“As simple as possible and as complex as necessary.” The Nib
The true meaning of:
Albert Einstein‘s “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.“
If you’re on the quest for personal productivity, on Getting Things Done (GTD) or thinking you’re beyond GTD then this is for you.
What is the first step?
Whatever system you use to go about your work the first step is to use the system. Or as Brian Tracy, David Allen and probably a few others say: “Always work from a list!”
If you don’t use a system, get one after you read this article. A productivity system will give you the freedom and flexibility you expect from not having one.
Without a systematic approach to your work and life you put the stress of keeping it all together on yourself instead of delegating it to a sheet of paper.
Nothing else can be delegated so cheaply.
Be well aware though, that your paper assistants job is to keep things, to give you an overview, to help you develop things, to think clearly or to fantasize. But it’s not there to do things for you. And it won’t.
Your amazing head
Oh, sure you could keep all those things in your head.In fact even the longest To-do list would easily fit into your brains RAM. Even in a plain text file it would be just a few kB. And nobody has yet figured how many Terabytes of Terabytes you may store and retrieve.
Well, let’s keep on the ground and face reality. Did you acquire the memory skills necessary to keep a changing list of 250 items in order in your mind?
Sure you could learn to do so and you could thereby create a new era of time management and personal productivity products, fads, gurus and so on.
Check your worth
OK, let’s give it a try. A list of measly ten items. Look at it as long as you wish and remember the items and their order. Use all memory tools available to you right now. No note taking for sure.
To make the endeavor worthwhile the list contains ten superfoods that would boost your health and energy if you ate them. Now remember them and pretend you want to buy them next time you pass them in a store.
- Chlorella algae
- Shiitake mushroom
- Goji berry
- Spirulina algae
- Maitake mushroom
- Maca powder
- Reishi mushroom
- Hemp seeds
- Raw cacao beans
- Agaricus mushroom
OK, remember these items
Simple but not too simple.
Let’s cut to the core of that Einstein quote.
If you have a complex and amorphous (unordered) set of data then it’s very, very wise to look for a way to systematize it.
Our brain is designed for exactly that: to find structures in amorphous data. E.g. how can I get through that forest and over that mountain.
Example 1: First attempt
Let’s assume you have a complex and amorphous set of data. You go through the data several times and you find some top categories like a core, a lookout with high tech gear for visual and acoustic information processing, some extensions to move the whole thing and some extensions for processing things.
Those extensions have functions that somehow overlap, so to make things as simple as possible you decide to go with extensions, core, lookout.
You now created the most simple system you could think of and you throw it into real life. But what you notice is that the system is not able to do all the things it should be able to do. At least that’s what the data is promising.
Einstein comes to help
Frustrated you show your system to Mr. Einstein and ask him what’s wrong with it.
First thing Mr. Einstein does, ha asks for the facts, the data you referred to when designing your system. He goes through these facts and soon the concentration on his face leaves for a delighted smile.
You think he solved the puzzle and ask him what’s wrong with the data. But instead of getting a respectful pad on the back you get a sermon: “Make things simple, but not too simple.”
It takes a while to recover from that. Eventually you dare to ask why he thinks you oversimplified.
He says: “Look, you got caught by the complexity. As you where noticing that indeed that amorphous stuff could be put into a system you got carried away by those categories that emerged. It all seemed too simple and this tricked you into omitting the necessary work to make the system complex enough.
“Look, the system you designed has a head, a body and three equal extensions, let’s call them legs. Proper research would have shown you that you needed four extensions and that two would work as legs and two as arms. In fact that set of data is nothing but a detailed description of the human body. That’s what emerged when I went through those open loops and incongruities and realized I had to add some complexity to make it all work.”
Thank you Mr. Einstein for the explanation.
Your system fails to perform?
So if whatever system you use is not performing the way it’s supposed to, then ask yourself these questions:
1. Can I make it simpler? If not, then
2. Do I have to add a little complexity to make it work?
The real quest
Often when we strive for simplicity we are really looking for a way to see the whole system. It’s a lack of overview that gives us a feeling of overwhelm, uncertainty, and fear.
Nature teaches us that the place of simplicity is in the principles. And out of those simple principles a vast, endless complexity may arise. A complexity that is easy to grasp once you understand the principles.
Example 2: Finding the flaws in an organisational structure
Let’s say you don’t get it how that organization XYZ is working and why it has troubles. You have a flow chart of that organization in front of you and something is missing. Striving for a simple way to understand that given structure you decide to reorganize the chart into the shape of human body.
You come up with the following model:
The organization has
- A head (the boss) with eyes and ears (market and product research) and a mouth to speak (public relations)
- A body (warehouse/plant/factory/production, accounting, billing, customer support…)
- Arms (salespeople, call center…)
- Legs (marketing, advertising…)
- The mouth as an input device (staff, vendors, freelancers, raw materials, energy, resources…)
- An output device (fired staff, manufactured goods…)
Assuming you now placed all departments specified on the flow chart to the human frame, the next step is to use the analogy to look for the missing parts.
What is missing in that human picture? For example:
- No genitals, that means there is a lack of reproduction, like a franchise model, breastfeeding of new salespersons and staff, more shops, a webshop, an outlet…)
- No nose for sniffing up new trends and opportunities
- No knees for flexible marketing (e.g. “special Olympic sale”, “home basketball team won the league and we make a party sale”, “home hockey team lost the league we relief your pain special sale”…)
- No liver to clean up the blood (optimizing all processes like workflow, information flow…)
By adding these parts, the whole organization gets more complex and at the same time whole and therefore healthy, stable and more efficient.
Get more than the sum of the individual parts
Adding complexity where necesarry triggers synergy and allows scalability and leverage.
Synergy because the parts can be used better, more efficient or in other ways.
Scalability because once you understand how it works you can expand or multiply the necessary processes.
Leverage because you can insert existing tools/services/resources and profit thereby.
Example 3: You hurt them
Another example: If you want to design a personal productivity system or something alike and you spare the calendar (for that is a monster of complexity and inconsistency) then you created a beautiful simple system that’s obviously not going to work for most people.
Now, prove yourself
By the way, please recall those 10 items in the giver order.
Now rearrange the items alphabetically (hey in your head, not on paper).
Now rearrange them into groups with mushrooms at the beginning.
You can do that in your head? Then go immediately to work and create the first memory based personal productivity and time management SYSTEM and teach it to me. If it works I do the marketing to make it available to everybody.
What to do now
- If you didn’t get it right, start using a system to get your life under control. Use a proven one that is complex enough, even if you don’t get it at the beginning. I recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done. With an external system the task would’ve been very easily and quickly done. You would then be able to really buy those superfoods, eat them and thereby raise your energy and health levels.
- So for your own sake and to make the time you spent reading this article an investment into yourself: Copy those 10 superfoods on your shopping list.
- Do it now.
- Then write a comment.
Get in the flow
PS: Buy them. Eat Them.