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October 25, 2018

Have you ever been in a situation you thought was more complicated than it actually turned out to be?

Maybe this happened to you this morning at work, when you were presented with an urgent project that needed to be completed by the end of the day.

The project was fairly straightforward, but, given the tight turnaround, the other projects in your workload, and your significant other’s birthday event happening this weekend which you are responsible for organizing… you find yourself overwhelmed, thinking of everything at once.

Just like The Bachelor, the DMV, and any furniture from IKEA, our minds are hardwired to make some situations more complicated than they are. It’s called the complexity bias, and it’s our tendency to overcomplicate things that are actually pretty simple.

Our minds are hardwired to make some situations more complicated than they are—it's called the 'complexity bias.'

Even though it’s a bias, that’s not to say we should avoid it completely—we actually benefit from our complexity bias in many ways. We complicate our coffee, meals, even our sense of fashion sometimes. It’s part of how we distinguish ourselves.

But when our love of complex things sends us into a spiral of overwhelm and self-doubt? That’s when we can call the complexity bias out. With this in mind, here are two tips I’ve found helpful when my brain tries to make situations more complicated than they need to be.

Get a Bird’s Eye View

As a writer, I’m often presented with complex ideas which then require simplification. I’ve found that a great way to get to the core of any task is to identify all the moving parts.

To start: Just write it all down on a list. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy—there are plenty of programs and tools you can use, but a good ol’ notebook is my go-to. Before I dive into a task, I write out all the steps and actions I’ll need to complete it. Then, I remind myself of the “law of parsimony.” It’s a philosophy that argues the simplest solution is correct—basically the opposite of our complexity bias.

Before I dive into a task, I write out all the steps and actions I’ll need to complete it.

Reminding myself that simple can be correct helps me avoid getting bogged down in the details when I start writing. I try finding the simplest path forward first. Sometimes, it works perfectly. Other times? I have to add in more steps and complexity. But for me, it’s easier to start simple and add in more steps rather than try and do the opposite.

Ask the Right Questions

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Ron Ashkenas, author of Simplicity-Minded Management, talks about the role of simplifiers and complexifiers at companies.

The gist: some managers can be responsible for facilitating complexity by asking too many questions. The simplifiers, on the other hand, tend to be direct with their needs, asking fewer questions.

How can complexifiers turn into simplifiers? Ashkenas says: “One of the keys to becoming a simplifier is to think of very simple, straightforward questions that get your people to really challenge their own thinking and get to the essence of what they have to do to make the organization more effective.”

You can use this tactic when talking to yourself, too. For example: Say you’re overwhelmed as you plan your goals at work. Ashkenas recommends simplifying things by asking: “If I was coming on to this job as a new employee, what would I do differently?”

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what the right questions are, as Ashkenas mentions later in the interview, because our ability to see things clearly is also clouded by anxiety. I try to follow my gut when it comes to asking questions.

If a task feels complex, for example, I might ask myself, “If I were delegating this to someone else, how would I tell them to do it? Where would I tell them to start?” It helps me get out of my own way and see a path forward.

We’re complex creatures, and, as I said earlier, that’s something that makes us wonderfully unique. But next time you feel frozen by your complexity bias, these tips might help you work your way towards a simpler solution.

Read next: To-Do List Got You Overwhelmed? Simplify Things With the 1-3-5 Rule

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