The 3 Most Destructive Ways We Overcomplicate Things

When a composer overcomplicates things, we hear it.

When an architect overcomplicates things, we see it.

When a chef overcomplicates things, we taste it.

Don't Over Complicate Things

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.

Extreme complication is contrary to art.

— Claude Debussy, French composer

Life is not so simple.

When we overcomplicate things in our everyday lives, we don’t necessarily get immediate feedback. We might not know what we’re doing is overcomplicated until the damage is done.

The goal of simplicity is to achieve the lowest amount of complexity for the highest amount of fulfillment.

In his acclaimed book How the Mighty Fall, management guru extraordinaire (and one of the three pillar voices of the Agile Lifestyle triangle) Jim Collins diagnoses the fatal mistakes of dead companies that were once the toast of Wall Street.

Collins argues that many once-successful organizations fall into the trap of “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” That is, the once-focused, Hedgehog-like companies that he studied would get a taste of success—and begin to believe they could translate that success any- and everywhere.

The Work Anywhere, Anytime society—spurred by the virtualization of work and digital access to your data everywhere—has increased the number of options for people exponentially.

And many of us aren’t equipped to handle it. We’re overwhelmed. We’ve lost our ability to distinguish the signal from the noise.

Some smart companies are adapting to this newer, noisier status quo by trying to help its customers battle what psychologists call “decision fatigue.”

These companies are rushing to disrupt the overcomplicated, busy, and unattractive products and services of yesteryear with sleek, simple, and elegant design.

Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box, frames the problem as no less than an existential threat for companies with overcomplicated offerings:

Any market where unnecessary middlemen stand between customers and their successful use of a solution is about to be disrupted. Any service putting the burden on end users to string together multiple applications to produce the final working solution should consider its days numbered. Any product with an interface that slows people down is ripe for extinction. And any category where a disproportionate number of customers are subsidizing their vendor’s inefficiency is on the verge of revolution.

Ultimately, any market that doesn’t have a leader in simplicity soon will. And if your company doesn’t play that role, another will lead the charge.

If you’re not the simplest solution, you’re the target of one.

Companies are starting to get the idea:

People don’t want more for the sake of more—they want less but better.

So why aren’t the people who work for these companies (AKA us) not getting the new reality of simple-is-more?

The Curious Case of Wanting to “Have It All”


Image via Random House. Used under fair use.


In his 2014 book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown tells the story of Silicon Valley executive Sam.

Sam was at a crossroads in his career. In his early 50s, his company offered him an early retirement package. Despite all the stress of running around to get everything done, Sam had no interest in retiring. But he knew he needed to make a change.

What should he have done?

What would you have done?

A mentor gave Sam a bit of surprising advice: “Stay, but do what you would as a consultant and nothing else. And don’t tell anyone.” His mentor was telling Sam to cut back all activities to only those he deemed absolutely essential.

Sam took the advice and started saying no to requests. Slowly at first, but soon he discovered that as he pushed back more, his colleagues respected his time and honesty more.

Now when a request would come in he would pause and evaluate the request against a tougher criteria: “Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”

The results were immediate. Sam began to feel less frazzled. He began to deliver projects on time again. He had time to spend with his family. The experiment was a huge success with no lasting negative repercussions.

To McKeown, the lesson is clear:

[O]nly once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.

In other words, “having it all” is an illusion. It’s a deferral of choice-making, a refusal to prioritize.

The “having it all” myth is especially damaging to women. The choice for moms and dads isn’t between giving up a career or being a “bad” parent—the choice is between enforcing our own priorities or ceding autonomy and control to others:

When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people—our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families—will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.

In this article, we’ll discuss 3 especially destructive ways that we overcomplicate things and how to avoid them:

1. We Try to Multitask

Trying to find someone who doesn’t multitask is like trying to find white teeth on a duck: You can’t do it.

Leo Widrich at the Buffer blog explains the effects of multitasking on our brains. For one thing, we feel like we are being more productive and making better decisions. In fact, it’s quite the opposite:

People who multitask a lot are in fact a lot worse at filtering irrelevant information and also perform significantly worse at switching between task, compared to singletaskers. Now most studies all point towards the fact that multitasking is very bad for us. We get less productive and skills like filtering out irrelevant information decline.

