As a kid, I always loved reading the section in magazines where readers sent in their best ideas to solve household problems. The ideas were fascinating fixes that always made me wonder how a person had ever discovered the idea, like using a bobby pin for a chip clip, washing a thermos with coffee grounds and detergent to get rid of strange smells, or adding baking soda to a vase of roses to make them live longer. I’d read them to my mother and she’d shake her head. “Why didn’t I think of that?” Then I’d run to try the very thing the article mentioned
Simple, creative solutions usually leave us in awe because they’re like a clue right under our nose. We appreciate them because they work. We love them for their purity.
So why, when we’re trying to solve a problem, is it so hard to do the simple way?
Carl Richards, a financial planner, has a delightful series of blog posts on the New York Times Bucks blog where he writes about personal finance principles – and illustrates them on a napkin.
One of his most recent napkin masterpieces (actually, they’re quite simple) deals with why we fear simple money solutions. Carl says the answer is because of three reasons: we don’t believe simple will work, we equate simple with easy, and we like the way we always do things.
I think he’s spot on. We all have our own personal approaches to problem solving, but I’d bet we run into these blockades on the highway to simple solutions all too often.
Speaking of the highway, I’ve found traffic to be a gigantic problem during my commute to work lately. It’s May now, and construction season is kicking off with a bang along my only route to my office. In the past month or so I’ve found myself complaining a lot about this because my drive time takes away from my work productivity, puts me in the office later, and fills me with intense anger directed at, well, everybody and nobody.Driving accomplishes nothing except getting me to the office. It seems like I spend twice as long in the car every day idling my way through rush hour and staring at the rusted bumper of the car in front of me, when I could be writing and connecting with clients at work.
A friend bluntly told me recently that instead of complaining, I should find a solution to my frustration. (Note that the obstacle – construction and slow traffic – is a fact of life, but the problem – my frustration – is not.)
I realized I had three options:
- Leave earlier or later to minimize traffic.
- Find a different route to work.
- Use my time in the car better.
Simple solutions, but they take a bit of creativity and intention to implement.
My boss is very flexible (a small business perk!), and when I asked him, he was happy to allow me to alter my work hours to create a more positive commute. I ended up coming to work an hour later, and during my drive over the next few weeks, listened to the entirety of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (13 hours) which filled my car time with purpose. Problem solved.
The thing is, we know simple works. You’ve probably heard the navy’s “Keep it Simple, Stupid” slogan coined in 1960 as a design principle to make systems work better. That’s a buzz phrase that gets tossed around constantly – but are we even hearing it?
If the simple concept is so empowering, why do we still make everything so complicated?
Our aversion to the simple solution often comes from the misconception that simple means easy. Prone to laziness, I know I often attempt a few solutions, throw my hands up, and choose something far too complicated because I don’t have the patience or energy to come up with something else. Steve Jobs once made a quote that affirms that simple might actually be hard:
“When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.”
Don’t we all want elegant and simple solutions? And yet we battle problems daily at work and at home, and we all too easily get stuck in the rut of matching up the same kinds of solutions to the same old problems. We like tradition; maybe we even get a little vain about our typical approaches.
When we’re searching for simple solutions, we might have to take a walk, or give it some time. Creativity in problem-solving is fostered when our minds are distracted – thus, why our best and simplest ideas often occur to us as we wash our hair in the morning.
But if we commit to keeping things simple, and commit to uncovering that simple solution, we’ll have that rush of empowerment that the simplest – and best – solutions always give us.
Brooke McDonald is a Minneapolis-based writer and online marketer with a creative writing degree and a love for technology. She writes for Spicer-Baer Associates, whose business budgeting software My Department Plan tracks, reports, and plans finances more effectively for business departments.