Simplicity is harder than you think

Humans are maximalists. We instinctively want more. Having evolved amidst millions of years of resource scarcity, we’re hard-wired to scrounge, collect, and amass all things we need – and all the things we might need, just in case.

While we’ve successfully turned the tables on scarcity in much of the modern world, evolution hasn’t had time to catch up. We don’t have an off switch for our pack-rat instincts. Instead, our cupboards, closets, and garages and pay-per-month storage facilities are overflowing to the point that it has entered the catalogues of our modern psychological disorders.

As the Mayo Clinic describes hoarding disorder:

Hoarding often creates extremely cramped living conditions with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter. Countertops, sinks, stoves, desks, stairways and all other surfaces are usually piled with stuff. You may not be able to use some areas for their intended purpose. For example, you may not be able to cook in the kitchen. When there’s no more room inside your home, the clutter may spread to the garage, vehicles, yard and other storage areas.

Most of us stop short of this, however – at least in the physical world. Our digital spaces, however, are chock full of downloads, photos, video, and audio files. We have 500 channels, a half-a-dozen streaming subscriptions, and computers that need terabytes of memory just to store every email we’ve received since high school and all the blurry, mis-cropped photos we won’t delete. When things don’t come with a perceptible cost, we simply can’t say no to more.

More is easy. It’s the path of least resistance. Just look at our digital tools. Not just at the screens of little-used and slumbering apps on our phones, but at the apps themselves. Many of them started off simple, doing one or two things differently and well, until customers, shareholders, or the company’s own insecurities compelled the designers to add more. More features, more capabilities, more bells and whistles. And now, besides the colour and logos, it’s hard to tell them apart.

But there has always been a countertrend, arguing against our natural instincts, arguing for just the opposite: simplicity. In the 19th century American writer Henry David Thoreau fled to a spartan cabin in Walden Woods to write that “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” One hundred and twenty-three years later, in 1977, Apple Computer Company proclaimed in a marketing brochure for the Apple II that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Sophistication is a keyword. Simplicity is not simply an empty vessel – a whole lot of nothing. And it’s also not taking a chainsaw to a complex institution out of ignorance – that’s just vandalism.

Simplifying with sophistication requires understanding all the complexities of a product, or institution, or individual life, and eliminating all the excess. Leaving just enough to function best and saying no to all the rest.

As Steve Jobs of Apple knew, that’s hard work. But, in face of all our physical and digital clutter, of all the unnecessary features and useless extras in our lives, maybe the hard work of simplicity is well worth it.