- Julius de Jong
How to Simplify Life (Episode 23-39)
For this post, I did something different. Instead of trying to write and shape it all in my head, I decided to honor the topic, and approach the writing process with simplicity at the forefront of my mind.
Personally, I struggle with keeping things simple from time to time. When I zoom out, I can see this is due to too many things in too little time, and not enough space for recovery and reflection. Thus, the simple, yet obvious answer for how to simplify life is really that simple; do less. I’m aware this is probably not what you’d like to read. Probably, like me, you’re looking for a way to simplify the complexity, through simplicity, so that you can do more.
According to Dictionary.com, simplify means to make less complex or complicated; make plainer or easier. That’s what this post is about; how to reduce complexity. After having studied and researched this topic and having spoken to Julia Hobsbawm about simplicity and her book ‘The Simplicity Principle’, I came to a conclusion. I am happy to say that indeed, the process of reducing complexity might be simpler than I, and perhaps you, initially thought.
‘Complexity implies the feeling of being lost; simplicity implies the feeling of being found’ (Maeda, 2006).
‘People are disconcerted because life seems increasingly complex’ (Maeda, 2006). Today we’re aided with tons of technology to make our lives easier. However, this technology doesn’t make our lives simpler. Like me, in today’s day and age, you too might find yourself overwhelmed at times, I imagine. Always being ‘on’, and always being ‘connected’. To-do lists which are never empty, and a bombarding of demands and stimuli on a daily, hourly basis. Hell, even on a minute basis. How do we breathe in the midst of this? How do we remain present? Simplicity can help us in this process. As Julia Hobsbawm – an expert on addressing the challenges we face in times of hyper connection and is the author of several books related to this – mentioned during our talk, ‘when things are easy, they make a lot of sense’ (Hobsbawm, 2022). It’s nice when things make sense. It’s nice when our thinking is clear. Clarity is the principle of simplicity. Without clarity, we will not know what to do. The biggest gamechanger for Julia was realizing that this stuff – making an effort to simplify – matters (Hobsbawm, 2022). Because when we can simplify our lives to the extent it becomes simple and easy, we can consciously focus our attention and concentrate where we desire, instead of reacting to what happens. ‘The secret of successful and happy people is usually that they are able to concentrate totally on one thing’ (Kustenmacher and Seiwert, 2004).
Working at a messy desk? Living in a disorganized home? Sort it out. It helps us gain clarity. We need clarity to prevent our fragmenting of attention (Hobsbawm, 2022). Organize the spaces around yourself, and your mind will become organized. ‘Neatness counts. External clutter reflects internal disarray’ (Kustenmacher and Seiwert, 2004). The same is true for the stuff we own. Prune possessions. Own less. ‘Streamline your possessions — Reduce your emotional baggage at home by trimming the overload of books, mementos and clothes that anchor you to the past and impair your development’ (Kustenmacher and Seiwert, 2004). I also like this recommendation, as it does help a lot with clearing our mind too: ‘Uncover your horizontal surfaces. Vigilantly clear clutter magnets such as the dining table, kitchen countertops and the top of the refrigerator’ (Kustenmacher and Seiwert, 2004).
The process of simplification can seem like a difficult and big process. It actually feels like this for me, as I experience in some way that it should be perfect, this simplified version of my life I am trying to implement. When getting organized, start in small stages. Divide tasks into manageable portions and only move to the next task when the first task is finished. BJ Fogg, author of ‘Tiny Habits’ also underlines the need to start small. To change our lives for the better, he advises, think tiny. Over time, these tiny changes and positive constructive habits will over time grow and transform your life. Through learning the pleasure of achieving the small successes, and celebrating them, one acquires motivation and reinforcement of the new habits (Fogg, 2019). For this Fogg has an ABC-method which is useful to share for building and reinforcing these habits:
Anchor. The prompt that reminds you to do the new behavior. Creating a daily habit creates an anchor that prompts new behavior. For instance, after finishing your meal, to instantly clear the table first thing after getting up;
Behavior. It’s important to start the new behavior right at the time of the anchor point. Thus, as soon as you’ve finished your food and are getting up from the table, take the dishes to the kitchen and get them out of the way;
Celebrate. celebrate your win to create a positive feeling about your new behavior. Once the dishes are cleared, enjoy the feeling of a clean kitchen and your table vacant and belly full. Obviously, this ABC approach can be utilized for creating and shaping any type of desired behavior. It is a useful formula, as it is practical and reinforces itself.
Think, and plan ahead of acting (and reacting)
It might sound obvious, and it surely does to me. But I often find myself forgetting about this important credo. ‘Dedicating a mere three to five minutes at the start of each workday to organizing your to-do list can transform your entire day into one that is proactive rather than reactive’ (Zack, 2015). ‘The more strategic and intentional your actions, the greater your chances for success’ (Fazio, 2016). Therefore, we need to build the habit of taking time to think, prioritize and plan ahead of our actions. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves reacting and responding, instead of acting. In those cases, our to-do list merely grows, instead of us completing tasks and ticking them off the list.
Do only one thing at a time
Our brain can focus on only one single challenging task at a time (Zack, 2015). When we’re trying to do multiple things at once, by multitasking, all we’re really doing is switching between tasks. This is inefficient. It takes around 23 minutes for us to come back to what we were doing when we’re distracted (Hobsbawm, 2020). Imagine the effects of multitasking. By doing so, we cannot get any deep-, or focused work done. Instead, think about what you need to do, prioritize, and do it, one task at a time: singletasking, instead of multitasking. This is also true when applied to people, and our relationships. Give that person you’re with your full attention. ‘By immersing yourself in one task at a time, one moment at a time, you’ll accomplish more while enjoying deeper, stronger relationships’ (Zack, 2015).
Debora Zack, CEO of Only Connect Consulting offers some practical tips in her book Singletasking on how to do more by working on one thing at a time:
Singletasking is a habitual approach. Worthwhile activities include managing unplanned visitors, shutting off social media prompts, setting aside daily planning time, and maintaining focus during meetings and conversations;
Singletasking requires focus, which requires energy. Replenish your vigor during the day by taking short breaks from work;
Unplanned thoughts can deflect you from the focus you need to be able to singletask. When such thoughts occur, place them in a mental ‘parking lot’ by writing them down for later review;
When working on an important project, go offline. This way, emails and electronic notices won’t sap your focus. Mute all your electronic devices and other ringers, chimes and pings;
You can’t singletask amid constant interruptions. Alter people’s expectations about demanding your available time;
When you’re focusing, let your colleagues know you are temporarily unavailable. Shut your door and post a note letting people know you’re on deadline;
Clustertasking – grouping similar tasks together – works efficiently. Set aside two 30-minute periods daily for handling simple, low-level, but related chores as a clustertask;
Pay respectful, focused attention to others. Become an active listener. Ignore social media when you are with someone else;
Prioritize and focus on the vital few instead of the trivial many.
Standards, structures, and habits
What I’ve learnt is that our thinking- and decision-making power is limited. Therefore, to simplify our days and lives, we need to create standards through routines and processes, and from there create structure in our life. As also Julia mentioned during our talk, ‘pattern, rhythm, and predictability are vital for simplicity’ (Hobsbawm, 2022). Therefore, building on the premise of thinking and planning ahead of our actions, we need to take time to think about, and design our standards, structures and habits. The main goal of this is to create ways that enable us to free our thinking power and decision-making capacity from having to decide over and over on mundane topics such as what to wear, and what to eat. The ever-present black turtleneck shirt of Steve Jobs is a good example of this. By not having to think about what he was wearing, Steve Jobs freed up his limited mental capacity for more important matters. Similarly, former US president Barack Obama had this practice of standardizing his wardrove, so important decision making capacity would not get lost on deciding what to wear. Habits and routines help us to do the same, and thereby help us simplify our lives. This too is why top athletes train the same thing over and over again. ‘Athletes spend countless hours practicing so that they don’t have to spend even one crucial microsecond thinking before they act during competition. Their constant practice eventually creates muscle memory. Employ the same principle with your mind. Program your mind so it works automatically in powerfully positive ways. Create sustaining positive thought patterns’ (Fazio, 2016).
