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The simplicity principle by Julia Hobsbawm



Learn to keep things simple.


You know the situation – you’re foggy-headed after staring at a computer screen too long while not drinking enough water or doing enough exercise. You’re halfway through five different tasks of varying importance, from replying to an urgent work email to watching a kitten video you just received. And let’s not forget that your phone keeps pinging with notifications. You haven’t found time to shower all day.


It’d make for a half-decent comedy – if it wasn’t your daily life. But what exactly can you do to change it? Well, quite simply, you need to simplify. This means turning off all of those devices that seem so crucial and zoning out from all of that content. It means scheduling your time more productively so the email gets answered, and you get to do some exercise. And, yes, it also means making time for your basic personal hygiene. Ready to learn how? Here are ways to simplify your life and connect with what’s most important.


Confronted by a world of complexity, we desire simplicity most of all.


Let’s imagine that you need to email a colleague in your office. You switch on your computer. But before it can load, there are updates. You’re prompted to restart the machine. So you do, and after five long minutes, the system has finally updated. But wait – now, the computer needs to conduct a virus scan as the wi-fi seems to shut down.


All of this just to speak to someone a few desks away!


Though our sophisticated technology has simplified many things like data storage and number-crunching, it has also come with a bundle of complexity. It drives us to distraction and goes against what we want most – simplicity.


One person who understood this was Steve Jobs. Simplicity is at the heart of Apple’s products, from their smooth, sleek aesthetic to their easy-to-use functionality. Although we all seek the convenience that complex technology brings, we want it to function as simply as possible. That’s the chief reason behind Apple’s success.


In fact, if you take a closer look at the most successful companies in the world, one thing unites them. From Amazon to Johnson & Johnson, they make things straightforward for the customer. Even though there’s a great deal of complexity to what they do internally, the customer experience is one of simplicity.


Our desire for simplicity can be seen in modern election results, too. Many people across the world have disengaged from the complexity and nuance of modern politics. So, when an election comes around, they tend to vote for the simplest offer.


Take the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit referendum. The “Leave” campaign won – in part – because it had the most straightforward message: “Take Back Control.” The “Remain” side, with their complex and nuanced case for internationalism, found themselves unable to counter such directness. The same is true of Trump’s 2016 victory. His campaign can easily be encapsulated in the simple, nationalistic slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Whether you agree or disagree with the politics of Brexit or Trump, voters largely craved simplicity in a complicated world.


That’s not to say complexity isn’t necessary and preferable sometimes. But in the twenty-first century, we’ve needlessly complicated things that should be very simple – like our communication with voters and our work schedules. Let’s see what we can do to simplify things.


To simplify our lives, we can learn from bees and their hexagonal hives.


Imagine the inside of a beehive. All along the walls of this living structure are cells filled with honey, pollen, and bee larvae. Squint into this dark, buzzing cathedral, and you’ll see that these cells are all hexagonal.


That’s no coincidence. Bees use the hexagon because it’s the perfect shape to build their interlocking honeycombs. The hexagon is also resilient, and able to withstand a great deal of force, even when built from light materials. Simple and effective, the bee’s hexagonal structures are a marvel of engineering.


Like us, bees live in enormously sophisticated networks. And while most of us wouldn’t want to live in a society as uniform as the beehive, we can learn from the way bees organize themselves.


Let’s consider their use of the hexagon. This simple shape can be combined in endless ways to create a strong, connected structure. Rather than bewildering complexity, they offer clarity and definition. Compare that to the way we organize our own communities and businesses, with their sprawling bureaucracies, and you can see why the simplicity of the hexagon is so appealing.


That’s on a macro level. On a micro level, the hexagon serves as a great reminder of ways to simplify our individual lives. Simplicity is achieved through streamlining priorities. And the best way to remember how to streamline our priorities is to visualize them.