Why it’s Overcomplicated  Multitasking triggers certain reward systems in our brains that makes it feel like we are heroic overachievers. But multitasking, especially constant multitasking, is more likely a burnout symptom and a sign you’re on the road to burnout syndrome at your current job.

Killing distractions and singletasking may take more discipline, but it’s more effective.

It’s also simpler.

2. We Think Money Can Buy Happiness

Studies show that after about $75,000 in annual income, emotional well-being stops increasing with the amount of money earned

Emotional well-being also rises with … income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ~$75,000. …We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness …

As Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror points out that, even with $75,000 or more in annual income, we still do a crap job of using our money to buy happiness:

But even if you’re fortunate enough to have a good income, how you spend your money has a strong influence on how happy – or unhappy – it will make you.

Why it’s Overcomplicated  The pursuit of money for money’s sake increases the complexity in your life. It means longer hours, more job responsibilities you might not find meaningful or be any good at, and more struggle to find time for reflection and internal feedback.

What you can do is simplify your financial ambitions. The observations above point to two conclusions:

  1. You don’t need to earn so much money
  2. You can do a better job of spending what you currently earn

That means investing in yourself instead of investing in junk. It means spending money on experiences instead of things. It means revising your spending habits so you spend a smaller amount on more frequent purchases, instead of large amounts on whopping expenses (like buying too much home, one of the sure-fire ways to ruin your agility).

There are reasons to be ambitious, to climb the corporate ladder, or make million dollar companies. But happiness isn’t one of them.

If you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, you’re more likely to be at the right complexity level instead of overcomplicating things.

3. We Create False Dichotomies

We overcomplicate things, bizarrely enough, by restricting our options to only two. We generate tension by creating false, all-or-nothing dichotomies. Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, has a fantastic post on why there are always more than two options:

When they say they only have two options, beware. It means they got stuck. Once people get two options, they start comparing the pros and cons of those two, and forget to think of more options.

Creating false dichotomies ties in nicely with a national conversation we’ve been having recently in the United States about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic. Slaughter discusses why women still can’t “have it all” meaning both a fully-attentive relationship with a child and a high-powered career.

There’s a lot to say about this article and the attitude it represents. It’s been hashed and rehashed repeatedly so I won’t go into it any more than I already have.

But Cali Williams Yost at Fast Company has a great insight into the way people reacted to the story, which was to create a false dichotomy between “all work” and “no work.”

Again, Slaughter did not choose to work less. She worked differently. There’s no reason a man couldn’t do the same. But in the “all work” or “no work” trap it’s impossible to stay in the grey zone of work+life possibility for all.

It’s the “grey zone” or continuum of experience that exists between two options that both Sivers and Yost are pointing to.

Why it’s Overcomplicated  Forcing yourself to choose between a false set of choices creates anxiety. It creates analysis paralysis. It prevents you from taking action because all-or-nothing choices feel like ultimatums.

We’ve learned to fear ultimatums because they represent finality. No course corrections, no takebacks, no pivots.

Don’t overcomplicate things by creating false and unnecessary dilemmas for yourself.

Choose low-cost, easy-to-back-out-of options at first until you learn more about what you want. You don’t know unless you try, and trying means experimenting.

Adopt the attitude of Implement now, perfect later.

What we want is simplicity, and the simplest solution is often to find a third way.

Don’t Overcomplicate Things: The Agile Prescription

Living agile is about being responsive to change.

Simplicity prepares you for change, because it gets rid of unnecessary complexity. Simplicity makes you lean, agile, and ready to pivot.

When we overcomplicate things, even in small ways, that complexity adds up. Pretty soon we are bloated, rigid, and unable to adapt to change.

Let me turn it over to you: When was the last time you caught yourself overcomplicating things? And what did you do in response?

A version of this article first appeared on July 5, 2012.

Image by rustemgurler.

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