Keeping Things Simple is Complicated and Takes Hard Work

I notice that my desks at work and at home get messy once every one or two months or so. Then I would force myself to clean it up, which takes a lot of work to sort things out and throw out or file them away. The same thing happens to my email inbox. I would have the emails accumulated to many thousands and then slowly work them down to a few thousands. I kept asking myself, why can’t I just keep things simple so I don’t have to accumulate things that need to be sorted out or “managed” later. Based on my observation of my own behavior, the basic answers to that question are twofolds:

1. Self-induced: Life is too boring to be kept simple. There are always exciting books to read (I borrowed lots of books from library on a regular basis as you can tell from my book review blogs). And there is a always a tendency to put off doing the boring stuff of reading, sorting and filing. The common excuse I have is that the things may come in handy later or I’ll get to it soon enough. Sometimes, I would initiate a new project/experiment just for the fun of it. Meanwhile, stuff piles on the tables.

2. Externally-induced: Life is full of “shocks” and interruptions. At work, there are crises to fight, new initiatives/fire drills to lead and complete from the management, customers, and colleagues. Every time a new crisis happened, the emails get queued up in order to maintain the historical perspectives or the regular work queued up in the inbox.

Physics’ entropy theory holds up well here. Entropy tends to go up or things tend to go chaotic naturally. To reduce entropy, it takes energy and work.

So here are the solutions I propose:

1. Bound the self-indulgence. I’d like to set a limit on how far I drift away from my simple life. For example, set a time limit on how long a pet project (e.g. composting, books to read) should last. I also set a limit on how long I should spend reading a book. (By the way, the library sets a limit on how long I can borrow the book so I’m set there). I also clean up my desk every two weeks or so to avoid our housekeeper from going through the desk during my absence.

2. Be conscious of the mounting complexity by benchmarking the email inbox: I found that my work is tied very closely to the email inbox. The more I allow the emails to queued up, the more work I queued up for myself. So the best way is to manage the inbox pro-actively. Using the new email statistic software I came up with, I’m now benchmarking against the goal of keeping the emails in the inbox for 60 days or less and continually reducing my inbox email count.

3. More delegations and automate the mundane work: Delegating the work to more competent people may help if managed properly. The key word is “manage properly.” Delegating to the wrong person or not managing properly may lead to more work later. Automating the bill pay process, taking a chapter from the “Automatic Millonaire,” helps to reduce life complexity and keep me from paying late fee.

4. Be prepared/preventive for crisis/external shocks: Keeping an eye out for upcoming crisis can help simplify life a bit. I use emails to do this. I tend to over-subscribe to certain alias so I can watch out for upcoming crisis. Of course, this works against keeping things simple but preventing a crisis from occurring is more valuable to me. There needs to a good balance.

5. Reduce commitments
: The best way to lead a simple life is not to have too many commitments/responsibilities. At some point, if you feel you cannot stay above the water, you should reduce the water level (work load). The majority of the extra workload that complicates things is the quantity of them. You’re bound to drop a few balls if you juggle too many balls. Delegate them (#3) or just don’t commit to them.

In summary, streamlining work is a lot of hard work but allowing it to get too complicated may take even more work later on. An ounce of prevention goes a long way.

I came across the Simplicity Pattern video on Youtube. It’s very funny.