Minimum Complexity = Maximum Results

I read a piece today in a fashion magazine published by the Guardian. I was having a relaxing 15 minutes on Good Friday with Julie. We were in the new local coffee shop on the same street as the Freestak x Like the Wind offices (check it out if you ever happen to be in Bowes Park / Bounds Green – it’s called Hot Milk).

The piece was about having a signature look. One of the writers said that Steve Jobs had a signature look: black polo-neck, Levis 501 jeans, New Balance trainers. But I take issue with the author’s assertion that Steve’s choice of clothes was about fashion. I have read a few times that he chose to wear the same clothes day-in-day-out to reduce complexity (as well as liking what he wore – that is important). I have read that President Obama did the same thing – he wore the same grey or blue suit every day to reduce decision fatigue. I got this from a Fast Company piece that covered a few of the ways Obama reduced complexity.

Thinking about this small detail in the lives of some of the most driven and successful people in the world got me thinking. How complex is my life? How can I reduce that complexity. And what impact will it have?

Definite Decision Fatigue

I am now sure that I suffer from decision fatigue. I start work at 7am or 8am most days and often by 5pm or 6pm and I feel pretty drained. I usually try to fight that feeling with a coffee, but it rarely gives me back the ‘pop’ that I have first thing in the morning.

And I have been monitoring the amount of decisions and questions I have to manage during the day. When I have a day with lots of distractions, questions and demands I definitely get to dinner time with less energy than if I have been left alone to get on with a few important tasks or I have been out pitching all day.

Over the last few weeks I have been making a note at the end of each day about how much (on a scale of 1-10) I have been dragged into making decisions. Anything above a 7 and I usually want to collapse into bed by 9pm.

I guess that is natural.

Reducing the Complexity

So what is my plan? Well I am still experimenting so I don’t have a definitive answer yet. But here are a few of the things I am actively doing to try to reduce my decision fatigue, at least when I can:

  • Planning my exercise in advance: I know that a day when I don’t manage to exercise is a day when I will be wracked with guilt and boiling with frustration. So every day I make a decision about when I am going to exercise the next day. As far as possible, I stick to that plan. Most of the time that means deciding to get up at 5am and just getting a run or ride done. I also book in with friends to go for a run or ride and that takes away the negotiation that can happen – it’s agreed so I just go.
  • Wearing (mainly) the same things most of the time: I am not going to pretend that I can do a Steve Jobs or a Barak Obama. But I have bought four of the same Uniqlo shirts in grey and blue plus I have a couple of other shirts that I know fit and look good (in my opinion, of course!) I make sure there are always a couple washed and ironed (a good job for Sunday evening) and I wear them with the same selvedge jeans or chinos plus one of three pairs of trainers pretty much every day (plus one of three sweatshirts I have if I know it will be cold). I have made sure that this capsule wardrobe would be perfectly acceptable if I suddenly had a meeting or a client turned up at the office.
  • Blocking out time – this is one that I am struggling with. I have put time in the shared work diary when I would like to be left alone. The problem is that if I am in the office, no one takes any notice of that and just asks me whatever they want. It would probably be easier if I had an office, but we are all open-plan at Freestak, which is great most of the time, but this is one limitation of that set-up.
  • Expecting colleagues to work it out for themselves – as Freestak and Like the Wind both grow up, both Julie and I are looking for people who can take responsibility and work it out for themselves. Empowering people to take risks and use their initiative not only means the business can really grow and thrive, but it also allows each of us to focus on the few things that really matter and that we can have a big impact on. Gary Vaynerchuk apparently talks about his business like a federation – i.e. there are independent states that govern most of what they do and then a collective entity that each state contributes to and relies on for certain things.
  • Planning food in advance – this is much like the clothing thing: if I know on Monday what I am going to eat each day for the working week, then there are 15 fewer decisions / negotiations to navigate. It is hard to do this, of course. But I have noticed that on the days when we have left-overs for lunch and dinner is planned (usually because something needs to be eaten before it spoils) my decision fatigue score is a lot lower.

