Subtract by Leidy Klotz


11/7/20232 min read

Ponder on the following challenges: Do you generally start your resolutions with "I should do more of..." rather than "I should do less of..."? Do you spend more time gathering knowledge than condensing what you already know? Consider this: Do you establish new regulations to your home, life, or office more frequently than you remove old ones? Have you established more groups, projects, or activities than you've discontinued? Also, do you have more items now than you had before? Do you have more work today than you had three years ago?

You're not alone if you responded yes to any of these questions. We overwhelmingly do addition in our efforts to enhance our lives, our jobs, and our society. And one choice in this pervasive process of change is to always contribute to what already exists, whether it's items, ideas, or social institutions. Another alternative is to remove something that also already exists. Subtraction is the process of reducing anything to its bare minimum, However, it’s not the most mentally accessible option. Subtraction is not the same as doing less. Getting to work less frequently actually implies more meaningful work.

Mark Twain — 'I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.'

We overwhelmingly add in our efforts to enhance our lives, our jobs, and our society. We miss the possibility of subtracting from what already exists. A behavioral science study, recently published in Nature, experimented, wherein the participants were asked to improve a project. One set of participants was given cues such as – “They will be offered with incentives of 1 dollar if they successfully completed the task, and each item they add to improve will cost them 10 cents, however, there was no cost for subtraction”. Interestingly, in the blind participant set which receives no cues, most of the participants chose to add, whereas, on the other hand, the participants who received the cues chose to subtract more. This was as if addition is easy and kept on a more accessible shelf in the brain than subtraction. The author suggests that we prefer addition over subtraction as it makes us feel more competent and happier.

The issue is that we often overlook subtraction. Changes that remove are more difficult to consider than ones that add. Even when we are able to think about it, subtraction might be difficult to put into practice.

Imagine the number of Facebook and Instagram friends, number of shoes, and ill-fitting clothes in your closet – someone has to organize and keep track of all accumulated other knick knacks. That's a lot to pay for and think about, and it takes up a lot of our time, which is becoming increasingly precious, especially when we disregard subtraction as a means of alleviating our clearly overbooked schedules. In our institutions, whenever we try to change something, we just overlook subtraction. And unless we take action, we'll be missing out on opportunities to make our lives more rewarding, our institutions more successful, and our planet more habitable.

- Dr. Nikita Mundhara