The Solution to All Our Problems: Subtraction
Yes, I’m Overselling. But Hear Me Out. Reviewing ‘Subtract’ by Leidy Klotz
Leidy Klotz was building a Lego bridge with his young son, Ezra. Unfortunately, they had an engineering challenge. The support towers on either side of the span were uneven. How to fix the problem? Klotz’s instinct was to bring the shorter tower up to level by adding bricks. Ezra did the opposite. He brought the taller tower down by subtracting.
It turns out most of us follow Klotz’s path, not Ezra’s. Faced with a situation that needs fixing, adjustment, or improvement, we tend to address the challenge by adding. Klotz, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, conducted several studies to better understand this dynamic, the results of which are shared in his book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less.
Our Impulse to Add
Klotz’s first experiments started with establishing our preference for adding. He and his team gave the bridge leveling challenge to others. Only 12 percent of solutions featured fewer bricks. Almost everyone added.
They asked people to improve a recipe for soup, loops of music, a piece of writing, a travel itinerary, and an abstract patterned grid of gray and white squares. The overwhelming number of solutions included more ingredients, more notes, more words, more activities, and more squares.
Other studies pointed to our addiction to addition. Analyzing a digital database of patents going back forty years, for instance, revealed that proposed improvements recommended adding features three times as often as subtracting.
I was particularly amused by the example of strategic planning. Klotz and his team got hold of their university’s stakeholder survey. Many organizations solicit feedback and ideas for improvement from employees and other relevant parties; the University of Virginia hit up everyone from students and faculty to staff, community members, alumni, and donors. “Out of about 750 ideas for change,” he says, “fewer than 10 percent suggested subtracting.”
What All This Adding Costs Us
This is not merely academic. There are real consequences to our adding impulse. Take Klotz’s itinerary experiment.
Participants were asked to plan a day in Washington, D.C., based on a starter schedule. It was fourteen hours long and contained two hours of drive time between various museums, memorials, shops, and restaurants. Participants were free to change the schedule however they desired. But, says Klotz, “[o]nly one in four participants removed activity from the packed original.”
“All I want is plenty,” sang Mose Allison, “but I will take more.” That’s how we roll. But consider how that impacts our day-to-day schedules—not merely our vacations and field trips.
Klotz points to sociologist Leslie Perlow’s work, analyzing the work habits of software engineers. Perlow found that the engineers had more work to do than time to do it. Can we blame their managers? For some of it, maybe. But Perlow found a significant amount of the overwork was self-imposed.
She helped the engineers excavate free time from their schedules to work on their most important tasks. But the change didn’t last. Despite the intervention, it wasn’t long before the engineers were overstuffing their schedules again. They’re not alone. This is a standard mode of work for countless Americans, who have more tasks than time.
So, What’s Going on Here?
People rarely improve situations by subtracting. Whether it’s Lego bricks, trip itineraries, or task lists, our first ideas are usually additive. Why? The main reason seems to be, according to Klotz, we simply never think to subtract; subtraction doesn’t occur to us. When Klotz and his team gently cued, suggested, and even incentivized subtraction in experiments, study participants did cut, delete, and remove—but only to a point. It was still never the winning solution.
It turns out there are powerful forces working against subtraction. Klotz identifies three beyond merely overlooking it as an option: biological, cultural, and economic. We can fold psychological under the first (think loss aversion, which Klotz also discusses). Meetings, rules and regulations, commitments, products, personal possessions, paperwork—they all tend to pile up for reasons tied to these three drivers.
Beyond that, subtracting comes with costs of its own. What exactly should you cut? How will it affect the whole? It can take a while to land on the right answer. So, it’s often easier to let past decisions accumulate, prior assumptions stand, and just add to whatever we find. Never mind the sludge, kludge, and kipple gathering in the arteries of life.
“When we add things, we get something tangible to show for it,” says Klotz. Not so with subtracting, which usually leaves us with holes, gaps, and what might even seem like evidence for the absence of meaningful contribution. “It takes effort to get to less,” he says, and it may not seem worth it. But subtraction is sometimes essential for truly effective solutions.
Adding Subtraction to Your Repertoire
Klotz offers four suggestions.
Invert. If our default is to add, we should consciously try flipping that and subtracting first. One way to make subtraction more appealing is to use words that don’t trigger our loss aversion. Klotz suggests terms like reveal, clean, and carve.
Expand. Don’t rely solely on the delete key. Adding and subtracting pair well together. In fact, the combination is a key part of what Klotz refers to as accommodation—when we reframe what we know in light of new experiences to arrive at fresh insight.
Distill. Look for the essence of something. How will real people really engage with a tool, product, system, whatever? Retain that. Everything else is a candidate for subtraction.
Persist. Subtracting can be hard. Identifying what must go might elude us. Worse, you’ll be dealing with people who have a vested interest in keeping some of what you think ought to go. Press on. Make the case.
There is a world of improvement hiding in plain sight; all it takes is noticing what needs to go.
5 Quotes from Subtract
“It’s not just that we accept objectively worse results because we subjectively like adding, it’s that we fail to even consider subtraction in the first place.”
“Whereas useful genes require generations to spread across a population, useful culture can spread as fast as ideas are shared.”
“Systems are made of things and ideas; connections between them; and a surrounding field. . . . Simply introducing a human is enough to make a system unpredictable.”
“Things are limited—but people needn’t be.”
“It’s hard for a new idea to compete with preexisting ones, even when they are wrong. But a new idea buttressed by a correct preexisting idea can overcome a wrong preexisting idea.”
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Love this review and the research by Klotz. Such a good practice to keep in mind for product development and content creation. Also, the editor in me absolutely loves the flap copy! Thanks for including the quotes too!
It's so true. Until I started using an actual paper planner to track the things I did vs the things I thought I could do, I had no idea how delusional I was about how much I can accomplish in one day or one week. Subtracting seems like a very useful skill we need to develop.
Thanks for the review of the book!