Simplifiers and Optimizers, by Dilbert creator Scott Adams

By Scott Adams at 4:40 pm Mon, Dec 2, 2013

Some people are what I call simplifiers and some are optimizers. A simplifier will prefer the easy way to accomplish a task, while knowing that some amount of extra effort might have produced a better outcome. An optimizer looks for the very best solution even if the extra complexity increases the odds of unexpected problems. I have a bias for simplification, but surely there are situations in which optimizing is the better play. So how do you know which approach works best in a given situation?

If the situation involves communication with others, simplification is almost always the right answer. If the task is something you can do all by yourself, or with a partner who is on your wavelength, optimizing might be a better path if you can control most variables in the situation. And realistically, sometimes you simply have to get three hours of tasks completed in two hours, so we don’t always have the luxury of being able to choose simple paths.

I prefer simplicity whenever I’m choosing a system to use. People can follow simple systems better than complicated ones. I’ll give you some examples of that in later chapters about fitness and diet. The most optimized diet plan or fitness plan will also be the most complicated. But few people have enough willpower in reserve to follow complicated plans.

If you can’t tell whether a simple plan or a complicated one will be the best, choose the simple one. If it’s a coin toss, you might as well do whatever is easiest.

If the cost of failure is high, simple tasks are the best because they are easier to manage and control. Missing a dinner reservation isn’t the end of the world, so doing some optimizing in that case is defensible. But if you are driving to an important business meeting, you don’t want to pile on some errands that are “on the way,” because that introduces unwanted stress and uncertainty.

In my career I’ve always felt that my knack for simplicity was a sort of superpower. For example, when I draw Dilbert I include little or no background art in most panels, and when I do, it’s usually simple. That’s a gigantic time-saver.

I assume that other cartoonists retire early at least in part because they are optimizers, and that level of energy can be hard to sustain in the long run. No one reads Dilbert comics for the artwork. I have the luxury of being able to do simple drawings directly on the computer using a Wacom Cintiq device (a computer screen on which you can draw). I type the dialogue using a special font I created of my handwriting. Over the years I have streamlined the system to the point where I can bang out a comic in about an hour if I need to, although I usually take longer. Dilbert was designed from the start to be simple to create, and I continue to streamline the process. That simplicity has paid off big-time because it frees me to blog, write books, do interesting side projects, and still enjoy life.

Optimizing is often the strategy of people who have specific goals and feel the need to do everything in their power to achieve them. Simplifying is generally the strategy of people who view the world in terms of systems. The best systems are simple, and for good reason. Complicated systems have more opportunities for failure. Human nature is such that we’re good at following simple systems and not so good at following complicated systems.

Excerpt adapted from How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright (c) Scott Adams, 2013.

Simple systems are probably the best way to achieve success. Once you have success, optimizing begins to have more value. Successful people and successful businesses have the luxury of being able to op- timize toward perfection over time. Start-ups often do better by slapping together something that is 80 percent good and seeing how the public responds. There’s time to improve things later if the market cares about the product.

Another big advantage of simplification is that it frees up time, and time is one of your most valuable resources in the world. If you give an ant infinite time, he can move a mountain all by himself. In my case, I can run the equivalent of three separate careers (cartoonist, author, entrepreneur) in the same forty-hour week that would normally accommodate one job.

Simplification frees up energy, making everything else you do just a little bit easier. That’s a huge deal. You don’t want your job interview to go poorly because on the way to the interview you completed four complicated errands that turned you into a ball of stress. When you are trying to decide between optimizing and simplifying, think of your entire day, not the handful of tasks in question. In other words, maximize your personal energy, not the number of tasks. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t always have the option of choosing simplicity, especially if we have a thousand things to complete in a day. But it’s a good idea to have an overarching plan to move toward simple systems as opportunities allow. You can chip away at the complexity of your life over time. Simplicity is a worthy long-term goal. That’s how you will free your personal energy so you can concentrate it where you need it.

[Listen to Mark's interview with Scott Adams about his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.]

Published 4:40 pm Mon, Dec 2, 2013

About the Author

Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular and widely distributed comic strips of the past quarter century. He has been a full-time cartoonist since 1995, after 16 years as a technology worker for companies like Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell. His many bestsellers include The Dilbert Principle and Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook. He lives outside of San Francisco.

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