How often in your busy life when faced with an issue or a problem do you consider subtraction?

Every day, with big and small challenges, we neglect a basic way to make things better. We don’t subtract. We are great at adding to our “to dos” but we don’t consider “stop-doings”. We collect new-and-improved ideas but don’t prune the outdated ones.

Do your resolutions more often start with “I should do more of…” than with “I should do less of…”? Do you add new rules in your household or workplace more often than you take rules away? In our striving to improve our lives, our work and our society we overwhelmingly add.

Leidy Klotz’s Lego bridge test①, with two support towers of differing heights, found that almost everyone added a Lego brick to the shorter tower, rather than removing a brick from the longer tower. The valid subtraction solution produced a stronger outcome.

Why do we overlook the option to subtract from what is already there? Why do we neglect subtraction as a way to change things?

Firstly, behavioural science suggests that our brains are wired to overlook subtraction. Initial studies show that our well-used, ingrained mental shortcuts have a strong bias to adding when problem-solving. We are blinkered by our mindset.

Further, we have a tendency to think add or subtract; however, they can be complementary ways to make change.

So we neglect subtraction because it is often harder to think of. Moreover, even when we do manage to think of it, subtracting can be harder to implement.

In chemistry, valence refers to an elemental force that is not necessarily visible but helps explain the elements’ behaviour. Psychological valence is the intrinsic attractiveness or averseness of something. There is a negative valence around subtracting. Even the word subtract has a negative valence.

Subtraction is the act of getting to less but it is not the same as doing less. Getting to less often means doing, or at least thinking, more.

In your pursuit of success and happiness I encourage you to overcome the tendency to overlook subtraction. Subtracting can be delightful!

① Read: “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less” Leidy Klotz