Raw Concepts: Simplification vs. Compounded Complications

When you deal with problems and try to improve your life, is your solution to simplify or to compound complications? More often than not, simplifying leads to being productive while compounding complications just leads to being busy. So it comes down to, are you actually productive or are you just constantly busy?

The three big ironies of compound complications:

  • One of the big ironies of life is that the busier you allow your life to become, the less likely you are to actually be truly productive, even though most people actively pursue busyness because they believe the exact opposite.
  • The second big irony is that once you become addicted to a new complication (and they’re almost always addictive), it becomes much harder to imagine and go back to life without it, even if you previously got along just fine without it. (Yes, drugs are another example of compounding complications)
  • The third big irony is that compound complications, rather than reducing your important, long-term problems, actually introduce the future unimportant, short-term problems you will feel the need to solve (most likely with more complications) in the future.

Simplifying is a lower-maintenance, long-term solution. Compounding complications is a higher-maintenance, short-term solution. Telling lies is an example of compounding complications.

When you lie, it’s high-maintenance because you have to usually follow up with more lies to cover up the earlier ones, plus you have to keep track of all the lies you told. In addition, lying requires keeping track of the truth as well, because you have to know what the truth is in order to effectively lie.

It’s short-term because it usually is only good at solving an immediate problem. For example if you tell a significant lie on your resume about your skills, that lie is only good for getting you the job. Once you get the job and get put to the test, you now have a new problem.

When telling the truth, you’re simplifying. Telling the truth gives you less things to keep track of and is easier to remember, so it’s low-maintenance, and it covers your ass for the long-term, not just for the moment.

There are many examples of this dynamic once you start looking. Take decluttering versus shopping at the Container Store and renting storage space. The Container Store and storage spaces are standing testaments to the idea of compounding complications.

You feel inadequate about yourself because you feel you have no important goals or purpose. So you self-medicate with consumerism and hobbies. Since you can’t find any profound goals, you delude yourself with useless goals. You collect hundreds of CDs and books and get clutter. Once you get all this clutter, you need to find ways to store it. So you go to Container Store and by some new fancy storage system.

Once you put all the CDs and books into your new storage system, your house is neater but is more cluttered, now with extra furniture. But now feel free to buy even more stuff thanks to your new storage solutions from the Container Store. Eventually you run out of room for more Container Store solutions, so the next solution becomes either getting a bigger living space or renting a storage unit in a building dedicated to extra storage.

And people will justify this extra hassle and expense by saying they now “need” a bigger apartment or they “need” a storage unit. But they don’t actually need those things because the problem they’re supposedly solving, the excess CDs and books, are themselves not a need. The bigger living space and the storage unit are complications, that have been added to the previous complication of junk accumulation.

None of it is productive, it’s all just busyness designed to keep the person distracted from the real, fundamental problem at his or her core: that feeling of purposelessness, lack of direction and emptiness that he or she dreads acknowledging and tackling. The consumerist lifestyle of “keeping up with the Joneses” also falls into this category.

A better solution would be to simplify. Peel away all the complications. Declutter and throw away anything that’s not truly important or won’t be used in the next year. Embrace minimalism. Focus on what psychological void the pathological busyness is filling.  Work on fixing the one or two big underlying long-term problems in your life rather than accumulating a bunch of fixes that are really just distractions and future short-term problems in disguise.

You find this dynamic in consumer technology as well. We purchase things and engage in new habits that we believe will simplify our lives and make us more productive, when actually we’re complicating them and only making them busier yet let productive.

Take for example cell phones and portable email devices like Blackberries and Iphones. Before we had them, we were perfectly fine without them. Then came text messages and emails we could take on the go. Ideally they would have made our lives simpler and allowed us to be more productive, right? But think of how you actually use the technology. How do you primarily apply the convenience afforded you by a cell phone?

How often do you use it to fill your day with idle chatter and to kill time texting small talk compared to using it for actual emergencies that you couldn’t have averted without? Now we also use them for checking Facebook and Twitter updates to boot. Our jobs use our portable email devices as excuses to harass us all night long with minutae and busywork that isn’t time sensitive and that in the past would have easily waited until the next morning to bring up. What about all the solutions and approaches dedicated toward filtering out spam and chain emails?

If you look at how all our organizing and productivity tech tools have changed our lives, you’ll see that they’ve just made us much busier, yet increasingly disorganized and more unproductive. To the point that the next new tech to hit the market, Windows 7, is now actually using this as a selling point for their next phone!

Seriously, take a look at the insanity going on in these commercials:

Once your technology advances affect your life to that point, is the answer really another tech advancement? At that point, wouldn’t it just be easier to get a simpler phone? I mean, who are the people who see this commercial and get excited about adding further complications in the form of the new technology Microsoft is offering rather than feel horrified with self-recognition at how filled their lives have become with compounded complications?

Also, when you watch those commercials, think about the 3 big ironies I listed above and see how they applied.

The Economist tacked this exact issue. Tim Ferriss talks about ways to reduce time wasted with technology at length in 4-Hour Workweek. Leo Babauta discusses it at his blog and in his minimalism self-help book Power of Less. Both Ferriss and Babauta recognize the difference between simplicity and complications and teach simplicity.

Remember what I said about means and ends? When something is ideally designed to be a means to an end, and you start treating it as an end in and of itself, you are in the grips of a pathology. Hobbies, consumer purchases, new technology, drugs, and organizing furniture when used responsibly as a means toward an end, that end being simplicity, can all be incredibly productive and reflect the primary theater of operation. They’re not inherently evil. When we treat them as goals in and of themselves, however, that’s when they become compounding complications and tools of the secondary theater of operation.

Recommended Reading:

  • The 4-Hour Workweek, Expanded and Updated by Tim Ferriss I can’t rave about enough. He goes into depth about how to reduce distractions, especially ones caused by technology like the addiction to constantly checking social media and email.