Simplifying complexity: How to conquer clarity and brevity

Learn about simplifying complexity, why the process is powerful, and how to implement a few strategies that will lead to clarity and success.

simplifying complexity

We live in a complicated world.

Although we may not like it, the evidence of this universal truth is everywhere. In today's society, everything is complicated, whether it is our careers, personal lives, or political opinions.

We are inundated with complex information every day, from evolving technologies to complicated relationships. News, information, and opinions are readily available at our fingertips. There are endless options for how, where, and from whom to get them. Wading through the sea of information can be exhausting.

Now, more than ever, learning to simplify complex systems is essential. The increasing complexity of our lives is taking a toll on our mental health, calendars, and personal and professional growth. Many obstacles stand in our way as self-learners on the road to knowledge.

Yet the thought of simplifying can feel overwhelming — the exact opposite of its intention.

Fortunately, a few simple techniques can help you tap into the power of simplicity. Here’s what you need to know about simplifying complexity, why the process is powerful, and how to implement a few strategies that will lead to clarity and success.

What does it mean to simplify complexity?

Humans have an innate attraction to simplicity. Societies have craved it throughout history, especially during difficult times. The Middle Ages had Occam's Razor and the mid-20th century military sealed it with a KISS ("keep it simple, stupid").

While these principles are still relevant today, they alone aren't enough for today's torrent of information. We need new perspectives and updated techniques to reclaim simplicity in our digital era.

Before we dive deeper, let's clarify two key terms: complexity and simplicity. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, complexity is "the state of having many parts and being difficult to understand or find an answer to." It defines simplicity as "the fact that something is easy to understand or do."

Essentially, complex things are hard to understand, and simple ones aren't. We have to simplify complicated information and circumstances to understand them.

Why is simplifying so important?

Simplifying complexity: ABLE graph

You might wonder — if simplicity is natural to our nature and simplicity is easier to understand, why then do we complicate things to begin with?

It turns out that it's in our nature, too.

That is the conclusion of recent research published by several faculty members at the University of Virginia. During a series of observational studies, they found ‌we ‌have a natural tendency to overlook opportunities to improve things by subtracting and instead opt to add.

Try it yourself. How would you make the above image perfectly symmetrical? You can change colors in any square, but use the least amount of color changes possible.

The simplest explanation is to eliminate the block on the upper-left — change those orange squares to gray. But when researchers presented the image to hundreds of volunteers in a controlled experiment, about half of them added squares. Sure, they achieved symmetry, but it took more effort than necessary.

This illustrates why it’s essential to learn to simplify complexity. We have to work hard against our natural inclination to complicate things. Understanding the framework is a step closer to better framing our problems and solutions, improving our method of learning, and enhancing effectiveness.

But understanding isn’t enough. Simplifying complexity involves incorporating a host of techniques that extend beyond just learning.

The art of simplifying complexity

Success in learning requires some planning and strategizing. This is true in most cases, whether it’s writers working on new topics or entrepreneurs introducing new ideas. Our minds complicate things when we search for answers, and we‌ make things harder for ourselves.

However, with simple explanations, a few learning techniques, and belief in the learning process, we can increase our knowledge base and develop an understanding of the topic.

The Feynman Technique

One of the best tools for simplifying complexity is the Feynman Technique. Developed by Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, also known as “the great explainer,” this technique makes perfect sense as an educational hack or for study techniques.

But aside from learning, it can help anyone break through a mental block and unlock solutions to problems they have been trying to solve.

The Feynman Technique centers on the ability to explain complicated subjects to others in simple terms. The four steps are:

  1. Study. Pick a subject ‌you'd like to learn more about. Then, learn the basics. Document ‌everything you know about it in your own words, and then record new concepts on a piece of paper throughout the learning process.
  2. Teach. Once you have mastered step one, you should be able to explain the basics to a 12-year-old. Next, try to simplify all the information on your sheet by removing jargon or complexities. Break it down further using simple words that a child can understand.
  3. Fill in the gaps. Now it’s time to dig deep into learning. Read your notebook of things about your topic aloud to yourself, as you would read it to a first-grader. What are you missing? What don’t you know? If anything isn’t clear or is too complex to understand, keep studying until you can simplify.
  4. Simplify, organize, and review. Examine how well you understand the topic by gathering the most important pieces of your knowledge and explaining them to someone else. By doing so, you’ll have a solid understanding of the subject at hand. Did you explain it well? Were there ‌questions? What was confusing? This helps you determine what to review, then repeat steps 2-4 as much as you need until you have a grasp on the source material.

