Creating Complexity to find Simplicity

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We live in an ever complex world. We get more and more inputs from more and more mediums and it is very hard to keep track of everything we are expected to know, reply to and absorb. As individuals we have a duty to ourselves to keep our lives as simple as possible. The David Allen analogy of “mind like water” — responding to inputs in an entirely appropriate way — has never been more apt.

The simplicity we need often requires a set of self-imposed constraints, which requires a lot of complex thinking and engineering. An example of this is the story of the original iPod. When the first iPod prototype was shown to Steve jobs, so the story goes, it took a lot of clicks to get back to the home screen. It took many more clicks to get to a specific playlist. Steve Jobs told the iPod team to go away and only come back when it would take no more than three clicks to get back to any screen. This constraint, while very complex for the engineers, resulted in a much simpler experience for the user. And that is true for you too. Whatever system you design for your productivity system, the end result needs to be simple to use, and that may require a lot of complexity to set up.

I use Evernote for all my reference and project support material. I have used Evernote in this way since 2009 and have built up quite a database full of interesting articles, project support documents and other keepsakes. At the end of last year I realised that my original organisation structure for my ‘stuff’ no longer worked as well as it should and I needed to go back to the drawing board to make it much simpler to get to the material I needed. The whole reorganisation took around a month. There was a lot of reading of articles, I re-read Brett Kelly’s brilliant book Evernote Essentials and I experimented with a dummy account I set up. The whole process was quite complex, but when I had finished reorganising my system, the system itself was incredibly simple. We sometimes need to create complexity in order to arrive at a simple solution. We need to impose “no more than 3 clicks” constraints to make sure that when we use our systems, they are simple and easy to use. But we sometimes have to go through a complex process to arrive at the desired simplicity.

Many of my clients suffer from email overload. They are receiving well over 100 emails a day, and those emails are dropping into their inboxes 24 hours a day because they work for multi-national companies. There is no way they are able to process those emails every day. If they did, they would not do any of the work they were employed to do. My advice to my clients in this situation is to set up some smart inboxes to filter out emails that are “for Information”, newsletters and other non-essential stuff. Deciding what smart inboxes to use, setting them up and reorganising your email client can be very complex, but the end result leaves less email in your inbox and a much simpler system than the one you had before.

And that should be the goal. No matter how complex the engineering of a system is, the end result must be simple to use. You need to think in terms of how easy something will be to use, to capture, to process and to organise. The no more than three clicks thinking. It doesn’t matter if setting that process up is complex. I find the thinking about, experimenting and setting up the fun part, but I never lose sight of the goal that it must be easy and simple to use when I have finished setting everything up.

Another example of this is my daily mini-review. My goal is it will take no more than ten minutes to do the end of day review. That includes processing my inbox (based on around 10 added items) and reviewing my calendar and todos for tomorrow. Setting that process up was quite complex. I could not afford to miss anything, yet it had to be completed in less than ten minutes. It too quite a few weeks of experimentation and implementation, but when I finally created the system it takes on average seven minutes to do each day and it is incredibly simple.

I leave you with this video from Apollo 13. These two little clips are the kind of attitude you need if you truly want to create simplicity in your system. “failure is not and option” my friends.

Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century

I help people learn to manage their lives and their time so they can experience joy and build a life they are truly proud of.

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