Time is totally vital to us. How we manage it, how we perceive it, and how we use it (Hobsbawm, 2022). When we are able to manage our time, we can have more control over what we do when. Quite often, time is taken away from our control. ‘The fantasy is that we control it, with activities, scheduling and diaries. What we’re actually doing however, is rearranging the deck chairs, moving around units of time that we often are not completely in control of’ (Hobsbawm, 2022). The secret to successful time management is to establish priorities and tackle one task at a time with full concentration (Kustenmacher and Seiwert, 2004). For this, it’s important to set realistic deadlines, and set goals that motivate us. In practical terms, we need to block out disturbances, interruptions, and obstacles (Hobsbawm, 2022). By doing so, we allow our time to be spent as we purposefully intent, instead of reacting to all that comes our way. Some practical tips in this regard have been mentioned by Kustenmacher and Seiwert:
Operate with realistic deadlines and honestly evaluate your ability to meet them;
Launch your day with high-priority activities;
Block out disturbances, interruptions or obstacles so you can focus;
Do not perform any of your favorite chores (gardening, Internet surfing, shopping) until you complete your high-priority task(s). Only thereafter reward yourself;
Identify your high productivity periods and root out ‘inner time thefts’ by writing down your work schedule for a week;
Avoid procrastination with self-awareness, planning and well-timed relaxation;
Save time by delegating and by avoiding information overload;
Learn to turn down extra assignments, demands and commitments;
To diminish misunderstandings, disappointments and heartaches, assert your right to say ‘no’.
Create different (time)zones for different tasks
During our talk on simplicity, Julia Hobsbawm mentioned purposefully dedication specific time for specific tasks and work. By setting different zones for different types of work we simplify the complexity through physically separating different type of tasks (Hobsbawm, 2022). In addition to this, she mentioned the importance of alternating work zones with time for rest and recovery. Through this, we can bundle similar work together, and get through it with more focus and efficiency. As mentioned above, it takes around 23 minutes to get back to a task when being distracted. When bundling similar work together, we enhance our focus and productivity.
Check your ego
What I noticed, both with myself and others, is that when we allow our ego’s to be too much involved, things get increasingly complicated. For this reason, self-awareness is a crucial ability to cultivate when we aspire to simplify our lives. When our ego is taking the driver’s seat, experience has taught me that complexity increases unnecessarily. When we can notice this process from happening, it can help us see the forest from the trees and prevent ourselves from making things overly complicated.
Space for recovery
During my talk with Julia Hobsbawm, she mentioned how she has a daily routine of going to a coffeeshop for a bit without her phone to do nothing, apart from enjoying a great cup of coffee. My response was how this was probably great for generating new ideas, and for inspiration to surface from the subconscious. However, as she mentioned, this wasn’t often the case. In reality, due to our frantic schedules and obligations, this was her time for recovery instead (Hobsbawm, 2022). To not be on the phone, and to not having to do anything. That too, we much need. ‘There is a bit of a fantasy that space [and time] is entirely creative and productive, that you walk, meditate, and fabulous ideas emerge. Instead, quite often I’m just recovering, letting that fizzing feeling [subside]’ Julia explains when talking about this (Hobsbawm, 2022). Therefore, as part of our simplification strategies, we need not forget about the importance of idle time, where we’re not performing, not creating, not getting things done. But instead, time were we recover, so we can be present, focused, and creative later on.
Say no and ask why
When aiming to simplify our lives, two important words cannot be overlooked or forgotten for this writeup: ‘no’, and ‘why’. We need to learn to say no. More often than we care to reflect upon, our colleagues, superiors, business partners or life partners spurt out top of the head ideas and drop them in our laps. We need to learn to be conscious of this and see things for what they are. This will help us say no when we need to, and stick better to our predetermined agenda and priorities, thereby keeping things simple(r). Similarly, when we don’t yet say no, we need to learn to ask ‘why?’ much more. ‘Do not take on work until you understand what the goals mean to you and the kind of work you should be doing. Get fanatical about asking ‘why’ several times whenever you’re handed a to-do’ (Jensen, 2003). Many people feel obliged to reply on every email, voicemail, or message they receive. ‘In reality, you should ignore most of the stuff that comes your way if the onslaught of nonurgent communications from within your company makes it virtually impossible to do your job properly’ (Jensen, 2003). Not reacting or responding to everything thrown your way, is an important means for saying no and setting your priorities while staying focused.
