Decomplication: How to Find Simple Solutions to “Hard” Problems

in Personal Optimization

This article is long and will make you think. I recommend saving it to pocket and reading it in a comfy chair with a cup of earl grey tea.

How do you lose weight?

If we were to plug that question into Google, we’d be barraged by millions of pages explaining tactics for weight loss. Foods to eat, foods to avoid, when to eat, how to eat, what speed to eat at, where to eat, who to eat with, what kind of utensils to use, what pills to take, what exercise to do, what procedures to do, what plans to follow, what coaches to hire, and that list will barely get us past the first 10 results.

What if we asked: “how do you manage your finances?”

Down the rabbit hole again. What to save money on, where to save money, how to coupon, what to invest in, where to live, how to live, where to work, what kind of car to get, how to do your groceries, what countries to live in, what to spend money on, what credit cards to get, what banks to join, and again we’re likely not past the first page.

The amount of information available for both of these problems would seem to indicate that they’re complicated. There are tons of variables you need to manipulate in order to get it right, and if you don’t understand each variable, then you won’t hit your goal. You won’t lose weight, you won’t save money, you won’t be productive, you won’t start a business, and you won’t solve any other popular problem either. These problems are complex and you need a monumental amount of information to get them right.

Bullshit.

The core solutions to many problems, maybe most problems, are extremely simple. In one paragraph each, you can explain how to lose weight, how to gain muscle, how to save money, how to be productive, how to sleep better, how to grow a website, and just about any other popular problem. The finishing touches near perfection aren’t so simple, but the effective amount for the vast majority of our purposes? Certainly.

But, we don’t want to hear this. Through a combination of psychological biases, willpower depletion, and effective marketing, we’ve begun to believe that the simple things are difficult and complex and that we need swaths of information and expertise to solve them.

We’ve created and been sucked into a world of artificial complexity – one where topics are made more complex than they need to be in order to appeal to our biases and frustrations, and to help companies make more money.

But here’s the good news.

Once you recognize this world of artificial complexity, you can turn any problem back into its simple solution through decomplication. Weight loss, strength gain, productivity, skill enhancement, sleep, they’re all incredibly simple once you decomplicate them.

We’ll get to how to do that soon, but first, why does artificial complexity exist in the first place?

Why and How We Create Artificial Complexity

Artificial complexity occurs when a commonly encountered problem has a simple solution, but that solution is made more complex to appeal to the solver’s lack of willpower, past failures, or to benefit the interests of a third party (usually a company selling something).

Let’s take sleep as an example.

Getting a good night’s sleep is important. If you don’t do it regularly, you’re going to die much sooner than you need to, which will make me and, presumably, many of your friends sad.

But how do you get a good night’s sleep?

The market for sleep aids is on track to reach $76.7 billion dollars by the end of the decade, from special mattresses and pillows to tech, supplements, sound machines, and anything else that can help you get that full night’s rest.

At first blush, this isn’t that surprising. Almost everyone uses some sort of sleep aid, whether that’s a sleep tracking app, white noise machine, memory foam pillow, or eye mask. But when you dig in, do you really need, in a biological sense, a fancy iPhone sleep tracker, Valerian Root supplement, “delta wave inducing” music, and cup of chamomile tea to sleep well?

No, of course not. All you need is 8 hours with minimal stimulation or interruption (i.e. no light, sounds, movements, discomforts, etc.).

So why is there such a big industry around sleep?

As humans, we’re not good at making tradeoffs. We’re tired, but we also want to sleep less than 8 hours. We want to be thin, but we also want to eat Oreos. We want to save money, but we also want to go out drinking.

The solution to not being tired is extremely simple: sleep 8 hours with minimal stimulation and don’t take too many stimulants. But we don’t want that to be the answer. We want to throw back our venti lattes and watch late night TV in bed and live an 18-20 hour day, so we look for magical sleep aids, stimulants, and other silver bullets to compress our comatose period from 8 hours to 6 or 4.

This is where complexity starts to seep in. Since we don’t want to get the full 8 hours, don’t want to give up our coffee, and don’t want to get the screens out of the bedroom, we look for more complex answers. Our desire to have our cake and eat it too makes us look for methods to get both at once, adding significant complexity to what is, at root, a simple biological process.

And lucky for us, there is an emerging $76.7 billion dollar industry willing to help us in our search for complex silver bullets.

This cycle plays out again and again in almost every area of our modern lives. We become frustrated by what should be simple problems, we look for more complex solutions to address our frustrations, and then we buy things that promise to make that complex problem easy again.

This cycle can be broken, but to do it, we need to better understand the three forces that create artificial complexity.

Three Forces that Create Artificial Complexity

Artificial complexity follows a predictable cycle.

  1. Problems start by having a simple solution that’s easy to execute, or a simple solution that’s hard to execute.
  2. Our frustration with following through on the simple solution causes us to challenge or ditch it, leading us to imagine more complex solutions.
  3. We buy things that promise to address the complexity and make it easy again.

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Before moving on to each force, though, I need to make an important terminological distinction to avoid any confusion.

Simple here means straightforward and containing few steps or moving pieces. Running a marathon is simple because you just run, but it is not easy.

Easy here means requiring little effort or willpower to follow through on. Taking Hydroxycut is easy, but Hydroxycut is not a simple solution to weight loss. If you don’t believe me, look at its ingredients.

From those definitions, their opposites, “complex” and “hard” should be obvious. Your job as you continue reading is to not assume ease when I say something is simple, and to not assume simplicity when I say something is easy.

On to the three forces.

Force 1: Failure and Challenge

Nothing becomes artificially complex without first becoming a problem. If I dumped you in a wilderness lodge with all of your necessities provided and with no technology, work, or meetings, you would sleep perfectly well. With time, you would also end up in good shape, not be stressed, and never even begin to have many of the “problems” that plague modern humans.

But if I pull you out of that wilderness utopia and return you to the modern world, the easy things aren’t so easy any more. You’ll struggle to sleep enough, struggle to eat well, struggle to exercise.

You know that you need to sleep 8 hours, but it’s getting harder and harder to fit it into your schedule. You’ll start sleeping poorly, a laughable problem to anyone outside of modernity, but a problem nonetheless. With this challenge, you’ve started down the path of artificial complexity by going from simple and easy, to simple and hard.

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This isn’t to say that sleeping in modern society is secretly easy to do. It isn’t, if you don’t completely control your environment, but we have to recognize that at root sleeping is a very simple and easy thing. It’s our environments that make it difficult, not some aspect of sleep.

It’s worth noting, too, that not everything starts out as easy to do. Growing a popular website is simple, but hard to do from the get go. It’s never easy to do. It still goes through the “failure and challenge” process, but that process moves it deeper into the “hard to do” box instead of from easy to hard.

If a problem is physiological, philosophical, psychological, otherwise human or “old,” though, it’s likely that the solution can be distilled to being simple, and even easy if you were removed from modern society.

Force 2: Cognitive Dissonance

Once you’ve gone from “this is easy” to “this is hard,” or “this is hard” to “this is impossible,” artificial complexity begins to kick in.

The process for losing weight is simple, but doing it is difficult when faced with all of the junk food we have available to us. When that difficulty leads to failure, cognitive dissonance kicks in, and our desire to not feel responsible for that failure causes us to seek out alternative explanations.

We first create artificial complexity in our minds to explain our failures or shortcomings. It’s not that your diet sucks, you don’t exercise, you open yourself up to distractions, or that you’re not setting aside 8 hours a night, it’s that you haven’t found the right trick yet.

If you accept that the solution is simple (which it truly is), then you have no one to blame for failure but yourself. But, if you can convince yourself that the solution is complex, well, then you just haven’t found the right trick yet. Fuck eating healthy, let’s all do coolsculpting and take Hydroxycut!

With sleep, this second force is our desire to not do the hard work of cutting our day down to 16 hours. We know that we’re tired when we only sleep 6 hours, so how do we solve it? We could adjust our schedules so that we get a full 8 hours (simple), but that’s hard and we don’t want to do it. Instead, we look for supplements, tools, tactics, tricks, and whatever else we can find to make up for those 2 hours (complex).

For now, we’ve only made the problem worse. It’s still hard, because we don’t know what tricks and tactics to use. Our cognitive dissonance has taken the simple but hard to do solution, and turned it into a complex solution that’s equally hard to do.

