A wise woman once said: “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”
When Avril Lavigne belted those words in her 2002 breakout hit “Complicated,” she was probably thinking about an annoying boyfriend—not the way our minds tend to block us from getting stuff done.
But consider it an ode to your complicated brain, too.
As humans, we have something called a “complexity bias.” It’s our tendency to make things that are simple seem way more complicated. It makes us more likely to ignore or overlook simple solutions and instead sink our teeth into the more complicated option.
Our complexity bias loves to steal the mic right before we start something big.
It’s that voice in your head that tells you the presentation won’t have a cohesive argument, it’d take hours to find all the right ingredients for that recipe, or mailing that greeting card would be a full-day affair of finding the card, getting the stamps, thinking of what to say—you get the gist.
It’s that alarm that goes off in your head, blaring, “Warning: Difficult and complicated task ahead. Bail while you can.”
For me: My complexity bias always strikes when I’m about to dive into a new long-term project at work.
Before I can even get started, I spend at least a few days weaving a complicated web, imagining all the different ways I could tackle the assignment, ways it could go wrong, how I’d adjust my plans, and more. Needless to say: My stress skyrockets, as does my procrastination.
Turns out, that’s why our brains like the complexity bias so much. It gives us an “out,” so to speak, to avoid doing something.
“Of the fight-or-flight responses, complexity bias is the flight response,” Shane Parrish explains on his self-improvement blog Farnam Street. “It is a means of turning away from a problem or concept and labeling it as too confusing. If you think something is harder than it is, you surrender your responsibility to understand it.”
The good news: There’s a hack to help you override the complexity bias and start seeing the simpler path forward. It comes from Tim Ferriss, entrepreneur, author, and productivity guru.
What would this look like if it were easy?
In his book Tribe of Mentors, Ferriss drops a gem of a question that he likes to ask himself before diving into his work: What would this look like if it were easy?
“‘What would this look like if it were easy?’ is such a lovely and deceptively leveraged question,” he writes. “It’s easy to convince yourself that things need to be hard . . . This leads us to look for paths of most resistance, creating unnecessary hardship in the process.”
The “easy” question, Ferris explains, challenges us to frame a task in terms of “elegance instead of strain.” “In doing so, we sometimes find incredible results with ease instead of stress,” he writes. “Sometimes, we ‘solve’ the problem by simply rewording it.”
“Easy” helps you find step 1
It’s important to remember that a task can be simplified and still require work to get it done. The “easy” question isn’t about finding the lazy way out—it’s about creating a more straightforward process that we have an easier time wrapping our brains around and starting.
Complexity, after all, means having “many parts” while simplicity is something that’s “easy to understand.”
Asking yourself the “easy” question before you start a task helps you cut through the complexity bias and get a sense of direction—making it easier to start at all.
I used this question recently while planning a get-together with friends. Before I even sent out the invite, I started stressing out about coordinating everyone’s schedules, trying to pick a restaurant, making sure we’d have a table, a clear way to split the check, etc. Quickly, I found myself thinking: “This feels hard—maybe I just . . . shouldn’t?”
But then I stopped and asked myself: What would this look like if it were easy?
Well, it’d look like us all being free on the same night and going to a restaurant that was accommodating to split checks, reservations, and offered tasty drinks. So I asked everyone to list three nights they’re free in the next week, found a restaurant that checked all the boxes, and made the reservation to ensure we’d get a table.
Honestly, these are the same steps I’d always have to take to plan the dinner, but asking myself the “easy” question forced me to get out of my head (and all the complicated routes I could go down) and see the most straightforward path to pulling things together.
And that’s truly what taking the “easy” route is all about—it means still putting in the work, but feeling clear and confident about what that work actually entails.
Next time you find yourself falling into Avril Lavigne-level complicated territory, try asking yourself “What would this look like if it were easy?” and simplifying the situation.
Some other questions you can ask yourself, too:
What would this look like if it were fun?
What would this look like if it were quick?
What would this look like if it were meaningful?
What would this look like if I asked for help?
When a situation feels too big, too scary, too complicated—that’s your cue to reframe it. Don’t be afraid to take the “easy” way out.
This article originally appeared on Shine and is reprinted with permission. You can download the Shine app here for daily self-care support, personalized to you. Explore meditations, articles, and more to help you calm your anxiety and feel more confident at work.
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