How the ‘complexity bias’ is sabotaging us

Many years ago, I got intrigued by the US Navy SEALs, who go through arguably the world’s most grueling military training. It includes, among other things, an infamous ‘hell week,’ where for five-and-a-half days, the trainees go through a non-stop physical grind with only 4 hours of total sleep. 

Their training can break down even the hardest of warriors. 

So I was curious about the diet that gives them such superhuman endurance. I searched on YouTube and stumbled upon a video in which a Naval officer gave out their dietary secret: “Lots of colors on the plate, and 3 glasses of milk every day.” 

Here, ‘colors on the plate’ refers to a variety of fruits, veggies, meat, other carbs, etc. In other words, all they consume is a good balanced diet, and some extra milk (for bone strength). 

I must admit – it was a bit anticlimactic. There was no paleo diet, no ‘12 egg-whites a day’, no protein shakes, no muscle-building supplements – in fact, nutritional supplements were specifically prohibited. 

I was thinking, “Do these guys eat what I do, albeit in larger quantities?” Pretty much, yes. 

There was no magical diet behind their physical strength! Hmm… 

This shows an innate bias that sabotages us in many ways. Whenever we look for solutions to difficult problems, our bias is to overvalue the complicated ones. 

We probably suspect that if the solution was that simple, would we not have already done it? But almost always, the complicated solutions mislead us, waste our time, and further disillusion us. Yet, we fall for them all the time. 

For example, I am a big proponent of meditation. And the most rigorous meditation techniques are extremely simple – be it breath meditation, various forms of vipassana, or loving-kindness. And they have been freely available for the last 2,500 years. 

Yet, I still see people constantly searching for esoteric and ‘more powerful’ techniques. And they end up falling for gimmicks.

To share another example, I sometimes see people offering very complex Notion templates that will supposedly solve your productivity problems. These Notion templates will link ALL your tasks, resources, and information in some magically smart way. But is that your real productivity problem? 

The reasons we are unproductive are much simpler (though harder to solve):

  1. We are unable to prioritize when things feel too complex.
  2. Emails, meetings, and messages interrupt us and pull us away from our priorities. 
  3. The volume of tasks overwhelms us and makes it hard to focus.
  4. We multitask and don’t do one thing at a time.
  5. We are too addicted to our devices and unable to focus. 

Clearly, to solve these problems, we don’t need a complicated system – it will just become another burden. We need a simple system that addresses these problems head-on. 

But our mind refuses to accept that. 

And even I have fallen for this fallacy. When I joined McKinsey, I assumed that we would be doing some brilliant analysis to come up with complicated, breakthrough solutions. Why else would a client pay you the ridiculous fee we would be charging? 

But every single time, the solutions that we came up with were very simple. For example, in a cost-cutting project, we found that a big company could save a few million dollars by switching from Express courier service (which was very expensive) to a cheaper alternative. 

We did not do any complicated analysis. All we did was to cull out that insight from all the noise and data overload. 

So is this obsession with complicated answers just a harmless fad? 

No – this ‘complexity seeking’ bias makes us chase the wrong things, that cost us a lot of time and money. 

This is not to say that there aren’t smart ways of doing things. And sometimes, the solution can indeed be complicated. But all things being equal, simpler solutions will almost always serve you better. Then why do we not like them? 

Because simple does not mean easy. Our mind wants answers that are complicated, but easy, rather than simple but hard. But that is a trap. I know of nobody who has been successful in any walk of life by finding a clever shortcut. 

Don’t fall for complexity just because it looks impressive. Stop looking for esoteric answers. 

The right answer is often right before your eyes but we ignore it because it feels hard. That is how it is. Grind it out, and get it done. Everybody else has done it. You too can do it, and so can I. 

Thank you for reading this. Hit reply and let me know if you have also fallen prey to the complexity bias. 


PS: Next month, I will be launching a big productivity program and I am trying really hard to avoid the complexity bias. 😊

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