Getting rid of excess to focus on what matters most.

Microwave Buttons

How many buttons on your microwave do you actually use?

There’s probably at least half a dozen options on it for pizza, defrosting, potatoes, and more. But my guess is that you mostly just enter an amount of time and press start.

Every extra button on microwaves increases the cognitive overhead of heating up your food. Their interface is often unintuitive the first time you use one that’s unfamiliar, and all it takes is one bag of burnt popcorn to retreat from the more “sophisticated” options.

My parents were thrilled to find a microwave that has buttons for common lengths of time. With a single press, they can nuke a plate of food for 90 seconds.

Adding complexity often feels good in the short term — more features! — but it can come at the expense of long term usability unless carefully considered.

There’s a reason why food delivery apps don’t also let you listen to podcasts. Adding that functionality would hamper the food ordering experience, and the existing features would distract from the podcast experience.

More isn’t always better. Look no further than a balloon that got filled with too much air.

This is obvious when spelled out with such extreme examples, but it’s easy to lose sight of in our day to day lives.

For example, adding more clothes to your wardrobe is fun until you run out of room and can’t find the pieces you love among those that are just ok. Without the occasional trip to Goodwill, you’ll be stuck with overflowing drawers.

Whenever we add more to something, its size and complexity grow as its usability and reliability shrink.

And everything, from cells to empires, eventually fall apart when they get too big.

Pruning Flowers

Growing flower bushes takes commitment. You have to water and weed them, and ensure they are safe from bugs and disease.

Once they bloom, your work isn't finished: You need to prune the dying flowers to let the best ones shine. That way, the rest of the plant can thrive.

This is true for much more than flowers.

Subtractive Solutions

If the people visiting your website are filling out a form incorrectly, you could add some instructions to the form to make it clearer.

Or you could just redesign it to remove the confusing part.

When faced with a problem, it's easy to focus on additive solutions ("How do I instruct people to do this correctly?"), rather than subtractive ones ("What can I remove so that this needs no instruction?")

One study showed that when tasked with making a pattern of blocks symmetrical by either adding or removing blocks, only 20% of people chose to remove them.

Our minds are naturally drawn to additive solutions. But often, you can make a problem go away by simply removing the source of it, rather than adding a solution.

See also: Simplicity is Hard

The Value of Scarcity

If you've spent much time online recently, you've probably stumbled across the game Wordle.

The object of the game is simple: You have six tries to correctly guess a five letter word. After each try, you learn if each letter you submitted is included in the word, and whether or not it's in the right place.

The game has gone viral in part because there's only one word a day, and every player receives the same word. This encourages sharing your result, which the game makes easy to do, since everyone has the same puzzle to solve.

In a world where seemlingly everything is fighting for as much of your attention as possible, Wordle's daily limit is a breath of fresh air.

Yesterday, The New York Times acquired the game for over a million dollars.

Wordle's scarcity — only one puzzle per day — is precisely what makes it popular and valuable. Offering unlimited puzzles would make it less valuable, as evidenced by the fact that its knockoffs with no limits haven't taken off.

The value of scarcity plays out in other areas as well. Top-rated restaurants, for example, often charge a lot for small portions.

But those portions typically come on normal-sized plates:

A small amount of food elegantly arranged on a white plate
Photo by Delightin Dee on Unsplash

It's a form of theatre. By presenting the food on a much larger plate, it not only enhances the presentation, but also adds to the sense of scarcity and your perception of its value.

When you only get one bite of something, you're going to savor it.

And when you slow down long enough to do so, you realize just how valuable it truly is.

The Gift of Simplicity

Complexity is tempting because it's easier in the short term.

You don't need to consider the second order effects of your decision or worry about the long term cost of inefficiency. You can just enjoy the solution to your problem today.

But you'll pay the cost later on.

Simplicity, however, requires spending time up front to consider other options. Simple solutions often seem obvious, but they take a longer time to find.

You need to front-load the cost of them, with the understanding that you'll enjoy the benefits for years to come.

When we choose simplicity today, it becomes a gift to our future selves.

Effective Writing

Effective writing is only as long as it needs to be to make its point.

This is true for much more than just writing.

Creative Resilience

Pablo Picasso's 1946 work, The Bull, is a series of drawings that get progressively more detailed before reversing course until only a single line remains:

A series of bull drawings by Pablo Picasso
Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum, Picasso P. The Bull, 1946” by Vahe Martirosyan is licensed under CC BY – SA 2.0

The series is timeless, because it perfectly illustrates the creative process.

I'm using the word "creative" here in a broad sense. Any kind of problem solving, artistic or otherwise, follows this arc. As we become more familiar with the bounds of a problem, we discover how to refine it down to its most important parts.

To find the best solution, we often must first wrestle with the more sophisticated and complicated alternatives before arriving at the simplest answer.

Why are simple solutions better? They're better because they're more likely to last. In contrast, complex solutions are more brittle, because they have more points of failure.

Simple is hard, but it's resilient. And that resilience is your reward for putting in the work to eliminate complexity.

Simplicity is Hard

The instructions for Atari’s Star Trek game were only four words:

"Insert Quarter. Avoid Klingons."

It takes a lot of work to create something that needs so little guidance.

Complexity is easy, because it’s often a lazy way to solve problems. Just add another line to the instructions. Or add that new feature without considering how it impacts the user experience.

The hard thing is distilling what you’re making down to its essence so that it’s intuitive.

Your work is finished when it’s so clear, it needs little explanation.

See also: Subtractive Solutions


Reflections on creating systems to sustainably grow your impact on the world.
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