In Search of Simplicity

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about simplicity. My dad was visiting a couple months ago and at some point said in an off-hand, loving way, “Boy, you sure know how to make things more complicated than they need to be.”  Ironically, my response was pretty simple: “Yeah, I sure do.” 

I’d gotten back from a trip the day before and didn’t feel well. I had refused his offer to go to the store for me to shop for dinner even though it meant I had to take work calls on the way there and back. As I unloaded the groceries, I realized I’d forgotten some ingredients and was trying to problem solve. This was right after he listened to me plan how to get some time with my teenage step daughters without inconveniencing their homework and social plans. In the reflection of his eyes, I saw my own insanity. In the wake of his comment I knew there was an easier path to everything I was contemplating. I was trying to do too much and please too many people.

I know I am in good company.  A week later a colleague reached out to consult about the introductory thirty seconds of some content we were offering. Five email exchanges later, he wrote to me, “I’m perfectly capable of over thinking this without your help, thank you!”  I slapped myself on the forehead; what a rabbit hole we’d dug for each other. In the past couple months I’ve had both clients and friends stop mid-sentence and say, “I know, I’m over-thinking this.” Last week I had a whole class of over-complicators! I admired their desire to do good work and demonstrate their capability but from my vantage point it was easy to see many simpler paths to the way they were getting things done. They were often one good question away from saving themselves thirty minutes of work.

We almost always over complicate for the best of reasons and with the best of intentions. To be thorough, careful, thoughtful, attentive, generous, disciplined. And we are often, rightfully so, rewarded for these traits and tendencies. The overuse of good traits and habits are the hardest to contend with.  It’s one thing to set to work on breaking our bad habits, but trying to reign in our good ones is a whole other mind bender. Over complicating our thinking and doing generally falls into this overuse category of mind bender.

Some questions to consider when trying to simplify your thinking and/or doing:

How long have I been working on this?  Is this about how long this should take me?

Is there someone who knows more about this that I could ask for help? What good questions could I ask them?

Is there someone who has offered to help whose help I have refused because of pride/perfectionism/control/need to prove myself?

Am I trying to do too many things today? This week? This hour?

How can I use my time so I am managing as few things at once as possible?

Am I hungry? How can I make sure I get fed?

Are my own standards of success helping or hindering me? 

What have I said yes to recently? Are there things I can/should say no to?

Who can I run this idea by to see if I have given it enough thought?

What is something I’ve let myself believe matters lately that doesn’t really matter?  What is something that does matter that I haven’t made time for?

All of these questions orient us towards simplicity. They focus us on the resources that exist within and without us to get stuff done. They force us to stop, to intervene in our own unhelpful spirals, to be vigilant about where our precious time and energy go. To remember how often we keep at bay people willing and able to help.

The questions above seem simple enough. But of course if asking ourselves these questions and answering them were easy, I wouldn’t get to bear witness to so many people answering them for the first time, to so many forehead slaps, knowing smiles, and ah-has. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have to keep asking them, the answers would stick, and an observant dad wouldn’t be calling out his 46 year old daughter who is trained to ask them.

Life is complicated. Simplicity is a practice. What can you let go of? Which of the above questions can you ask and answer today? Don’t worry, if you decide simplicity is not your thing, complexity will have no trouble finding you.

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