Skip to Content

Book Summary: The Simplicity Principle – Six Steps Towards Clarity in a Complex World

The Simplicity Principle (2020) proposes a simpler way of living in the twenty-first century. Drawing from nature and geometry, Julia Hobsbawm demonstrates how to simplify the complicated and learn to prioritize the things that matter most of all.


Motivation, Inspiration, Personal Development, Business Culture, Work-Life Balance in Business, Time Management, Women and Business, Productivity, Self-Help,

Introduction: Learn to keep things simple.

You know the situation – you’re foggy-headed after staring at a computer screen too long while not drinking enough water or doing enough exercise. You’re halfway through five different tasks of varying importance, from replying to an urgent work email to watching a kitten video you just received. And let’s not forget that your phone keeps pinging with notifications. You haven’t found time to shower all day.

It’d make for a half-decent comedy – if it wasn’t your daily life. But what exactly can you do to change it? Well, quite simply, you need to simplify. This means turning off all of those devices that seem so crucial and zoning out from all of that content. It means scheduling your time more productively so the email gets answered, and you get to do some exercise. And, yes, it also means making time for your basic personal hygiene. Ready to learn how? In the following chapter, you’ll discover ways to simplify your life and connect with what’s most important.

[Book Summary] The Simplicity Principle: Six Steps Towards Clarity in a Complex World

Along the way, you’ll learn

  • why bees provide an excellent model for human civilization;
  • why Warren Buffet says no to nearly everything; and
  • how to combat “infobesity.”

Confronted by a world of complexity, we desire simplicity most of all.

Let’s imagine that you need to email a colleague in your office. You switch on your computer. But before it can load, there are updates. You’re prompted to restart the machine. So you do, and after five long minutes, the system has finally updated. But wait – now, the computer needs to conduct a virus scan as the wi-fi seems to shut down.

All of this just to speak to someone a few desks away!

The key message here is: Confronted by a world of complexity, we desire simplicity most of all.

Though our sophisticated technology has simplified many things like data storage and number-crunching, it has also come with a bundle of complexity. It drives us to distraction and goes against what we want most – simplicity.

One person who understood this was Steve Jobs. Simplicity is at the heart of Apple’s products, from their smooth, sleek esthetic to their easy-to-use functionality. Although we all seek the convenience that complex technology brings, we want it to function as simply as possible. That’s the chief reason behind Apple’s success.

In fact, if you take a closer look at the most successful companies in the world, one thing unites them. From Amazon to Johnson & Johnson, they make things straightforward for the customer. Even though there’s a great deal of complexity to what they do internally, the customer experience is one of simplicity.

Our desire for simplicity can be seen in modern election results, too. Many people across the world have disengaged with the complexity and nuance of modern politics. So, when an election comes around, they tend to vote for the simplest offer.

Take the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit referendum. The “Leave” campaign won – in part – because it had the most straightforward message: “Take Back Control.” The “Remain” side, with their complex and nuanced case for internationalism, found themselves unable to counter such directness. The same is true of Trump’s 2016 victory. His campaign can easily be encapsulated in the simple, nationalistic slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Whether you agree or disagree with the politics of Brexit or Trump, voters largely craved simplicity in a complicated world.

That’s not to say complexity isn’t necessary and preferable sometimes. But in the twenty-first century, we’ve needlessly complicated things that should be very simple – like our communication with voters and our work schedules. Let’s see what we can do to simplify things in the following chapters.

To simplify our lives, we can learn from bees and their hexagonal hives.

Imagine the inside of a beehive. All along the walls of this living structure are cells filled with honey, pollen, and bee-larvae. Squint into this dark, buzzing cathedral, and you’ll see that these cells are all hexagonal.

That’s no coincidence. Bees use the hexagon because it’s the perfect shape to build their interlocking honeycombs. The hexagon is also resilient, able to withstand a great deal of force, even when built from light materials. Simple and effective, the bee’s hexagonal structures are a marvel of engineering.

The key message here is: To simplify our lives, we can learn from bees and their hexagonal hives.

Like us, bees live in enormously sophisticated networks. And while most of us wouldn’t want to live in a society as uniform as the beehive, we can learn from the way bees organize themselves.

Let’s consider their use of the hexagon. This simple shape can be combined in endless ways to create a strong, connected structure. Rather than bewildering complexity, they offer clarity and definition. Compare that to the way we organize our own communities and businesses, with their sprawling bureaucracies, and you can see why the simplicity of the hexagon is so appealing.

That’s on a macro level. On a micro level, the hexagon serves as a great reminder of ways to simplify our individual lives. Simplicity is achieved through streamlining priorities. And the best way to remember how to streamline our priorities is to visualize them.

Neatly enough, the six facets of the hexagon also match the number of things that we can comfortably hold in our working memory at any one time – six. So this shape, used successfully by nature, can serve as a great visual tool to remember what’s key in our day-to-day lives.

To that end, the author has constructed a whole system around it, which she calls Hexagon Action. Through focusing on six different facets, she proposes that we can streamline our lives to the things most important to us. These are Clarity, Individuality, Reset, Knowledge, Networks, and Time.

So, armed with nature’s simple wisdom, we’ll explore each component individually.

Clarity is essential if you want to avoid distraction and find purpose.

“What am I supposed to be doing?” How often do you ask yourself that? If you’re like most people, you’ll find it’s quite a bit.

One moment you’re deep in work, the next you’re clicking on a funny video or a news story. Before you know it, you’re lost down an internet rabbit-hole. You’ll emerge an hour later, with a fuzzy head and no focus.

So, what’s the solution? In a world where we lose so much time like this, establishing clear lines is vital.

The key message here is: Clarity is essential if you want to avoid distraction and find purpose.

Social networks are designed to be addictive. They give us little endorphin rushes each time we earn a “like” – making this habit challenging to kick. The solution? Take the option away completely. Observe a strict “internet Shabbat” and switch off totally after a certain time of the day. The author does precisely that – cutting herself from the internet at 8 p.m. on Friday evening all the way until Monday morning.

If you’re looking to concentrate on work or spend quality time with loved ones, setting clear limits is essential. Every time you check your newsfeed or Twitter timeline, it takes a whopping 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain attention and focus, according to one study by the University of California. Think of all those lost hours!

In a similar vein, we need to set clear personal boundaries to give our lives focus. We need to learn the art of saying no. As the famous investor Warren Buffet says, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Despite being extraordinarily wealthy, Buffet has simplified his life to its bare essentials. He prioritizes family and friends, lives frugally, and focuses on his chief talent: investing. He refuses a great many invitations to keep himself on track. And another thing – he doesn’t own a smartphone or even keep a computer on his desk.

All of this simplicity isn’t much use if you don’t have a clear purpose, though. To find this, you need to listen closely to yourself. Ask yourself, “What really matters to me?” Your answer could be simple – like seeing more of your family. Or it could be finishing a novel or finally getting fit. Whatever it is, zoom in on that. Then, when you do make space in your life, you’ll fill your time well.

Individuality is crucial to finding simplicity.

If you look down from a skyscraper, what do you see? People and cars reduced to tiny dots that move with the city’s flows and rhythms. It’s a humbling perspective.

It’s easy to forget yourself in the modern world – to forget what differentiates you from all of the other tiny dots. But it’s vital to hold on to the precise qualities that make you you.

The key message here is: Individuality is crucial to finding simplicity.

Firstly, you shouldn’t be afraid of being sensitive and listening to your innermost voice. You shouldn’t be afraid of being what is known as a snowflake. Like the hexagon, snowflakes have six sides. Like people, no two snowflakes are ever alike.

The truth is that we’d all be a lot happier if we listened to our innermost snowflake more often. This would mean trusting our intuition and speaking our minds more openly – at work or elsewhere. And to avoid one problem becoming compounded with another, we’d deal with the first early on. In fact, if we were more “snowflaky,” it’d make things a lot simpler!

Another part of embracing your individuality is standing up for your values. Your relationship with the world becomes much simpler if you’re truthful about your deeply held beliefs. On the other hand, if you consistently do something you disagree with, you’ll end up complicating everything around you.

Let’s say that you’re working for a business consultancy and you’re offered a contract with a big oil company. The trouble is, you believe that the oil company is a big polluter. If you accept the job without voicing your concerns, you might be offered similar work further down the line. Eventually, you’d find yourself doing lots of things you bitterly disagreed with. You’d probably be deeply unhappy, and your work would suffer. Problems would start piling up for you and your company. It’s important, then, to stay true to what you hold dear.

Another thing to be aware of is how you relate to place. You should remember where you personally feel most comfortable. This is something that’s easy to lose track of in a world where many people work remotely, commute long distances, and travel continuously. This can lead to a deep sense of instability and precarity. And just like the honeybee, we all need to return to the hive and recuperate sometimes.

In an “always-on” culture, it’s vital that we reset.

There’s a scene in the TV series Mad Men where the chief protagonist, maverick ad-man Don Draper, suddenly collapses. He’s run himself into the ground on a diet of cigarettes, whiskey, women, and too much hard work. The problem is, he’s only 36 years old.

Mad Men is set in 1950s New York, but the story of burnout is with us today. In fact, when many people have an “always-on” work mentality, it’s even more of an affliction.

The key message here is: In an “always-on” culture, it’s vital that we reset.

We forget that we’re only human. Surrounded by our technological devices, we forget that we don’t have limitless bandwidth and the infinite ability to multitask. Unlike an iPhone or PC, we can’t do hundreds of tasks at once. And we eventually reach our limits after too much work, just like Don Draper.

We need to stop completely before burning out. This might mean taking a long holiday or simply meditating for a few moments during a lunch break. Whatever it is, we must completely disconnect from the world of work and busyness.

Then, we need to empty our minds of anything urgent in order to recharge. Rather than mindfulness, we also need mindful-less-ness – the state where we just shut off and let our subconscious do its necessary restorative work. People achieve this peaceful state in different ways, from going on a long walk to just playing video games in their pajamas. It doesn’t matter what we do – the important thing is to empty our minds.

Another powerful way to reset is through travel. The author’s father, the historian Eric Hobsbawm, loved nothing better than traveling to recharge his mind and body after long stints of work. He would engage in what he called “noticing” – which meant he would carefully absorb the stimuli of a new city or region in order to leave his cares behind.

According to the work of social psychologist Adam Galinsky, travel can be restorative. By immersing ourselves in new stimuli and experiences, we stimulate growth in our brain through neuroplasticity. Happily, these neurological changes can have a very beneficial effect on our mental health.

And rejuvenated – through meditation, playing video games, or traveling to far-flung countries – we can return to work as healthier, happier, more effective people.

We must be selective about the knowledge we consume.

The next time you use the internet, check your browser. How many tabs do you have open? Chances are, it’ll be more than one. And it’s likely that many of those tabs will be half-absorbed news stories or opinion pieces saved for a later date.

All across the world, we’re consuming more information than we can usefully store in our heads. We’re becoming engorged on the stuff. So much so, that social scientists have started using a new word to describe the state: infobesity. In fact, overloading the working memory like this can contribute to mental decline.

Pretty worrying, right? So what can we do?

The key message here is: We must be selective about the knowledge we consume.

When it comes to consuming news online, one thing is crucial: it’s important to use reliable sources to avoid wasting time with outright falsehoods and conspiracies. Simple enough, right? So, take your favorite news website. Does it have a history of mostly getting things right? Or is its past littered with exaggerations and lies? If it’s the latter, you can cut it from your “information diet.”

Curating your sources is a good habit in general. You should aim to create a kind of Knowledge Dashboard where you keep your most trusted and relevant sources. That way, you can quickly get up to date with opinions you trust without becoming lost on the internet.

As with news, you can curate the way you consume other types of content online. Perhaps you have a favorite fashion magazine? Or a preferred market analysis website? Or even a good place to check the weather?

In addition to prioritizing quality information, it’s good to remember that not everything is about cramming our heads with facts. In reality, we neglect other important, non-online skills in our daily internet binges. These are “soft skills,” like the power to negotiate, to empathize, or to mediate between people. In other words: social skills.

Although we live in what’s known as a “knowledge economy,” we should make sure that we can still hold a conversation well and connect with others on an emotional level. So, rather than skimming inattentively through cyberspace for hours, let’s check that we can still function like – well – human beings!

Rather than remote networks, we should look for real connection – in our professional lives and beyond.

