Finding Simplicity

There is a fairly well-known principle called “Occam’s Razor”. This principle is also often called the Law of Parsimony, the Law of Economy or the Law of Succinctness, either of which have, to me, a Zen-like ring to it. If we look for the definition of this principle we quickly find that it is stated in a number of different ways. The most common, however, is the following:

Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred.

Actually the first time I ever came across this law, was in a Sherlock Holmes novel titled “The Sign of the Four”. The actual quote from the book is the following:

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Any student of information theory knows how chaos and entropy are an intrinsic part of our lives. Complexity tends to grow exponentially with every communication channel, with every task, with every dependency in our daily lives.

As the external environment of our lives becomes increasingly complex, it is also increasingly important to find simplicity in our daily activities.

There are numerous examples, from various fields that lend themselves to support the idea that simplicity is a key element for robust, lasting solutions to many problems.

In mathematics and physics, complex problems are often reduced to simple, elegant solutions. In architecture, simplicity and removal of superfluous design elements are the basis for minimalist design, which has been highly influenced by japanese traditional design and was popularized by the works of Mies van der Rohe (who adopted the motto “Less is More”), and other contemporary artists like Tadao Ando, Eduardo Souto Moura or Álvaro Siza Vieira. In visual arts, artists like Piet Mondrian have contributed to the popularization of simplicity and minimalism as an art form.

One curious counter example is the “Rube-Goldberg Machine”, which is an extraordinarily over-engineered and (unnecessarily) complex device designed to produce a rather simple or useless task.

To help me address complexity in time management, for instance, I usually rely on David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) method. I find that it is a simple way to help me reduce the, often overwhelming, complexity in my daily activities. Another method I like to use to prioritize tasks is the Eisenhower method. I consider both of these methods the Occam’s Razor approach to time management and task prioritization.

After giving it some thought (yes I really do stay up late thinking about these things) I’ve come to realize that Occam’s Razor is so pervasive that I should probably consider it a life design principle.

So here’s my current line of thought on Parsimony as a basic life principle.

  1. Life is complex
  2. We are overwhelmed by complexity because it’s hard to determine the impact of multiple choices
  3. Reducing complex problems to fundamental and simpler choices enables us to address complex issues
  4. Remove superfluous elements from the equation
  5. When faced with the most elementary, indivisible choice, the simpler one will usually be the best choice.

Here’s how I can rephrase it to make it applicable:

When faced with a complex decision, eliminate the impossible, and from the remaining options the simpler one, however improbable, will usually prove to be the best one.

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