April 2004 Insight Newsletter


(3 items) In our increasingly complex world, simplicity is our most important goal. It’s up to us to introduce that as a goal and keep it in focus to balance the complexity we unavoidably encounter. One of the great ironies is how complex it can be to find simplicity today. I love this site as an example: SimpleLiving.net. There have to even simpler ways!

“Simplicity is an acquired taste. Mankind, left free, instinctively complicates life.” – Katherine F. Gerould (1879 – 1944)

1. What It Takes To Be Simple

More than 100 years ago, author George Sand wrote, “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.”

Why so difficult? Endless distractions cause lack of focus. In our modern world, we face hundreds more choices than ever before in every situation at every level in every organization. The more opportunities life and work provide, the more we must strive to keep focused steadily on key goals and directions. Today, every individual needs leadership and effectiveness skills to survive.

Of the five simple principles I identify, the sole one for action is building better habits. I focus on that way of describing action because habit keeps us on track automatically. It provides consistency. A great habit is worth millions because once in place it keeps us focused and steadily moving in a positive direction. It keeps us motoring along even while we’re distracted by the world. To be certain we improve and stay focused on what we want, the simple solution is to build daily activities we need into habits. Importantly we can do that easily – just by insisting to ourselves that we repeat the new behaviors we want about 20 or 30 times. What could be simpler?

The other four skills to be more effective – being positive, honest, researching solutions and the most important one of keeping balance – all exist entirely within ourselves, inside our heads. Their value ultimately is to help us create better habits, which in turn automatically march us to our goals. Indeed these other four are habits themselves that need to be practiced to become effective. As a result, when faced with a challenge, my first questions are “what do I need to do to create balance in this situation and how can I turn that into one or more habits?” If I can answer those two questions, I know I’m on the way to a guaranteed solution. Neither answer appears instantly, but it’s worth digging to find them. Then simple trial and error gets them into action.

2. Habits Are Never Lost

Like riding a bicycle, once you learn, you never lose a habit. If you need it years later it’s still there, almost as smooth as ever. Another word for habit is skill. Even bad habits represent things you wanted to learn at one time or you wouldn’t have practiced them the 20 or 30 times needed to make them permanent. Even memories are just habits formed by impulses in your brain repeating their paths a number of times, as when you repeat a phone number to yourself to be able to recall it later. You have to repeat it enough for it to stick.

As your brain and body repeat behavior, they also streamline it by making small variations to get the action done faster and more smoothly. Once final, the perfected skill remains solid indefinitely.

What isn’t as obvious is the simple truth that habits we currently use are the most comforting and comfortable. That’s the emotional part of the brain drawing us back to habitual behavior. This makes it seem difficult to do new things. As we try, they feel uncomfortable and we fall back toward the easy actions we’re currently using.

The value of noticing this is that you build certainty that if you persevere through 20 or 30 tries, any new behavior will become quite comfortable. It soon becomes even more comfortable than the old habit and replaces it… so new, permanent, smoothly-functioning, comfortable behavior is created just that easily.

I use the example that to quit smoking I decided to develop a new habit of enjoying breathing fresh air. It sounds dumb, I know, but it worked. Whenever I was tempted I’d try to go for a walk or at least straighten up, breath deeply and try to feel the enjoyment of air that wasn’t clouded with anything. After a large number of repetitions, this game became more comfortable than smoking, more automatic than grabbing for a cigarette or a pipe. The tougher the old habit, the more often and longer you have to practice to install the new one. That was one of the longest. But after a couple of months I knew I’d never smoke again.

Though simple doesn’t always mean easy, it nevertheless provides a guaranteed reliable route to success.

3. Simplicity is Available to Everyone

Now that I can see the five ingredients of success so clearly due to long practice of fitting them to each situation, I see them repeated everywhere. Many great lessons written by experts resolve to such simple elements it’s a shame we don’t teach them this way in school.

Here’s a short list that seemed particularly simple and striking as a quotation:

“Things to remember: 1) The worth of character; 2) The improvement of talent; 3) The influence of example; 4) The joy of origination; 5) The dignity of simplicity; 6) The success of perseverance.”
– Marshall Field (1834 – 1906)

What I see: in #1 – Honesty, in #2 and #6 – Building better habits, in #4 – the goal of being Positive, in #5 – the result of coordinating deep balance with simple principles and in #3 – the value of showing others these ideas in action as well as words. What leaps off the page is another person who found the same ingredients for the simplest path to success. I don’t know a lot about this highly successful founder of a great retail chain. I’m sure he had both flaws and great moments. This was one of the latter. When simplicity becomes a habit, everything is possible. It doesn’t matter what words you use, the key principles remain the same