Why Is It So Hard to Keep It Simple?

Sometimes what's obvious is all you need to know.

Posted Jul 23, 2018

There’s a slogan used in AA, Al-Anon, and other 12-step programs: “Keep it simple.” You’ve probably seen it on bumper stickers.

If you happen to be someone, like me, who tries to think ahead and anticipate potential outcomes of actions and choices, then maybe we also share something else in common.

You see, I frequently spend so much time anticipating potential outcomes that I miss the obvious things staring me in the face. I think things through to the point that obvious solutions don’t occur to me.

For example, when a friend described his experience of drying tomatoes, I asked—to my mind quite reasonably—“How long do you dry them?”

I wanted to know the details, the specific way you could know your tomato-drying process had been successful.

“Until they’re dry,” my friend responded, in a tone that said “I can’t believe you are asking this.”


John-Manuel Andriote/photo
You know a tomato is dry when it's dry. That's obvious, right?
Source: John-Manuel Andriote/photo

This situation has become Exhibit A showing how I can miss obvious answers because I assume anything that has to be done requires a deeper understanding than what is really necessary to successfully complete the task.

“Keep it simple.”

Sometimes it means calming your anxiety, using your interior “self-talk” to reframe the story of the thing that is stressing you out. Maybe you need to think about it in different terms, choose for it to “mean” something simpler than the version of it that is troubling you.

Sometimes it means choosing to fix your mind in the moment—rather than letting your thoughts race ahead to “what ifs” that can really disturb your serenity.

Sometimes it means simply sticking to the known facts of a situation, and drawing from other areas of your life experience—drying out breadcrumbs, perhaps—to have a satisfactory understanding of a new experience.

Sometimes things don’t mean anything more than what you can see and perceive in the moment you experience them.

About a decade ago, I had another “keep it simple” breakthrough that has had a real and daily positive effect in my life.

I have to take several medications daily, including two pills to keep my HIV infection “undetectable,” milk thistle to protect my liver against those drugs, an allergy pill, and of course the baby aspirin recommended for everyone over age 40.

When I first started down this road of pill popping, every day I would juggle and open the growing collection of pill bottles. It was time-consuming, and a hassle.

I guess I first saw a pill organizer at the drugstore. I am embarrassed to admit: It was a revelation. A simple way to eliminate the daily hassle of opening and closing pill bottles.

I bought two.

Every two weeks, I refill my pill organizer. Each day, I simply open the holder containing the day’s allotment, and that’s that.

I recently bought my 83-year-old mom a pill organizer. She has been very happy not to have to juggle her even vaster collection of pill bottles.

The pill organizer was a revelation for Mom, too. Do you think it runs in the family?

Keep it simple.