Time Management: Complexity Bias & 3 Ways To Beat It

The complexity bias is our tendency to prefer the complicated over the simple, whether we understand something or not.

If you have ever seen someone skip from project to project without finishing any of them because something new has come along, you have seen the complexity effect at work.

It can be a major cause of poor time management, and learning to recognise and manage it can help people make huge strides in learning to improve their time management.

We instinctively believe that something complicated is more effective than something simple, even if we have no idea how it works. This is something that marketers have known for years.

The complexity bias is incredibly important to understand, and is covered in our time management training courses

What Is The Evidence For The Complexity Effect?

There is plenty of evidence for the complexity effect in both humans and animals. It seems that it’s been hardwired into our brains for millions of years through evolution, so it’s no surprise that it’s so difficult to avoid!

Given we’re here to look at whom this impacts your time management and productivity, I would encourage you to follow this link and take a look as it lays out the evidence nicely: complexity effect.

Why Does The Complexity Effect Exist?

Why do we have a preference for complex things which are harder to understand or even confusing?

It is a combination of our desire for novelty and our desire for the best.

We have a natural desire for new and novel things. Something simple (dare I say ‘obvious’) isn’t very interesting. Something complex is new and interesting and grabs our attention and interest. Learning something new (whether it is useful or not) is fun.

This means that we naturally focus more on complex items, and in doing so, we then tend to give those things undue weight in any decision. This article explains more about how what you focus on is what becomes important.

So we are naturally wired to prefer and focus on complicated solutions. They grab our attention and once they do, we then naturally prefer them and feel that they are better or more important than simple solutions.

This also goes hand in hand with the struggle of procrastination.

Why Does The Complexity Effect Cause Problems?

Occam’s razor was first coined in the UK in the early 1300s – this isn’t a new problem!

It states that:

“The simplest solution is usually the right one.”

This applies if we are trying to find a solution for our problem or if we are choosing between solutions that we think will fix our problem, and so this shows up in two ways.

1: We may not choose the right solution.

This is the worst outcome. We choose the wrong solution for our problem because we have our head turned by a complex solution.

2: Our solution is inferior to a less complex one.

This is a more likely outcome than the one above. When choosing between solutions, we choose a more complex one than we need.

Complexity is expensive, time-consuming, less robust, and more difficult to stick with. Our solution is likely to suffer from all of these problems.

As an example, if you choose a diet that is overly complex and so you don’t stick to it, then it’s really no use whether the diet works or does not. The complexity of it means that it isn’t the right solution whether it works or not.

For more on how you can overcome time management troubles, you can read this guide on setting SMART goals too.

How Do I Beat The Complexity Effect?

As we said earlier, this isn’t a new problem. People have been wrestling with this for hundreds of years.

Three tried and tested solutions – in addition to simple awareness – are:

Consistency / Completion Matters

Most of the value of a project comes in the last 20% of the work. Completion matters. Much better, a project offering 80% of the value 100% complete than a ‘better’ project offering 100% of the value only 80% complete.

Similarly, with habits, it is consistency that matters. As anyone how has ever signed up for a gym can attest – The best exercise routine is the one that you stick to.

Given that there will always be other methods and solutions, you need to take a practical hands-on view when choosing not an ideal one.

What can I really honestly say I believe I will manage to get done/do on a regular basis?

Perhaps be a bit pessimistic and be under ambitious. After all, once you’ve completed a task, you can always ‘add on extras’ if you want to achieve a better result. If your exercise routine isn’t that demanding, you can always add to it if you want.

Use The 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule says that the majority of the value (80%) in a project comes from a minority of the inputs (20%) whether they are time, money, or something else.

This is a great reminder that a suboptimal solution (offering 80% of the value) is probably the most efficient solution, and so there is good reason to prefer it over the more complex one.


The Lindy Effect & First Things First

The Lindy Effect says that the longevity of something in the future is likely to be proportionate to how long it has been around. It is another way of saying that if an idea or plan has been around for a long time and has ‘survived’ then it is likely to be in use for a long-time in the future and so more valuable.

This means you avoid new fads and stick with tried and tested ideas which, although boring, will very probably work.

The reason all doctors recommend “Regular exercise, plenty of sleep and eat healthily” is that they have been shown over and over again to be the simplest, most effective ways to improve your health. Sure, there is new research, but they’re very unlikely to have anything like the effect of these three things.

Put first things first and make sure you have the basics right before allowing yourself to move onto newer ‘shiny objects’!

Looking for more tips on time management? Read our time management quick tips here!

About Ben Richardson

Ben is a director of Acuity Training. He writes about SQL, Power BI and Excel on a number of industry sites including SQLCentral, SQLshack and codingsight.