Keeping things simple should be our number one priority, but we love to overcomplicate things. In the past, I have written about how the best writing uses simple words and sentence structures. Doing so makes it easier for the reader to remember key points from the article, and increases the likelihood that they finish reading the thing that you have written. Keeping things simple is not only important in writing, but in decision-making as well. In a past letter to shareholders, Munger and Buffett once wrote “Simplicity has a way of improving performance through enabling us to better understand what we are doing”. Munger and Buffett, two of the best investors in the world, have been active advocates for taking the simple approach to difficult problems. If they prefer to keep things simple, then perhaps we should follow their lead.
Why We Overcomplicate Things
We like to make things more difficult than they appear because it shows that we have given a lot of thought to something. If we have taken down dozens of notes for something and explored the most complex possible solutions, it makes it look like we have done more work than just thinking through the easiest possible solution. I think that a lot of it comes down to ego — we want to look like we understand all of the complicated things in any given situation. In some cases, complicated solutions are warranted — there is no other way — but in most situations, taking a simple approach is the quickest path to success. When we try to make things more complicated, we end up considering factors which may not be pertinent to our original decision or idea. We start thinking about every scenario which does not apply, in order to make it appear as if we understand all possible ramifications. Making things more complicated than they need to be is not a good idea — it clutters our headspace.
In work decisions, we often make things more complicated than they need to be to make it look like we have been productive and thorough. However, more work does not always mean that you are going to be more successful. Hard work is indeed an important part of becoming successful, but if you are working in the wrong direction, then the time you have spent working will have less of an impact. Rather than making things more complex, we should instead try to make them simple. We should strip away anything that does not directly relate to the situation at-hand. We should stop considering all of the most complex solutions we can think of and instead focus on the easiest possible solutions. I find that some of the best solutions are those that are deceptively simple, yet we ignore because we want to make things look more complicated. After all, it is not how much work you do that matters; it is who comes up with the best solution.
Take a Simple Approach and Use Beginners Mind
It can be very difficult for us to take a simple approach to a difficult problem, because we naturally want to make things more complicated. In meditation, there is a concept called “beginners mind” which is designed to help you start with a blank slate when you begin meditating. The idea is that when you start meditating, you should think as if your mind has just started fresh — there should be nothing in your mind. Meditation values beginners mind because it forces you to take the simple approach to everything. If you overthink things in meditation or try to overcomplicate the exercise, you will likely derive little benefit from the exercise. However, if you take a simple and minimalist approach, then you can sit back and maintain a clear headspace. We should use a similar approach in decision-making. When we are making a new decision, we should take a step back and adopt a beginners mindset — we should approach the decision as if we have only just started thinking about it. Doing so forces us to stop worrying about every possible eventuality and prospective solution we have planned out, and go back to the basics. With a beginners mind, you can more effectively analyze the root of the problem or the decision, which makes it easier to make a more informed decision.
Develop Rules of Thumb
Another way to use simple solutions is to have faith in rules of thumb. Let’s use baseball as an example. Do baseball players calculate the speed and distance of the ball, accounting for spin? Do they calculate the highest point the ball reaches, and its trajectory? In a few seconds? No, of course not. Not only would the game not be fun if players done that, but it is almost impossible — there are too many complex calculations to make. But how to baseball players catch the ball then, if they don’t do all of this work? The simple answer: they use rules of thumb. Everyone who catches a baseball will use the same process: focus on the ball, and run so that the angle of the ball is always in your eye-line. This is a simple formula, but is what all baseball players use. They use a simple set of rules to help them achieve what is a scientifically complex action, and are successful on many occasions.
If we adopt these simple rules of thumb — or mental models — then we can focus solely on the basics, and still achieve a good outcome. Most complex actions can be broken down into a few rules of thumb. Warren Buffet’s stock picking model is very complex from the outside, but to him is just a few rules of thumb, based on knowledge, past experience, and intuition. He will not analyze every metric of every stock he is thinking about — he will use the mental models he has developed over time. These rules of thumb are everywhere. For example, we know that consumers like improvements on past versions of products; consumers want faster and better things. We know that if we are making a business decision, only a few factors really matter — how it will impact stakeholders, financial and morale impacts, et cetera. Considering every possible factor, while thorough, is almost impossible and will surely lead to you missing out on opportunities.
Simple Solutions Save Time
Using simple solutions to difficult problems can save you a lot of time. There is often a more effective solution out there to the one you have chosen. But, would it really be worth spending days or weeks tying to find that solution when there is already one that you know which meets your needs? We often try to collect too much information — much of which is impertinent — and fail to focus on the basics of the task at-hand. There are only a few things that we really need to consider. That is because more information does not always mean that you can make better decisions — you could know more than your co-workers yet they could come up with a better solution than you. Simple solutions allow you to focus more on what matters and get on with your work, rather than focus on solving one problem really well. Rules of thumb give you more time to do your best work, and that work will also help you refine your rules of thumb.
Simple ideas are not stupid ideas. Most often, elegant solutions are hidden within simplicity. When you are thinking about ideas or solutions, don’t immediately discard something because it looks too complicated. Instead, treat each idea equally, regardless of how simple it looks. Focus on keeping your solutions as simple as possible, and strip back any complex scenarios to the fundamentals. Then, when you have done so, you can start to spend all of your time evaluating the things that really matters. As you make more effective decisions, you will get used to taking simple approaches to seemingly difficult problems. Although complex ideas may seem more lucrative, they often paint a bad image of the decision you are considering. We often overcomplicate things so much that we think more complexity is the key to solving a problem. More often, though, it is the most simple solution that turns out to be the most effective.
Don’t overcomplicate things. Strip down decisions to their most basic components. Value simple decisions.