In Defense of "Dumbing it Down"


4 min read

I don't know about you, but I feel like the pandemic has pushed my undiagnosed ADHD into overdrive. I constantly have to reel myself in from an ever expanding thought cloud. Sitting through Zoom calls feels like torture. Reading documentation is tedious and inefficient, and I can often forget what I'm looking for in the first place. Keeping up with coworkers in this day and age is another struggle, since they're reduced to text and an avatar in my Teams or Slack channel. And if it's not in writing? It might as well not exist.

The solution to this is to "dumb it down." Technology needs to work for our anxiety-riddled monkey brains, and humans need to remember that it's here to serve us -- not the other way around. Reaching into my background in elementary education, I can see three areas where "dumbing it down" would work great for adults, too:

  1. Go in with a plan.
  2. Keep it direct and clear.
  3. Monotask everything.

Go in with a plan

Every meeting should have a reason. You should be able to express this reason in writing at the time of inviting. Before you send out a meeting invitation, write an outline of what will happen in the meeting -- the who, what, when, where, and why.

  • Who: Provide a list of invitees in the meeting invitation. Keeping this info in the text of the calendar invite is helpful, as not all calendar software allows you to view the attendees.
  • Why: Identify the desired outcome of this meeting. Are we brainstorming new solutions? Are we swarming on a specific problem? What are we going to accomplish in this time?
  • When: Duh.
  • Where: Also duh.
  • What: This is where you can provide an outline. This can include planned activities, or even time slots when you expect those activities to happen. It can be as simple as:

1:00-1:15: Introductions

1:15-1:30: Presentation on topic

1:30-2:00: Discussion

You should also make plans for yourself. This can be as simple as writing down your questions before your stand-up meeting, or as in-depth as creating an entire lesson plan for a lunch-and-learn. Nobody needs to see your personal plans, but make sure they're clear and understandable -- future you will be grateful.

Remember in high school when they told you not to just "read off the slides" when giving a PowerPoint presentation? I am urging everyone to disregard this advice. It's impossible to read something and listen to someone speaking at the same time. You can always expand on your bullet points, but please read the bullet point first. This helps the audience follow along. Most people are visual learners, so use the presentation slides to your advantage to get your point across clearly.

Keep it direct and clear

This goes for any kind of communication. Cut out all unnecessary words, especially if writing documentation. Try to explain things in the simplest possible terms, as if explaining to a kid. (This is a tricky balance -- explain things so a child could understand, but not like you're talking to a child.) If the concept you're explaining requires background knowledge, provide links so the reader can learn more. Keeping to a single topic will shorten your documents and make it easier for the reader to find what they're looking for.

When speaking, slow down your pace and choose your words carefully. Check in with listeners to make sure you're being understood.

Monotask Everything

"When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself." – Shunryu Suzuki

Ok, maybe 'burn yourself up' is bad work advice, but the sentiment is this: When you are completely absorbed by what you're working on, you are doing your best work. The secret to getting in this zone is monotasking.

Monotasking means only doing one thing at a time. When you're in a meeting, be IN the meeting -- not chatting with a friend, not working on something else. When you're coding, block out distractions like email or Slack so you won't be interrupted. Put your phone on silent, or better yet in another room.

I'll admit this is the hardest part for me. There's so much to do and so little time, how can I NOT multitask? It's important to remember that when you're monotasking, your work will be higher quality, and this will save you time in the long run. Long term benefits > short term benefits.

How has the pandemic affected the way you work? What are you doing to address those issues in your company? Let me know in the comments.