Like bees, we’re social animals. But unlike bees, our networks have become increasingly virtual.

While bees are able to communicate “remotely” by releasing chemicals – known as pheromones – in the air, our virtual networks mean that we speak with people in different countries without ever seeing them.

In fact, we communicate with close friends and family more through instant messaging than we do in real life. And although social media has its benefits – like slowing the natural decline of long-distance friendships and connecting long-lost relatives – it’s no substitute for meeting people face-to-face.

The key message here is: Rather than remote networks, we should look for real connection – in our professional lives and beyond.

Quite simply, we need real, human connection. If we only speak to people virtually, we miss out on all of the subtle expressive qualities that people have when they’re sitting next to us. Our connection with them is so much more powerful when we can see, smell, and touch other people.

While it might seem uncomfortable to go around touching others in a professional context, appropriate touching may not actually be a bad idea if you want to strengthen bonds. Studies show that simply touching someone’s arm or giving them a hug are powerful ways of reducing stress and building trust.

And just to underscore the point that real-life interaction is best, research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that you are 34 times more likely to get what you ask for if you ask in person rather than through email.

Another way to make meaningful connections is to treat people like people. We need to make real connections rather than foster transactional relationships where others are viewed simply as a means to an end. Forget the frigid “networking event” where everyone stands around awkwardly nibbling canapés – and develop more genuine relationships with those in your field. In fact, when you leave the transactional mind-set behind and look for organic friendships, you’ll be amazed by the bonds you create simply because you have things in common.

Our personal experience of time is an important factor when we’re seeking simplicity.

Do you ever wish you could go back to the last “save point” in your life, like in a video game or a Word document? Unfortunately, that’s impossible. When time runs out, it’s gone forever.

But thankfully, there are things we can do to make the best use of our time.

The key message here is: Our personal experience of time is an important factor when we’re seeking simplicity.

The best way to maximize our time is to realize that we all make use of it differently. For example, deadlines help give our lives shape and ensure we finish things. Without them, we’d just let our projects float on indefinitely without closure. However, deadlines should be intensely personal. Some people work slower, some much faster. Some people work best in staggered bursts, while others prefer one long session.

Deadlines can be counterproductive when they’re set arbitrarily. Many modern workplaces set deadlines for employees based solely on profit, rather than the quality and time required for an individual’s work. This is echoed in how businesses approach their quarterly results, which are usually geared to pleasing shareholders in the short-term rather than sustainable corporate strategy in the long-term.

Don’t be like those businesses – don’t rush things for the sake of it. Instead, set realistic deadlines that take into consideration all of your individual requirements. This will allow you to fulfill your project, assignment, or dream to its fullest potential.

Along with our deadlines, we also need to pay attention to the way our bodies measure time. We all have internal body clocks with their own particular rhythms. In fact, the more we learn about our bodies, the more it seems that standardized time is badly suited to our individual needs. Take teenagers, for instance. Their brains are undergoing dramatic neurological changes during school hours, which makes their time studying often incredibly unproductive.

The truth is we all differ when it comes to our best working hours, the amount of sleep we need, and the right times for meals. It makes sense, therefore, to pay very close attention to our own personal rhythms and build a suitable structure around them.

Lastly, remember that your best use of time begins now, in this precious, rapidly vanishing, present moment. There’s nothing you can do about the past, so carpe diem, seize the day! What could be simpler?

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries:

Though we’ve made the world more complex with our technological advancements, human beings prefer simplicity. And to that end, we can learn a lot from nature – namely, bees and the way they construct their hives. They use a clear, simple, hexagonally connected structure. In fact, we can apply something called Hexagon Action to simplify our lives. To do so, we need to prioritize six distinct facets: Clarity, Individuality, Reset, Knowledge, Networks and Time. By addressing complexity in each of these areas, we can reach a happier state where we’re more connected to ourselves – and less to our mobile devices!

Actionable advice: Set a small number of realistic targets.

Rather than giving yourself an unrealistic number of resolutions, set a few that you know you can definitely achieve. Whether that’s a chapter of your novel or a stock-investing target, make sure it’s something within reach, especially if you arrange your time and resources properly. Don’t overextend yourself!

About the author

Julia Hobsbawm is an entrepreneur and writer who addresses the problems and solutions of humans in the machine age. Described by James Harding, Founder of Tortoise Media, former Editor of the Times and of BBC News as ‘one of the most important public intellectuals in the UK’. She is Honorary Visiting Professor of Workplace Social Health at London’s CASS Business School. Her book: Social Health in an Age of Overload was shortlisted for Management Book of the Year and Business Book of the Year. She is the founder of the acclaimed connection company Editorial Intelligence and Editor-at-Large of Thrive Global. She was awarded an OBE in The Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to business.

Table of Contents

It started with a KISS
Killer complexity
The CAT versus the KISS
The most complicated system in the universe
Complexity cut-off
What does success look like?

Part One
Keep It Simple, Sweetie

1 Keeping your balance: The simplicity spectrum
The needle in the haystack
The balancing beam
Selling simplicity
Life’s hard and soft edges
The burdens of complexity
Plain and simple
Complex versus complicated
Mirror, signal, manoeuvre
The complexity test

2 Six packs: Introducing Hexagon Action
The perfect number
Actions speak louder than words
The power of six
Hunting the hexagon
Show me the honey
Simplicity’s poster-species

3 From principle to practice: Think in sixes
Simple geometry
Six simple mantras

Part Two
Sides of simplicity

4 Side 1: Clarity

5 Side 2: Individuality
The Digital Self

6 Side 3: Reset

7 Side 4: Knowledge
Known Unknowns

8 Side 5: Networks
Hierarchy of communication
Social capital
Social Six

9 Side 6: Time
Global villages
Body clock
Past and present

Part Three
Hexagon Action in action

10 Six Hexagon Thinkers
Massimo Bottura
Faith Osier
Satish Kumar
Arianna Huffington
Jessica Morris
Greta Thunberg
11 Be the bee
Foraging, dancing and pollinating

12 Six-Fixes + 6
1 Clarity
2 Individuality
3 Reset
4 Knowledge
5 Networks
6 Time
Six more ideas

Further reading


Modern life is complicated, much more so than it used to be. Acclaimed author and social entrepreneur, Julia Hobsbawm, shows you a simpler way.

The Simplicity Principle challenges the assumption that all things that are complex have to stay that way. It helps keep things as lean, simple and focused as possible.

Smartphone users experience concentration interruptions every 12 minutes of the day, there are over 250 billion emails sent every 24 hours and by 2021 the internet will have created more than 3.3 zettabytes of data. Yet complexity doesn’t have to dominate, complicate or clutter our lives. Based on a hexagonal model, this book shows you that it’s easy to streamline and simplify both your professional and personal lives with lessons based on the natural world.

For anyone who feels that life can be too much, The Simplicity Principle will help you break free of the endless choices and complexities that we face in the world today. It’s time to gain control of your focus and productivity, and most importantly, KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Video and Podcast


“I devoured this terrific book. In a world jammed up with the hectic pace of life The Simplicity Principle shows an easy roadmap back to calm and control.” – Bruce Daisley, former European Vice President, Twitter and author of The Joy of Work and host of the UK number 1 business podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat

“Overwhelmed magpie mind? Will-power in a tug-of-war with your smartphone? Struggle to say no then drown in commitments? This book is the entertaining and brilliantly researched help I didn’t know I needed: until I read it.” – Laline Paull, author The Bees

“An excellent book. Simplicity will be one of the key themes of the 2020s. Many aspire to it, but few achieve it. This book shows the way, simply.” – Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor, University of Buckingham, historian and political commentator

“Julia Hobsbawm, that Queen Bee of public intellectual thought, shows us how move from the complex to the simple, improving our lives in the process. Read and reap the benefit!” – Professor Heather McGregor, Heriot-Watt University, Executive Dean, Edinburgh Business School, aka “Mrs Moneypenny” the Sunday Times

“It’s the question of our modern times: how to recapture simplicity in our lives so we can once again connect with ourselves. And in this book our Editor-at-Large Julia Hobsbawm has given us an answer: by using the shape and pattern of nature. Her six-word mantra – Keep it Simple, Learn From Nature – shows us how we can use the power of the world around us to change our lives for the better.” – Arianna Huffington, Founder & CEO, Thrive Global

“Totally original, beautifully written” – Matthew d’Ancona, Editor Partner, Tortoise Media

“Julia Hobsbawm’s insightful and practical book gives us simple but highly effective tools to calmly navigate life and flourish in the age of complexity.” – Louise Chester, Founder, Mindfulness at Work

“Julia Hobsbawm is a fascinating thinker and in this book she teaches us how to live a clearer, simpler life really thoughtfully.” – Johann Hari, author of Lost Connection

“An excellent book. Simplicity will be one of the key themes of the 2020s. Many aspire to it, but few achieve it. This book shows the way, simply.” – Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor, University of Buckingham, historian and political commentator

“Julia Hobsbawm, that Queen Bee of public intellectual thought, shows us how move from the complex to the simple, improving our lives in the process. Read and reap the benefit!” – Professor Heather McGregor, Heriot-Watt University, Executive Dean, Edinburgh Business School, aka “Mrs Moneypenny” the Sunday Times

“Overwhelmed magpie mind? Will-power in a tug-of-war with your smartphone? Struggle to say no then drown in commitments? This book is the entertaining and brilliantly researched help I didn’t know I needed: until I read it.” – Laline Paull, author The Bees

“Julia Hobsbawm is a fascinating thinker and in this book she teaches us how to live a clearer, simpler life really thoughtfully.” – Johann Hari, author of Lost Connection

“It’s the question of our modern times: how to recapture simplicity in our lives so we can once again connect with ourselves. And in this book our Editor-at-Large Julia Hobsbawm has given us an answer: by using the shape and pattern of nature. Her six-word mantra – Keep it Simple, Learn From Nature – shows us how we can use the power of the world around us to change our lives for the better.” – Arianna Huffington, Founder & CEO, Thrive Global

“I devoured this terrific book. In a world jammed up with the hectic pace of life The Simplicity Principle shows an easy roadmap back to calm and control.” – Bruce Daisley, former European Vice President, Twitter and author of The Joy of Work and host of the UK number 1 business podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat

“Totally original, beautifully written” – Matthew d’Ancona, Editor Partner, Tortoise Media

“Julia Hobsbawm’s insightful and practical book gives us simple but highly effective tools to calmly navigate life and flourish in the age of complexity.” – Louise Chester, Founder, Mindfulness at Work

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. – CONFUCIUS

I wrote The Simplicity Principle to reconnect us to human-scale, human-level solutions in a superfast machine-filled world, and to pass on what I have learned and what I practise myself. Where possible I follow my own principles. When I do, I feel clearer, more creative, productive and on track. When I don’t, I immediately know it – like a week without exercise or a holiday blowout on all the wrong foods.

Simplicity is an age-old concept. Back in the 14th century the British logician and Franciscan friar William of Occam stated that that simple works better than complicated. This clever chap wrote that Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate which for those of you who, like me, did not advance hugely in Latin at school translates as ‘Never undertake plurality without necessity’. This has become known as ‘Occam’s razor’. I think it is a pretty good 14th-century summary of this book.

Even further back in time the Greek philosopher Aristotle described Eudaimonia, which conveys a sense of happiness or blessedness – a thriving in the world. When you flourish, everything fits together, everything flows and just works, even if you are not completely sure why. Like a sixth sense, you just know when something is right, and it’s a simple, certain feeling. In the modern world we talk less about flourishing and more about ‘resilience’ – as if we must survive rather than thrive. It is hard to flourish in a world beset by speed, scale, stress and uncertainty. Everywhere we look we can see the hallmarks of progress mixed with setback for humans. We are caught in a web of complexity, binding us tightly into systems and layers which can feel suffocating. It has become normal to manage a blizzard of codes and passwords, and to hold in balance being offline and online as if we are all experienced jugglers. Is it normal? Well, the new-normal. But it is often complicated.

Not that the quest for simplicity is only about mastering our use of technology. No one is saying that complexity began with the internet: certainly not me. We humans make what we use, and even the new generation of artificial intelligence and robotics will be largely designed, built and monitored by us. The change – if we want to make it – is not modern, high-tech and expensive. It is ancient, low-tech and every one of us can afford it: we can think about and do things differently.