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Luckily, we aren’t stuck in this box for long.

Force 3: Money and Marketing

Businesses thrive on artificial complexity. Recognizing the human desire for a complex solution to a simple problem is a fantastic way to make money, and has driven the absurd wealth in industries like fitness, productivity, and entrepreneurship (that is, telling people how to be entrepreneurs).

In many cases, if someone is selling something (product, training, course, etc), it benefits them to make the problem their product solves seem more complex than it is, while also making their solution easy, so that you feel like you need to buy what they’re selling. Your mind is stuck in the box of “this is hard and extremely complex,” and they move you to “this is complex, but thankfully I can pay someone to make it easy.”

Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. A good personal trainer can take the complex world of fitness, explain its simplicity, and then teach you how to keep working out on your own. But there are 10 times as many bad trainers who will inject artificial complexity into fitness to keep you paying them and buying their products. It’s the latter you need to watch out for.

This deception is especially common when a company has a mediocre product. If the product can’t sell itself, the job of marketers, salespeople, or product designers is to create artificial complexity and aggressively push the consumer into making a purchase.

Our cognitive dissonances takes problems that are simple but hard and makes them complex and hard. Marketing and products take our belief that something is hard and complex, and convinces us that, with their solution, it can be easy and complex.

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For sleep, our frustrations move us from believing it’s simple and hard to complex and hard. Once we’re there, all companies and entrepreneurs need to do is provide an easy solution to what appears to be a complex problem. And, voilà, $76.7 billion.

No one makes money by saying “hey just sleep 8 hours with minimal stimulation,” even though that’s the best solution. They make money by convincing you that you don’t need just any sleep mask, you need their sleep mask, because you have no idea how complicated and nuanced the world of sleep mask purchasing truly is (but don’t worry, here’s a list of “10 things you didn’t know about choosing a sleep mask”).

By recognizing these three forces, we can see how simple problems quickly get turned hard, then complex, then made easy again, so long as you buy into someone’s complex solution.

Most people end the cycle here. They hit a problem, make it complex in their heads, then buy into someone’s “easy” solution to the artificial complexity.

But we don’t have to. Instead, we can decomplicate the problem, and return it to a simple solution.

Decomplication: How to Undo Artificial Complexity

Artificial complexity is bad. It’ll make you spend money and time on solutions you don’t need, cause you to waste hours reading and hunting for the “perfect answer,” and leave you strung out and depressed not getting the results you want from solutions you shouldn’t have been trying in the first place.

Not all problems can be reduced to being simple and easy, but anything that people commonly encounter can at least be reduced to being simple and hard. Losing weight is simple and hard, sleeping well is simple and maybe hard depending on your situation, being productive is simple with variable difficulty.

But the only way we can bring these challenges back to the simple side of the graph is through decomplication. Not simplification, which involves taking something truly complex and conveying a simpler version of it, but decomplication, undoing the complication that’s unnecessarily been added to it.

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Unfortunately, this is not easy to do. It requires two steps:

  1. Realistically assessing the complexity of the problem, by exposing how it may have been made artificially complex.
  2. Realistically assessing the difficulty of the problem, by figuring out how you may have convinced yourself of artificial difficulty.

It’s only once you’ve gone through these two steps and decomplicated the problem that you can easily see the simple solution.

Realistically Assessing Complexity

The first step in putting any problem back in its correct box is to assess the true complexity of it. Some problems, like rocket science, are truly complex. You’ll never get them into the simple category.

But for most of the problems we encounter in daily life, we can decomplicate them by exposing how they were turned artificially complex. The best way to do that is to ask good questions about the problem, in order to assess if there may be factors that are making it look more complex than it needs to be.

Question 1: “Does anyone profit from this being complex?”

The first place to look when assessing complexity is if anyone makes money or has built their business on making something seem complex. And more importantly, are you listening to this person on how complex it is?

For example, health and fitness magazines make money by making health and fitness seem complex. Losing weight is simple, but they make a lot more money by making you think you need to follow their diet, supplement regimen, exercise routine, latest list of 10 superfoods, or whatever else they’re selling.

Conversely, no one makes money from quantum physics being complex. You don’t see people selling 10 week quantum physics bootcamps (yours at 50% off for a limited time). That’s a legitimately complex field.

