Subtraction as a Solution

Subtraction can be an overlooked solution in a culture of accumulation. But having less can create the space we didn’t know we needed.

Image of hand removing a Jenga block from a Jenga stack
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From how we build our cities to how we shop, it can seem as though our natural human tendency is to add. But a culture of accumulation may be exactly what holds us back from the simple solution in front of us: taking things away.

University of Virginia professor Leidy Klotz helps us analyze the benefits of subtraction and how less may create the space for what we truly desire.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Arthur Brooks. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Arthur Brooks: What was the thing during the worst of COVID that you missed the most?

Rebecca Rashid: I used to work at a coffee shop before COVID hit and knew that my friends would come in to entertain me on my shift. And basically the life that comes from engaging with others.

Brooks: Now tell me something that’s a little bit harder. During COVID, there were a bunch of things that you didn’t get that you had gotten before. And some of the things you lost you didn’t miss.

Rashid: I definitely did not miss the complexity of getting together with friends [when] people just prioritized seeing one another in whatever the easiest possible way to do that was. And it showed me how much I could simplify things if I care a little bit less about what the activity is and focus on just spending time with other people, which was the whole point in the first place.

And if it wasn’t for this time—where we suddenly had to choose who we were going to rely on in these tough times—if it wasn’t for that forced simplification, I would have continued to be that person who wanted more friends and wanted more people at her birthday party, or whatever it may be. And it was only because having less people around was the only option that I just had to make do.

Brooks: There’s this paradox in which we’re always driven to more, more, more. But a lot of the time, we get more pleasure and happiness from less. Today we’re talking about the happiness we can get from subtraction.

What exactly explains our tendency to believe that more doing, more money, more everything will continue to make our lives better? And what are we afraid of losing when we take things away?

I started thinking about why it’s so hard for us to get to a place where we truly enjoy less after reading a great book called Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. The author, Leidy Klotz, helped me think through why our default mode is more.

Klotz: I’m by title a professor of engineering and architecture at the University of Virginia. Most of my research is in behavioral science and how we design.

Brooks: What gave you the idea that probably the best approach to doing things better—so you can be happier, more content, more satisfied—is by doing less as opposed to doing more?

Klotz: The closest thing I have to an epiphany was playing Legos with my son Ezra, who was three at the time. And we were building with these Duplo blocks; basically making a bridge as a three-year-old might. And the problem we had was that the bridge wasn’t level. And so I turned around behind me to grab a block to add to the shorter column. And by the time I turned back around, Ezra had removed a block from the longer column and had already made the level bridge.

I mean, it’s a really simple story, but right there in my living room was this example of an idea that I had been thinking about. But it brought a new insight into that idea, which was: Why didn’t I even think of this as an option? If my three-year-old wasn’t there, I would have just added the block and never even considered whether subtracting a block could have been a better way to change the structure.

Brooks: And so your conclusion from that—or at least the minor epiphany that you had that one day playing with Legos with your son—is sometimes you can make things a lot more than they were by actually using less.

Klotz: So the fundamental framing of the situation is, hey, we’ve got all these times in our life when we want to take how things are and change them to some way that we want them to be. Right? So whether it’s a Lego bridge, whether it’s your calendar, or whether it’s kind of the mental model that you’re working from, there are these two basic options.

One is to add to what’s already there, which we think of immediately, and exhaust all the possibilities. And the other one is to subtract from what’s already there, which it seems we don’t think of. And then even if we do think of it, it’s hard to follow through with.

Brooks: So your big point is basically: No matter what we’re talking about, you’ve got options. You have options you didn’t know you had by doing less of whatever it is you’re happening to do. Now, this is the simplest thing ever.

I mean, it’s so crazily simple, and yet it’s so unbelievably elusive. So let’s get into some of the behavior behind this. Why don’t we think this way?

Klotz: The first thing from our research is that we just fundamentally think of adding first, right? We’re wired to think of adding first.

One of the studies I mentioned in the book is how pack rats stockpile food. Researchers have done experiments where they take away the stockpile of food that the pack rats have, and they immediately make another stockpile.

And you’re like, Well, big deal, right? That’s what I do when my pantry gets low. But the pack rats aren’t planning and deliberating, right? This is an instinctive behavior to acquire more food because it’s helped them pass down their genes.

I think the other one that ties a lot into my life when I look at the ways that I over-add is this desire to display competence. And competence is actually a very biological thing. I mean, showing that we can effectively interact with the world.

There are birds that build ornate nests just to attract a mate—because the mate then sees that whoever this bird is that built this nest is able to effectively interact with the physical world. So there are definitely some biological reasons why we might be doing this.

Brooks: Let me tell you a story about somebody who was too busy. And the problem was not what I thought it was. This friend of mine was confessing to me that his work schedule was completely out of control. He was traveling all the time, and it was wrecking his marriage, quite frankly, because he wasn’t home with his family.

I kind of realized that actually the causality was reversed. It’s not that his marriage was on the rocks because he was traveling too much and too busy. He was actually keeping himself too busy because his marriage was on the rocks. And then it got me thinking. Sometimes I think that I’m a little bit too busy, because if I’m not, I have to be at home by myself in my head, and distraction is a little bit easier.

We don’t like to take things away, because when you take things away, there’s space. And space is incredibly uncomfortable for a lot of people. It’s like you’ve got to learn how to be comfortable with the white space that you just uncovered when you take things away. And a lot of people aren’t.

Klotz: There’s a famous study by Tim Wilson. They were basically interested in why people don’t like to think, and they studied in all these different ways showing that people just didn’t like to be sitting there with their own thoughts. The nail-in-the-coffin evidence was people could either think or they could shock themselves—and a lot of people chose to shock themselves.

Brooks: It was only six to 15 minutes of doing nothing in a room; just six to 15 minutes. And the only thing they could do was to actually administer a pretty painful shock.

Klotz: There’s a reinforcing cycle here that’s problematic. The more you care about something, the harder it is to subtract. Subtracting from my parenting is one of the things that I came to last, even after doing all this research.

I was actually on a podcast with Yael Schonbrun, who’s a friend, but her podcast is called Psychologists Off the Clock. Our podcast interview kind of turned into a therapy session where she was leading me to the fact that I over-parent my kids—always thinking about how I can interject myself to make my kids’ lives better.

And it led to situations where my son’s playing happily with my daughter, and I’m like, “Hey, what do you guys want to go do?” And it’s like, let’s just let this happen, right? Don’t try to make a happy kid happier. So sometimes it’s to the detriment of the outcomes we actually want.

Brooks: One of the techniques that we developed in the last season of How to Build a Happy Life was the concept of the reverse bucket list. I make a list of all of my cravings and attachments and desires and ambitions. And then I say, if I get it, fine, but I’m going to make a conscious strategy for detaching myself from these things. In other words: If I don’t get this, how am I going to feel? I’m going to be fine. The problem with the bucket list is you’re basically listing your desires and letting them manage you.

Klotz: So instead of saying, “Hey, I want to visit Machu Picchu before I die,” how would I turn that into a reverse bucket list?

Brooks: You say: “I might visit Machu Picchu before I die. But if I don’t, I don’t care.” That’s basically what it comes down to. In other words, it’s not a question of not visiting Machu Picchu. It’s about not caring about visiting Machu Picchu. Subtracting the attachment as opposed to subtracting the thing. That’s the distinction that I’m trying to make.

You can subtract responsibilities from your life. You can subtract a couple of bricks from your bridge, but you can also subtract the attachment to your own desires. In other words, these things might happen. But if it doesn’t, easy come, easy go.

Klotz: We don’t appreciate that it’s hard, right? When you see something that simple—you see somebody who has it all together, this streamlined life—and you’re like, Oh, that looks like it was easy. And all these things that we’ve been talking about, whether it’s more cognitive effort, or a little more physical effort, right. To build something and then to take something away from it.

So if the first point is like, “Hey, this is hidden; we have to see it,” the second point is like, “This is hard.” And we have to know that it’s going to be a little hard and be prepared to do a little bit of the work.

Brooks: I talk to people about this all the time. They’ll say, “You know, the gossipers at work; you know the people that are my deal friends, not my real friends. And it was a relief not having to spend all my time on these certain relationships.” So one of the things that I think is worth thinking about is making a list of all the things that you didn’t miss. On the contrary, you were glad they were gone.

And then saying, “What’s my strategy for getting rid of these things for the rest of my life?” Because you know what? You don’t have to call that person back. You kind of don’t. You don’t have to reestablish the toxic relationship. We have a tendency to think it was displacing. I missed everything, but there’s a lot of good stuff—and this is a Leidy Klotz principle, I think—that taking things away can be generative, can be inspirational, can actually help you to find, to define the person that you really are. But you have to be creative about it.