One of my very favorite (possibly true, possibly not) literary anecdotes of all time is when Henry David Thoreau exclaims, “Simplify! Simplify!” in Walden, and his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson offers the feedback, “One simplify would have sufficed.”
I think of this story often. It represents the bulk of what holds me back in life (and I’d venture to guess I’m not alone here):
I overcomplicate a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t need to be complicated.
I go on and on with two “simplifys” when one would have sufficed.
Here are a few ways that I do this:
I stand in the kitchen with my coffee cup in my hand telling Justin how many things I have to get done that day and how I don’t have enough time to do them all…sometimes for more than an hour, during which I could simply have done some of them. (also feel free to substitute “phone call with bffs” for coffee cups and Justin here…)
Similarly, I like to plan my to-do list to death. There is no more satisfying procrastination method than color-coding what I have to do instead of…ummm…doing it.
I have entire conversations in my head with people about subjects that may or may not come up, you know, like ever. Bonus fun- feeling angry or betrayed or hurt by what the person said in the conversation I made up in my head that never actually happened. Because that makes sense.
Worrying. About anything. What did happen. What might happen. What my hair looked like when I walked into Starbucks earlier. What to make for dinner tomorrow night. What Sandra-who-I-don’t-even-like thinks of me. Worrying is literally making shit up to be angsty about. As if I have nothing better to do.
Being afraid of things. This probably falls under the “worry” heading, but I’m giving it its own special paragraph because, well, I just am. Being afraid of failure (both the kind that could happen and, obnoxiously enough, the kind that already happened- as if that’s helpful). Being afraid of success (this one always feels so ridiculous to me, and yet, there it is). Being afraid of having nothing to say. Being afraid of being a fraud. Being afraid of saying too much. Or too little. Or something too similar to someone else even though I’ve never heard of them. Oh, and the Marianas Trench in the ocean because…dude, that’s seriously deep.
And here’s a big favorite (and the one I hear most often from my coaching clients, so I knooooow I’m not alone here): getting overwhelmed by the 647 steps necessary to reach some goal and letting that overwhelm stop me from doing anything at all. Where does one even begin writing a book? Or building a website. Or repairing a relationship. Or knitting a baby blanket. Or get out of debt. Ummmm…yeah. Maybe I’ll just eat a sandwich for now and work on this tomorrow.
Are you getting it or should I share more examples from my laundry list of ways I can overcomplicate things that are actually not that complicated at all.
Here’s the thing- most of our issues are pretty darn straightforward.
Like seriously, embarrassingly, straightforward.
Like so straightforward that if we don’t make up ways to overcomplicate them, we will have to face just how capable we actually are and hold ourselves accountable for doing the things that really matter to us.
It’s waaaaaaaay more comfortable to hang out in overcomplicated land where there are a million perfectly acceptable reasons we’re not doing those things.
Complicated problem: "I’m super busy right now and feel on edge all the time and keep missing deadlines and feel frustrated and stressed and like I’m not doing anything well. I’m failing at everything."
Actual problem: Too many things for one human to do at the same time.
Complicated solution: "Everything is so important and I’m the only person who can do them all right- if I hand anything off, people might not think I’m superwoman and I’ll stop being praised for all the things I’m doing, or maybe someone will think I can’t handle things and I’ll stop getting invited to do them, or what if I hand things off and find out that I’m not just bad at something because I’m busy but because I’m actually bad at it."
Actual solution: Something’s gotta go- this isn’t working. Say no, fire a client, back away from a high maintenance relationship, drop off the laundry, have a hard conversation, hire a housekeeper, delegate a responsibility, let go of some control.
Oh- you thought when I said “simple” that I meant “easy.” Nope.
We like to tuck a whole lot of the baggage we’re carrying around with us into our complications, so seeing and acting on the simple solutions often require a hurdle over that pile of vintage Louis Vuitton luggage of emotional crap we like to lug around.
Which can be a big jump, I know.
But sometimes peeling away the inner dialogue and all that baggage can give us exactly the space we need to see the way forward.
There is only ever ONE next step. EVER.
It’s the only one we have to find. The only one we have to worry about. The only one we have to do. Just that single next step.
The first step to writing a book is deciding to write one. Maybe the next step is buying a notebook that you dedicate to that book. So you drive to the bookstore or open Amazon on your computer and you buy that notebook. You don’t have to worry about plot arc or characterization or how you are going to tie the action up into a neat little bow or find a publisher…that is all approximately 8,197 steps from right now. Right now, the only step is buying the notebook.
The minute we start worrying about what we’ll write in it is the minute we start overcomplicating the problem.
Grab a piece of paper or a journal or wherever you like to write things (yes, your kid’s art easel totally works!) and write out one thing that is eating at you right now. What is waking you up in the middle of the night? What feels complicated to you?
Look at it for a bit. Maybe that means a few minutes, maybe that means all day. But look at what you’ve written and think about how to pare it back, what layers of complication you can peel away.
Write out a revised, simplified version of the issue.
Now, what is a possible solution? Write it out in whatever way it comes out of you. Feel free to write out all the immediate reasons that jump into your head for why that solution doesn’t feel open to you right now.
Look at that for a bit. What can you peel away? How many of those reasons, when you start really peeling back, are covers? Is the solution more doable than you initially thought? Is it far simpler than you’ve believed it to be?
What is the one, single, next step? Remember- there is only one, so fight the temptation to list out the next three. Steps two and three “ain’t none of your beeswax” right now. What is the one next step? (You’ll be shocked at how often the answer to this is “decide”…)
Just because you find the solution to an issue or realize it’s simpler than you initially thought (simpler, not necessarily easier), it doesn’t mean you have to act on it right this second. You do you at whatever pace works.
But knowledge really is power.
Knowing what is stopping us. Knowing what our problems or issues are in their most distilled and simplest forms. Knowing what the solutions available to us are, even when we don’t like all of them.
Knowing allows us to look at them more clearly, make decisions about them that work for us.
Which gives us power to act (or not) based on what matters to us. What we value most.
So tell me- what is something in your life that has been getting two simplifys instead of just the one that would suffice? Leave me a comment and tell me- I want to know!
I recently got around to editing some more of the photos from our time in Alaska this fall…like these from the end of August at the edge of the Brooks Range! What a glorious place.