“You gave too much rein to your imagination. Imagination is a good servant and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely.” - Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Occam’s Razor is a problem-solving principle (attributed to William of Occam) which states that in explaining a thing no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.
The principle can be interpreted as when choosing among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Detectives use it to deduce who's the likeliest suspect in a murder case. Doctors use it to determine the illness behind a set of symptoms. This principle may not be the ideal one to solve all kind of problems, and it is worth trying when the solutions seem elusive.
Dilbert, one of my favorite comic strips had this take on the matter:
Dilbert: Maybe I’m unlucky in love because I’m so knowledgeable about science that I intimidate people. Their intimidation becomes low self-esteem, then they reject me to protect their egos.
Dogbert: Occam’s Razor.
Dilbert: What is “Occam's Razor”?
Dogbert: A guy named Occam had a rule about the world. said that when there are multiple explanations for something the simplest explanation is usually correct. The simplest explanation for your poor love life is that you’re immensely unattractive.
Dilbert: Maybe Occam had another rule that specifically exempted this situation, but his house burned down with all his notes. Then he forgot.
Dogbert: Occam’s Razor.
Dilbert: I’m an idiot.
Dogbert: I don’t think we can rule it out at this point.
Identifying the simplest theories of how to solve a problem involves thin slicing it with a razor, breaking it down into its building blocks, eliminating unnecessary elements and turning useful ones into more manageable chunks, with less complicated explanations and more possible courses of action. The key is to slice the pieces thin enough for simplicity and thick enough to provide adequate situational information.
Think of a problem you are currently facing, to which, there seems to be no clear solution to be found. Chances are that when you think about it, you tend to examine the possible scenarios and consequences all at once, clogging your ability to discern between what is relevant and factual and between that which your mind have created. You would have then attributed your age learned meanings to the facts, making them as subjective as they can get; subjective facts do not constitute working ingredients in effective problem-solving, do they?
Also remember a time when you, for days, you strained so hard mentally to solve what seemed to be a complicated puzzle, only to wake up one day having the solution so clear in your head that it seems almost too simple to be true, often it turns out to be both. What happened is that your mind has unconsciously thin sliced through all the clutter of information you have amassed in the problem file in your head, and came up with the most simple executable solution.
You can do the same process deliberately. What must you do is take the simplest component and ask: What do I know about this? How do I know this to be true? Is this a fact, or it it just my reality? How is this fact helpful? What am I missing here, the finding of which, would complete the picture for me? What would happen if I test a course of action here? Any small action will do, as a start, you will notice that by taking action, even the ones that do not give you the results you want, will serve as your benchmark to which you adjust your next actions accordingly. Keep noticing and adjusting until you reach a conclusion that is satisfactory enough for you. The Keyword here is “enough,” as shooting for “perfect” results will only frustrate you and put a strain on your focus, which will eventually derail you from your primary objectives.
As the disclaimer stated earlier says: this principle may not be the ideal solution for all kind of problems. A learning policy of mine states that if an idea is worth thinking about, it is worth trying it for size. What do you think?