I often find myself living a complex life. There are so many things I want to do, so many things I need to do, and so many things I should do that it is often overwhelming. While I’m definitely no expert, simplicity has become one of the core tenants in my life. Everyday I strive to achieve simplicity in thought and action, and while I’m only partially successful at this, working to achieve simplicity has been one of the greatest continuing practices of my life thus far.
Why is Life Complex?
It seems that life in general has become more and more complex as time has passed. The first organisms on the planet (~4.5 billion years ago) were simple. They didn’t even have a nucleus! As time progressed, and life evolved, these simple organisms gradually grew into more complex and familiar creatures (plants, animals, and humans). In short: life is continually adapting, growing, changing, and yes–becoming more complex.
So what does this mean for us?
I tend to think that physical evolution is mirrored in our mental evolution. As children, our lives are relatively simple: play, eat, sleep. As we get older, we find that many things have grown in complexity. Our lives are no longer so simple. We worry about our future, our purpose, our destiny. We desire for constantly improving lives and personal satisfaction, and we go to great lengths to ensure that we achieve internal happiness. These things all require lots of time to develop, refine, and execute. Life is not simple. Personal growth is hard.
Why is Complexity Bad?
Let’s assume for a minute that complexity is bad; bad in the sense that it leads to a more stressful, crisis-filled existence, and that it ultimately contributes to lack of personal growth and happiness. What makes it bad?
In my personal experience, it seems that the more complex something is, the more intimidated I am of it. For me, intimidation leads to:
I’ve found through trial-and-error that in order for me to be successful at something complex, I’ve got to purposely break it down into simple components, otherwise nothing will ever get done, and it will gradually eat away at me. Furthermore, I’ve found that this applies not only to things I need to do, but also metaphysical and emotional things (relationships, responsibilities, trust, spirituality, etc.).
What makes complex things intimidate me so much? I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about this, and I believe the core reason complexity intimidates me is that it seems undecipherable. For me, I often bump into complexity in technologies. How does a certain tool work and why? What is the best way to do ___? How might I improve my application’s performance when dealing with factors ___ and ___? The complexity levels are (on average) extremely high for my day-to-day work. Often times I look at my TODO list and just think to myself “OK: How will you approach this problem? What do you need to learn before you can even figure that out? How much time are you looking at spending on this?” It can be nerve wrecking to analyze these complex problems with the purpose of solving them, because I know that there is a lot of work ahead, and it will not be simple.
All of the factors above contribute negatively to my day-to-day being. I find that when I’m dealing with complex things (regardless of whether it is work related or not) I feel much more stressed, unhappy, and dissatisfied overall than I do when I’m dealing with simple things.
To make matters worse, the effects of complexity tend to last far longer than the effects of simplicity. If I have a particularly bad day where I’m working on very complex projects, I’ll feel unhappy, frustrated, nervous, intimidated, and unproductive for days afterward–even if I’ve only spent an hour or two working on something complex! The negative feelings don’t leave me as quickly as they come. In contrast, days filled with simple activities tend to make me feel productive, happy, thoughtful, and energetic for a few hours–all positive feelings, but for a short timespan only.
Why is Simplicity Good?
Simplicity tends to make sense. When I work on simple things, I feel like I have a grasp on what I’m doing, and that I’m in control of the situation, not the other way around. For me, having control over my actions makes me feel powerful–successful, independent, creative, and happy.
When things are simple (work projects, relationships, arguments, conversation, spirituality, etc.) you can easily discover what you need to do in order to make progress–to improve yourself. In simple work projects, you’re able to quantify the tasks you need to do to:
- Figure out what needs to be done to complete the project.
- Learn the necessary skills required to complete the project.
- Complete the project.
In simple relationships, you can also easily spot what needs work, and improve it. For example, my wife often gets upset with me for not doing the dishes. I immediately know that in order to improve the relationship, I need only to start doing them. Not difficult. While intuitive, I’ve found that until I really thought about this, I completely ignored it, and would often do stupid things.
The result of my continual quest for simplicity has been increased confidence, thoughtfulness, and happiness. While these effects only last for a short while, the continual flow of them contributes to a happy lifestyle. The positive feelings associated with simplicity are simply too great to ignore. As I’ve come to realize this over the years, my quest for simplicity in thought and action has yielded immense positive net results.
How to Live Simply
Ok, so we know that simplicity is good and complexity is bad. But how can we use this knowledge to live simply? Since I’m no expert, and life is far too complex to make bold statements that generalize simplicity for every individual, I’ll simply share my own practices with you.
Keep an Open Mind
One thing that leads to terrible complexity is misinformation. There is more information available today than at any other time in history; the amount is staggering (just look at Wikipedia’s list of common misconceptions). Given the large amount of information available, it is impossible to know everything. Since it is impossible to know everything, there will certainly be people who don’t know things. And out of that group of people who don’t know certain things, some of those people will undoubtedly talk about things they don’t know with others. Some of these people will formulate opinions about the things of which they’re uncertain–and eventually these opinions, ignorant of truth, will be shared as misinformation.
Keeping an open mind is crucial to living simply. Just because you think you know something to be true, it doesn’t mean you do. There are always people smarter and more informed than you out there–so keep an open mind. By constantly learning and growing mentally, you’re able to see new solutions to problems that you didn’t previously see. Having knowledge is power, and that sort of power can greatly simplify your life by providing you with clear insights into whatever you’re doing at the moment.
As a person who is an all-or-nothing type of guy, this lesson has been particularly hard for me to apply to myself. However, pacing yourself does yield simplicity.
In my case, I often overwork. I’ve been known (ask my wife!) to work 16-hour days for weeks at a time. Other than the fact that it is extremely unhealthy to work that much, my overworking causes a lot of mental hardships. It makes me stressed, irritable, and generally unproductive. The further I push myself past my limits, the more complex everything seems. Only when I pace myself and try to live a balanced life do things seem to fall back into place.
It’s extremely difficult to apply yourself consciously to the present. I find that a majority of my time is spent in a semi-conscious state, just kind of chugging along, without really focusing, analyzing, and making decisions. This has a huge effect.
When you don’t consciously analyze and make decisions about the things you’re doing, you make mistakes, and you build complexity. When you focus on what you’re doing, whatever it may be (washing dishes, doing laundry, writing some code), you’re able to break down complexity when you see it, and find elegant ways to make yourself more efficient.
Break Complex Things
Whenever I begin working on something complex, the first thing I do is try to break it. I’ll ask myself a few basic questions:
- Do I really need to do this at all?
- Do I have to do it this way, or is there a simpler alternative?
- What do I have to do, in order, to complete this task?
By immediately analyzing and getting a grasp on the complex thing, I’m often able to either completely eliminate it, or substantially reduce its complexity through analysis and breakdown.
It’s sometimes hard to be honest about things. Maybe it’s your project completion date. Maybe it’s your relationship’s future. Maybe it’s something completely random. Whatever it may be–be honest about it. Often times if we’re honest with ourselves, we can get from point A to point B in a lot less time. There’s no need to complicate things by avoiding or subverting the truth. Instead, try to be brutally honest with yourself, and move onwards.
Make Life Simple
All things said, life will always be complex. The best you can do is try to live simply, and enjoy your life moment to moment. There is no single solution to any problem, and simplicity may (or may not) help you get to where you want to be. Maybe you’re wired completely different from me, and none of this information applies to you–who knows.
What I do know is that my quest for simplicity has been rewarding and exciting, and I feel like I’ve finally reached a point in my life where I have enough consciousness to control complexity and make myself a better person. Regardless of how you live your life, I hope you enjoy it.