Neatly enough, the six facets of the hexagon also match the number of things that we can comfortably hold in our working memory at any one time – six. So this shape, used successfully by nature, can serve as a great visual tool to remember what’s key in our day-to-day lives.


To that end, the author has constructed a whole system around it, which she calls Hexagon Action. By focusing on six different facets, she proposes that we can streamline our lives to the things most important to us. These are Clarity, Individuality, Reset, Knowledge, Networks, and Time.


So, armed with nature’s simple wisdom, we’ll explore each component individually.


Clarity is essential if you want to avoid distraction and find purpose.


“What am I supposed to be doing?” How often do you ask yourself that? If you’re like most people, you’ll find it’s quite a bit.


One moment you’re deep in work, the next you’re clicking on a funny video or a news story. Before you know it, you’re lost down an internet rabbit hole. You’ll emerge an hour later, with a fuzzy head and no focus.


So, what’s the solution? In a world where we lose so much time like this, establishing clear lines is vital.


Social networks are designed to be addictive. They give us little endorphin rushes each time we earn a “like” – making this habit challenging to kick. The solution? Take the option away completely. Observe a strict “internet Shabbat” and switch off totally after a certain time of the day. The author does precisely that – cutting herself from the internet at 8 p.m. on Friday evening all the way until Monday morning.


If you’re looking to concentrate on work or spend quality time with loved ones, setting clear limits is essential. Every time you check your newsfeed or Twitter timeline, it takes a whopping 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain attention and focus, according to one study by the University of California. Think of all those lost hours!


In a similar vein, we need to set clear personal boundaries to give our lives focus. We need to learn the art of saying no. As the famous investor Warren Buffet says, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful person say no to almost everything.”


Despite being extraordinarily wealthy, Buffet has simplified his life to its bare essentials. He prioritizes family and friends, lives frugally, and focuses on his chief talent: investing. He refuses a great many invitations to keep himself on track. And another thing – he doesn’t own a smartphone or even keeps a computer on his desk.


All of this simplicity isn’t much use if you don’t have a clear purpose, though. To find this, you need to listen closely to yourself. Ask yourself, “What really matters to me?” Your answer could be simple – like seeing more of your family. Or it could be finishing a novel or finally getting fit. Whatever it is, zoom in on that. Then, when you do make space in your life, you’ll fill your time well.


Individuality is crucial to finding simplicity.


If you look down from a skyscraper, what do you see? People and cars are reduced to tiny dots that move with the city’s flows and rhythms. It’s a humbling perspective.


It’s easy to forget yourself in the modern world – to forget what differentiates you from all of the other tiny dots. But it’s vital to hold on to the precise qualities that make you you.


Firstly, you shouldn’t be afraid of being sensitive and listening to your innermost voice. You shouldn’t be afraid of being what is known as a snowflake. Like the hexagon, snowflakes have six sides. Like people, no two snowflakes are ever alike.


The truth is that we’d all be a lot happier if we listened to our innermost snowflake more often. This would mean trusting our intuition and speaking our minds more openly – at work or elsewhere. And to avoid one problem becoming compounded with another, we’d deal with the first early on. In fact, if we were more “snowflaky,” it’d make things a lot simpler!


Another part of embracing your individuality is standing up for your values. Your relationship with the world becomes much simpler if you’re truthful about your deeply held beliefs. On the other hand, if you consistently do something you disagree with, you’ll end up complicating everything around you.


Let’s say that you’re working for a business consultancy and you’re offered a contract with a big oil company. The trouble is, you believe that the oil company is a big polluter. If you accept the job without voicing your concerns, you might be offered similar work further down the line. Eventually, you’d find yourself doing lots of things you bitterly disagreed with. You’d probably be deeply unhappy, and your work would suffer. Problems would start piling up for you and your company. It’s important, then, to stay true to what you hold dear.