If the problem you’re trying to solve has been monetized through complexity, then odds are that there’s a simple solution hidden deep down.

Question 2: “Do I secretly know the simple solution?”

In many cases of artificial complexity, we secretly know what the simple solution is, but we desperately want there to be some other, easier, more complex answer.

Most smokers know the solution to their smoking habit is to stop smoking. Fat people know the solution is to eat better and less. Weak people know the solution is to exercise. Unproductive people know the solution is to get to work.

But these simple solutions are hard, and we don’t want hard. We want easy. So we claw at the easy, complex, and frequently expensive solutions, hoping desperately that one of them will save us from having to do the hard work of quitting smoking, eating well, working out, or focusing.

It’s difficult, but we need to train our ability to honestly assess whether we’re creating complexity despite knowing the answer is simple.

Question 3: “Am I assigning value to complexity?”

Part of why artificial complexity thrives is that we treat complex things as more valuable. We want a crazy complicated workout routine because we believe it must be more complicated to work. If a trainer told you to go to the gym just once a week, do five sets of five deadlifts, and then leave, you’d probably (wrongly) fire them.

We’ve been sold complexity our entire lives, and that’s made us undervalue the simple. As a result of the “monetization through complexity” problem, we no longer trust that simple solutions could be valid.

To get to the root of a problem’s solution, you need to honestly ask yourself if you’re seeking out complexity simply because you trust complexity more than you trust simplicity.

Question 4: “Is this something I’ve failed at?”

Failing can be the first step towards artificial complexity. When something doesn’t go our way, or when we put in effort and don’t get the results we want, we tell ourselves a story of complexity to explain the shortcoming, even though the failure more likely came from randomness, lying to ourselves, or not trying hard enough.

If you failed at losing weight, getting strong, being productive, sleeping better, managing your money, or any other artificial-complexity-prone area in the past, and now think it’s complex, now you know why you believe that.

By running through these four questions, you’ll get an idea of how artificial complexity may have seeped into the problem you’re trying to solve. If you said “yes” to any of them, there’s a good chance that the problem you’re contemplating is simpler than you think it is.

Realistically Assessing Difficulty

Difficulty is significantly less objective than complexity. Eating well is simple for everyone, but it’s not necessarily easy for everyone.

If you earn a good amount of money and live in a major city with access to Instacart, a nutritionist, and a chef, it’s very easy to eat well. Living in the middle of nowhere Arkansas with a minimum wage income, not so easy.

That said, you can still ask a few good guiding questions to see if something is truly difficult, or artificially difficult.

Question 1: “Do I control the variables that make this seem difficult?”

If you think sleeping well is difficult, but you go out drinking every night until 2am, then it’s not actually difficult. You’re making other choices that cause it to be difficult, but you want to have your cake and eat it too.

Or, maybe you think that it’s difficult to not snack on things that are bad for you, but you keep buying snacks when you go to the grocery store. Not snacking is easy if you don’t have the option, but you’ve made it difficult by putting the option in front of you.

Question 2: “Am I treating this as difficult as an excuse for inaction, or to prevent cognitive dissonance?”

Even if you acknowledge that, say, eating well is not complex, you might tell yourself “yeah but it’s harrrrrd” as you bite into your fifth OREO.

In this situation you don’t want to admit to yourself that it’s easy, since that would mean there is little excuse for eating the OREO. The cognitive dissonance from admitting that you might be neglecting something good for you is painful, and it’s easier to imagine it being difficult.

Question 3: “Have I failed at this before?”

Past failures can create artificial difficulty just as they can create artificial complexity. If you failed at something in the past, you might have written it off as “too hard” and kept that mentality towards it ever since.

Worse, you might have developed the belief that it isn’t possible at all, telling yourself the story that you’re “not someone who sleeps well,” or that you’re “meant to be fat.”

If you can start bringing these questions into your life when you run into problems that you think are hard or complex, odds are, you’ll start to discover much simpler solutions.

Finding the Simple Answers: A Priori Reasoning

After you’ve gone through this questioning process, you could be left wondering “what is the simple solution, though?”

While it’s easy to recognize that most health information online is purely artificial complexity, some of it must be relevant, right?

