Breathing Space February 2023

by Dan Comer

What Can I Subtract?

Name one problem in your life you are trying to solve. Your response might look like one of these:

  • I want to be more organized.
  • I want to be a better friend.
  • I want to be more successful at work.
  • I want to have more fun.

And every day, as you work to figure out a way to solve that problem or issue, there is one mistake you’re probably making. Gabrielle Adams and colleagues at the University of Virginia discovered that we all have a mental shortcut or heuristic that consistently trips us up. When we’re trying to solve a problem, we have an automatic tendency to look for solutions by asking ourselves, What can I add here?

For each of the example problems I suggested, the respective solution-finding process might look something like this:

  • To be more organized, we spend hours coming up with a brand-new system that will require hours every week to maintain.
  • To be a better friend, we brainstorm all of the new ways we need to support our friends.
  • To be more successful at work, we strategize how we can cram a new project into our schedules (i.e., we ask, what else can I do?)
  • To have more fun, we look for more fun things to do.

Is that true for the problem you are trying to solve? If our instinct is to constantly add more and more to our calendars, to-do lists, closets, and personal expectations—well, it’s no wonder so many of us feel so overwhelmed. What if the secret to success is asking ourselves the opposite question: What can I subtract?

This simple question can lead to wonderful new solutions, ones that might bring you joy instead of stress. For example:

  • It might be way easier to be more organized if you donated some of your things.
  • Perhaps you might be a better friend if you stopped checking your phone when you were together.
  • Might you be more successful if you delegated some tasks to focus on your most important project?
  • Would you have more fun if you made whatever you are doing now a little more fun?

Here’s the good news: you can override this bias by using a little cue. The next time you’re trying to solve a problem, pause and remind yourself, I could improve this by subtracting something. Sometimes when we subtract, we make the space to add what we are really looking for: peace, fulfillment, and happiness. Try this new approach and let me know how it works!

Source: Adams, G. S., Converse, B. A., Hales, A. H., & Klotz, L. E. (2021). People systematically overlook subtractive changes. Nature, 592, 258–261.