Sasha D'Arcy8 March 2023

The power of subtraction – Why less is more

I recently listened to a great conversation between Professor Gabrielle Adams and behavioural economist Katy Milkman about the power of subtraction. Subtraction is the act of removing something. More specifically in psychology, subtraction can refer to the act of intentionally removing something from our lives, such as a habit, thought pattern, or even an object. By removing something from our lives, we create more space for other things that are more important to us.

I love this idea! It’s so simple, and yet when was the last time we asked ourselves, what can I take away? Rather than, what else can I try and squeeeeeze in. Professor Adams’ research has found that when we want to improve something we have a bias to add more to our lives rather than subtract what can hold us back. Observational studies have found that subtractive changes are inaccessible to our brains unless we are prompted or cued to think about subtraction as an option.

However, subtraction has a number of psychological benefits that can help us lead happier and more fulfilling lives. Here are a number of ways in which subtraction can be powerful:

1. Reducing Decision Fatigue

Making decisions can be mentally exhausting, and decision fatigue can lead to poor decision-making. By subtracting unnecessary decisions from our lives, we can reduce decision fatigue and free up mental space for more important decisions (McGraw et al., 2012). For example, take a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book by creating a daily routine that eliminates the need to decide what to wear or what to eat for breakfast, this way we can conserve mental energy for more important decisions.

2. Promoting Focus

Subtraction can also help us to focus more effectively. By removing distractions and unnecessary stimuli, we can concentrate more fully on the task at hand. This is why many successful people have simplified their lives, cutting out unnecessary distractions and focusing on what’s truly important.

3. Encouraging Creativity

By removing constraints and limitations, subtraction can encourage creativity. When we are not bound by rules or existing patterns, we are more likely to come up with innovative solutions to problems. This is why many artists and designers intentionally remove elements from their work to create a more striking and impactful piece. If you’ve taken part in any of our innovation training here at Inventium you’ll recognise that our ideation tool “Assumption Crusher” does just this – removing assumptions lifts constraints and allows us to think more diversely.

So how can you utilise subtraction in your life? Professor Adams shared a great anecdote from a colleague whereby whenever she cancels or says no to a meeting, she actually leaves the meeting in her calendar so that when the meeting rolls around, she is reminded of the gift of time that she has given herself. In doing so, she is making the fact that she has subtracted noticeable. A big reason why we don’t use subtraction more in our lives is that the very process of subtraction means we remove things, and once they are removed, we don’t notice them. So, it’s hard to reinforce this behaviour. By leaving the time blocked out it’s a cue and a reminder to utilise this way of thinking in other areas of our life too. Conduct a meeting audit, or a life audit and see what you can take out, rather than add in.

Subtraction is a powerful tool that can help us to simplify our lives and improve our decision-making processes. By intentionally removing things from our lives, we create space for more important things and encourage creativity, focus, and self-control. The next time you find yourself solving a challenge, don’t just ponder what you could add, but what could you subtract!

If you enjoyed this article and want to know more about subtraction here’s a great book recommendation or shoot me an email if you want to chat further!