Another thing to be aware of is how you relate to place. You should remember where you personally feel most comfortable. This is something that’s easy to lose track of in a world where many people work remotely, commute long distances, and travel continuously. This can lead to a deep sense of instability and precarity. And just like the honeybee, we all need to return to the hive and recuperate sometimes.


In an “always-on” culture, it’s vital that we reset.


There’s a scene in the TV series Mad Men where the chief protagonist, maverick ad-man Don Draper, suddenly collapses. He’s run himself into the ground on a diet of cigarettes, whiskey, women, and too much hard work. The problem is, he’s only 36 years old.


Mad Men is set in 1950s New York, but the story of burnout is with us today. In fact, when many people have an “always-on” work mentality, it’s even more of an affliction.


We forget that we’re only human. Surrounded by our technological devices, we forget that we don’t have limitless bandwidth and the infinite ability to multitask. Unlike an iPhone or PC, we can’t do hundreds of tasks at once. And we eventually reach our limits after too much work, just like Don Draper.


We need to stop completely before burning out. This might mean taking a long holiday or simply meditating for a few moments during a lunch break. Whatever it is, we must completely disconnect from the world of work and busyness.


Then, we need to empty our minds of anything urgent in order to recharge. Rather than mindfulness, we also need mindful-less-ness – the state where we just shut off and let our subconscious do its necessary restorative work. People achieve this peaceful state in different ways, from going on a long walk to just playing video games in their pajamas. It doesn’t matter what we do – the important thing is to empty our minds.


Another powerful way to reset is through travel. The author’s father, the historian Eric Hobsbawm, loved nothing better than traveling to recharge his mind and body after long stints of work. He would engage in what he called “noticing” – which meant he would carefully absorb the stimuli of a new city or region in order to leave his cares behind.


According to the work of social psychologist Adam Galinsky, travel can be restorative. By immersing ourselves in new stimuli and experiences, we stimulate growth in our brain through neuroplasticity. Happily, these neurological changes can have a very beneficial effect on our mental health.


And rejuvenated – through meditation, playing video games, or traveling to far-flung countries – we can return to work as healthier, happier, more effective people.


We must be selective about the knowledge we consume.


The next time you use the internet, check your browser. How many tabs do you have open? Chances are, it’ll be more than one. And it’s likely that many of those tabs will be half-absorbed news stories or opinion pieces saved for a later date.


All across the world, we’re consuming more information than we can usefully store in our heads. We’re becoming engorged on the stuff. So much so, that social scientists have started using a new word to describe the state: infobesity. In fact, overloading the working memory like this can contribute to mental decline.


Pretty worrying, right? So what can we do?

When it comes to consuming news online, one thing is crucial: it’s important to use reliable sources to avoid wasting time with outright falsehoods and conspiracies. Simple enough, right? So, take your favorite news website. Does it have a history of mostly getting things right? Or is its past littered with exaggerations and lies? If it’s the latter, you can cut it from your “information diet.”


Curating your sources is a good habit in general. You should aim to create a kind of Knowledge Dashboard where you keep your most trusted and relevant sources. That way, you can quickly get up to date with opinions you trust without becoming lost on the internet.


As with news, you can curate the way you consume other types of content online. Perhaps you have a favorite fashion magazine? Or a preferred market analysis website? Or even a good place to check the weather?


In addition to prioritizing quality information, it’s good to remember that not everything is about cramming our heads with facts. In reality, we neglect other important, non-online skills in our daily internet binges. These are “soft skills,” like the power to negotiate, to empathize, or connections mediate between people. In other words: social skills.


Although we live in what’s known as a “knowledge economy,” we should make sure that we can still hold a conversation well and connect with others on an emotional level. So, rather than skimming inattentively through cyberspace for hours, let’s check that we can still function like – well – human beings!


Rather than remote networks, we should look for real connections – in our professional lives and beyond.


Like bees, we’re social animals. But unlike bees, our networks have become increasingly virtual.


