Simplifiers Versus Optimizers

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“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Do you add an extra-level of stress while chasing the perfect or ideal solution?

Or do you look for a simpler way to solve things, and optimize later?

Whether you are an Optimizer or a Simplifier, they both have their merits.  The key is to know the trade-offs and when to use which approach.

In the book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, Scott Adams shares what he learned about Simplifiers and Optimizers.

Simplifier and Optimizers

Simplifiers look for the easy solution, while optimizers look for the best solution.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“Some people are what I call simplifiers and some are optimizers.  A simplifier will prefer the easy way to accomplish a task, while knowing that some amount of extra effort might have produced a better outcome.  An optimizer looks for the very best solution even if the extra complexity increases the odds of unexpected problems.”

An Example Simplifier

Simplifiers try to find the less-stress way.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“My wife, Shelly, is a world-class optimizer.  I, on the other hand, cling to simplicity like a monkey on a coconut.  As I write this chapter, we have plants tonight for a simple dinner thirty minutes from home followed by a movie that is near the restaurant.  We’ll stop to pick up our friends who conveniently live on the shortest path to our destination.  Once we get to the restaurant, we won’t even need to move the car.  Parking will be easy, the drive will avoid all rush-hour traffic, and the timing will allow for a leisurely evening with no worried.  I, the simplifier, made these plans.”

An Example Optimizer

Optimizers trade the stress and the risk for ideal solutions.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“In about an hour, the optimizer in the family will return home from whatever she is optimizing and potentially introduce several changes to my plan.  If the changes work, our evening will be even better than I imagined, or perhaps more productive.  That’s great!  But the changes will also introduce new opportunities for things to go wrong.  This balance works well for Shelly because she has nerves of steel.  I’m more like a squirrel that wandered into a monster-truck rally.  I don’t have the constitution to optimize.”

Optimizing Works Often Enough to Reinforce the Habit

If optimizing is more stress, why do people do it?  It works often enough to make it seem worth it.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“But as I sad, 90 percent of the time that we try to optimize, we get several errands completed, get a perfectly good table, have a nice meal, and see a movie that might even be better than the one we first picked.  Optimizing works often enough to reinforce the habit.”

The Cost of Optimizing is High

Optimizing takes a lot of energy and creates a great deal more stress.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“The cost of optimizing is that it’s exhausting and stress inducing, at least for people like me.  Sometimes, I think I’m literally going to have a heart attack from all of the optimizing.  It also requires full concentration.  I prefer simple, foolproof plans that allow my heart to beat normally and my mind to wander toward blissful thoughts of puppies and rose petals.”

When Others are Involved, Simplicity is the Way to Go

When you have a lot of dependencies and interdependencies, simplicity will help increase your odds of success.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“If the situation involves communication with others, simplification is almost always the right answer.  If the task is something you can do all by yourself, or with a partner who is on your wavelength, optimizing might be a better path if you can control most variables in the situation.  And realistically, sometimes you simply have to get three hours of tasks completed in two hours, so we don’t always have the luxury of being able to choose simple paths.”

When Choosing Systems, Simple is the Way to Go

Optimizing might look and sound very good.  But in practice, it’s simplicity that sticks.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“I prefer simplicity whenever I’m choosing a system to use.  People can follow simple systems better than complicated ones.  I’ll give you some examples of that in later chapters about fitness and diet.  The most optimized diet plan or fitness plan will also be the most complicated.  But few people have enough willpower in reserve to follow complicated plans.”

Simplifying is the Strategy for People Who Use Systems

The best systems are simple ones.  They are less prone to failure and more likely to be used.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“Optimizing is often the strategy of people who have specific goals and feel the need to do everything in their power to achieve them.  Simplifying is generally the strategy of people who view the world in terms of systems.  The best systems are simple, and for good reason.  Complicated systems have more opportunities for failure.  Human nature is such that we’re good at following simple systems and not so good at following complicated systems.”

Simple Systems are the Best Way to Achieve Success

Too many people make the mistake of trying to optimize, before they have first simplified.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“Simple systems are probably the best way to achieve success.  Once you have success, optimizing beings to have more value.  Successful people and successful businesses have the luxury of being able to optimize toward perfection over time.  Start-ups often do better by slapping together something that is 80 perfect good and seeing how the public responds.  There’s time to improve things later if the market cares about the product.”

Simplification Frees Up Time

When you simplify things, you make it easier to free up your time, by reducing the added complexity.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“Another big advantage of simplification is that it frees up time, and time is one of your most valuable resources in the world.  If you give an ant infinite time, it can move a mountain all by itself.  In my case, I can run the equivalent of three separate careers (cartoonist, author, entrepreneur) in the same forty-hour week that would normally accommodate one job.”

Simplification Frees Up Energy

Keep the bigger picture in mind.  Simplify your day with the intent of maximizing your personal energy.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“Simplification frees up energy, making everything else you do just a little bit easier.  That’s a huge deal.  You don’t want your job interview to go poorly because on the way to the interview you completed  four complicated errands that turned you into a ball of stress.  When you are trying to decide between optimizing and simplifying, think of your entire day, not the handful of tasks in question.  In other words, maximize your personal energy, not the number of tasks.”

Simplicity is a Worthy Long-Term Goal

While you can’t always seek simplicity, you can choose it as a strategy, and apply it when you can and where you can.

Via How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life:

“As I mentioned earlier, we don’t always have the option of choosing simplicity, especially if we have a thousand things to complete in a day, as Shelly often does.  But it’s a good idea to have an overarching plan to move toward simple systems as opportunities allowYou can chip away at the complexity of your life over time.  Simplicity is a worthy long-term goal.  That’s how you will free your personal energy so you can concentrate it where you need it.”

Are you a Simplifier or an Optimizer?

What can you learn from your counterpart?

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Image by Alan Cleaver.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve definitely been an optimizer most of my life, and that tendency still can run strong. But, I’m yearning for simplicity and learning that’s a much better option for me. Adams is right; the stress of being an optimizer can just about kill you. Great information. Thank you.

    • I hear that.

      I’ve been in several very different kinds of work environments. In some environments, the way the work was done was planful, simple, and focused. And it was highly effective. In other environments, it was chaotic, random, and stressful.

      The big difference between both cases was that in some environments, there was a lot of wasted energy around mini-optimizations, without first getting the bigger picture right.

      My favorite expression that one of my mentors used was, “It’s like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

      It’s really a great reminder to first do the right things, before trying to do them right.

      Otherwise, we chase our tails.

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