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Keep It Simple


a Hello Kitty Darth Vader Helmet: not so simple

We live in an incredibly complex world. Most people don’t keep it simple. There’s information, people, things to do, thoughts and ideas flying around everywhere, all competing for our attention every minute that we’re awake. Often, this creates the feeling that we’re overwhelmed – that there’s too much to do, that the steps to something are too complex (just check out our series on OmniFocus if you want to see how complex one person’s life can get!)

Systems and models help a bit – they bring some order to what seems like an ever-expanding stream of chaos. But systems and models in and of themselves can be pretty complex too: just think about how many component pieces you need to say, operate your smartphone, or even your toaster. This is where we’ve found having a single image – or a single sentence – that explains why you are doing something, or how something works, or what the essence of something is, is incredibly important. I used to call these “one-line summaries”, but you can also think about it as “making things simple”.

It turns out there is an entire philosophy behind this idea, known as monism, which is the concept that in any given field of inquiry there is unity – be it a thought, a model or a simple explanation. I don’t know if this is true or not, or if there are annual philosophical debates between monists and pluralists – but it really doesn’t matter. As an organizing and efficiency principle, the idea that a complex situation can be explained in a simple sentence or concept is just plain useful.

Creating Simplicity

There is, unfortunately, no simple way to reduce complexity to a single idea. It’s not a physical process or step-by-step process you can follow – it’s an entirely mental one. And it often takes knowledge of an entire field to see the unifying concept behind it all. For example, if I were asked to summarize in one concept all the ideas behind productivity, time management and efficiency it would be this: take responsibility. Now to get to that single idea, I’ve read probably close to 100 books on management and time management theory, I follow a number of productivity blogs daily, and I’m doing research for Asian Efficiency constantly. No single one of those things led directly to that idea, but the summation of them did. It’s like putting everything into a magical mystery box (your brain), shaking the box, then seeing what pops out.

Now there are some shortcuts to finding out what the one-line summary is behind certain things. With an object, or a model, or even a system, it’s usually an example of what that thing is like when it’s done. A business example would be a process for designing a specific website – something that is still incredibly complex, and would provide for a very long and detailed technical document. But the one-line summary would be: design a website that looks like these five [example websites].

Another business example are company slogans, some of which are corny, others of which summarize very well what the company is all about:

  • Spotify: All the music, all the time.
  • FedEx: Absolutely, positively, overnight.
  • Disneyland: The happiest place on Earth.

Personal examples are a bit more murky, as you would usually be looking for summaries which unify a set of ideas, for example:

  • “A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, not by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting” (quote from Carlos Castenada).
  • “Listen to and respect others.” (summary of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People)
  • “Invest in passive income.” (summary of Robert Kiyosaki’s first few Rich Dad, Poor Dad books)

A Note on Switch

If you’ve ever read Chip and Dan Heath’s phenomenal book Switch, you’ll probably recognize their version of the one-line summary: Destination Postcards. They are complete mental images that provide a clear reason as to why you should to make a change, be it in an organization, in yourself, or across an entire culture.


The real-world application of one-line summaries lies in mindset and motivation. Knowing the simple idea behind a complex set of processes or what you’re doing is motivating, and helps to keep you focused on what you are doing (and thus, more productive).

One way to implement this concept is in forming a Personal Code.

Just as companies, military units and religions have codes of conduct, you should too. Sit down and think about the different areas of your life, and what you aspire to represent in each. Find a sentence or image for each area, and for your life as a whole. For example, one of mine is “take action with excessive force”. You should review this personal code as part of your morning ritual.

One-Line Summary

Keep it simple.

Photo by: JD Hancock

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