‘If you want simplicity, clarity, ease, productivity, alignment, collaboration, and some time that isn’t frantic, you probably have to do less’ (Hobsbawm, 2022). This is, according to Julia Hobsbawm, the big reveal; simplicity isn’t the magic bullet. Recognition, that we only have one life, 168 hours in the week, we sleep a third of that time, and thus we have to choose very carefully what we give our attention and our emotions to (Hobsbawm, 2022). We need to limit (our) options and organize things. ‘Achieving simplicity is not mysterious: Reduce’ (Maeda, 2006). Thus, as the subtitle above this post already gave away, we really need to learn to do less, and say yes less often in order to simplify our lives. Instead, do those things that matter, better.
Turn your phone off
I’ll tell you a secret. This is my 23rd post for this project, and it has been the easiest to write. Before, I’ve definitely had my struggles writing. This time, my mindset has been relaxed and focused. I’ve felt confident about the writing process, even though I had to postpone this withing to the day of publication, due to other obligations. Normally, this causes me stress and anxiety, and it’s not a very joyful process for meeting my self invoked deadlines. This time was different for two reasons. The first was my decision to approach the writing process from a place of simplicity and ease. That definitely helped. What also helped tremendously was the fact that I turned my phone off, for the entire day since the morning when I started. I must say, I’ve had a splendid time, and my research and writing was focused and joyful. This time, without the ever-present lure of that device. If you take only one thing from this post about simplifying your life in order to focus more, let it be the simple hack of turning off your phone. Not only will it improve your focus, but also your relations. Both with yourself, and others.
Image: Simplicity in Design. Chris Wu, 2019, Thrive.
These are chaotic times we live in. We’re always ‘on’, and our to-do lists are never empty. This calls for something different. Something simple and straight forward. Therefore, to learn about simplicity I’ve talked to Julia Hobsbawm, author of the book ‘The Simplicity Principle’.
Julia is an expert on addressing the challenges we face in times of hyper connection and is the author of several books in relation to this.
She’s an entrepreneur and speaker and has been awarded an OBE for her services to business in the UK. Julia is also founder of ‘The Social Capital Network’ which connects brilliant individuals from underrepresented or overlooked ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds with individuals in business, culture, digital, academic, politics and public life in the UK.
This talk with Julia certainly opened me up to some new perspectives and ways to simplify my life. Hopefully this will be useful and beneficial for you too. Enjoy!
Website of Julia Hobsbawm: https://www.juliahobsbawm.com
Fazio, Rob, 2016, Simple Is the New Smart: 26 Success Strategies to Build Confidence, Inspire Yourself, and Reach Your Ultimate Potential. https://amzn.to/3Gaq04L
Fogg, BJ, 2019, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. https://amzn.to/3F9ul6G
Hobsbawm, Julia, 2020, The Simplicity Principle. https://amzn.to/3f637mQ
Hobsbawm, Julia, 2022, The Nowhere Office. https://amzn.to/31BpJJ5
Jensen, Bill, 2003, The Simplicity Survival Handbook: 32 Ways to Do Less and Accomplish More. https://amzn.to/3q3Eyxj
Kustenmacher, Tiki and Lother Seiwert, 2004, How to Simplify Your Life: Seven Practical Steps to Letting Go of Your Burdens and Living a Happier Life. https://amzn.to/3GcOOsM
Maeda, John, 2006, The Laws of Simplicity. https://amzn.to/32VlV6a
O'Brien, Michael, Alexander Bentley and William Brock, 2019, The Importance of Small Decisions.https://amzn.to/3n8q7pU
Tracy, Rob, 2019, How to Fix a Factory: A Practical Approach to Clarify and Resolve Underlying Challenges in Your Factory. https://amzn.to/3JPOh2f
Zack, Devora, 2015, Singletasking: Get More Done, One Thing at a Time. https://amzn.to/3HOSj90