This book is a ‘how to’, not just for individuals but for teams, for leaders and all those who, like me, chew on the endless toffee-stick of complexity where we know, deep down, that it doesn’t have to be like this. Whatever you do in life, whether you are a student, a business leader, a manager, a freelancer, a parent juggling children and work, or newly retired, I wrote this book for you. I wrote this to help you break free of too much choice and complexity, and to help you gain control of your focus and productivity.

I wrote this book for myself, to keep me connected to the simplicity I crave in a happy but overloaded life. Like you, I have different roles and responsibilities. Like you, I realize that the idea of ‘productivity’ is not about working all the hours available, and not about being ‘always-on’, but finding the balance between work life and home life. I have used over 30 years of experience as a consultant, entrepreneur and educator, learning as I listen to others about what they want to cut through complexity. The result is this, the Simplicity Principle.

My proposition is simple. Complexity does not have to dominate, complicate or clutter our lives. We can learn to streamline and simplify what we focus on and where we place our energy and intelligence instead. I want to share with you my ideas for keeping things simple in all manner of situations and help you cut through complexity. The Simplicity Principle is based on two central ideas summed up in six words: Keep it simple. Learn from nature.

These six words – Keep it simple, Learn from nature – are the Simplicity Principle in a nutshell.

Flourish through simplicity

Putting the Simplicity Principle into practice should feel simple and it should feel right. It may not always be easy: thinking and changing behaviour requires commitment, curiosity, trial and error. But there is nothing complicated about it. There is nothing to pay, other than the price of this book. There is nothing to memorize, nothing to work at. Just see what triggers recognition or excitement and see what you want to try out for as little as six minutes, six hours or six months.

Using the techniques outlined in these pages, I hope that you can flourish again. Perhaps you will even experience a sense of flourishing for the first time. Of course, if you think that your life is fine as it is, perhaps busy but not overloaded, or richly rewarding rather than frustrating, or if you already have a system to get through ‘stuff’ in your life, then save yourself some valuable time and put this book down! But of course I hope you do read on, so I can share not just my ideas but some interesting findings about how we think and behave which you might find useful. I hope that you will find the Simplicity Principle useful as I’m all for doing as well as thinking, for action. So I hope that the system of Hexagon Action will become as useful to keeping your life and career on track as keeping to 10,000 steps a day, or consuming five-a-day of your fruit and vegetables. The Simplicity Principle is about a new kind of health, wellbeing and fitness which takes place outside of the gym. It is part of what I call Social Health, which is how we connect to our lives, each other and technology in the digital era.

By reading on, you’re going to find out what it can be like to radically simplify the way you look at your life, give your head space and raise your productivity and focus – in a very straightforward way. Shall we begin?

Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.


It started with a KISS

I first came across the idea of simplicity in a complex world in my twenties, back in the 1980s, when life seemed a lot more straightforward and uncomplicated than it is today. I was just starting out in my career, and I worked in book publishing in a tiny publisher called Virago where I had the privilege of working with the great American poet, academic and civil rights campaigner Maya Angelou. She made a lasting impression on me.

Maya stood well over six feet tall and had the most stunning baritone voice and incredible stage presence. When she spoke, you listened. In private, she was a big fan of reciting aphorisms. She did this with a flourish, usually with a smile, often with a whisky, always with seriousness. As a poet she understood that simplicity often has the best impact. I always remember her correcting someone for saying ‘I’ll be brutally honest.’ ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘do you need to add in being brutal? Isn’t honesty enough on its own? Just say you’ll be honest without complicating it. Keep it simple, sweetie.’

That referred to one of Maya’s favourite sayings. You may know KISS as standing for Keep It Simple, Stupid. But because she disliked vulgarity or indeed brutality of any kind, Maya Angelou used her poetic licence to amend it slightly. Her amended version of KISS was even better: the ‘sweetie’ was a big improvement on ‘stupid’. Keep It Simple, Sweetie: I like that.

Either way, KISS is as serious as it is simple. Although I look back now and think life, pre-internet, pre-social media was simpler, of course it wasn’t. It was just different. Charles Dickens wrote in the 19th century of Britain ‘being bound hand and foot in red tape’. Actual red tape still exists in the legal profession all over the world: documents are still bound up in a hangover from those times when complexity arose from our attempts to impose social and political order with taxes, laws and financial ‘instruments’. Today complexity envelops us like a tight scarf, even in everyday tasks. It is invisible and yet drains time, energy and focus. We can see and feel the effects of too little KISS and too much complexity all too clearly.

The US Army knew this all too well. KISS was first coined as a design principle in the 1930s by an American aerospace engineer at the famous Lockheed Skunk Works. Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson oversaw production of planes in World War II which were make-or-break not just for their pilots, but their country. He knew what a life-saving shortcut the principle of keeping things simple and focused was. He knew too that you had to design and build for simplicity, or his pilots could well be blown out of the sky.

Killer complexity

What a pity the KISS principle is no longer in popular usage today. In fact, we so take complexity for granted, simplicity has all but been forgotten. It certainly is no longer a priority. I wonder whether KISS was in action when two Boeing 737 MAX planes crashed in 2018 and 2019. A total of 346 people lost their lives and it immediately became clear that there had been a terrible complexity around both humans and technology which might have played a part. In the aftermath it turned out that both humans and machines were to blame. There was a design flaw in the new cockpit computer system, and when this combined with inexperienced pilots given very little training in the new system it proved catastrophic. The computer flaw started to push the plane nose-down and override pilot efforts to bring it back up. I would argue that when the KISS principle is overlooked it can genuinely be disastrous.

The CAT versus the KISS

I often think of the pilots, in their frantic confusion, and I recall a syndrome I notice in clients of mine in less desperate circumstances who are nevertheless hampered by a tangle of trouble. They often feel bound up by competing issues, their focus stressed. I call this the CAT syndrome which stands for Complexity, Anxiety and (too little) Time. No one can think straight if they are in the middle of something they just don’t understand. Pressure to perform makes things worse, and if there is a deadline it makes disaster inevitable. The lesson? Don’t sideline simplicity.

What about everyday life? Where’s the simplicity there? Life doesn’t feel simple when you are opening different windows-within-windows, or trying to find the perfect battery charger, or making sure that your document is compatible, or wondering why that 10 minutes you thought you were spending online has become an hour. If you feel you have to make yourself visible every few minutes on social media, or to master the latest technology in your office just to keep up, this is at the very least a time-suck. But out there in everyday life on the street, it can be even more complicated. I was in New York once when the lights went out around Times Square for several hours due to a power outage. Something to do with a substation. Several thousand people were affected, with hundreds stuck on dark subways or in elevators, while cars had to dodge out of action traffic lights. Everyone relied on battery life in mobile phones to power any communication but no one really knew what was happening. Yet this was in Manhattan, home to the United Nations! Home to Wall Street, to Broadway. Frank Sinatra sang ‘If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere’ about this city! And it happened in the middle of the 21st century! A month later, I was one of a million people in the UK who lost all electricity for several hours when the National Grid experienced a power surge. Failure of modern life to behave as it should is always quite a wake-up call and always creates anxiety and disquiet beyond the event itself. It reminds us how reliant we are, how we have no real backup plan. Not in our heads and not really in the world. We feel powerless and it is not a good feeling.

In the aftermath of these system failures of course no one individual is to blame. Only a bunch of complex computer systems. They are hyperconnected but not human. They have no face and no voice. The chain of command to them is so wide and deep it is never easy to pinpoint who is in control, let alone who is to blame. When one link goes down, we are instantly plunged back in a time warp to the centuries before everything we take for granted today: electricity, mass transport, aircon, traffic lights or TV.

There is not much simplicity in our public life either. Today’s politicians can’t seem to explain their own policies and systems to people without getting tied up in knots. Ahead of the Brexit referendum in the UK in my home country in 2016 the Financial Times said that everything to do with relations between Great Britain and the European Union involved ‘tortuous complexity’. In the vote itself people confounded political expectations and voted to leave. The winning campaign condensed all that complexity into a simple, winning message: ‘Take back control’. The campaign was led by Boris Johnson who went on to become Prime Minister and then to win a huge majority at the 2019 General Election with the slogan ‘Get Brexit done’. People want to cut through complexity like Occam’s razor and reward politicians who recognize this. Critics call this simplistic populism but it may in fact be realism.

This book is all about turning on its head the assumption that all things complicated have to be like that, always. And to make sure we remember that the human in the Machine Age is still in the driving seat. The systems we create and follow are ours, and how we behave can change in small, purposeful, daily ways.

The most complicated system in the universe

Of course, life is complicated. You don’t strike me as the kind of reader who needs things sugar-coated or made simplistic. Humans are about as sophisticated and complex as it gets. We have 86 billion neurons firing all the time in our brain, which has been rightly described as ‘the most complicated object in the known universe’.1 The brain is part of an even more staggeringly complicated body which has nearly 40 trillion cells inside it, keeping the show of being alive on the road, every second of every day. We have evolved over millions of years to overcome the challenges of nature and disease (from ice ages to plagues), wars and scarcity to build societies, cities, computers, robots and nanotechnology.

But our ability to create complexity is at complete odds with the simple needs we have emotionally and physically: once we have love, shelter, food and work, we don’t need much else, and yet in order to get any or all of these, life is increasingly complicated. And here’s the irony: one of the reasons we struggle with complexity is that our brains are not wired to handle excess information and our ability to cope with excessive stimulation is in fact very limited. Our brains may be incredible feats of natural engineering but our working memory – that part of our mental processing which governs reasoning and behaviour – typically shows a limit of between four and seven items at any one time.2 That would be fine if we were all still hunting and gathering like we did 200,000 years ago, in tiny cut-off communities, doing seven things or less over a lifetime: making families, fighting, cooking, hunting, staying alive. It’s less good in a world where we make 35,000 decisions in a single day, where by 2021 the internet will create 3.3 zettabytes. There is no way I can put simply the unit of information (a zettabyte is equal to one sextillion or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) but I think you will agree that it is… a lot.

Complexity cut-off

All of this matters because neuroscience shows us that once things get too complicated, our brains effectively short-circuit and cut out. The rise in stress symptoms as well as the rise in demand for digital detox are all symptoms of a world which overvalues complexity and yet craves simplicity. When we are overloaded, we make mistakes. We get stressed. Depressed. Angry. Disappointed. We struggle. We are multitasking even though we are only wired mainly to monotask instead. Yes: as you zigzag in and out of different applications, with noise, visuals, endless flipping, you are defying your brain’s basic chemistry which is screaming Code Red! when you do that. But we don’t feel it’s wrong, or that we have a choice.

We certainly have some choice. And that choice begins with whether or not we choose to keep things complicated, or whether we decide – as I hope you will – to look for the simpler way. Let me explain what to expect in this book and how you can help yourself, and others, to get a handle on complexity and put it to one side in favour of its better self: simplicity.

In Part One I will make the case for turning towards simplicity and away from complexity, and explain the Simplicity Principle itself and Hexagon Action. The two go together, like theory and practice. Chapter 1, Keeping your balance: The simplicity spectrum, starts by playing devil’s advocate and asking what’s wrong with complexity, given how complicated humans are, and shows how it’s not one thing or another but finding a balance between them. Chapter 2 introduces Hexagon Action. Think of it as your toolkit (many nuts and bolts are hexagon-shaped) because hexagons are super-resilient, efficient and flexible. Chapter 3 delivers on the promise on the front of this book and introduces the six ways to find your focus and improve productivity, before we get to them in detail.

In Part Two I’ll lay out the detail of the Six Sides of Simplicity. This is Hexagon Action in practice: each side begins with a six-word axiom or saying to focus on. You can just jump straight to these if you like, and see which ones give you a prickle of recognition and pique your interest. The first three, Clarity, Individuality and Reset, cover how to connect with priority and purpose, develop habit, overcome distractions, connect with creativity and wellbeing, and learn the value of disconnection when it comes to operating at your best. The second trio are Knowledge, Networks and Time. These ideas build on what I touched on in my last book, Fully Connected: Social Health in an age of overload. Social Health is a way to survive and thrive in the Internet Age.3 At the beginning of each of the Six Sides of Simplicity are six short six-word simplicity mantras which summarize what’s coming up. At the end of each section is a Six-Fix list of takeaways and calls to action for you which all focus on the six words at the heart of the Simplicity Principle: keep it simple, and learn from nature.

