Ep. 61 – Occam’s Razor: The Simplicity Tool for Overthinking

As humans, we have an incredible gift for storytelling. It’s one of the many things that set us apart from other living things. 

Our advanced cognitive abilities have long been researched and admired. But as with most things, too much of a good thing can be…too much. Our complex thinking skills have certainly ensured our survival over the millennia. 

And the benefit of combining our collective wisdom and our collective imagination has inspired modernization in every dimension. Our ability for mental modeling allows us to anticipate, innovate, and ideate. 

And yet that same complexity can also lead to overthinking of our own personal scenarios. The purpose of this episode is to highlight the elegance of simplicity – especially in the stories we tell ourselves when we are facing decisions. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that simplicity serves as a strong starting point when facing decisions and challenges.

Our brains have the ability to both rationalize and theorize. So as we take in information, we can easily search our own mental archives to find justification for why what we want to do is right or why what is happening to us is wrong. Whether that’s true or not, we start to believe our own story. And all this self-rationalization can actually hinder our ability to be rational in some situations. 

Our advanced ability to think is what ignites our overactive imaginations. And imagination can be an asset. It’s what inspires new ways of thinking and exploring the larger landscapes of what’s possible in our life. It can also enhance or increase our perception of our own pain and suffering. 

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality,” said ancient philosopher Seneca. 

As we ruminate and marinate on the problems before us, one way to help our brain not sink into overthinking is to start with simplicity.  

Occam’s razor is a principle that suggests that the simplest explanation or solution is often the best one. While it’s commonly associated with scientific or philosophical reasoning, Occam’s razor can also be applied to our everyday decision-making process. 

As a quick background, Occam’s razor (which is spelled O-C-C-A-M) is attributed to the 14-century English philosopher and theologian William of Ockham. He used this simplicity-first approach as a practical, hands-on tool to guide thinking and reasoning vs. offering it as an absolute calculation. 

The term “Occam’s razor” wasn’t used during Ockam’s own time. That came later as a way to reference his philosophical approach. The “razor” part is the metaphor for cutting away unnecessary or extravagant assumptions and thinking. 

So if you find yourself stuck in a decision loop, look for the places where you can apply a razor to your reasoning. Start with simplicity, says Occam’s razor. When faced with multiple options, consider the one with fewest assumptions first. Another way to look at that is to gut-check which pieces might be based on fact vs. imagination. 

To use an example, if you’ve reached out to someone but haven’t heard back for several days. The fact is simply that you reached out and haven’t heard back. Any hypotheses as to why is coming from your imagination. 

In this case, Occam’s principle reminds you to focus on the relevant factors and information and the actions that are within reach. Episode 48 covers the concept of the Most Important Next Step as a simplification step. There may be many steps needed in a decision (there often are), but identifying the most important first one to do next, that creates momentum. 

In decisions, as in life, even the most important next step can be complex. So another tool that may help is looking for the Ridiculously Small Steps. Episode 33 talks more about this and how micro actions offer an important roadmap, especially when the brain gets overwhelmed with details. 

When we are flooded with information and emotion, small steps cut through the cognitive clutter. In fact, Ridiculously Small Steps work best when they take less than a minute to complete-that small. Sometimes the bridge between deciding and starting seems long. Taking one step, then another gives us a better view of what’s needed and what’s next. 

Finally, Occam’s razor can also be helpful in communicating with others. Episode 8 talks about using the Bottom Line on Top (that’s part of why I use it in every episode) and why clarity is kindness for other people. By using simplicity and clarity, the razor helps trim away excess information and explanation. This can help others understand the result without having to sort through all the mental math behind it. 

As you consider the decisions ahead for you, see where you can benefit from borrowing Occam’s razor. Not every decision or action will be simple, but clarity is also kindness for your brain. The less noise it has to focus on, the fewer things it can help you do – and do better. 

Take good care of your brain and it will take good care of you. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.