It’s Complicated

Clock mechanismComplexity is the signature of our times. We face more choices and options in a day than our ancestors did in a year —choices requiring decisions they could not fathom. Whether it be toothpaste brands, cell phone plans, cable TV channels, car models, tax deductions, clothing styles, credit cards, investment funds, vacation destinations, hobbies, web sites, news sources, health care options, insurance plans, footwear, sports, cuisines, diets, books, music, or video entertainment — we moderns are swamped with alternatives competing for our attention.

Historic affluence and growth have fueled our choices. Sophisticated technology has multiplied them. Modern communication speed and bandwidth ensure we can’t ignore them. Some of the options are purely arbitrary — commercially inspired, meant to probe our most profitable price point, providing little benefit to us as individuals. Other choices are helpful, letting us optimize our comfort and convenience, if we make the effort to evaluate the alternatives. However, taken together, the onslaught of choices in today’s world is more likely to degrade the quality our lives. Often, they demand attention and induce stress out of proportion to their benefits.

Perhaps new generations will master the complexity. Our children certainly flit among the latest apps, memes, and channels with greater ease than their parents. But that facility is a facade, hiding the true cost of consuming from an information fire hose 24/7/365. This is a generation with record levels of attention deficit disorder and depression. The Centers for Disease Control reports that “Rates of ADHD diagnosis increased an average of 3% per year from 1997 to 2006 and an average of approximately 5% per year from 2003 to 2011.” Research reported in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that major depression rates for American adults more than doubled from 1991 to 2002. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the current generation is needing longer and longer to grow up and deal with an increasingly complex world. And it’s a generation that is losing connection to the principles of its forebears quicker than ever before, as those principles are swamped by the ongoing tidal wave of consumer choice.

The costs of complexity are not limited to one age group. They affect us all. The big social problems of our day — inequality, trade imbalance, immigration pressure, environmental degradation — do not have simple causes, or simple solutions. They don’t reduce to the 30-second sound bites that our politicians are now so skilled in producing. Solutions, when they even do exist, are likely to be difficult and partial, with many moving parts, hard to measure, and verifiable only over long periods of time. This is fertile ground for tyrants with simple, authoritarian answers, the kind that make sense to 30-second attention spans.

I don’t know how to slow “progress” or moderate its negative impacts on large groups of people. But I do know some techniques for coping with high levels of complexity in your everyday, personal life. You don’t have to be flooded with so many choices that you can’t enjoy the ones you do make. You don’t have to be overwhelmed. At least, not all of the time. Some foresight, focus, and discipline are required. But you can exercise control over your modern life. Here are some ways how:

First, accept that you can’t see it all, can’t know it all, can’t be on the cutting edge all the time. You will miss things and events. That’s the point. But, with some attention, you can arrange to miss mostly the things that you don’t care about or that are short-lived. To do this, you’ll need to install “filters” between yourself and the outside world. These can be metaphorical, or actual. For example, I rarely consume any unfiltered news. Instead, I use a news reader to monitor feeds from about two dozen carefully chosen blogs and news outlets. Most of these are unaligned, a few are from the political right, and a few are from the political left. I check my news feeds three times a week, and try to take a break from news on weekends. I make no attempt to keep up with the infinite stream of stories, hashed and rehashed across the web, representing what the major media thinks will sell as “news.” I select my news sources carefully and control my portion size.

When it comes to personal communication with other individuals, you can control complexity by favoring asynchronous channels. So, prefer email to texts, and texts to phone calls. An unplanned interruption torpedoes your concentration, and your day. Allow interruptions from only the very closest colleagues, friends, and family. And don’t administer interruptions to yourself by consulting the one-armed bandit in your pocket constantly. The intermittent and unknowable rewards of another message, another Facebook post, another Tweet, can be addictive. Break the habit and stop reaching for your cell phone the instant that concentration drifts. You are not obliged to reciprocate the world’s social missives, and certainly not instantly. Batch your communications into just a few periods daily. You might not be as frequent online, but you’ll very likely be more noticed, if you allocate your response time carefully.

Another way to cope with overwhelming complexity is to rely more on “experts,” either directly or via the defaults built into our commercial, financial, and information systems. That can be a good strategy, but don’t give up all your control. Ask yourself, what is motivating the expert? Who chooses the defaults? Are their values and goals aligned with yours? If so, perhaps you can trust them. If not, maybe you need to investigate further. This is why peer reviews, such as those on Amazon, Yelp, and Google are so valuable. These come from people just like you, evaluating products and services in their own lives. I rely heavily on peer reviews, and contribute to them when I can. Just don’t leave your common sense behind as you read reviews: If there are only a small number, if they sound unnatural or canned, or if they are extreme — good or bad — they may be shills.

Everybody in today’s world needs to become an expert at procuring goods and services without getting sucked into some business agenda for your money. Think “a la carte” instead of “package” or “subscription.” Get in, get the transaction done, and get out, attracting as little attention and collateral damage as possible. So, when you buy a meal out, don’t order the appetizer or desert, unless that was your plan. When you deal with a bank, don’t get upsold on a loan. When you buy or rent a car, don’t let them add extra insurance or unnecessary options. When you must use credit cards, pay off the balance every month. When you visit social media or news sites, keep your eye on matters of importance and avoided clicking off to unrelated subjects.

Despite your best strategies, some aspects of modern life are inevitably and unavoidably complex. Health care and money management, for example. These involve large interacting systems, numerous moving parts, and unknown future variables. What to do? When it comes to big questions like having enough to retire, I’ve written an entire book explaining why there is no precise answer to the question. There just is no “magic number.” And yet it is still a question you can answer. How? One way is to explore your situation with a model or simulation. You won’t get a precise number, but you will get an intuitive feel for the underlying behavior of the system — your income, investments, and expenses over time. Thus, you’ll be able to make another important life decision, even in the face of uncertainty and complexity.

In the end, the complexity of modern life means you will never know for certain what is coming next. You try to maintain focus on the few important things; you try to take a long-term view. But there is no substitute for keeping flexibility to deal with the unknown events sure to arise around the next curve. No matter how clever your strategies for managing and reducing complexity, no matter how good your decisions, things will change, and you might have to adjust. One of the best ways to avoid overwhelm is to give up trying to perfectly predict and control the ocean of information in the first place. Instead, learn to surf the waves.