2018-11-05

Simplify Your Problems


I was discussing cravings with my wife earlier today. Like many people, she sometimes can’t resist the treats that they have around the office at her workplace. All that extra snacking can translate into bad feelings about her having eaten a lot of junk food.


I am sure this rings a bell for many people. It certainly rings a bell for me. I sometimes find it difficult to stop eating chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant. Before I know it, I’ve over-shot my insulin coverage and I’m headed for a high blood sugar. This also goes well beyond food. Sometimes I feel too lazy to get up and exercise. Sometimes I feel bad about having spent too much money while shopping, or not spending enough time doing chores at home. Lots of things in life are susceptible to feelings like this.


What I’ve noticed about the situations in which we find ourselves feeling bad about things we did but wished we didn’t, or things we didn’t do but wished we did, is that the human mind is creative enough to invent a very complex world in which our troubles are insurmountable. Take my chips and salsa for example. I grew up in an area with a large Mexican immigrant population and a wide array of very delicious Mexican restaurants. I could easily claim that binging on Mexican food is “just part of my culture,” part of the way I grew up, and inextricable part of my very nature, without which I am less me than I otherwise would be.


But this is nonsense. If I told myself that, I’d be making a mountain out of a molehill. The real problem is simpler than that: I’m eating too many chips and too much salsa. The solution to this very simple problem isn’t to change my inner nature, it’s to, ahem, eat less chips and salsa.


Notice what happens when I conceive of the problem in its simplest form: It gets really easy to solve.


Changing your very inner nature, every fiber of your being, is incredibly difficult. Nobody can do that. But just pushing the bowl of chips out of your reach is not just easy, but trivially so.
It’s far easier to solve trivial problems than to undergo a catharsis, so the next time you have a problem you need to solve, make sure your solve the simplest version of your problem. The more complex version of the problem is probably intractable anyway.


Let’s say, for example, you’re looking to save some money. You could, on the one hand, go through your list of expenditures and lament that cutting each one is a major sacrifice in what you perceive to be your lifestyle. On the other hand, you could just put $1500 in your savings account as soon as you get paid on Friday and figure the rest of it out as you go. You could painfully debate which of your possessions you’re going to sell and which of your hobbies you’re going to give up in order to meet your savings goals. Or, you could just make a deal with yourself not to buy anything new unless it’s on clearance and let your hobbies take their leave by attrition.


Here’s one from my daughter’s experience: She’s a pre-schooler, so it’s virtually impossible to convince her to spend the first three hours of every Saturday cleaning the house. But it’s easy to tell her to clean up five toys before she plays with a sixth, and over time, that translates into a completely clean room.


As for your romantic relationship, does your partner truly care little about you, or are you merely avoiding asking for the attention you want? Asking for attention is a much simpler problem to solve than changing the extent to which your partner “cares.”


Get the picture? Simplify your problems, and they all become much easier to solve.