sim·ple – adjective \ˈsim-pəl\

: not hard to understand or do
: having few parts : not complex or fancy
: not special or unusual


In one of my jobs, I am a data analyst. That means that I look at numbers – lots of numbers – and tell stories with them. But to get numbers to tell stories, I have to use a lot of spreadsheets and formulas and queries – things I would think were boring if I didn’t like them so much.

Recently, I needed to combine lots of numbers in one place to tell a really big story for a client. And to do it, I decided to research some really complex formulas that would automatically – abracadabra alakazam – give them the information they needed. I spent hours reading the step-by-step instructions online and implementing them in the spreadsheet. I waited as Microsoft Excel churned out the complicated calculations – thousands of them over the thousands of rows of data I had compiled.
When the calculations were complete, I was amazed. It worked just like it was supposed to.

But then, I needed to make a change. I needed to run three different scenarios. I needed the spreadsheet to quickly adapt to new percentages and new totals. And it was doing it. Just very, very slowly. So slowly, that our Vice President of Information Technology asked me what in the world I was working on. He said I was chewing up all of our system resources.

Not to mention, how much would this slow process tax the patience of my clients sitting on the other end of this spreadsheet?

That’s when I decided to start over. I didn’t scrap the whole project, but I went back to the moment before the problems started. I undid all the fancy formulas, and instead, imagined how I would have gotten what I needed before all the research and complexity. I decided to start from simple.

And wouldn’t you know it, simple did the trick.

I often forget the secret of simple. When I set about redesigning my website recently, I dreamed up all kinds of schemes. I had layered menu items and pages with subtle, creative titles and multiple blog themes that would rotate over a six-week cycle. You like blog buttons? I had created nine of them. Yes, nine. Nine different buttons to cover every possible theme.

And then, as part of the author platform workshop I was taking, Jane Friedman did a critique of my site. Her planned critique was actually the impetus for the changes I was making. Just before her virtual visit, in an online Q&A session, she mentioned something about keeping things simple, about maybe having just one, possibly, two themes instead of nine. I listened respectively. I think I even nodded politely since it was a video chat. But inside, I knew nine themes would be better.


I also knew I was going to be in trouble when Jane looked at my site.

Not knowing the exact time and day she would be arriving at, I worked feverishly, trying to undo some of the changes I had made, and honestly, creating more complexity in the process. By the time Jane actually visited, I thought my weeks of working on the site were over. So, it was with both horror and humor that I read her critique, which consisted of two strengths of my website (which amounted to “You remembered to put your name and photo at the top. Good job. Oh, and an email subscription box. Nice.”) and seven biggish recommendations.

I laughed out loud when I read the email. Basically, all of my cleverness and all the complexity I had worked on for days had to go. I wasn’t offended, really. And Jane was very nice about it all. I just realized how hard I had worked to make things complicated, when really, all I needed to do was keep it simple.

“Well, I need to work on my website a little more,” I told my husband. “Really?” he asked. I had been working on my website a lot lately. Within 30 minutes, however, I had made all of Jane’s recommended changes. And honestly, I liked it better. My titles and headings were straightforward. The menu was easy to use. I still write about a lot of different topics, but I narrowed down the way I do it.

Complicated is, well, complicated. Especially, when simple will do.

As I’ve thought about it, I’ve begun to realize that simple is just another type of limit – my word for 2014. When I try to have it all and do it all and be it all, I introduce complexity and convolution to manage it all. My life requires layered menu options to navigate the complicated relationships and social situations I find myself in. It’s like writing about nine different themes – each with its own blog button.

But when I limit my life – narrow, focus, restrain – things become much simpler.



Photo by PinkMoose, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License. Definitions of my word of the week are from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.