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Making More Out of Less: The Power of Subtraction

Blending evidence across science and design, Leidy Klotz's book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less offers a revolution in problem-solving: proving why we overlook subtraction, and how we can access its true potential. Klotz joined QDT for a Q&A about the inspiration behind this subject. 

By
Leidy Klotz
4-minute read

1. What inspired you to write on this topic? Was there a specific situation where you realized that people overlook subtraction? 

Our struggle to subtract has long puzzled me. Sure, we can find terrific advice on digital minimalism; five-ingredient recipes; and, of course, decluttering our homes. But why do I need to read three different books to fix the same basic problem when it crops up in my inbox, my kitchen, and my home? Why does this advice remain surprising?

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It’s been five centuries since Da Vinci defined perfection as when there is nothing left to take away; seven centuries since William of Ockham noted that it is “in vain to do with more what can be done with less,” and two and a half millennia since Lao Tzu advised: “To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” The advice endures because we continue to neglect subtraction.

My favorite (non-research) breakthrough was when my toddler son, Ezra, and I were struggling to build a “bridge” using his Lego Blocks. The support towers for the bridge were different heights, so we couldn’t span them. I reached behind me to grab a block to add to the shorter tower. But as I turned back towards the soon-to-be bridge, Ezra was already removing a block from the taller tower. While my instinct was to add, putting an additional Lego on the short support, it was actually faster and more efficient to subtract to create a level bridge. 

(To be clear, Ezra isn’t any better at subtraction than the rest of us. He just caught a lucky break..)

2. How can ordinary people start “subtracting” from their own lives, and where is it most important to start from? What are the first and second steps toward achieving this “deletion” mindset?

The essential first step is to appreciate that our brains are wired to overlook subtraction. That’s why I wrote the book. It turns out that this mindset is the root cause of so many of our problems.  Cluttered closets, inboxes, and calendars are just symptoms.

Only when we focus on the root cause can we move on to the next step: to subtract first. Say, for example, you are planning your schedule for the upcoming week. Force yourself to take away one regular group meeting as the very first thing you do. (Don’t worry, you will be fine, they will be fine.) Once you start subtracting and realize you like the results, it becomes much harder to overlook subtraction going forward.

Say you are planning your schedule for the upcoming week. Force yourself to take away one regular group meeting as the very first thing you do. (Don’t worry, you will be fine, they will be fine.)

3. What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of this mindset? How do you overcome it? 

The book helps readers (and the author!) remove two particularly harmful obstacles to subtraction.

Just because subtracting can be good, that doesn’t mean we need to stop adding. We love binaries, but adding and subtracting are not either-or. They are complementary ways to make change.

One is our tendency to think add or subtract. When I present my research, I’ll inevitably get a question about some freeway, meeting, or idea that should most certainly not be subtracted. But just because subtracting can be good, that doesn’t mean we need to stop adding. We love binaries, but adding and subtracting are not either-or. They are complementary ways to make change. It’s not add or subtract, it’s add and subtract. As they have for me, I hope all the examples in the book will help readers make that shift in perspective.

The other harmful sentiment is the negative valence around subtracting. In chemistry, valence refers to an elemental force that is not necessarily visible but helps explain the elements’ behavior. Psychology borrowed this notion of invisible, and influential, forces to help explain human behavior. Psychological valence is the intrinsic attractiveness (positive valence) or averseness (negative valence) of something. Word valences are determined by asking thousands of people to classify thousands of words as positive, negative, or neutral. When these answers are averaged, most words come out as neutral. Fewer than one in five words has a negative valence and—as you guessed—“subtract” is among them. We need to remove this negative valence. I hope my book helps. Subtracting can be delightful.

4. What is your favorite example you came across when researching for Subtract?

Strider bikes. These are the pedal-less mini-bikes that have given preschoolers like Ezra high-speed independence that my generation didn’t have until we took off our training wheels. These bikes are propelled not by chains and pedals but by toddlers “striding” with their legs, moving the bike forward like a Flintstones car.

Our brains are wired to overlook subtraction.

Strider bikes add a couple of extra years at the beginning of kids’ riding careers. What’s more, once Ezra decided it was time for his “big-kid” bike, we didn’t have to bother with training wheels. He could already balance and just needed to learn to pedal—and then, to brake.

Children’s bikes have been marketed as their own distinct class of bicycle for almost a century. There were plenty of design changes over that time: training wheels, fatter tires, shock-absorbing forks and seats, more and more speeds, and contraptions that connect a kid’s bike to a grown-up’s like a caboose. It’s remarkable, but perhaps not surprising given what we have learned, how long it took for someone to think of subtracting the pedals, which made two-wheeled bikes rideable for a whole new age group—and salable to their parents.

5. Is there anything you think almost every person needs to subtract from their lives?

The tendency to overlook subtraction!