When I discuss my research, no one argues that, when trying to improve something, we don’t often subtract. Listeners nod knowingly when I mention how we pile on “to-dos” when we really need “to-stops,” or how we create incentives for good behavior … but don’t get rid of obstacles to it. It rings true when I mention that federal regulations are 17 times as long as they were in the 1950s; and that, in patent titles, “additive” synonyms are used about three times as often as “subtractive” ones. Adding, as the default, feels intuitive.

One reason why, as my colleagues and I have shown in our new research: People think first about adding and, as a result, systematically overlook subtractive changes. This finding was consistent and rigorous enough to be featured on the cover of Nature. And if the reaction in mainstream media, on Twitter, and in my old-fashioned face-to-face discussions is any indication, everyone seems to agree that it’s a big problem to neglect a basic way to introduce change in a system.

There is, however, an argument I keep encountering. And it comes against something I’ve never claimed, which is that subtracting is better than adding. It’s an easy strawman to build. After all, I’ve worked on the aforementioned research, the title of my book is Subtract, and I’ve been introduced as a “subtraction czar.” So, to head off any confusion, I have learned to mention early and often that there are meetings, regulations, and even freeways that should most certainly NOT be subtracted.

That said, if subtracting is roughly as useful as addition — yet is used far less often — then there is untapped potential. After all, Pablo Picasso defined art as the “elimination of the unnecessary.” The more that is added, the more opportunities for artistic elimination. Here’s a more concrete example. All around the world, pocket parks are making cities more livable. These tiny parks are typically “built” by subtracting a single (often derelict) building. What makes these parks special is the adding that surrounds them. In a concrete jungle, they are a green oasis. This same principle applies at different scales and across objects, ideas, and situations. The sculpted iPhone delights users in a world of feature creep. Removing an all-hands meeting carves out space for deep work from otherwise jam-packed calendars. Meditation brings wisdom to podcast-saturated minds.  

To harness this untapped power of subtraction in the future, we need to understand why we haven’t embraced it in the past. One likely reason adding has become our first instinct is that we live in a world that has conditioned and rewarded this mental shortcut. As any armchair physicist can tell you, we are surrounded by a universe that is endlessly adding complexity, following the second law of thermodynamics. Biologically, our animal drive to acquire resources (like food) and to demonstrate competence (by visibly shaping our surroundings) can pull us toward more. Certainly, as thinking humans, we don’t have to blindly follow the path laid out by physics or evolution. But even if we resist thermodynamics and our instincts, more recent cultural forces also work against subtraction. Human civilization is practically defined by addition: of technologies, of education, of culture.

We’ve been adding for a long time, and for a long time it’s made sense. But our instincts to add and cultures of more are now crowding our minds, cities, and schedules. The problem is in how we think — and luckily, so are the remedies — including one that is at the root of why I’m constantly reminding people that focusing on subtracting doesn’t mean I’ve got anything against adding.

The false dichotomy of add OR subtract

To stop overlooking a basic kind of change, to tap into the power of subtraction — whether for our minds, organizations, and cities — we need to go from thinking add or subtract to thinking add and subtract. The add or subtract framing forces us to try and resolve an apparent contradiction. If A is true, then not-A must be false. If I like subtracting, then I must not like adding. Resolving contradiction is not a bad thing. Doing so has aided reasoning at least since Aristotle, who held that if one idea contradicted another, then one of the ideas had to be rejected.

We have this logical reasoning to thank for all sorts of scientific breakthroughs: everything from our single, repeatable, biological classification system to the mathematical logic that led to modern computers.

So it’s working, right? Well, not entirely. The problem comes when we try to resolve contradiction between ideas that aren’t actually in conflict. As we’ve seen, the question is not whether biological or cultural forces explain our adding. Both play an overlapping role in our failure to subtract. Arguing about which is the true culprit only wastes time and distracts us from learning how we might do better. The question is not, “Should we add or subtract?”, it’s “How do we use both?” Our Nature research shows that people often add but then quickly move on, failing to consider even superior, higher-order subtractions. That jump right to adding wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if people then considered subtracting. If more makes things better, then maybe less can too.

This shift to an add AND subtract mindset is hard, but not impossible. If you take your design inspirations from science, try changing your metaphor. Be less like the second law of thermodynamics, endlessly adding. Instead, channel evolution, which makes use of both additive adaptations and subtractive selections. Then, new meetings on your calendar are something to try, and to select out when they become useless appendixes. If you prefer mathematical motivation, consider that less can literally be more net change. Imagine you edit four lines of code by adding one. Now that you have five lines of code, one line represents 20% of the total. But if you change those four lines of code by subtracting one, then you are left with three lines of code, and one represents 33% of the total. Relative to the end state, the exact same change is larger when it brings you to less. Finally, if you prefer pithy quotes, consider one attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that has stood the test of time (because we otherwise overlook subtraction): “To gain knowledge add things every day; to gain wisdom subtract things every day.”

Now as ever, there is no single approach, not to change our schedules or our minds, and not to improve our inventions or our political systems. Hopefully more people will come to recognize adding and subtracting as complementary approaches to introducing and understanding change. In the meantime, remember those pocket parks. Because the more people who overlook subtraction, the greater the rewards for those who don’t.

  • Leidy Klotz Leidy Klotz is the author of "Subtract: the Untapped Science of Less", a Professor at the University of Virginia, and director of the Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative.

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