The two things I’ve spent the most time studying are software engineering and music composition. While they seem to be very different fields of study, large-scale works in either area rely on one very important common skill: the ability to manage complexity.
In software, you know that your complexity is out of control when it becomes harder and harder to make changes as the size of the code base grows. In music, complexity is out of control when your piece becomes less and less coherent as it grows in length and instrumentation.
It wouldn’t surprise me if other fields are similar. Once you get the basic skills and semantics out of the way, the biggest thing that determines whether or not you fail or succeed has to do with whether or not you can keep complexity under control.
The same thing is true for your personal and professional life. There are hundreds of things fighting for your attention every minute of every day. If you don’t take a proactive stance on trying to reduce and manage the complexity in your life, it can take over.
So how can you deal with complexity? Here are a few tips:
Lack of organization costs you previous minutes and hours of your life. The real trick is to understand the things where organization benefits you and the things where it doesn’t. Some things only require a level of what I call messy organization. If you have two different types of socks, there isn’t much benefit in pairing them all up. Just dump them all in a drawer because the cost of finding them when you need them is no greater than the cost of sorting them when you put them away. However, a similar approach for taxes won’t work so well because the cost of finding the information when you need it is much higher than the cost of simply putting papers into appropriate folders as they come in.
In software engineering, the fundamental way of dealing with complexity is to create a piece of code that independently does something. Once it is written and tested, it becomes like a magic box–you don’t have to worry about how it actually does its job. The internals have been abstracted away where you don’t have to think about them anymore.
One example would be things such as setting up automatic bill pay. I have a life insurance policy that I will not have to think about for the next 20 years. It gets paid automatically on time each year.
When we bought our house, we planted 100 evergreen trees across the front of the property. I ran a hose down the row and poked holes at every tree. A timer runs the water for 30 minutes every day automatically and it is one less thing I have to think about or try to remember.
One of the hardest parts of music composition is deciding what to leave out. Making things simple is extremely hard, but the results are well worth it. Simplification often means understanding yourself well enough that you can leave out everything that isn’t really important to you personally.
Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.
~ Albert Einstein
When my wife and I bought our first house, we put in a home theater. It had tiered seating, a 12-foot screen and surround sound. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the setup as simple as possible. Eventually we decided to set it up only for watching movies. We didn’t hook it up to cable, antenna or a DVR. It would play DVDs and that was it. This worked out well for us because it was pretty much the only thing for which we wanted to use it. The setup was simple and we had a single, easy-to-understand remote that controlled everything.
Our friends, on the other hand, took a very different approach. They wanted a setup that would do everything. You could watch live TV while recording another channel on Tivo, play the DVR on the small television in the kitchen, etc. They had a list of instructions that was three pages of single-spaced text. We watched their kids one evening and decided to turn on the TV after the little ones were asleep. I’m a reasonably smart person and technically adept, but I couldn’t figure out how to get their setup to let us watch anything other than Animal Planet.
The setup may have been perfect for them because they watched a lot of television. For us, a similar setup would have added a tremendous amount of complexity for capabilities that weren’t really important to us in the first place.
My point is that we need to be very aware of how we let complexity slip into our lives. That doesn’t mean you should avoid complexity at any cost. Just make sure you are using it where it is appropriate and not making your life needlessly complex in ways that provide little or no benefit that really matters.