22 Jul Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less
via the Next Big Idea Club by Leidy Klotz
Leidy Klotz is a Professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches engineering, architecture, and business. His primary research interest is the science of design. He has written more than 80 articles and two books, and before starting his academic career, Leidy played professional soccer.
1. We systematically overlook subtraction.
A few years ago, my 3-year-old son and I were playing with Legos. We were trying to make a bridge, and the bridge wasn’t level because one of the columns supporting the bridge was shorter than the other column. I went to add a block to the shorter column, but before I could do so, my son had already removed a block from the longer column. He showed me in this moment that I had overlooked the idea of taking a block away to solve the problem of making a level bridge.
My research has shown that people systematically overlook subtraction. It happens not just in Legos, but in travel itineraries, recipes, and writing. When we’re trying to take things from how they are to how we want them to be, our first instinct is to think “What can I add?,” which means we’re overlooking one of the most basic ways to make change.
2. Our failure to subtract is a root cause; our cluttered calendars, closets, and inboxes are just symptoms.
A lot of contemporary authors urge us to subtract. Marie Kondo’s recommendation to get rid of everything that doesn’t spark joy has improved my life. Cal Newport has terrific advice about digital minimalism and getting rid of email. And Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek reminds us that one of the ways we can be more productive and get more joy out of our work is to do less of it.
“A poet knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
This kind of advice has been around for a long time, from thinkers like Lao Tzu (“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”) and Leonardo da Vinci (“A poet knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”) But why do we need such advice? It’s because when left to our own devices, we tend to overlook subtraction as a way to solve problems….
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