By focusing intently on a single, solvable step at a time, the Feynman Technique works to simplify complex ideas. When you use this method of learning to break down a task into its simplest forms, your creativity becomes uninhibited and you gain both understanding of the topic and retention of the new concept.

The Laws of Simplicity

Simplicity definition in a dictionary

The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda examines the meaning of simplicity and how to apply its underlying principles in everyday life. A graphic designer and professor at MIT, Maeda shares his theories on the laws governing simplicity, offering guidelines on using each law in real life.

Maeda’s 10 laws — each with important key points to keep in mind — are‌:

  1. Reduce. A thoughtful reduction is the easiest way to achieve simplicity.
  2. Organize. A system that is organized appears to have fewer parts.
  3. Time. Saving time feels simple.
  4. Learn. Knowledge simplifies everything.
  5. Differences. Complexity and simplicity complement each other.
  6. Context. Simplicity cannot be ‌peripheral.
  7. Emotion. It is better to have more emotions than fewer.
  8. Trust. Simplicity inspires trust.
  9. Failure. Some things will never be simple.
  10. The One. The art of simplicity lies in removing the obvious and adding the important.

Maeda's laws reinforce the idea that simplifying complexity doesn't ‌always mean increasing (like in the symmetry experiment). We’ll achieve simplicity when we understand and apply the mental model throughout our lives, from thinking to learning.

Federal Plain Language Guidelines

The Federal Plain Language Guidelines (FPLG) focus on language and writing to simplify communications. Created for government materials but usable by anyone, the FPLG is a set of guidelines used to develop public materials, like documents and websites, to help the reader better understand the material the first time they read it.

The guidelines are:

  • Write for your audience. Do your research, simplify, and tailor your writing to the interests and expertise of your average reader.
  • Organize the information. An organized approach is crucial. Begin by stating your purpose, then sort out your thoughts logically.
  • Choose your words carefully. Avoid jargon, technical terms, and abbreviations that people won't understand. Use simple language in your own words and keep your style consistent.
  • Be concise. Long, complex sentences containing multiple phrases and clauses are confusing. Remove anything unnecessary.
  • Keep it conversational. Great writing is a lot like great conversation. Write in the present tense, use contractions, and provide examples or use simple analogies.
  • Design for reading. Users should be able to easily read information. Organize your sections, use simple fonts, and break up long sections with headlines and bullets.
  • Follow web standards. Assume users will skim. Make sure users can quickly find what they need, understand it, and apply it to meet their needs.
  • Test your assumptions. Make sure your writing is clear to users to save time answering questions later.

It's not always easy to write plainly, but it pays off in the end. Follow these guidelines to simplify your communication and improve your results.

The Five Elements of Effective Thinking

Simplifying complexity: Stack of books with a chalkboard

In their book of the same name, Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird outline five elements of effective thinking and why they are useful. The five elements are:

  1. Understand deeply. The first principle is key. You must master the basics of any topic to excel at it. This allows you to discover what is really important about a subject and to fill any knowledge gaps.
  2. Make mistakes. Rethink the way you view mistakes. Look at them as an opportunity rather than a negative. They provide us with a chance to learn and improve.
  3. Raise questions. Asking questions can open up a whole new world of knowledge and insight. When we ask questions, we become active listeners, gaining a deeper understanding of the topic by forcing us to think critically.
  4. Follow the flow of ideas. Everything comes from something else. By building on the work of others, we can contribute to that flow and keep moving forward towards the future.
  5. Change. This “meta-lesson” ties everything together. Transformative thinking occurs when we are open to learning, trying and failing, asking questions, and following the creative process.

Burger’s and Starbird’s philosophy asserts that learning these strategies can lead to greater thinking capacity. The claim is that intelligent people aren't a unique breed — they just use different learning techniques. And we can, too.

Less is more

Mark Twain wrote, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Twain was right — the right words, and thus the correct understanding of a subject, can help us in the pursuit of simplifying complexity. With plain language, a few techniques, discipline, and the willingness to learn, anything is possible.

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