Subtract: Why getting to less can mean thinking more

When you're trying to solve a problem, do you naturally add rules and process, or look to remove them?

It can be easy to fall in the trap of accepting constraints, not examining what's in front of us, why it's there and if we need it at all.  

By removing or taking away, we allow space for thinking, collaborating and doing our best work. It can be a tough at first, but it's worth trying it to see how it works for you. 

This week's read looks at how a chance moment while building a lego bridge led to a mindset change - and how applying that revelation at work and at home, uncovered some unexpected results.  

Until next time... 

The Consilium team

Consider the following questions:

Do your resolutions more often start with “I should do more of . . .” than with “I should do less of . . .”? Do you spend more time acquiring information—whether through podcasts, websites, or conversation—than you spend distilling what you already know?

How about: Do you add new rules in your household or workplace more often than you take rules away? Have you started more organizations, initiatives, and activities than you have phased out? Do you think more about providing for the disadvantaged than about removing unearned privilege?

And: Do you have more stuff than you used to? Are you busier today than you were three years ago?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re not alone. In our striving to improve our lives, our work, and our society, we overwhelmingly add.

In each of these situations, we’re all doing essentially the same thing—trying to change things from how they are to how we want them to be. And in this ubiquitous act of change, one option is always to add to what exists, be it objects, ideas, or social systems. Another option is to subtract from what is already there.

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

An epiphany in my thinking about less came when my son Ezra and I were building a bridge out of Legos. Because the support towers were different heights, we couldn’t span them, so I reached behind me to grab a block to add to the shorter tower. As I turned back toward the soon-to-be bridge, three-year-old Ezra was removing a block from the taller tower. My impulse had been to add to the short support, and in that moment, I realized it was wrong: taking away from the tall support was a faster and more efficient way to create a level bridge.

In our striving to improve our lives, our work, and our society, we overwhelmingly add. We overlook the option to subtract from what is already there.

Since I had become a professor, I had been trying to convert my interest in less into something I could study instead of just ponder. From the start, I studied ways that buildings and cities might use less energy—and therefore produce fewer climate-changing emissions. I studied architecture and urban design, the people using it, and the people designing it. Over time, I had homed in on the designers, finding that, even when it leads to suboptimal things, designers use mental shortcuts: anchoring on irrelevant numbers, unthinkingly accepting default choices, and being swayed by examples. Still, I could never quite get from studying buildings and cities to studying less itself.

Ezra’s encounter with Legos took my applied thinking about design to a more basic level. Here, right in my living room, was a relatively simple situation that could be changed by adding to it and by taking away from it. And when Ezra’s choice caught me by surprise, it made me realize that, whereas less is an end state, subtracting is the act of getting there.

Not only did Ezra’s bridge shift my focus from less to subtraction, it gave me a convincing way to share and test my epiphany. So I began carrying around a replica of Ezra’s bridge. I tried it out on unsuspecting students who came to meet with me, checking whether they would subtract, like Ezra, or add, like I had. All the students added.

I also brought the Lego bridge to meetings with professors and one of them was Gabrielle Adams. Because of her intellect and because of our prior conversations about less, I suspected Gabe might see right through the bridge challenge. But she was like the others, and like me. She added a block to the shorter column to make the bridge.

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

Excitedly, I told Gabe how Ezra had removed a block—and that’s when it clicked for her. Her response gave me the language to bring countless others up to speed. She said, “Oh. So, you’re wondering whether we neglect subtraction as a way to change things?”

That sounded right to me.


To read the full article, visit: