Scott H Young

Are You a Maximizer or a Simplifier?


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I feel there are two main strategies to get more from life: maximizing and simplifying. Although you can do both, it seems that most people tend to pick on strategy or the other. Both of these strategies work, but I think they produce different outlooks on the same challenges.

Maximizers tend to solve problems by adding more. The assumption for a maximizer is that life will trend towards boredom and meaningless tasks if you leave it to chance. As a result, maximizers will improve the quality of their time by squeezing out the boring and unimportant. Add more highly important and interesting activities and the waste will be forced out of your system.

Simplifiers tend to solve problems by using less. The assumption for a simplifier is that life will trend towards busyness and overload if you leave it to chance. As a result, simplifiers will improve the quality of their time by eliminating and reducing. If you cut out the fat, you’ll have to focus on the important and interesting.

Which Type of Person Are You?

I think it should be obvious to people who read this blog which category I fall into. I’m definitely a maximizer. I’m always adding on new projects and activities. My passion for productivity developed as a by-product of chronically taking on more.

The difference in strategy is like being right or left-handed. I don’t feel any direction is better, because they both arrive at the same destination. Whether you simplify or maximize, you’re still spending more time on the important and interesting parts of life. And while some people are ambidextrous, most have a dominant approach.

Pitfalls to Avoid if You’re a Maximizer

While the end result of both strategies is the same, the in-between phases can create different by-products. Maximizers, if they mismanage their time, can wind up burning themselves out. Taking on too many activities and interests at the same time can overload you if you aren’t careful.

Maximizing can also lead to disorganization. Because the reduction step comes afterwards, you might not be able to create productivity systems in advance. As a result, organization skills are critical.

If you combine a maximizer with a goal-setter, then your life can become skewed. A maximizing approach focused on one area of life can unintentionally squeeze out the important, but hard to measure, parts of life.

Despite these weaknesses, maximizing still has strengths. Boredom is unlikely because you are always adding new activities. You are also able to act more quickly on new opportunities because your approach is to act first, reduce later. Maximizers may also have an increased tolerance for activity because they occasionally face high workload situations.

Pitfalls to Avoid if You’re a Simplifier

A simplifier will end up in the same place as a maximizer. Simplifiers, however, focus on reducing areas of life, then adding in more interesting activities later. If you manage it perfectly, you’ll wind up in the same place. But if you can’t, you’ll face different problems than a maximizer.

Simplifiers are more likely to face boredom. If you reduce before you add new activities, you may have temporary emptiness while your time needs to be filled. This can lead to workaholism or laziness if you eliminate leisure or work without filling it with something different.

A simplifier might have more difficulty acting on new opportunities, because the tendency is to reduce current activities before trying to add new activities.

The advantages of a simplifier is that you can have a more relaxed focus to your goals. Instead of facing occasional periods of overload, you can smoothly work towards an objective. Simplifying also helps you stay organized as you can rework productivity systems before adding new aspects to your life.

Simplifying also makes it easier to take a whole-life perspective. While a maximizer is more likely to get caught up in current tasks, a simplifier will have a greater ability to slow down and see the big picture.

Conclusion

One of the reasons I think Leo has had great success with ZenHabits is that most self-improvement comes from a maximizing perspective. Leo is a minority of writers in the field that takes problems from a simplifying angle.

Obviously I’m generalizing and reducing reality. Even if your focus is on simplicity, you still end up adding more. And when your focus is on maximizing, you’re forced to eliminate and organize afterwards. But I think it’s interesting to see how these two different perspectives change how you take on challenges in life.

Where do you feel you fit between the two strategies?


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13 Responses to “Are You a Maximizer or a Simplifier?”

  1. Cal says:

    Scott,

    An interesting article, but I have to disagree with your definitions.

    To me, a “simplifier” is someone who focuses on a small number of things. The goal is two-fold: (1) make more meaningful progress on this focused work; (2) have more time to devote to non-urgent things that are very important to you (e.g., play with kids, exercise, go to talks, spend time with friends, read, etc.)

    The stuff they are cutting out of their life is simply the extraneous; the bits that pulled at your time and attention but didn’t yield much reward. Or, alternatively, the redundant. Projects that are sapping time from related projects and preventing significant progress on either.

    The projects that remain are more than sufficient to prevent boredom. Indeed, I would argue that most of the people you can imagine who are famous for something, are famous because they are simplifiers. That is, like Steve Martin honing a new style of comedy or Einstein re-inventing physics, they kept their attention focused so they could make real progress.

    The philosophy I have been developing during my own transition into a simplifier: the “take on as many projects and keep as many brands in the fire as possible” strategy makes sense when you are younger. It helps you find a groove into which you fit well. But if simplification does not eventually follow, you’ll end up (a) over-stressed; and/or (b) frustrated at your place in your world. The type of random project that impresses people at 20 is ignored at 30. In some sense, the older you get, the more time you have to invest in something to yield the same level of appreciation from the world.

    Of course, I’m biased here; this is a philosophy I’m still working through with my readers over at Study Hacks…but I think the topic as a whole is productive…

    Thoughts?
    Cal

  2. Scott Young says:

    Cal,

    Good points.

    I think the importance of simplicity versus maximizing depends on your personal bias.

    There are people who tend to take on a lot of projects and their lives trend towards busyness (natural maximizers) these are the people that have to put most of their emphasis on slowing down and simplifying. I’d guess that both of us fit into this category.

    The opposite of this is a natural simplifier. This would be the person who takes on few projects but leaves a lot of their capacity wasted. For this type of person, cutting down the projects might not be as important as setting clear goals and getting the motivation to do more.

    Since you’ve done a lot of work with students in elite schools, I’m sure many of the people you deal with face the first problem. But I also know a lot of people who face the second problem, where finding motivation and enthusiasm to take on more is the constraint.

    I wouldn’t argue that either strategy is necessarily best. It depends on your individual situation.

  3. J.D. Meier says:

    In the book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, the authors identify 34 strengths. I’ve been using that lens to analyze teams. Here’s what I noticed — among “achievers”, the “maximizers” amplify the impact of their effort. In other words, on my teams of achievers, they all produce results, but the maximizers tend to be more effective in overall impact — it’s the difference that makes the difference. In other words, the people on the team without the “maximizer” strength, tend to trade efficiency over effectiveness.

    This really hit me when I noticed some people intuitively understood windows of opportunity, engaging the right people, building synergy, while others got their tasks done, but didn’t produce the same impact or overall outcomes. Once I noticed this, a lot of things fell into place and I could pair the right people up together for more effective results.

    One thing I remind the “simplifiers” on my teams is, be efficient with things, but effective with people (a Covey’ism I’ve found serves them well)

  4. Ruth says:

    Think of it like dancing with the stars. You have talent/giftedness. In early adulthood, you are mastering the basic steps and see lots of progression. You develop confidence. Then you add a career, marriage, kids and the steps become much more complex – and when you fall, there’s a real possibility of serious damage so you focus on the mastering the hard parts. Somewhere between 40 and 50, you are the expert – you have a very clear idea of where you will peak. Then between 55 and 65, you are still doing the dance you built your reputation on but you are also learning a less physically demanding but equally beautiful retirement dance. And finally depending on your philosophy, you will either feel you have been voted off the dance floor or you will anticipate bringing all of your life experience together to dance with the stars.

  5. Basu says:

    I try to adopt what you might term a reverse maximization approach: I add more to my workload abut only after I’ve cut away the unimportant things. I currently devote a lot of time to open source programming to teach myself things that I wouldn’t learn in a class, but that was only after I left the college debate realizing that i wouldn’t learn anything worthwhile from devoting my time to that.

  6. [...] Are You a Maximizer or a Simplifier? [Scott H. Young] Hier erscheint jeden Morgen von Montag bis Freitag ein ausgewählter Link zu [...]

  7. Cal says:

    Scott,

    An excellent observation: context matters. From my vantage over at Study Hacks, working, as you note, with naturally ambitious young people, the definitions of “simplify” might be different in other situations.

    This general topic, I think, couldn’t be more relevant to people our age…good stuff.

    - Cal

  8. Mickey says:

    hey,

    I often see-saw between being a maximizer and a simplifier. Sometimes, I sense that my life is too boring and not filled with enough meaning, so I push myself to meet new people, join activities, and do more, in general.

    Then, sometimes, I go overboard and have too many things on my plate. I take a deep breath and say, “ok, I have to stay in for a few days and organize my life.”

    At different stages in my life, I could lean towards one or the other. My first two years of college, I was a simplifier, the next three, a maximizer. I have to say my grades were better when I was the former, but I enjoyed life, in general, more with the latter.

    Most people do tends towards one or the other if I think about it, but it seems I am one of those ambidextrous ones. With that comes a differents set of challenges than being one or the other.

  9. blogrdoc says:

    I try not to think of myself as one or the other. I just listened to a good seminar on negotiation, and the case was made that during negotiation, adding “complexity” is better. Think about it in terms of creative problem solving and finding win/win solutions. These solutions are typically not “obvious” but, rather are arrived at by creatively satisfying a needs from multiple parties.

    In general, complexity and/or parallel paths are effective as number of unknowns increase. The parallel paths are required for learning. Once the unknowns are solved, and things become more clear cut, it’s time to covert to a simplified, more automated method. My link gives a post I wrote on maximizing variation where it counts (learning mode), and minimizing it where it doesn’t (automation mode).

  10. David says:

    Hello Scott,

    Out of the two generalizations, I most definitely fall within the Simplifier category. But, my pitfall is the strength you recognized: the big-picture. I never really put any constraints of ‘how’ big the picture becomes. When I try to identify with a picture larger than life itself, I am rendered apathetic.

    Long-term goals with large rewards mean very little to me, as I know that the temporal requirements bog me down, so I easily take the short-road, knowing I’ll enjoy quick payment.

  11. Kali says:

    Interesting article, Scott :) I’m sorry I didn’t put this earlier, but, hey, I’m not perfect…………………………

  12. [...] take photos and spend time with my family?” I know, I know, I should try to satisfice or simplify more (the healthy opposites of [...]

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