Living with Complexity: 3 Steps to Make Your Life an Easy One

Read time —
5 Minutes
Last updated
February 27, 2024

Complexity is killing us.

Not only are we fighting entropy, but we are also fighting complexity.

It is a fight we are struggling to win.

Think about this.

On a macro level, the great issues of our day, almost without exception, arise from the unpredictable interactions of many moving parts.

As technology increases its hold on us, complexity affects more of us.

Driven by the ever-increasing amounts of information, we see decision-making becoming harder. We spend far more of our time trying to make sense of the convoluted world we live in than we used to.

At times, our decisions can feel like a game of trying to second-guess the entanglement ahead of us.

The more we try to understand complexity, the more it confuses us.

Maybe it is best not understood.

Inversion offers us an alternative. The opposite viewpoint isn’t to understand but avoid. Rather than try and confront complexity we should seek simplicity.

This article covers:

How to Live with Complexity

Maybe the best way to live with complexity is to limit yourself to what you do understand. Maybe the ultimate hack to living with the convolution of many moving parts is simplicity. Maybe the simple solution is to limit yourself in complex situations.

We live with imposed limits every day.

Think of speed limits. Or overdraft limits. Credit card limits too.

They all do the same thing.

They stop us from getting into moments where the level of complexity increases beyond our scope.

Take speed limits. Driving faster reduces the time we have to react to unexpected situations. A speed limit reduces our need to deal with this complexity.

These aren’t our limits. They are limits created from the painful experiences others have suffered.

On a personal level, we use rules to set our limits.

Intermittent fasting is an example.

Using calorie deficits and trying to count the calories you’ve eaten and burnt is complex. The complexity is so high, that it is beyond most of us.

Intermittent fasting has two simple rules.

  1. No eating before noon.
  2. No eating after 8 p.m. (if you’re doing a 16:8 fast).

Intermittent fasting is an example of a simple solution to a complex problem.

Setting Your Rules

So far, all the rules I’ve mentioned have come from others.

But, what are your rules?

For some, these might be mental notes reminding you not to do something.

I remember working away from home with a colleague. Staying in a hotel each evening would often mean meals with wine.

His rule was this; No wine after nine. He wanted to ensure he had a clear head for work in the morning. It’s fair to say it was a wise rule.

Now, you may have some rules already or maybe you don’t. If you don’t, where should you begin?

Step 1 — Question What You Know

To set your own rules, you first need to know what you don't know.

Systems are often complex. So much so, that we don't understand how they do what they do.

Complexity invites us to dig in which is where we get stuck.

To reveal what we know and don't know, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What is the system’s or process’s goal or purpose?
  • What are the system’s or process’s main elements?
  • How do these elements interact internally and externally?
  • How well do I know the system’s or process’s logic, rules, and assumptions?
  • How easy or hard is it to change or improve the system or process?

If you can answer each of these questions, then you don’t need a rule to simplify the complexity.

But, if you struggled to answer any of those questions, you need the next step.

Step 2 — Focus on the goal

The first question we asked in step one prompted you to identify the goal you're working towards.

If you know this (and hopefully you do), the next step is to start looking for ways to simplify achieving it. One way to do this is to use the mental model of inversion.

Instead of embracing the complexity, ask questions to step away from it.

  • What are the most common mistakes or pitfalls that people make when dealing with this problem?
  • What are the worst possible outcomes or consequences of this problem?
  • What are the assumptions or biases that I have about this problem?
  • What are the alternative perspectives or viewpoints that I have not considered about this problem?
  • What are the simplest or most elegant solutions that I have overlooked or dismissed about this problem?

Within these questions lies the answer to help you take the next step.

Step 3 — Create the Rule

The rule takes the simplicity you've identified and enforces it, ensuring achievement.

Let's step back to the intermittent fasting.

The complexity is counting the calories consumed and burnt. The goal is to have a calorie deficit so you can lose weight.

Simplifying this, if we have less time available to eat, we make a calorie deficit easier to achieve.

The rule becomes this; only eat between noon and 8 p.m.

As we can see, the rule is a SMART rule. It is  Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

This is what you want your rules to look like.

3 Steps to Help You Live with Complexity

If you want to make better decisions, you need to recognise when complexity is slowing you down.

Nothing reduces your capacity to make a timely choice than trying to understand something you might not need to understand. Complexity is a soul sucker — and often a waste of time when there is a quicker way.

That’s the point of this exercise.

By following the 3 steps, you give yourself the capacity to focus on the important decisions in your life.

So remember, when facing complexity:

  1. Question what you know — understand what you know
  2. Focus on the goal — what you need to achieve
  3. Create the rule — bypass the pain

Rules work because they remove the complexity. A rule delivers the goal in the simplest way possible and that’s how you make living with complexity easier.

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