In Part Three you will meet some famous Hexagon Thinkers to inspire you, people who embody the spirit of the Simplicity Principle and practise Hexagon Action. And you will also get to Be the Bee: to imagine yourself in the roles which will help you plan to be your best connected, best productive and best individual self, just like the honey bee. I should say for any purist readers that sometimes I just say ‘bee’ but the specific species I mean is always the humble honey bee. Part Three also wraps up the book with some Hexagon Action exercises.

What does success look like?

Well, I hope you enjoy the stories and illustrations that show how using nature, geometry and pattern in the everyday and a little bit of honey bee tactics can retrain how you behave. What I call Social Health – connected behaviour in the Digital Age – depends on how well we manage what we do on- and offline, in and out of nature, and in either an organized or a disorganized way. Neuroscience – the study of our brains – is clear about how we can rewire both our thinking and our behaviour. We can unmake our patterns, change our paths: through neuroplasticity, that is the way brain constantly changes, we can relearn patterns of behaviour, of thinking, overlaying them with new techniques.4 When you strip it down, when you give your task a KISS you’re not going to go down the rabbit hole of limitlessness, which taxes your poor old brain. Instead, you’re able to stand back, simplify and decide what are really the decisions and actions you need to make. In other words, you really can move mountains. It really is as simple as that.

part one


The simplicity spectrum

For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.


The needle in the haystack

Have you ever lost something and been completely unable to find it, even though you know it is in there somewhere? A friend of mine once had to unscrew her fireplace to access a passport which had fallen down the back, but this was more a case of literally misplacing something: knowing where it is and having to retrieve it. What about the times you just cannot access where something is because you have no system to find it? The idea of filing, a concept from the Middle Ages which means ‘to string documents on a thread or wire to keep them in order’, is quite simple: it is to manage complexity. There are more connected devices than people on the planet, and the volume of data being uploaded around the world each day is so fast and vast it is difficult to keep track (just by way of example 90 per cent of data on the internet has been added in the last five years).1 The more we turn to technology and machines to help us manage the infinite, the less we rely on humans to keep what we learn, share, and use to manageable proportions.

This is a pity – and a mistake. It is true that humans have an in-built complexity bias, a natural inclination to make things complicated. As the design and engineering academic Don Norman writes in his book Living with Complexity:

We seek rich, satisfying lives, and richness goes along with complexity. Our favourite songs, stories, games, and books are rich, satisfying, and complex. We need complexity even while we crave simplicity… Some complexity is desirable. When things are too simple, they are also viewed as dull and uneventful.2

And as the economist Tim Harford points out in his wonderful book Messy: ‘From the vantage point of a nice corner office, someone else’s messy desk is an eyesore. For the senior manager, the lesson is simple: resist the urge to tidy up. Leave the mess – and your workers alone.’3 Yet we also crave simplicity, from Occam’s razor to KISS, but also via our deep attachment to ritual: from the particular habits we have with our cups of tea and coffee, to the global appeal of team sports with their rules, or indeed religious ritual and observance – and for many people, order and simplicity is highly calming and reaffirming.

The Simplicity Principle is all about getting the right balance between two extreme states and finding stability somewhere in the middle.

The balancing beam

Try and imagine yourself in the place of a gymnast poised on a single 4-inch-wide balance beam in gymnastics and having to jump, leap, turn and stand for 70–90 seconds, without wobbling or falling off. Nothing more to add: simple. Have you ever tried it? In fact, can you even contemplate it? Balance is essential in gymnastics and maintaining your centre of gravity is the principal rule. For seniors, stability can make the difference between a life of safety and one of falls. When my mother, aged 87, took a terrible tumble in her apartment and broke her thigh bone, it took six months of intensive physiotherapy focused on balance to get her walking again without assistance.

My mother had to do endless exercises in order to build up her strength, agility and her balance. These exercises were not random. They were based on deep knowledge and imposed structure and pattern. She kept photos of them on her wall to remind her and despite the severity of her injury, she did regain her balance. It took time, patience and a focus on simple, repeatable steps.

Selling simplicity

I know things can be downright difficult, but I never think they are impossible. Call me an optimist with a handle on pessimism! I know that simplicity works, and I look around and know that simplicity itself sells. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was right when he said that it’s hard work to keep things simple. But he also made a fortune out of simplicity. He knew the rewards of it. Apple products put simplicity at the heart of their sleek, cool, functional design. They are simple to use, they are simple to look at, and they backup and store pretty simply. When you look at the list of the world’s richest companies, from Amazon to Alibaba, from Johnson & Johnson to Tencent, they all share something in common: behind the scenes there is tremendous complexity to what they do, from the back-end technology, corporate structures and product ranges. But at the front end, what the consumer sees and experiences in order to browse, buy, choose and stay loyal has to be as simple as possible if it is to work. So, complexity is there, but it is not front and centre: that’s the job of simplicity.

Simplicity sells everything from products to pop songs to politics. The message ‘Take back control’ won the Brexit referendum in Britain and ‘Make America great again’ was a winning slogan for President Trump in the United States. In both places lots of people sneered in exasperation and hated the simplicity, but it worked. It’s called ‘cut-through’. In India, dairy brand Amul’s slogan is simply ‘The Taste of India’, while China Mobile’s tagline is ‘Reaching Out from the Heart’. Ed Sheeran’s song Shape of You is Spotify’s most-streamed song of all time and the hook ‘I’m in love with the shape of you’ is very simple. That’s what a winning piece of music is: simple, memorable.

Life’s hard and soft edges

Nature knows all about the spectrum between simplicity and complexity. In many ways it is hugely complex – just like our bodies and brains. The chaos theory which tells us that a butterfly flapping its wings has a micro-impact on a hurricane is part of the random, chaotic side of nature. However, while plenty of shapes and patterns in nature are what’s called ‘fractal’ (like trees), nature also provides a counterbalance to the universe’s chaos and complexity. It is full of shapes which follow rules and which have an order which can be mapped, understood and applied. The hexagon and all geometric shapes in nature impose design through their lines, and offer up something of a filing system, which can be efficient, organized and copied. By us.

Here is just one example: the honeycomb. This is the beating heart of a hive and contains bee larvae, pollen and honey. The cells are hexagonal and made of wax. The honeycomb is one of the most famous shapes in the whole of nature. The shape of the hexagonal cells never alters, as experiments to try and fool bees into making a different shape have shown. It was Charles Darwin who first claimed that the shape was to do with space efficiency, and while this is largely true, it turns out to be something else as well. In The Life of the Bee, a charming and exhaustive study published in 1901, Maurice Maeterlinck concludes that ‘the hexagon is not merely the result of mechanical necessities, but that it has its true place in the plans, the experience, the intellect and will of the bees’.4 I’ll come back to the hexagon in more detail because it is the way in which we put the whole of the Simplicity Principle into practice: side by side, bit by bit.

The burdens of complexity

Using what we can learn from nature’s use of pattern and shape helps us navigate through the complex and chaotic limitless overload of the present. Instead of feeling at the mercy of chaos and too much, we can create workarounds to make the principle of simplicity easier than the burdens of complexity. The biggest and most obvious burden is on productivity and on our mental health. As technology speeds up our lives it also complicates them. You would think our lives, especially our working lives would be easier, but this is not the case at all. Globally, productivity levels, used to measure how much workers contribute economically, are stagnant. In the UK where I live, The Health and Safety Executive reports (2019) that over 15 million working days each year are lost to stress,5 while data from the European Commission (2000) shows that up to 60 per cent of all working days lost are due to stress.6 Across the world, stress is a massive expense to business, costing $300 billion annually to the United States alone.7 The World Health Organization reports one death from suicide every 40 seconds around the world.8 It is now recognized that suicide is a social, societal problem, not just a private one limited to the individuals concerned.

It is no exaggeration therefore to say that stress is like an oil spill spreading out across society. Modern life has become too tough and too complicated for our own good. One of the reasons is that we are constantly told technology is making our lives easier, smoother and faster. Experience is often the opposite. Yes, society may be advancing in many welcome ways, but at a personal level, stress indicates that our lives feel anything but easy, or smooth.

Plain and simple

Of all the different definitions of simplicity, the one I like the most is this: ‘the quality or condition of being plain or uncomplicated in form or design’. The author Matt Haig, who writes about mental health and anxiety, puts it well: ‘After craving, for years, complexity and believing that that was futuristic… now, everyone’s simply heading the other way.’9 The stress of not being able to just get something done quickly, cleanly, meaningfully and instead be delayed, disappointed, disconnected from a solution are all things which put pressure and pain into people’s personal psyche. No one wants to feel powerless. The challenge is to recognize complexity when we see it and find a way to personally side-step and cope when it is not working in our favour.

Complex versus complicated

Don’t get me wrong. Complexity is inevitable and to some extent absolutely necessary. Medicine, quantum physics, robotics: these are not simple. Complex systems do work, a lot of the time, and they do bring us benefits. The scale of the challenge to simplify a complex world was put very well in a philosophy paper, back in 1962 in the Journal of Philosophy. The author, Mario Bunge, noted that:

If the theory of simplicity is to be of any use, it must cease avoiding complexities. The rule, ‘Simplify’, should not lead us to circumvent complexities by building ideally simple linguistic toys; theories of simplicity need not be simple themselves.10

What this means is that we must avoid being simplistic when trying to turn the complex into the simple.

It is worth saying again that ‘complex’ is not the same as ‘complicated’. When something is complicated it means it is difficult to understand, but it can be unpicked and unpacked. A machine is a good example of something complicated. You can deconstruct something complicated, which makes managing it easier. Something complex – like a weather system or a human – is far more of a complex matter. There are lots of variables. One step even further than complexity is chaos, when you cannot predict or see around corners with any accuracy at all. Many people say this is, basically, life: get used to it. Well, yes, but don’t drown in the sea of impossibility will you? Your brain, that wonderfully complex system, can learn, unlearn, and remake patterns of thinking constantly: you can adjust your thinking and behaving to prioritize one system over another.

Mirror, signal, manoeuvre

Take driving. Once you have learned to drive you tend not to forget it. But you had no idea initially. Your brain had to adapt to understanding a set of complicated tasks which have to be done at the same time. Being in charge of a moving machine and navigating other humans in other machines at speed is no small ask. Around the world over a million people a year die in road accidents, and a further 50 million people get injured.11 This is because we don’t do so well handling the complexity all the time. The cut-through for safety is a set of rules based on simplicity. In the UK, the mantra ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ is drilled into every learner driver. In fact, that simple message asks people to accept and cope with the complexity of the road and keep their attention sharp. But mobile phones have complicated matters. The World Health Organization began warning long ago in 2011 of the dangers of ‘driver distraction’ caused by mobile phones.12 Even more recent reports suggest that 25 per cent of accidents worldwide are caused by them. Why? I’m afraid that the answer is simple. Driving requires attention which cannot be diluted by multitasking. But in exactly the same way that we have deluded ourselves it’s perfectly safe to text and drive, or even to fiddle with satnav, we do the same in everyday life: we try and do too much instead of making simple, straightforward focus a priority.

So, you get the picture. What I’m after is to reduce, manage and minimize complexity. This is the basis of the Simplicity Principle. And the first thing to do is to call it out.

The complexity test

I like the duck test, the proverb that says, ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.’ When it comes to complexity versus simplicity, it is usually obvious. Apply it to how complicated your life is right now. Is it tangled and mangled by too much to do? Is the world around you organized in a straightforward way or do you have layer upon layer of different people to ‘go through’ in order to get anything done? Do you have deadlines and timelines in different time zones? Do you have more than one ‘device’ and several different platforms you have to be on just to get through your day? That’s sounding quite duck-like to me. Quack quack… you just passed the complexity test.

Let’s take the duck test further. Answer these three questions and see how dominant complexity is in stressful or problematic situations. Tick which answer applies most to your view.

Take the test

How you answered

Mostly A:

You are not only an optimist but life is full of things that can be simply solved. So now you need to work on identifying the essence of the simple hacks which help you and maybe you can help others.

Mostly B:

You’re kind of in between the optimist and the pessimist. You know things can be complicated but you also feel they do work quite a lot of the time. Your challenge is to identify weak links and work on getting them fixed around you.

Mostly C:

Either you have a gloomy disposition or things around you do not work so well. It feels as if bureaucracy is a big part of your life and you can never act easily or comfortably without going through others.

