How to Improve Your Outlook by Embracing Simplicity

Jon Hawkins

In an era of information overload, why not keep things straightforward?

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I never felt confident going into school exams. That’s not to say I was underprepared; I always revised. But my inconfidence was self-inflicted. When I sat down in the exam hall and my heart was racing, I would over-complicate the questions.

I assumed the examiner was trying to trip me up with trick questions. “It can’t be that simple, can it?” I was repeatedly told that “if I had just taken the questions at face value,” my grades would have been significantly better.

Life can be pretty simple if we want it to be. Should we choose, we can cruise through life, taking things at face value and ignoring unnecessary complications.

But that sounds awfully boring, doesn’t it? That’s why we choose to make things harder than they are. Facing a challenge can give us meaning, and working to fix it gives us purpose (Psychologists have called this phenomenon “complexity bias.”)

Overcomplicating things also helps us protect our ego. If success is simple, then why haven’t we achieved it already? Why do we let our dreams pass us by if they are easy to obtain? According to Marla Tabaka (Inc,) most business owners need to believe success is complicated — or they risk shattering their whole worldview — as they’ve spent years chasing, and making sacrifices, to achieve their goals.

But life doesn’t have to this hard. If we were to strip back the complexities we add to the picture, could that make our lives better?

Adopt the Principle of Parsimony

Is simpler better? Yes. Well, at least according to scholastic philosopher William of Occam.

He developed the philosophical razor of parsimony (also known as “Occam's Razor.”) Often used to answer cosmological questions about the nature of the universe, the theory states:

“Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

By this, Occam means that the best theory is the simplest one. When trying to explain something, and faced with two theories that come to the same conclusion, we should choose the simplest theory (the one that makes the least assumptions.)

Why does this principle exist? Because for every phenomenon in existence, it’s possible to create an infinite number of explanations. Consider arguments on how the universe came to be, or whether we have a soul. We need a tool that helps us sift through all the implausible answers and pick the best one.

Although it’s commonly used as a philosophical tool, this heuristic could make our lives better. It encourages us to live a simple life, and not randomly overcomplicate things.

Let’s talk through an example. When I started to read my exam questions, I was torn between multiple explanations of reality:

  • The exam questions should be taken at face value, they are simple and easy to follow.
  • An evil examiner was trying to trick me, and worded the questions in a way that was going to catch me off guard.
  • I revised the wrong material, and should probably just give up.

Out of the three, the first is the most parsimonious. It doesn’t make an assumption about the examiner's intentions, nor does it presuppose anything about my revision techniques.

Accepting this would have made my life so much easier. Rather than panicking, I could have just gotten on with the task.

According to psychologists, we often fear the worst (they call it “catastrophizing”). It leaves us panicking about a problem that isn’t really there and makes us feel like the world is out to get us.

Seeing the world through the lens of parsimony helps us overcome this: It tells us to take things at face value. It prevents us from creating problems and panicking when things go wrong. There was no mass conspiracy that caused us to fail — we were just unlucky.

Doing so helps us live a peaceful, stress-free, and straightforward life.

Avoid Unnecessary Steps

When you want to achieve something, why would you make it harder for yourself?

Parsimony tells us to choose the action that leads to our desired results in the simplest way. So, if we can reach the same conclusion (or outcome) with less effort or steps, then we probably should.

That doesn’t mean cutting corners. For something to be parsimonious, it still needs to get to the same conclusion. But opting for the easiest solution saves time. Instead of overthinking, maybe we should:

  • Do minimal work, and avoid pointless tasks that achieve nothing. (This adds the complexity of other tasks.)
  • Stop trying to perfect everything when the job has already been achieved. (This falsely assumes more steps are needed to complete the task.)
  • Not overthink the job, its consequences or the risk of failure. (This carries a host of unnecessary (and probably false) assumptions.)

Taking these steps guarantees a smoother ride. The answers to your problems are easier to solve than you think; acknowledging that will save you from stress and worry.

Challenge Perfectionist Ideals

Most of us fall prey to the “Nirvana Fallacy.” We have an idea of what perfection looks like, and we refuse to accept anything less. As a result, we push ourselves to tirelessly chase the ideal.

Unfortunately, this “perfect” standard is unachievable in the real world. Nobody is perfect, and there is always room for improvement. So we end up comparing a realistic solution or achievement, with an idealized and unattainable one.

To name a few examples:

  • Rather than being happy with the success they already have, business owners chase more money and wealth.
  • Instead of accepting that my school exams were easy, I told myself that “passing” meant completing a harder exam (one made up in my head).
  • Failing to acknowledge that beauty comes in many different forms, teenage girls compare their appearance to a superficial and socially constructed concept of beauty. In doing so, they look up to “models” in the media, that are really just CGI and AI.

Perfectionism prevents achievement. According to Niki Hayatbini (Miami University,) it stunts our mental growth, causes us to overthink, and hinders our ability to work. Rather paradoxically, “perfectionism stands in the way of perfection.”

Abilities aside, anything we do achieve will be overshadowed by an unrealistic standard. Rather than celebrating our achievements, we end up constantly striving for more. Which correlates with depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Most of the time, this idealistic standard is complicated and hard to achieve. If it was easily attainable, then we would already have it, and — rather ironically — probably wouldn’t value it, as we raise the self-imposed standard in search of more.

“Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy.” - Isaac Newton

Finding Beauty in the Imperfect

Rather than wasting your life chasing, is it not better to accept life as it is? Appreciating that there is value in the imperfect. Or admiring that success can be simple — rather than painfully complex and unattainable — could improve the way we live.

Recognizing that I don’t need to get 100% on a test to pass. Or accepting that running a thriving business constitutes “success,” helps relieve the pressure and appreciate the things we do have.

We control our own definitions of success. We should recognize that there’s beauty in the imperfect and simple. They are a sign that something is real.

Quit Ruminating

Most of us overanalyze the events around us and our experiences of the world. In doing so, we create problems that aren’t really there.

That scratch on your car that nobody else notices? Imagining that you are going to forget your words in a business presentation? Concerned that you might fail your exam?

We let our minds run wild. It’s only natural for us to get hung up on the negative. But things are always worse in our head, and living this way is impacting our well-being.

According to writer Rebecca Black, ruminating is closely linked to anxiety. It’s also extremely unproductive. It does nothing to solve the issue other than make us more anxious.

To break the cycle: stop dwelling on the negative by distracting yourself with another cognitively absorbing task. Once the job is done, listen to a podcast, or going for a walk with a friend.

In the words of Aytekin Tank:

“Spending even a short time on a mundane task can get you out of the negative headspace that leads to obsessing over details.”

Rather than analyzing everything, this technique teaches us that our lives would simpler if we stopped thinking and enjoyed life as it is. So stop worrying about what could have been.

Final Thoughts

To make life more exciting, some of us commit to complexity bias. We unknowingly create problems and challenges for ourselves, in an attempt to give our life a sense of meaning.

But life doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it. Stripping back the complexities we add could make our lives better. Here’s how:

  1. Adopt the principle of parsimony. Which tells us to adopt the simplest solution to a problem. In doing so, we can stop assuming the worst, while completing tasks as easily as possible.
  2. Challenge your perfectionist ideals. Rather than striving for “perfection” or complexity, recognize that there’s beauty in the imperfect and simple.
  3. Quit ruminating. Life is much simpler when we just accept life as it is, rather than worrying about what could have been.

After all, in the words of Coco Chanel:

“Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.”

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.

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