Unfortunately, the more artificially complex a field has become, the harder it is to find the simple answers. Worse, you can end up thinking you’ve found the simple answer, be completely wrong, and have to go through the cycle again later.

The solution is a priori reasoning, or as it’s commonly referred to, “reasoning from first principles.”  A priori reasoning is when you take premises, rules, axioms, fundamental truths, mental models, and other principles that are inarguable, or very certain truths, and reason out a solution based on logical deduction. It requires building conclusions off of what you know to be true, instead of relying on opinions or assumptions.

Here are some examples of how we might use a priori reasoning to find simple solutions to common problems, particularly ones discussed in this article.

Losing weight

People without access to food get very skinny. If I eat less, I will lose weight.

Building muscle

The body responds to stress by making itself stronger for the next time that stressor appears, which is why vaccines work. If I lift weights close to my point of failure, I’ll get stronger.

Networking

Famous people tend to hang out with other famous people, or people as accomplished in tangential fields. If I want to get to know someone I respect, then I should do something that puts me on a level where I could be friends with them.

Productivity

The goal of productivity is to get more done, and the biggest reason you don’t get things done is that you’re doing other things. If I remove the ability to do other things, I’ll do the thing I’m trying to be productive on.

Search Engine Optimization

Google has an amazing team of data scientists working on its search engine, and the goal of the search engine is to return the best answers possible to questions. If I want to rank on Google, my primary goal should be to answer questions really, really well.

Sleep

Removed from modern society, sleep is not a problem. If I can create a sleep environment as if I wasn’t in modernity, I should sleep fine.

Personal Finance

Debt and money problems happen when you spend more than you make. If I create systems to spend less than I make, I’ll be fine.

Now, maybe you read these solutions and went “well yeah, duh,” and that’s the point. Cognitively, we know these problems have easy solutions, but we look for harder ones in reaction to forces 1 and 2.

You also could have looked at them and said “okay, I buy that, but I need information on how to do the next step.” Not necessarily. We can use the same type of reasoning to figure most of the pragmatic next steps out, too.

Sleep

  1. If I create a sleep environment as if I wasn’t in modernity, I’ll sleep fine.
  2. Therefore, I should sleep somewhere quiet, dark, undisturbed, and until I wake up naturally.
  3. Therefore, I should dampen noise in my room, get a white noise machine, blackout my shades, turn off phone notifications, cover any lights, and have a comfy bed.

Did you need a book on sleep to figure that out? No, you could have figured it out a priori.

Two Laws for Complexity

There are certainly topics of knowledge that are complex: particle physics, epistemology, organic chemistry, but are there practical problems we run into daily that are truly complex?

I now believe that the answer is no. I can’t find any solvable problems that could be reasonably experienced by a person in modern society that have truly complex solutions. Complexity is reserved for rocket science, not for challenges we encounter on a day to day basis.

Despite that underlying simplicity, it’s the problems the greatest number of people experience that tend to have the most artificial complexity. Everyone has some trouble with sleep, weight management, feeling fulfilled, staying productive, and you’ll notice that those kinds of topics have the most artificial complexity.

Which brings us to the simplicity of this concept. Two simple mental models you can put in your pocket and take with you into this world of artificial complexity.

The Law of Artificial Complexity: As the number of people experiencing a problem increases, so will the artificial complexity of the solution.

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The law of artificial complexity tells us that as more people experience a problem, more artificial complexity will be added to the solution. The most common problems have the most artificial complexity added to them, since these common problems provide the most business opportunities, and have the most people struggling with them.

Some of these problems are ones that you may have never even thought you had, but then started to believe you had simply because you stumbled across artificial complexity based marketing.

And once we recognize the law of artificial complexity, we can take its converse, and create a Law of Decomplication:

The Law of Decomplication: The more people that are experiencing a problem, the simpler the solution should be.

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Common human problems have simple solutions. Our errors in judging complexity come when we treat daily human problems as tail end knowledge work problems, believing tweaking our diets to be as complex as building a Falcon 9 rocket.

It’s on us to recognize when we’re being over-influenced by artificial complexity, to go through the decomplication process, and then to use our a priori reasoning to arrive at the better, simpler, solution.