Mostly D:

You see the world as full of complexity and that may be because in your world it is. This is definitely something which you are not – sadly – alone in experiencing but it does mean that a change in perspective, and circumstances is needed. You can be the change – nothing is all hopeless!

Let’s look in more detail at the shape of simplicity, the number six, and Hexagon Action itself. It’s time to get out the toolkit and get working on making your life more straightforward.


Introducing Hexagon Action

Hexagons occur naturally and were one of the first alternative geometries to be appropriated by architecture. Nature is full of sixes.1


The perfect number

The hero for this book was Euclid of Alexandria. He was a mathematician born around 2,400 years ago in Ancient Greece. Many things we regard as modern and which are embedded in our culture and systems were created or developed here, in ‘the cradle of civilization’: amongst them democracy, philosophy, playwriting, and maths.

Euclid is key to the principle of simplicity because he is known as ‘the father of geometry’. It is Euclid who discovered that six is the ‘perfect’ number2 and it is Euclid who wrote a book called The Elements, which sets out five axioms or generally held truths and assumptions about shape.3 These are:

I’m going to cheekily add a sixth axiom to Euclid’s list, in honour of his perfect six: geometry brings simplicity. Because when you use lines and create boundaries and shape, working with numbers of edges and angles, you impose order and understanding. Euclid’s elements, and his sense of six, make perfect, simple sense to me.

Actions speak louder than words

Hexagon Action is a concept rather than a rigid rule which uses the shape and sides of geometry to help us stay focused. Why? Because you can count and see the sides of a problem so much more clearly, and because a geometric shape like the hexagon stands for connection: a single hexagon isn’t anything like as powerful as a whole stack of them. The idea of Hexagon Thinking has been used in design and education in particular, and very much focuses on the shape as a visual aid. I want however to focus on a practical use in everyday life, where you want the principle to put into practice. I love the phrase ‘Actions speak louder than words’ which dates back to the 17th century. In my favourite movie, My Fair Lady, Audrey Hepburn sings of her frustration that the men in her life don’t abide by this rule. ‘Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words!’ she sings. ‘Show me! Show me now!’ Hexagon Action is shape, yes, geometry, yes, natural inspiration, yes – but it is also a call to action.

The power of six

It is no accident that I choose the hexagon to represent simplicity partly because it has six sides. You have probably read other books which say ‘The Answer’ lies in a certain number. Six is, as it happens, a bit special, and here’s why. Quite apart from it being within what we know about the limits of working memory (remember, what we can hold in our heads is not really more than seven things at any given time), it is the first and smallest in the series of numbers which Euclid identified as ‘perfect’.4 The next one along is 28, which has its uses as an organizing number because that’s roughly one month, but the one after that leaps to 496 (which I hope you agree is a rather large number to base an organizing system around).

Winnie-the-Pooh’s creator A A Milne wrote a poem called ‘Now We Are Six’ which puts into words that lovely feeling you get as a child when you reach the age of six, and become just a tiny bit independent.5 He calls it feeling ‘as clever as clever’. Well, the number six is a clever number. We all live by multiples of it in our 24-hour days, our 12-month years, and our six-day working week. Six has a useful symmetry to it because it can divide in half and in thirds. Like the hexagon shape itself, it is incredibly versatile, flexible and strong.

Six is a mysteriously alluring number which it turns out a great many of us are transfixed by without really knowing why. The great British physicist and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, writing in his book Just Six Numbers: The deep forces that shape the universe, identifies six numbers which range from measuring electrical forces holding atoms together to the number of spatial dimensions in our world which he says ‘seem especially significant… accidents of cosmic history’.6 For those who like their cult TV shows, the futuristic series The Prisoner focused on the man called Number 6 who used to protest his individuality with the cry ‘I am not a number! I am a free man!’ Without going all mystical on you, the fact is that six is present as a number right across vast tracts of nature, science, and culture, and you do not have to look very far to see it. Here are just six examples:

Hunting the hexagon

Let me tell you what drew me to the hexagon in the first place. The idea of creating a personal and business management system based around the number six and illustrating that number within a shape first came to me when I was writing my last book, Fully Connected, especially as I toured the world talking about it after publication.

My central idea in this book was something called Social Health which revolves around applying similar principles to looking after the state of connection – humans using technology – as we do to our physical and mental health. That while we monitor what we eat and how we work out and how much sleep we get, we somehow end up taking the foot off the brake when it comes to hours spent ‘gorging’ online, getting ‘infobese’ on endless overwhelming information.

There is a central simplicity to this idea which resonated with audiences, but I still needed to illustrate it super-clearly and explain how it could be put into practice. Pattern and shape have always interested me because I like design and architecture and because it is clear – back to Apple for instance – just how strongly we relate to simple structure and imagery. Also, I like the building blocks of an operation, being able to unpick and unpack rather precisely how things happen, and it is probably why I like running micro-businesses: you have to get involved at every level of the system yourself as an owner–manager. So I hunted around for what felt like the right shape and number, not least because when you give speeches and presentations you learn to hone everything down as tightly as possible and the old adage ‘less is more’ rings true.

I immediately thought of circles, because this is the shape which we most associate with the idea of networks and connection, both of which lie at the heart of my work. The five Olympic rings are one of the most memorable graphic designs in history, instantly recognizable, an interlocking system which is all about harmony, strength, cooperation, endurance. All good stuff. Except it felt wrong. Circles are a bit limitless: there is no end to circularity, and I have always felt that we need something to contain what we do and how we do it, not endlessly expand it. Also, the network science which I communicate about is less about infinite circles and more about edges and borders and where things intersect. Everything is connected, spreads, or is not contained by circles but by the edges of geometry. So I kept looking for my ideal shape. Through my interest in productivity and management, I kept asking what it is that makes people at work be effective and engaged – or not. What helps their ‘flow’ and what hinders it? I started to read up on the natural world and what happens there, and was stunned to find that insects, in particular termites, ants and bees, all display incredibly sophisticated means of organizing, building, cooperating and generally making things happen. I highly recommend Lisa Margonelli’s book Underbug about studying termites:

Termites who spend a year building an average mound 10 feet tall have just built, in comparison with their size, the Empire State Building. Those who build taller mounds, at nearly 17 feet, have just built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – 2,722 feet and 163 floors of vertigo – with no architect and no engineer.7

Show me the honey

He could see the honey, he could smell the honey, but he couldn’t quite reach the honey.


I was interested in the building aspect, but rather underwhelmed by the creature itself: termites don’t feel very relatable to me. Then I found bees. Maybe it’s the honey, which so attracts Winnie-the-Pooh; maybe it’s the fact that they are the most important pollinators of food, and that in 2019 the Earthwatch Institute declared all bees the most important species on earth.8 The fact is that bees increasingly fascinate us, and especially honey bees. I follow large numbers of beehive keepers on Instagram and bee blogs and podcasts, and have a large and growing collection of bee books, bee trivia, bee designs: honey bees have become far more popular in our imagination than the structural engineering genius the termite, and they are of course a little fluffier and more colourful. So bees got to me. I have become friends with the novelist Laline Paull who has written one of the great relatable stories of creatures – The Bees.9 Margaret Atwood loves it (and you can see why: it’s a sort of Handmaid’s Tale with honey). The bee society portrayed by Laline is not perfect, and in fact has all the intrigue, drama, love, violence and daily detail of how bees live as if it were a human soap opera.

In real life, and indeed in fiction such as The Bees, the honeycomb is central to the existence of bees. It is where they live and work from, storing larvae, pollen and honey. Originally the honeycomb starts with balls of circular wax: circles. But then, for reasons science has struggled to understand until recently, it hardens into a different shape entirely: the hexagon. I instinctively knew at that moment that this was what I had been looking for. The hexagon, rich in angles and sides, turning out to be so important for the bees who are in turn so important to us. Added to which is its ability to both tile and tesselate, so to connect and intersect and form patterns, and because it also has this unusual symmetry: you can for instance have half a hexagon, or you can make a three-sided triangle all within a hexagon. It’s the angles of the hexagons, the edges which all add up to being incredibly strong, practical, useful and natural. Now that I knew this was the shape and number I wanted, I began to look not just at the honeycomb but elsewhere for inspiration. I began to hunt hexagons.

The hexagon turns out, like the number six, to be present in a whole heap of natural settings which can inspire us. So here are six:

The space-efficient, super-strong, tiling properties, the simplicity and symmetry make the hexagon a perfect organizing framework. Just like the number of sides it possesses: the perfect six.

Simplicity’s poster-species

As I have already said, while the hexagon is the poster-shape for simplicity, the poster-species is the honey bee.

At first glance, we do not have a lot in common with them, much less so in neurological terms than, say, chimps or even dolphins.12 The honey bee is miniscule – never more than one and a half inches long (and that’s a big variety) and is covered in stripy fur. Oh, and it has two stomachs. So it’s not common physical characteristics. But wait. The bee is a ‘social insect’ which means it has sophisticated communication systems just like us, and research is showing that the pattern of bee ‘swarm intelligence’ has similarities with neuron activity in our brains, especially when it comes to seeking reward – such as going out and seeking sources of pollen. Research also shows that the process of organizing the society within a hive bizarrely looks a tiny bit like a democratic decision-making process of some kind, based on bee strength, capacity and role.13 The honey bee gets things done by having very fixed individual roles, but also by performing within a highly organized social system alongside others. In this way it is, like we are, known in biology as a superorganism. Its very productivity comes out of it being a social species. The honey bee’s is, like ours, an evolved civilization, so that rather than surviving in a fixed state (like a lost, tribe) it survives instead by constantly adapting to its surroundings.14 Each colony of bees, which can be as large as, say a multinational company or a small community, numbering several tens of thousands, must perform a variety of functions in a coordinated and interconnected way.

This six-legged insect lives and works in the same place, the hive, structured by those hexagon cells which do everything from insulation to storage. Now we all live with a smartphone and the internet, we too live and work in the same place, just like the honey bees.

So that’s the theory. What about the practice?


Think in sixes

Hexagon Action puts the Simplicity Principle into practice. Remember that the Simplicity Principle itself focuses on just six words: keep it simple and learn from nature. Think of Hexagon Action as a six-sided framework for organizing and prioritizing what you do. Use it to help you focus on what matters to you. Productivity comes when we connect with what we want, who we are. It also comes when we clear all the chaotic and complex clutter out of the way. The hexagon is a good shape to use visually but it is also there to remind you of your strength: it is one of the most resilient and strong shapes in nature and it works especially well when it is joined to others.

Simple geometry

One way of applying Hexagon Action is to think in sixes. To limit what you do at any time to six things or the one, two and three things which divide into this mathematically ‘perfect’ number. The best way to keep it simple is to ask how much less you can do, not how much more. Think about how much more working memory you could free up if you did. Another is to think about shape, pattern and process, in a very clear-cut, geometrical way. Hexagon Action lets you learn from nature by checking what your own natural resources are and how to best use what you have, from how to conserve your energy to how best to creatively flourish.

Use Hexagon Action as a shorthand in your head. Are you keeping it simple? Are you able to dice and divide up your tasks and challenges, thoughts and feelings so that you can take steps to do what you need to do? I’ve chosen six sides of simplicity to focus on to help you. Six sides which you need to balance between what is easy and what is hard, and what is simple and what is complicated. Hexagon Action is designed to respect life’s unpredictable chaos but to do what you can to withstand it, and to be proactive about taking the steps you can to keep control and focus. The world is big and chaotic but there is pattern, strength and order to be had. Trust me. These six sides are your carbon atoms, the vital building block elements which will keep you strong.

Six simple mantras

Euclid of Alexandria based his theories of geometry on axioms, mini-statements which make obvious sense. So, in a nod to Euclid, each of the sides of Hexagon Action is summarized in a six-word axiom:

There is nothing worse than muddle, confusion, which brings with it delay, miscommunication, distrust. When you are clear about something you share your Clarity. It is an act of generosity to yourself and to others. Not being clear, on the other hand, badly affects knowledge and the flow of information. The six core elements of Clarity are Decision, Attention, Purpose, Habit, Boundary and what I call Housekeeping. The hexagonal shape which speaks most to Clarity for me is the carbon atom, one of the main building blocks of organic life, whose molecular structure is a hexagon-related shape.

We have to work extra-hard in a digital age to know where the human stops and the machine starts, and this brings tremendous anxiety and confusion as well as opportunity. The six-sided elements which help us stay stable and solid in difficult, shifting times are Identity, Digital Selves, Neurodiversity, Creativity, Integrity and a keen sense of Place. The hexagonal mascot for this side of the hexagon of simplicity is, of course, the snowflake: literally no two snowflakes are ever the same.

We know a lot about sleep these days, but rest and resetting is not quite the same thing. Part of the epidemic of stress which is sweeping around the world is directly thanks to the ‘always-on’ culture. The six workarounds I have chosen to highlight are Release, Mind-less-ness, Curiosity, Nature, Breath and Fun. What hexagonal shape most conjures up Reset? Well, for me it has to be the quilt, that beautiful arts and craft activity which puts the hexagonal shape at the very centre of its pattern for so much of the time.

I call how we manage our connections and connectedness in the digital age Social Health. Just like we have learned to manage physical and mental health through diet and exercise, we must now understand that we are in the middle of a digital infobesity epidemic and this brings a whole range of Social Health problems. The six recipes for overcoming infobesity are Trust, Wisdom, Known Unknowns, Learn, Curate and Remember. Which hexagon best conveys this axiom? It has to be Saturn’s Hexagon, the extraordinary and largely unexplained cloud pattern which surrounds the planet Saturn, which lies sixth from the sun.

There is a huge amount to know about how to gain simplicity by focusing on this area alone, because networks underpin everything in nature and in technology. The more we understand, the better we can practise creating rich networks of our own. The six-pack here contains The Hierarchy of Communication, Superorganism, Networks, and the Triple S of Social Capital, Salons and Social Six. What have I chosen as the networks hexagon? It has to be the honeycomb. The bees are the poster-species for simplicity and Hexagon Action. The network of cells inside a honeycomb are always – and I do mean always – made of hexagons. And the hive thrives because of its unique hexagonal cellular system.

This means that what you put in your schedule is as important as what you eat and drink in terms of your Social Health – the way you manage the connected era. Research shows we now spend about six hours a day online.1 How do we learn to value time and spend it wisely, to control it and make it work for the Simplicity Principle? The six time-related recipes I focus on are: Deadline, Schedule, Time Zones, Interruption, Body Clocks, and Past & Present. The hexagon shape for time is the humble soap bubble. The hexagon is loved in physics because it always seeks to be most efficient for space. When you blow a messy raft of bubbles they too are abiding by the law of physics to be as stable and tight as possible, and become almost perfectly hexagonal. I think of this as a metaphor for how we seek order and efficiency in our lives, despite them being naturally messy too.2

part two

The six sides of simplicity on the next pages are a form of ‘simplicity slicing’, a way of paring down and cutting down. They will help you find your focus and improve productivity because they represent the essence of the values which will carry you through, regardless of how tough or complicated a situation is. Simplicity slicing is about taking small steps in order to get to your whole, better self. It’s what Arianna Huffington, founder of Thrive Global, calls ‘micro-steps’.

In cooking there is a lot of chopping, slicing and reducing. I want you to ‘cook’ metaphorically with these six elements, thinking of them as six recipes with six ingredients. Taken together I’m giving you a total of 36 such ingredients which, like any good cook, you will learn to mix and match according to your preference and taste. Right at the end there is a recap: a short Six-Fix of takeaways.


Being crystal-clear brings you simplicity

When I was eight years old, I had one single objective: to own a pair of Wrangler jeans which were all the rage. I could see clearly that the only way to get them was by being super nice to my mother, and I seem to recall that strategy worked. The year was 1972, when Johnny Nash had a huge hit with his song I Can See Clearly Now. It played constantly on the radio and has stuck in my mind ever since.

Johnny Nash sang about being able to see ‘all obstacles in my way’ cutting through the ‘dark clouds’ of confusion. Something about the message of this feelgood song has always stuck with me, including its optimism that it’s going to be sunny from here on in. I realize now that the best way to overcome obstacles is if you can see them clearly, face them clearly, and in turn, be crystal-clear with others.

Clarity is a key element of simplicity, the essential cut-through. Without it you get confusion, delay, dither. I’ve identified six elements to Clarity which can help us get a clearer, cleaner perspective and help our route to simplicity. If you are in skimming mode, here are the headlines:


You don’t need more time, you just need to decide.1


The decision tree

One side of what happens when you are not clear is usually muddle. With that comes stress, anxiety, and often an inability to decide due to so much choice.2

I want to focus on indecision which is a big thing for many of us, and the way it can stop us in our tracks. I’m thinking of the delay while someone decides whether to give us a job or not, or how hard it is to take a decision about a job. How sometimes the relatively small daily decision of what to prioritize can get lost in a blur and fog of too many options, too much competing for our attention.

Although we actually make tons of decisions a day unconsciously – it is said that the average brain makes a staggering 35,000 separate decisions3 daily on everything from where we move our bodies to what to eat and do moment to moment – a surprising number of people I meet feel like they get stuck on deciding, and avoid making decisions if they possibly can. People seem frightened of decisions, somehow. Are you one of them? Don’t be.

The ability to decide both faster and more firmly is a sign of Clarity, and therefore of strength. When you decide something it’s active and not passive. The ability to decide is the difference between being stuck and moving to a new place. Making decisions is an act of Clarity, clearing the way for other things to happen. Think of a decision as the fruit from a bush, ripe and ready to be plucked. The process which leads to a decision is complex and involves many different parts: like weather, soil, crop strength. In other words, lots of variables which may be well beyond your control (I’m thinking office politics is like weather, with some people blowing hot and cold showers on you the whole time, and so on). But when it comes to picking that fruit, there comes a clear moment when that fruit is ready and all you need to do is decide to harvest it.

Separating out the indecision – the variables – from the decision, the precise action is an act which reduces complexity to simplicity. A decision moves from being someone else determining your environment and what happens next. You’re in charge. You are leading. You’re the main actor.

Tyranny of choice

This is not to say that deciding is easy or should be done quickly. But if you value Clarity, you will recognize that making decisions is a cornerstone of achieving it. In psychology the inability to make a decision is called ‘aboulomania’ (from the Greek meaning ‘without will’) and is associated with negative emotions, stress and anxiety. The neuroscientist David Eagleman writes in his bestselling book The Brain about how we do lots of scenario planning mentally before we make a decision, trying to imagine ‘potential futures’.4

Marketers almost always present more product and choice as being better than limitation. This is why supermarket aisles, TV channels, brands of beer and make-up are always bursting with more options than we can possibly use. Try searching on Amazon for Post-it notes. The whole point about Post-its is that they are supposed to simplify your physical journey from idea-making to idea-writing: you don’t have to put the book you are reading down, you write your note on it, and carry on. Sounds simple. However, Amazon features more than 20 pages of options for buying not just different brands, but differently presented iterations of the same brand. And within each object is something we are all familiar with on Amazon: ‘more buying choice’. So, while you can ‘buy with one click’ you must make a rather complicated set of decisions before you can simply do so.

Decision fatigue

The evidence shows that we actually prefer less choice, not more (sorry, marketers). A famous study in a California supermarket found that a table offering a limited range of six jams elicited a 30 per cent purchase rate, compared to just 3 per cent on the table offering a choice of 24. So, the theory that we like more choice is undercut by a psychological reality.

There is something to be said for limiting decision-making if it gets too much. Barack Obama made the concept of ‘decision fatigue’ famous when he admitted that he limited his choices of suits and shirts. He told Vanity Fair in 2012, ’I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’5

Take decision fatigue in other contexts. Like which social media channels to use and scroll through, or which document system to dive into and try to file, or how to start to pick through revision notes or an overfull closet. The process is the same and it’s exhausting just listing the endless cluttering of physical and virtual objects we have in our lives today.

Given that life is very, very complex indeed, but that humans want to limit and conserve energy and choice, this could explain why so much of modern ‘populism’ in politics is about people responding to simple messages rather than complex ones. Take Brexit, and the withdrawal of my country, the United Kingdom, from the European Union. The vote to leave in 2016 was a straightforward proposition: stay or go, and the vote was won on a single, simple message, ‘Take back control’.

A politician from the losing side said afterwards: ‘We were not clear on the one thing that people wanted to hear.’6 Simplicity reaches the parts that complexity cannot reach.

There are lots of reasons why we avoid making decisions, and worry about potential futures, or consequences, are clearly amongst them. What if? That’s a familiar ringing bell in my head if I am not sure which step to take. What if I… fail? I look ridiculous? The outcome backfires? All of these future scenarios could be true, but one other thing is too: sticking on the ledge of indecision can accumulate more problems than it solves. The base problem doesn’t go away, while the imagination runs wild – and a solution still needs to be found.

Then – relief! You make the decision, quickly followed by action, or a sense of resolve. There is something seriously liberating about making a decision – like that moment when you jump off the landing board into the water, or pluck that plum, and the same is true when you pluck up the courage to decide to do something, even if it is hard or brings with it uncertainty. Making the decision can clarify in its simplicity, while not making a decision often extends complexity.

Sitting with a decision

By not making decisions we can often perpetuate complexity. If you’re in a position of authority and leadership, a delay can tangle those around you with extra work, extra stress. That’s neither fair nor productive. Failure to decide at a certain point is rather like leaving that ripe fruit: two things can happen. Either someone else will pick it, or it will rot. So either a moment is wasted or… someone else could eat your lunch. This does mean that taking too much time to decide is a factor in how clearly you are thinking. Online marketing knows this, as everyone who sees the ticking clock on a hotel booking reservation site knows. If you are unsure whether this is the time to make a fast decision, take six: sit back for six minutes and just sit with your decision. Really look hard at it. Do you need to make it? What is holding you back? Then go back to the decision at hand and… make it.

Part of the trick with indecision is to micro-manage it. Instead of thinking ‘the consequences of this are enormous and far-ranging’ which really ups the ante, try looking at it from a smaller and narrower perspective: ‘When I decide this, something particular will change and it will lead to other changes, all of which I can respond to and choose to act on with further decisions.’ In other words, if making decisions makes you feel anxious, recognize that and be soothing to yourself, allowing yourself to make smaller micro-acts first. Give yourself six minutes, or six hours if it’s a relatively small decision, and perhaps six days if it is a longer one. Spend that time really connecting with what you feel as well as what your choices are and then… pick your fruit. Decision-making can actually be rather delicious!

Having unpacked the value of decision-making, we have the first side of the Hexagon of Clarity. But one of the biggest obstacles to decision-making is something we struggle more and more with in these ‘always-on’ times and it is why we need to look at it next: Attention.


The phubbing phenomenon

Have you ever said ‘Uh-huh’ to someone without looking up from your screen? If so, you have engaged in phubbing, the act of snubbing someone while using a mobile phone. You could well be one of the people (I know I am) who picks up your smartphone 80 times a day, or roughly every 12 minutes. That is how often Ofcom, the British telecommunications regulator, says we do.7 Research also shows that in developed economies we now spend four hours of the day on our smartphones: yep, that’s a sixth of the total hours in a day and roughly a third of the hours we are likely to be awake.8 Before we beat ourselves up too much for that, as if we should just magic up the willpower to be online less, the truth is that the smartphone is increasingly how we communicate, receiving and giving information, being contactable, being social, being at work. This complex computer no bigger than the size of a phrasebook or supermarket cheese makes us all dance on the digital dancefloor much of the time.

And there is a price to pay for it. One aspect is time – and I’ll come on to that later in this chapter. But the other is attention itself. Because while you may be forgiven for thinking that you are paying deep attention in these digitally dependent times, head bent over email, news feeds, or social media, lost in thought and clicking endlessly through your attention, your focus is being split like multiple screens, and not in a good way.

The infinite scroll

The clever web designer at Microsoft who came up with the technique known as ‘the infinite scroll’ of automatic web page refreshing could not have known what a monster he or she had unleashed. We now know that circuitry of the human brain cannot cope with too much distraction or focus-switching. Torkel Klingberg, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, wrote in his book The Overflowing Brain that our brains lack ‘boundless capacity’ to both pay attention and process attention. This is the same conclusion reached in the 1950s by George Miller that the cognitive limit of items we can remember at any given time is around seven (and a major reason why I have focused on six as our working number).

The problem is that we need attention. Attention is what simplifies the complex, weeding out what matters and what does not. Attention is how we prioritize what we do and in what order. Attention is how we use trial and error to reach that all-important decision and make that all-important action. Attention is how we absorb information. Failure to pay attention leads, literally, to accidents, mistakes. In other words, distraction is the result of excessive demands on our attention.

The Stanford University professor Clifford Nass produced some famous research on attention and multitasking and declared people ‘suckers for irrelevancy’ and that may sound harsh but it is true.9 Our brain chemistry is actually wired to some degree for distraction, looking for the new, seeking out synaptic connections which are part of what makes human beings wonderfully, well, human. However, when you add the digital overlay on our lives to our natural tendency to wander in our attention, a massive over-complication occurs, which causes distraction and, for the purposes of Clarity, drains our attention.

When our attention is tied up in the wrong place, dazzled and side-tracked by complexity all sorts of unintended consequences can happen. Out on the street, you may be that person with the headphones on who narrowly avoided being hit by a car because you weren’t paying attention. Out in the big wide world other attention problems show up. Take the global financial crash of 2008. In the movie The Big Short, with the US government and the credit agencies on Wall Street all hurtling towards financial disaster, sucked under by the complexity of their own instruments which they could no longer understand, one character, an incredulous financial trader, remarks: ‘No one is paying attention. It’s like two plus two equals fish.’ When we are not paying attention, we misread things. When complexity becomes somehow normalized, and everything we do is more complicated than it needs to be, we stop paying attention. We make the wrong assumptions. We think two plus two equals fish.

Twenty-three minutes and fifteen seconds

Two things happen when our brains get distracted. The first is that the brain quickly overloads and in practical terms we slow up, get delayed, losing time as well as attention. Gloria Mark and colleagues at the University of California found that it takes 23 minutes 15 seconds to regain attention and focus after becoming distracted.10 So even two of those 80 email pickups I mentioned earlier can cost nearly one hour of your time to get properly back on track!

The second problem of inattention is not so much practical – distraction taking you off course – but emotional. Too much overload causes stress and anxiety. The immensely complex nervous system responds to stress by releasing cortisol,11 and a whole host of physical and mental responses get triggered in our brains alongside a rise in this ‘stress hormone’ if too much stimulation happens. The over-stimulation of our cerebral cortex, the main part of our brain which processes thinking and organizing our thoughts and information, can trigger anxiety.

Sensory overload is associated with panic, feeling overwhelmed, and triggers a mental shutdown, which can be anything from mild to extreme. All of which draws us away from Clarity and towards muddle, distraction, inattention and feeling wretched. The effects are not unlike those in conditions such as autism or ADHD – only they become prevalent in people who do not have an actual permanent genetic predisposition. These are environmental factors and we can do something about this.

You’re making me anxious

What nearly two decades of social media has done is bring to the surface just how much connection we crave, but also how isolated it can make us feel. For every person who finds belonging to a special interest group on Facebook an emotional life-saver, someone else may be experiencing bullying or trolling on social media, increasing their sense of isolation. They may be freely giving social media attention, but it might not be doing them any good.

This confusing picture comes from different academic studies which often contradict each other. For instance, a study of young people in the United States published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that young adults who are on social media for more than two hours a day tend to feel twice as lonely, not twice as connected.12 Yet an important study in the UK by the Royal Society for Public Health had a much more mixed picture.13 They listed nine potential ‘negative effects’ but 13 ‘positive’ ones. However, even their research does say that four out of five young adults say that use of social media overall makes their feelings of anxiety worse.

Noticing how much time you spend on social media is a good way of beginning to assess your own levels and how in or out of balance you are. ‘Being on’ can mean anything from joining purely social sharing and conversations to posting professionally, either on your own behalf or someone else’s. But ask yourself this: Can I pick up the phone instead? When was the last time I spoke to anyone in this group? Am I communicating with friends, strangers or a complicated mix of all of these?

A bit of perspective here. Not everyone gets overwhelmed to the point of panic. Not everyone even feels distraction as discomfort by any means. There is often nothing nicer than losing yourself in something: a walk in nature, a good book, an online game, a boxed set… But where shredded attention and distraction really matters is if you have to concentrate to work. That could be school work or undergraduate studies, or it could be income-generating work.

Everyone is working pretty hard to dodge our own inattention. Businesses spend money figuring out how to grab our ‘eyeballs’ attention, as do governments who want to ‘nudge’ us into changing our behaviour, and often we forget that unless we work to keep our attention we will lose it. When that happens it isn’t just that we lose attention, but that we gain stress.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a direct connection between the rise in stress and the rise in tech-led complexity. Overload is society’s overdose and brings less Clarity just when we need it more. What can be done to minimize stress and regain attention? The first is to recognize the value of unbroken focus. Think of attention as an object you pick up and put down, not something invisible. Think about those 23 minutes and 15 seconds when you task-switch from one thing to another (whether it is from the car to the stove, or the laptop to the meeting) and start to plan where you put your attention. Regard attention as something you choose to use, and have a finite amount of, like any resource.

Perhaps the most important way to regain and refine your Attention is to see clearly – with Clarity – that in order to do so, you need to acquire new Habits.


The universal language

Habit looks different in many languages: shuukan in Japanese; la costumbre in Spanish; l’habitude in French; xiguàn in Mandarin; die Gewohnheit in German and aead in Arabic, to name just six languages. But it means the same in every language: something which becomes a custom, something which is practised, and it is closely associated with routine.

Cultivating habit is fundamental to simplicity because it cuts down on choice, introduces pattern and therefore reduces the need for too many decisions (even if I have shown you that making decisions can be less hard than you think) and too many distractions. So habit complements Clarity. This makes sense: if every day is a blank sheet this may seem exciting and free from annoying red tape or constraint, but it is jolly hard to keep motivated. All the evidence shows that having some form of routine or habit is fundamental to good mental health.14 A habit is not the same as a hobby, even though you may enjoy it. A hobby is something you do to switch off, to pass leisure time, to indulge in an interest. A habit is more connected to self-preservation and overall fitness than this: something you do because you know it is a gateway to a clear mind, bringing with it all the benefits of a de-cluttered, simple approach.

I don’t personally think having a habit has to be completely rigid. Some people will say it is vital you go to bed and get up at the same time, for instance, or that if you meditate you have to have exactly the same routine. I am a little restless by nature for that and tend to make my habits a bit more elastic! But since I began to explore the benefits of simplicity over complexity, I definitely realized how important it is to have habits, and the difference it makes if I don’t.

The 66-day habit

One of the best self-help books ever written (and certainly one of the bestselling) is Stephen R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.15 He says that habit is a mix of knowledge (what to, why to), skills (how to) and desire (want to). Whatever it is, acquiring a new habit or changing an old one is not something instant. Habit takes time and practice. In fact, recent research in the UK showed that it takes 66 days to completely unlearn a habit and start another.16 You may think that this is an awfully long time – it certainly is longer than it takes to infinitely scroll when on the subway or in a meeting – but the gain if you can stick with it is considerable.

Some of us set habits more easily, but many of us ‘fall into’ habits. Suddenly we notice that, for good or bad, we have made something a regular part of our routine. The eminent social philosopher Charles Handy had a habit of walking on his local parkland for 40 minutes each morning, to stretch his legs, clear his head and prepare for the day. It became such a fixed routine that the only thing which broke it was a stroke he suffered in his 80s. Charles being Charles, a person full of habit but also of the quality we will see next, Purpose, he merely decided to change his habits to adapt to his more housebound status. Sitting in his house in Putney, south-west London, with the sun streaming through the window, Charles told me that his new habit was to have more of a ‘mental walk’ – to regain some of his damaged cognitive function in things like memory. He adapted his habits to suit the circumstances. Very practical and not so hard when you put your mind to it.

The good news is that the brain is full of ‘plasticity’ and rather than being fixed from birth with very little to be done, constantly learns, unlearns and forms new habits, if you let it. Decision can help you set a new habit and replace old ones afresh. The beauty of a new habit is it is a clear marker of change, and a departure from the old to something, often somewhere, new. They say that ‘old habits die hard’ but remember: mastering new habits makes you feel born again.


People are now familiar with the idea of a digital Sabbath, but I call mine ‘Techno-Shabbat’ because it starts at 6.00 pm on a Friday evening, when I come offline, having cleared down my inbox, and connect only with my family and my offline life. This is a ritual and a habit I have built up and whenever I fall off the wagon and stop it my mood becomes anxious and I feel deprived of some kind of psychological safety. My brain is not wired to be permanently firing up by looking at a screen, but neither is my psyche. Although I am not religious, I have learned to appreciate the ritual of regular observance of some kind, based around the family, a meal, some routine. It takes practice, and if you do stop you might need 66 days to get back in the habit, but I find it is so worth it.

The willpower way

A word about willpower. Anyone who has been on a diet or struggled to create a new habit with constant temptation knows that there comes a point when willpower crumbles. Entire industries have sprung up trying to make diets more appetizing and easier to follow, and yet, and yet… it is surprisingly easy to fall off the wagon, and emotionally devastating when it comes to this or indeed any kind of other addictive behaviour. So what is going wrong? Are those without willpower lazy or weak? Well, it turns out, no. The truth is that willpower is to some extent, real or imagined, experienced as finite, just like a battery or other form of energy.

In a famous experiment conducted in 1998 involving chocolates and radishes of all things, the psychologist Roy Baumeister claimed that if you constantly ask people to override their craving or desire, sooner or later they will run out of willpower, exactly as a car eventually runs out of gas.17 This research was updated by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dwek who showed that it may be more our imagined sense of willpower running out which makes us believe it is running out.18 Either way, willpower exerts a powerful influence and I believe in using it to change how we behave.

These studies certainly revolutionized the way we think about how to limit temptation and change behaviour and are echoed by Richard H Thaler, the ‘nudge theory’ founder and expert in behaviour change, and his ‘bowl of cashew nuts’ experiment at Chicago Booth University.19 Guess what? If you want to limit snacking, and preserve willpower, move the bowl of cashews away! Both these exercises illustrate something about willpower but they also illuminate the value of simplicity. No one is suggesting you have a therapy session to figure out why you want the cashews. If you have decided not to have them, this simple technique does the trick: it takes on board the neuroscience we now know about willpower and minimizes the backlash.

The connection between willpower and habit is important. If you want to start doing something, you can form a new habit partly by minimizing the willpower required to get started. Take exercise: I found that the simple act of always having a gym kit packed transformed the frequency with which I went to the gym. The same was true when I wanted to try some yoga stretches and simple strength-training at home: I created a little corner with a mat and some weights so I no longer had to hunt to locate everything, a sure drain on my willpower. Gone were the endless inner struggles about the idea of any of it, because a very practical step was always taken: bag packed, corner kit ready. It makes a huge difference. The difference between never getting round to it and making it a habit.

Someone else who understands this very well is the writer and broadcaster Tim Ferris. His bestselling book The 4 Hour Body was an inspiration to hundreds of thousands of lifetime yo-yo dieters the world over (me included) by pointing out that if you create cut-throughs to the complexity of choice around what food you eat and when, narrowing your decisions in a six-day habit with a seventh ‘cheat day’, your eating life will be much simpler.20 He’s completely right.

Forming a new habit can involve minimizing distractions – so turning off notifications, or putting away your smartphone entirely for certain periods, for instance. Certainly less is more when it comes to simplicity and Clarity, hence Tim Ferris’ limits for a fixed period of time (he addresses the willpower problem by making you exert willpower only for six days: normal diets are infinite and overtax your ability to ‘stay strong’ in the face of that buffet or that chocolate bar.)

Laying down patterns

Neuroplasticity and our ability to form new habits is obviously mental: it takes place in our minds after all. The temptations of the bread basket are no more ‘real’ than the digital lure of clicking on your social media when you should be doing something else, as in no one is forcing you. But temptation feels real because it is happening in your head, and in your emotions, and because you have set up habits which take hold really fast. In order to change your habits you have to adjust your thinking. Hexagon Action is a good way to take the stress out of forming new habits to replace and overlay the old ones. There is no point punishing yourself by feeling bad about the behaviours and instincts you have. It’s much more productive to look positively instead towards new habits. The more you can retrain your mind to welcome your new habits, your Clarity, your decision, and how you are paying attention to creating new ways to be, the less complicated and simpler your task will become.

Let’s recap the fundamental principle that simplicity rules over complexity, and that without it we get tugged under the waves of confusion and tangled in the wires way too much. When we deal with things with simplicity, we cut the ties of distraction and favour focus and Clarity. We get more done in limited time. But why bother? This isn’t some deeply philosophical question, more of a practical one. What is the point? To answer this is to highlight our fourth aspect to Clarity: Purpose.


