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Think or do. It’s one or the other

By Momentum3 min read

We’re simple creatures.

Drawing a house-fly in a urinal reduces spillage by 80%; it gives men something to aim at.
A deli taster counter with six choices of jam leads to a 30% purchase rate. When the number of jams is increased to 24, the number of purchases reduces to 3%.


It’s all about energy. Understanding, prioritizing and deciding take a lot of energy. So does action. Doing one, leaves less energy for the others. J.C. Welsh showed that while people are thinking really hard, the physical force they can exert reduces by as much as 50% [1]! Simplicity works because, in reducing the demands on the brain, it leaves more capacity for action. In the deli counter example, when people tasted the 24 jams, it took so much energy to identify their favourite that they had no energy left to decide to buy it!

So if simplicity is good, and our lives and organizations are ever more complex, is that bad?

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy is increasing. Entropy can be described as the level of disorder. It turns out that pretty much any action in a system increases the level of entropy or disorder, it’s unavoidable

I got to thinking about complexity in this light. I realized that complexity isn’t bad; it’s just life. Describing complexity as anything other than a law of nature is meaningless. We interact with the world and complexity happens; an inevitable bi-product of our activity. What matters is not the level of complexity, but what we do with it. Our challenge as individuals or as organizations is to make meaning from the chaos, to translate it into words of one syllable…and in so doing, to move people. As one executive I worked with recently said: “Our complexity is not our customer’s problem”

So when Steve Booth-Butterfield and Bill Reger, professors at West Virginia University, ran a public health campaign, they kept their message simple. They didn’t encourage people to ‘eat more healthily’ since there are too many decisions involved in this. They found if an average American does nothing else other than switch from full fat to 1% milk, their daily intake of saturated fats would drop below the U.S Department of Agriculture recommended levels. Consequently they boiled a hugely complex message down to a single action: buy 1% milk. Their campaign made it simple for the local population to act. The sales of 1% milk rose by 42% as a result

No matter how complex your world, if you want action from yourself or others, make sure there isn’t too much thinking involved. Keep it simple

What’s your 1% milk?


[1] J.C. Welch (1898) ‘On the measurement of mental activity through muscular activity and the determination of a constant attention’, American Journal of Physiology, Volume 1, pp 283-306

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