15 Ways That A Simpler Approach To Life Leads To Greater Success


Photo: flickr/jeferonix

We live in a more overwhelming world than ever. Businesses are more complex, work is more demanding, and our data is constantly tracked. Too often, we just accept that as a given.According to author Matthew May, we don’t have to. In his recent book, The Laws Of Subtraction, May and a series of business executives, creatives, and thought leaders focus on what’s an increasingly essential skill for success, the ability to simplify and remove complexity, rather than just adding more.

We’ve taken May’s 6 laws, and some of the best examples and contributions that illustrate how you can subtract to become more successful. 

Law 1: What you leave out is just as important as what you keep.

In a world where there's an incredible, rapidly growing amount of information, we're constantly scared about leaving something out. Whether it's a product feature, a fact, or a strategic option, we tend to try to include everything.

May's first law is the idea that simple goals are easier to focus on, and that the simplest designs and shortest speeches have the greatest impact. Taking more time to focus on removing what's unneeded helps let other people's imaginations and capabilities do more of the work. It's more satisfying for them, and leads to more success for you.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Perfect the things you're confident in, rather than hedging with extra features.

You would think that Behance, which offers tools to help creatives feature their work online, would over time add more products and more options. According to Founder and CEO Scott Belsky, they've subtracted them.

Removing features was a sign of confidence, because the company was able to focus on their core offering, the thing people came to the site for. A 'safe and scattered strategy' means you're likely just hedging a product or idea you aren't confident in.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

The FedEx logo's use of empty space and subtle arrow have made it an iconic design.

The FedEx logo has vibrant colours and bold lettering, but it's that subtle arrow that few people notice that make it so memorable. In the presentation where he introduced the logo among several alternatives, designer Lindon Leader didn't tell executives about it, the appealing thing was the discovery.

FedEx's PR firm wanted to super-size and emphasise the arrow, but they missed the point. 'It wasn't about the arrow. An arrow isn't even interesting to look at,' Leader says. 'It's only because of the subtlety that it's intriguing.'

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Law 2: The simplest rules are the most effective.

May's second law is the insight that people and processes work best when there are a few simple and well understood rules. When there are many rules and regulations, they tend to be ignored.

When there are just a few rules they make sense, people adopt them and pay attention to them. It shapes their behaviour, making any experience, meeting, or project more effective and more compelling.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Netflix has one vacation policy. Take as much time as you need.

Employees answer emails on the weekends and think about work at home at night. Netflix does not keep track of those hours. So why keep track of time off?

As author Daniel Pink wrote in a column, quoting Netflix's Steve Swasey, 'Rules and policies and regulations and stipulations are innovation killers. People do their best work when they're unencumbered. If you're spending a lot of time accounting for the time you're spending, that's time you're not innovating.'

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

A few simple rules about team size and direction can make projects go much more quickly.

At Intuit, a small number of simple rules from CEO Brad Smith keeps teams quick and innovative. For example, teams have to be of a size that can be fed by two pizzas. Instead of trying to do everything at once, the teams try to make the minimum functional prototype.

At that point, customers are brought in for their opinion. You end up with what the customer wants, quickly and simply, without having to go back to the drawing board because you didn't get feedback until later on in the process.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Law 3: Limit information and let people come up with the answer themselves.

Law three argues for what May calls 'artfully incomplete' information. Think of Apple's original iPhone commercials, or the iconic end of the Sopranos. Leaving things unsaid can be incredibly engaging.

Sometimes you don't want to be comprehensive. Reveal just enough to catch people's interest, but leave the outcome mysterious.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Giving people a great space to experiment is powerful, as Steve Jobs showed with the iPad.

When somebody has invested their own intelligence, imagination, and emotion in something, they care more. Give them the space to do so.

Scott McCloud, an expert on how comics can do exatly that, gives the example of Steve Jobs. 'We saw the greatest control freak of all time in Jobs. But what was he doing ultimately? He was creating nothing. Take the iPad as an example. It's this empty vessel. It's a window. ...But all of that design work, all of that control; he wasn't imposing control at all. He was handing the keys to us.'

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Law 4: Smart limits can make you more creative.

Creativity is often associated with freedom. Mays' 4th law is intelligently designed limits bring out the best in people.

His great example is the TED talk. One of the things that make them so compelling and shareable is the time constraint. Those 18 minutes have to be a complete story, not just another presentation, packed with information and insight.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

NASA's limitations have led to some of its greatest successes.

The Mars Observer cost $1 billion and took 10 years. It was lost in space. The follow up, the Mars Pathfinder, was given 3 years and $150 million. Brian Muirhead, the project's flight systems manager, called the constraints impossible, unheard of and crazy.

But by breaking down impossible tasks into small challenges and coming up with creative solutions, Muirhead and his team were eventually able to achieve what the larger project couldn't. For example, using air bags and a parachute instead of a second rocket to help the probe land on Mars.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Marissa Mayer's job at Google was to keep the interface clean. It was all about inspiring creativity through constraint.

Mays offers a great Marissa Mayer quote in support of this law. 'Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work -- unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you'll find that some of the most inspiring art forms -- haikus, sonatas, religious paintings -- are fraught with constraints.'

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Law 5: You have to break something to make a breakthrough.

Patterns and routines are easy and comfortable. You have a set of tools and expertise gathered over time that allow you to function comfortably.

Mays' fifth law says breaking out of a pattern and leaving what's easy behind, forces you to pay attention to all of the tools you've ignored, and all of the solutions that never occurred to you.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

It's possible to rewire your brain by breaking out of the way you naturally think.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz has developed a successful behavioural treatment for people with OCD based on neuroplasticity -- that you can change the wiring of your brain by altering the way you think. It's an approach that can be applied to any rut or problem. The brain is based on patterns, and OCD occurs when certain brain patterns are repeated excessively.

Relabeling: Changing how you identify certain thoughts. For example, the urge to repeatedly check the stove should be thought as 'I'm having a compulsive urge to check the stove.' It's about objectively observing your behaviour, and reminding yourself that you can change it.

Reattribute: Understand why you're engaging in a certain behaviour, so you can change it.

Refocus: Systematically engage in a different behaviour. Manually override what's become automatic.

Revalue: See the old patterns as distractions, rather than compulsions.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Lockheed Martin learned that a small team with few resources can create big breakthroughs.

'Skunk Works' has become a term for a secret lab for advanced projects, and comes from Lockheed Martin. In the 1930's, Chief engineer Kelly Edwards was tasked with coming up with a jet prototype despite not having any real space.

They set up in a tent next to a plastics factory. Their success was such that their nickname and approach is used to this day. Kelly's rules for Skunk Works include the need to limit outside access, have a tiny set of great people, encourage unconventional approaches, and to not half heartedly wound problems, but kill them dead.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

Law 6: Doing something isn't always better than doing nothing.

The principal revelation that lead Einstein to his theory of relativity came when he was idly thinking in a street car. Richard Feynman's Nobel Prize winning idea on quantum electrodynamics was inspired by a wobbling plate in a cafeteria. J.K. Rowling's idea for Harry Potter came to her while she was waiting on a crowded train. It was thinking about it for hours without access to a pen that let it really bloom.

May's sixth law is that despite the need to look or feel like we're always busy, some of the greatest breakthroughs come from denying that compulsion.

Frenzied research and work isn't always the answer to a problem.

Source: The Laws Of Subtraction

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