safety regulations in trucking, or in the food service sector. Registered charities are typically more complicated than a similar sized for-profit organization. Even a modest sized registered charity will likely need to deal with fund accounting to properly track gifts to, and spending from, specific projects. For example: a charitable foundation with less than $1,000,000 in revenue may need to track dozens of restricted project funds, while the accounting for a similar-sized for-profit corporation would remain straightforward.

Managing the complexity challenge

Increasing complexity is a natural result of organizational growth. Manage the complexity by identifying and then simplifying processes when complexity does not add value.

Find Efficiencies

Finding ways to efficiently meet reporting requirements provides a competitive advantage. For example, in the trucking industry, managing fuel tax reporting across multiple jurisdictions is complex. Hiring more staff and adding more software provides no apparent value to customers. Therefore, spending beyond the minimum required to meet baseline reporting requirements is unnecessary.

The same is true for charities. Find the most cost-effective ways to correctly and quickly handle regulatory reporting requirements. An example is the requirement to file an annual Registered Charity Return. Either have a volunteer Board member with CPA experience handle this as part of their role, or source it out to a CPA firm who has the dedicated software and experienced staff. While it is important to complete this report correctly, avoid investing anything more than necessary in this task that needs to be done only once each year.

Recognize Process Phases

Recognizing the phases of a process can help the organization discover efficiencies. As an individual works at tasks, there are often three phases. These can be seen in the example of reconciling a bank account. Phase one involves assembling documents like bank statements, starting the software, opening any forms, and general set up. This may only take a minute but is important to recognize. The transaction phase involves matching transactions and general problem solving. The final phase involves closing off. This includes running and filing reports then finally, closing the software.

In manufacturing, these cycles have been understood for many years and considerable effort is invested to improve efficiencies. Intentionally planning tasks can yield significant productivity improvements. Reduce the number of start and finalize phases by grouping tasks during the day. This has the additional benefit of increasing mental focus on the reduced number of tasks that are to be accomplished at one time.

Improve Role Descriptions

Organizations that recognize processes and reduce transitions or “frame shifts”, can design better job or role descriptions and office environments. A common error is to set up a receptionist to work on data entry while answering the phone or working at a public desk. The staff member is constantly dealing with unexpected frame shifts. This loss of focus contributes to errors and slows progress.

If the organization does require this type of situation, then recognize and bridge this challenge. Use a ruler on the page to mark the spot for data entry so lines are not inadvertently missed. Attempt the task without interruption to understand how much faster it could be accomplished. This may be why many office workers have enjoyed working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The large number of interruptions, or frame shifts, while working from home are also a reason many individuals say they did NOT enjoy this work setting.

Conclusion

In a recent McKinsey report, the consulting firm advises, “The answer is not to make an organization as simple as possible, but rather to eliminate the complexity that makes it hard to get things done and creates little value. If complexity can (be) seen not as a problem to be eliminated but as a challenge to be managed and even exploited, businesses can generate additional sources of profit and competitive advantage.” Mckinsey.com

Join us in Part 3 to explore helpful time management tools for individual effectiveness and the myth of multitasking. In part 4 we will explore anchoring ourselves in the presence of this tension.