While bees are able to communicate “remotely” by releasing chemicals – known as pheromones – in the air, our virtual networks mean that we speak with people in different countries without ever seeing them.


In fact, we communicate with close friends and family more through instant messaging than we do in real life. And although social media has its benefits – like slowing the natural decline of long-distance friendships and connecting long-lost relatives – it’s no substitute for meeting people face-to-face.


Quite simply, we need a real, human connection. If we only speak to people virtually, we miss out on all of the subtle expressive qualities that people have when they’re sitting next to us. Our connection with them is so much more powerful when we can see, smell, and touch other people.


While it might seem uncomfortable to go around touching others in a professional context, appropriate touching may not actually be a bad idea if you want to strengthen bonds. Studies show that simply touching someone’s arm or giving them a hug are powerful ways of reducing stress and building trust.


And just to underscore the point that real-life interaction is best, research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that you are 34 times more likely to get what you ask for if you ask in person rather than through email.


Another way to make meaningful connections is to treat people like people. We need to make real connections rather than foster transactional relationships where others are viewed simply as a means to an end. Forget the frigid “networking event” where everyone stands around awkwardly nibbling canapés – and develop more genuine relationships with those in your field. In fact, when you leave the transactional mindset behind and look for organic friendships, you’ll be amazed by the bonds you create simply because you have things in common.


Our personal experience of time is an important factor when we’re seeking simplicity.


Do you ever wish you could go back to the last “save point” in your life, like in a video game or a Word document? Unfortunately, that’s impossible. When time runs out, it’s gone forever.


But thankfully, there are things we can do to make the best use of our time.


The best way to maximize our time is to realize that we all make use of it differently. For example, deadlines help give our lives shape and ensure we finish things. Without them, we’d just let our projects float on indefinitely without closure. However, deadlines should be intensely personal. Some people work slower, some much faster. Some people work best in staggered bursts, while others prefer one long session.


Deadlines can be counterproductive when they’re set arbitrarily. Many modern workplaces set deadlines for employees based solely on profit, rather than the quality and time required for an individual’s work. This is echoed in how businesses approach their quarterly results, which are usually geared to pleasing shareholders in the short-term rather than sustainable corporate strategy in the long-term.


Don’t be like those businesses – don’t rush things for the sake of it. Instead, set realistic deadlines that take into consideration all of your individual requirements. This will allow you to fulfill your project, assignment, or dream to its fullest potential.


Along with our deadlines, we also need to pay attention to the way our bodies measure time. We all have internal body clocks with their own particular rhythms. In fact, the more we learn about our bodies, the more it seems that standardized time is badly suited to our individual needs. Take teenagers, for instance. Their brains are undergoing dramatic neurological changes during school hours, which makes their time studying often incredibly unproductive.


The truth is we all differ when it comes to our best working hours, the amount of sleep we need, and the right times for meals. It makes sense, therefore, to pay very close attention to our own personal rhythms and build a suitable structure around them.


Lastly, remember that your best use of time begins now, in this precious, rapidly vanishing, present moment. There’s nothing you can do about the past, so carpe diem, seize the day! What could be simpler?


Final summary


Though we’ve made the world more complex with our technological advancements, human beings prefer simplicity. And to that end, we can learn a lot from nature – namely, bees and the way they construct their hives. They use a clear, simple, hexagonally connected structure. In fact, we can apply something called Hexagon Action to simplify our lives. To do so, we need to prioritize six distinct facets: Clarity, Individuality, Reset, Knowledge, Networks, and Time. By addressing complexity in each of these areas, we can reach a happier state where we’re more connected to ourselves – and less to our mobile devices!


Actionable advice:


Set a small number of realistic targets.


Rather than giving yourself an unrealistic number of resolutions, set a few that you know you can definitely achieve. Whether that’s a chapter of your novel or a stock-investing target, make sure it’s something within reach, especially if you arrange your time and resources appropriately. Don’t overextend yourself!