What gets us up in the morning?

The noun ‘purpose’ means, according to the dictionary ‘the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists’. That’s a pretty huge ‘something’, wouldn’t you agree? In other words, if you have a Purpose, the chances are that you have something which gets you up in the morning. Purpose is in itself a form of Clarity. The upbeat swing in the Johnny Nash tune I Can See Clearly Now is very purposeful. There is movement and momentum to Purpose, something forward-marching and meaningful.

Purpose is a word which I associate with a number of positive things. I return again to the dictionary, which tells me that it is ‘the reason for which anything is done, created, or exists; a fixed design, outcome, or idea that is the object of an action or other effort’. So a person has Purpose. The question is: do you? If so, does this mean you are likely to have more Clarity rather than not, and therefore more ability to cut through the complex and cut to the chase? I believe the answer is another positive: yes. Here’s why.

Being purposeful is not to veg out on the sofa or lie inert in a heap waiting for inspiration: not that both of those activities and states are wrong (in fact I think they have a time and place as I will come to when looking at the aspect of Reset). If you have Purpose it immediately conjures up another word for me: energy.

Take Rachael. She is a forty-something single mother of young twin girls living in state-run accommodation in a run-down part of London. One day she realized that a group of aimless teenage boys on the ‘estate’ were grouping themselves at night in the corridor right outside her daughters’ windows, and chatting loudly. The cannabis they were puffing on was drifting through the windows and doorways. Rachael had been aware of the problem of these boys not being occupied and getting increasingly troublesome, but suddenly she saw things clearly. She had to act. That was her Purpose. How she did it was with Clarity. She had to re-route these boys not just to a different physical location, but a different headspace.

Although this social problem is immensely complex – politicians, social scientists, psychologists and a whole range of ‘experts’ constantly debate the best way to solve stuck problems like this – Rachael kept it simple. She identified local community centres and sources of funding and put the two together. Was it easy? No. Did she ever worry what she was doing? Yes. Did she carry on? She absolutely did. Out of this sprang the London Village Network, one of the most successful grassroots organizations in the capital, which is now recognized as a pioneer of change.

Rachael had Purpose and she kept it simple and clear. In doing so, she also gave her life a meaning she had not realized, because a friend of hers had been in such a gang years before, and had got into serious trouble. That friend had ended up in prison, and after years of neglect and abuse had died after his release. So Rachael’s Purpose was personal. It was personified not just in her desire for her children, but for those boys, in memory of her lost friend.


Do you have Purpose, either in your personal or professional life? Do you have something which matters so much to you, you want to get it done as well as possible, as clearly and as simply? Does what you are doing have a point? Is it worthy of your time, your energy, your skills? Don’t be afraid to look clearly at this, because it actually is not that complex. You may not have a lot of choice, because you are on a treadmill to keep bringing in income for your family, or you feel the burden of expectation upon you from others, but the reality is going to be clearer and simpler than you think when you look at it in terms of Purpose.

The corporate world of work has begun to latch on to the idea of Purpose and to give it a boardroom heading, which means in the world of business, it has arrived. For business leaders, Purpose means more than profit, it means a reason to produce goods and services which benefit people and planet. In other words, it is a lofty and rather modern aim, brought about in part by consumer pressure and culture change: being a business which just builds skyscrapers and makes money doesn’t seem purposeful enough to people any more, as all the research about what Millennials and Generation Z want from the workplace show.

Business has understood that consumers like the idea of Purpose to our products and that they have to embrace sustainability. It’s a pretty simple equation: keep customers (and do the right thing too) – probably in that order if we’re honest. You only have to look at the way even Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest brand, took to addressing the problem of plastic by halving the amount it uses in its products. Increasingly, having Purpose also affects the bottom line of production. Having Purpose keeps you on a clear path and it can drive you to tremendous levels of productivity.

Putting Purpose into practice

Take Maggie O’Kane. When she was a journalist, she won awards. Many of them. British Journalist of the Year; Foreign Correspondent of the Year; Amnesty International Correspondent of the Year; European Journalist of the Year and Irish Red Cross Humanitarian Journalist of the Year. She wrote for The Guardian, one of the biggest newspapers in the world.

During her reporting she came across a horrendous crime against girls: a mutilation that happens to a female child once every 11 seconds somewhere in the world: female genital mutilation or FGM. The point about FGM is that in many cultures and countries there is a mistaken belief that this practice is required for religious reasons, when it is not. Maggie reported extensively on FGM and started a campaign within the newspaper: The Global Media Campaign to End FGM. After a thirty-year career in journalism she decided to dedicate her life to working full time on the cause, and spun the project out to be a charity with a simple aim: to reach as many people as possible in Africa to tell them that FGM is not necessary and how to stop it. So far over 800 million people in Africa have received this message. The way in which the Global Media Campaign operates is along Hexagon Action lines. There are three priorities: i) they train activists, religious leaders and journalists across Africa to use the media to end FGM; ii) the charity supports them to broadcast directly to their own communities, in their own words; iii) they identify and bring the most influential religious and political leaders on radio, TV and social media to call for an end to the culture of cutting girls.

When I met Maggie and told her I was writing about simplicity in a complex world she nodded enthusiastically and said to me:

It is unbelievably simple to stop FGM. We found that politicians and the charity/non-governmental organization structures were often bureaucratic and complicated, and more focused on reports to donors than action on the ground. When we look at what is needed it isn’t more than the three things we do. We never train more than a handful of people at a time, we always identify less than six influential figures in the community who can have impact, and we just get on with it.

The religious and political leaders are all astonished at the impact and their testimonials bear witness to the effectiveness of the Simplicity Principle in action. Imam Traore, Mali’s President of Islam and Population Network said that ‘it has achieved more in nine months than we achieved in 25 years’ while Dr Tobe Levin, Associate of the Hutchins Center for African American Research at Harvard University, said that ‘in more than 40 years the Global Media Campaign’s work is the most effective anti-FGM campaign I have ever come across’.

The productivity puzzle

But what about the P-word itself: Productivity? You can’t talk about personal or professional Purpose without it. We scratch our heads at the fact that no amount of technology or advanced management seems to improve the overall level of productivity around the world. This suggests that there are unidentified problems which are holding productivity back. Economists call this ‘the Productivity Puzzle’.

Those who dislike the idea of measuring people’s output at work, especially in manual labour settings argue that it reduces workers to the kind of labourers who worked in early industrial factories in the time of so-called ‘Taylorism’. This was in the 1880s and 1890s when machines began to replace humans whose own tasks moved away from being skills-based to repetitive machine-based. Many argue that the same is happening today, with automation and robotics destroying jobs, while others argue the opposite: that employees will have more engaging and productive work to do because robots will do all the boring stuff.

Productivity is definitely linked to Purpose, just as stress in the workplace is linked to toxic management. Why would you be engaged, enthusiastic, productive, if you have no faith in either what you are doing, or who you are doing it for? I think a fundamental aspect of the Simplicity Principle is to keep it real and call it out. Productivity is a problem often because Purpose has stopped being clear-cut.

It’s worth saying that there is a value in both repetitive tasks and creative ones, but that not every job is both. There is nothing wrong with wanting a job that you just clock in and out of, rather than a more intellectually challenging role, but that doesn’t mean you drop the baseline value that every job should be fairly paid and that every human worker should be treated to transparent, honest and supportive employment/hiring practice. There is a connection between the ‘toxic workplace’ and stress which threatens to engulf the world of work and its profits, and lack of Purpose. Again, I don’t think that’s complicated. Unhealthy workplaces create ill health. And employer honesty and genuine feeling for their workforce is much more likely to be rewarded with loyalty and productivity.

Companies which do look after their employees and contractors do remarkably well. They don’t seem to have anything like the ‘productivity puzzle’ of others. Take Kronos, the human capital software management business which is based in Massachusetts, USA, but which has 6,000 employees around the world, from India to Australia. The CEO, Aron Ain, describes himself as an ‘Un-Leader’ and set up a highly innovative system for letting workers set their own holidays and limits. Kronos not only grows year-on-year but is always at the top of any list such as Glassdoor for great places to work.21 Aron Ain told me something interesting. When they opened in India, which is several hours behind North America, they switched around the working day to accommodate real time for workers on both sides, rather than forcing Indian workers to be up in the middle of the night.

Kronos illustrated something else about Purpose which leads to the next side of the Clarity hexagon: having limits. Even in a high-growth industry, they understand the value of Boundaries.


The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.


How to say No

They say that sorry is the hardest word, but I’m not sure that I agree. I think saying No often is. We know how hard it is to hear it because society is geared fundamentally to Yes: yes you can have it all, do it all, be a success, buy what you want, achieve anything. Yes! Yes!

Of course I believe in the power of saying yes and of thinking what you can do and having Clarity, Purpose, passion is all about that. But remember how finite our attention is (23 minutes and 15 seconds, give or take, is what it takes to get attention back after you switch task). Remember too how finite time itself is: the total number of hours in the day is 24 and the fact is that one-third of that time we sleep. So we need to say no and have boundaries whether we like it or not.

Having boundaries is very much what people who have mastered successful simplicity do. People like Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest people and the smartest of investors. His Berkshire Hathaway company keeps it simple by employing around two dozen employees (although the number of employees in companies he invests in is more like 400,000). He lives simply, spends little, and lives by a mantra that saying no is far more powerful than saying yes.

The meaning of minimalism

Warren Buffet and others are fans of limiting what they take on and say yes to. Their boundaries are consistent with simplicity and with Clarity: it’s a kind of minimalism. Warren Buffet is also a big fan of the 80:20 rule, also known as Pareto’s Law, which holds that 20 per cent of your effort will result in 80 per cent of your results. In other words, by minimizing the effort you spend on stuff which won’t actually make the big difference and focusing instead on the small amount which will really make the difference is a simple and efficient solution.

The design guru from MIT John Maeda also makes this point about minimalism, saying in his neat book The Laws of Simplicity that ‘thoughtful reduction’ is a good strategy, which is a classy way of saying ‘less is more’. As he puts it: ‘When in doubt, remove. But be careful of what you remove.’22

In my case, once I started to look at simplicity as a solution to overload and complexity in my life and that of my businesses, I started to put boundaries in place around everything from who I saw to what I did. Note that I say I put boundaries in and not that I took stuff out. I wasn’t going on an exclusion diet so much as narrowing the focus of what I said yes to, what I prioritized. In practice this meant I reorganized my time, being sure to switch off electronic devices at certain times, and ring-fencing the kind of meetings I had and when those meetings took place. I was pretty staggered by the results. From the moment I started this switch to having better boundaries and focusing on doing less I found that my productivity went up, my mental and physical health improved, and my family and friends saw more and not less of me. Now it’s true to say that I’m not as rich as Warren Buffet… but that’s down to his simple genius!

But it is worth channelling your inner Warren Buffet on the matter of better boundaries. Decide to take six things out of your schedule right now that, if you are honest, you can do without: a meeting you can delegate to others; a period of time better spent thinking and reading rather than being buried in emails. Then use the other elements of Clarity to sharpen your senses; pay close attention to what you are feeling, what your sense of Purpose is, whether you have got some bad habits cluttering up your ‘yes’ side of the scorecard; and go on a little slimming exercise. Incidentally, Warren Buffet also goes for minimalism: he doesn’t have a smartphone and limits what he eats each day. So he’s applying nearly all the principles of Clarity in everything he does – and with it the Simplicity Principle.

Counting it out

One good way to keep track of your boundaries is to measure them. I used to be a bit too relaxed about measurement, thinking it was for control freaks. I never used to weigh myself, or count steps, or record what I actually did in the hours of a day. I found that one thing thrived when I did this: the art of frittering away time and losing a grip on my attention and Purpose. I have become a convert to some form of measurement, even though I am still not convinced that you need fancy measurement (like app-controlled devices to record your walking). What I have become a fan of is using measurement as a way of owning choice, decision, intention, Purpose, and of helping me decide what habits to form and what my clear priorities are.

I have begun to embrace measurement as a meaningful boundary line, no different to knowing to keep on the right side of the road.

But remember that the point of measurement is to deliver Clarity and not spawn complexity. I’m highly critical of the ‘360 degree’ appraisal system inside corporate culture for instance. This is where everyone is encouraged to give their…