On my recent vacation, I read Why Simple Wins: Escape the Complexity Trap and Get to Work That Matters by Lisa Bodell. Although it’s a book written primarily for businesses, I took away a number of lessons not just for my personal life, but also for the Seminary and congregation I labor in.

The book addresses the complexity of modern life that is generating so much frustration and stress. It analyzes why so much unproductive and meaningless work fills our ever-increasing working hours, pushing out valuable and essential tasks that make work satisfying. It also proposes a number of doable solutions.

The Necessity of Simplicity
In essence, Bodell argues that we must move away from a mindset of more and complexity to less and simplicity. By eliminating low-value and redundant work and spending more time doing things that matter, simplicity can become a huge competitive advantage and a tremendous boost to personal health and work satisfaction.

The Possibility of Simplicity
And if anyone objects that they are not in a position where they can pursue or produce simplicity, Bodell insists:

Simplification is one of the most underutilized skills out there, but it’s also a skill that any of us can cultivate and deploy. And we must cultivate it. In our age of complexity, simplicity is one of the most powerful ways to add value and stand above all the mediocrity and complacency.

The Barriers to Simplicity
The greatest barriers to simplicity, says Bodell, are: meetings, accountability structures, performance metrics and evaluation, red tape, federal regulations and compliance, legal caution, reports, and technology. It’s the last barrier that I’m especially interested in as part of my digital detox.

Although we were all promised that technology would make our lives so much easier, Bodell admits, “Instead of eliminating tedious tasks, technology winds up eliminating time to do important things.”

The Complexity of Technology
The book presents a range of stats to back that up, including:

  • The McKinsey Global Institute found that people typically devote over a quarter of their time— thirteen hours each week— to dealing with e-mails.
  • Researchers at Bain & Company found that when you combine all the ways that executives can receive communication— phone calls, e-mails, IMs, etc.— the number of incoming messages the average executive gets has grown from a thousand each year in the 1970s to more than thirty thousand per year today.
  • Each day, more than one hundred billion e-mails are sent and received, but fewer than a seventh of them are actually important.

The problem of complexity in general and technology’s contribution, in particular, is really summed up in this story:

Researchers at Bain & Company found that of the forty-seven hours the average mid-level manager or frontline employee works each week, twenty-one hours are spent in meetings with four or more people, and eleven hours are spent on e-mails and other electronic communication. Do the math: that leaves less than fifteen hours to get everything else done! Now subtract the unproductive time in between meetings and other obligations and you come to a startling conclusion: “The average manager has less than 6 ½ hours per week of uninterrupted time to get work done.” That’s less than one day per week.

And in case you think that multitasking can cure this, think again, because it’s part of the problem:

Studies have found that multitasking spurs the body to create more of the hormone Cortisol, and that an excess of Cortisol can impair your memory. In addition to all the other damage it does, complication actually makes the average employee more forgetful! Imagine the toll that levies on your average company.

Six Characteristics of a Simplifier
After challenging her readers with a range of questions that reveal whether we are complicators or simplifiers, Bodell provided six characteristics of a simplifier:

1. Courage: You are not afraid to challenge the status quo. You are comfortable with change and the unknown. You call people out who are being needlessly complex.

2. Minimalist Sensibility: You know the value of less. You seek to eliminate tasks or barriers that hold you back from doing more valuable work. You approach everything you do by asking, “Is this the simplest way to do this and still reach our goal?”

3. Results Orientation: Simplicity isn’t just about cutting costs for you. You do it because you want to get things done. You like clear outcomes and accountability.

4. Focus: You don’t give up. You stick with an effort that will help you reach your goals despite resistance. You see pushback as a way to get information and make your case stronger. You don’t let business-as-usual get in the way of simplifying things over the long term.

5. Personal Engagement: You “walk the walk.” You actively seek ways to simplify and you do it while empowering others to do the same.

6. Decisiveness: You like to move things forward quickly. You don’t let a consensus-driven culture slow things down unnecessarily.

So how would a simplifier with such characteristics address the challenge and complexity of technology? Have a think about that and leave a comment if you have something helpful to share. Tomorrow, I’ll give you some ideas about how I’m trying to simplify email in particular.