I am sure there are many other ways that I can help myself to be more productive by reducing the complexity day-to-day. I have a lot of requests from people asking me for little favours (quite often from clients) and being the kind of person I am, I really struggle to say “No”. But perhaps I need to a little more.

If you have come to the same conclusions as me and / or you have any suggestions for how I can improve my results by reducing complexity, I would love to hear from you. Especially if you have seen results. Of course, I realise that you might decide to reduce your own complexity by not replying to this post. I would totally respect that decision …

The addiction cycle reasserting itself

I have no evidence to say whether I am more or less inclined to get addicted than the general population. I used to think that I was much more susceptible than most, but that was probably me just giving myself an excuse for my vices. Now I tend to think that I am about as susceptible as everyone else – as weak-willed as the average man or woman.

Really that doesn’t matter – this isn’t about where I am on a scale. What I do know is that I am too easily addicted to certain things for my liking and I need to take steps to address this tendency.

My current addiction

Recently I have become frustrated by my addiction to social media and email. I have not measured, but I seem to be compelled to check one or both every few minutes. And I have started to understand why.

I read a fascinating article recently about reinforcement of behaviours – a nice way of saying ‘creating addictions’ – and how rewards play a big part in compelling us to click ‘refresh’ on our email accounts or ‘pull down’ the screen on social channels.

The basis of the article is that we are ‘rewarded’ when we refresh our social channels or our email inbox. And of course now we all have our emails and all the social channels on our phones – in our pockets, next to us on the desk, in bed with us – we can get the ‘hit’ of excitement that comes with a new email or an update on Facebook, all the time. Anywhere.

Distraction = Legacy Cancer

Now that I am focused on this as a problem, I am more aware of it than ever. As I write this, I have forced myself to quit the mail app on my laptop, but my phone is inches away from my left hand and the temptation to take a quick look – to see if the emails I have sent this morning have been replied to – is almost overwhelming. I feel like Gollum and his total fucking obsession with the ring.

To help with this I am reading a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport, which is all about how the act of focusing on something meaningful for an extended period in an increasingly distracting world is getting more and more rare. And as a result, more and more valuable. In the early chapters, Newport has set out, very clearly, how those of us who work in the knowledge economy are bombarded by distractions – emails, social media, instant messaging … and that in fact it is possible for people (just like me) to appear to be busy simply by reading, responding to, writing and shuffling digital messages around, which is surface or shallow work, which will not result in the production of anything meaningful.

The scary thing about all this, is that if I just keep shuffling digital messages and consuming minute snippets of entertainment, I won’t create anything meaningful. And that would be a terrible shame. In that sense, distraction is legacy cancer. If you ask a smoker, certainly in Europe or the US or Australia etc, whether they understand the risks associated with smoking, they will say “Yes”. How could they not? They will certainly know that smoking massively raises the risk of developing cancer. They smoke – I smoked – in spite of that knowledge. Perhaps they think the risks are acceptably low. Maybe they don’t believe the advice. Maybe the addiction is too strong. And the same is true for my addiction to the mini-hits of digital dopamine*. I know that distraction will kill my chances of creating anything meaningful. So I have to find a way to unleash the power of deep creative work. And to do that, I have to break an addiction. Just like I did with smoking.

I am sure there is more to come from this book. But the idea of focus – something that I discussed with David Hieatt, owner of Hiut Denim and the Do Lectures, when I met him recently – is one that I am increasingly fascinated by (more on meeting David in a future post). Of course, I think that social networks and being part of a hyper-connected world is a great thing – unlike smoking, which is ALL bad. However perhaps it is possible to have too much of a good thing and I need to create more balance in my life, with some deep work as well as shallow activity. So right now I have some deep work to get down to. No distractions for me for the next few hours.




* Wikipedia says: Dopamine (contracted from 3,4-dihydroxyphenethylamine) is an organic chemical of the catecholamine and phenethylamine families that plays several important roles in the brain and body. It is an amine synthesized by removing a carboxyl group from a molecule of its precursor chemical L-DOPA, which is synthesized in the brain and kidneys. Dopamine is also synthesized in plants and most multicellular animals. In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by neurons (nerve cells) to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain, and many addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity.