Own My Growth

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A Subtractive Approach Is Sometimes Better


In my weekend reading, I came across a scientific study featured on the cover of the April 8 issue of the journal Nature that presents a compelling idea about the importance of subtraction in our daily lives.

The core idea of this scientific paper titled- People Systematically Overlook Subtractive Changes– is that humans tend to default to an additive way of thinking when it comes to problem-solving, even when subtractive approaches are more effective and efficient.

The researchers did eight different experiments to test this hypothesis. In one example, participants were asked to stabilize an out-of-balance roof in a Lego structure. The simple solution was to remove one brick from the corner that was imbalanced. But, strangely, most people chose to add additional bricks to the other corners to stabilize the roof.

The same pattern played out in all the other experiments. Over 90% of the respondents chose additive solutions even though subtractive transformations would have been simpler and more efficient.

The article details the scientific reasons behind why all of us behave this way.

But regardless of the reasons, I think that it would be wise for all of us to be aware of this ingrained tendency and how it plays out in our daily lives. I can think of four areas where all of us would benefit from taking a subtractive view instead of an additive view.

Accumulating Things: As we grow older, we keep accumulating furniture and other stuff. Over time they become an overhang that impacts all decisions- type of house to live in, how to take care of the stuff, storage and maintenance, etc. The fact is we all find peace in less and not more.

Habits: In the quest for personal improvement, we often dabble with trying out new habits- Low-fat or Keto diet, Zumba classes 1 hour daily, Reading Books, etc. We don’t put enough effort into eliminating the not-so-good habits- Unhealthy lifestyle, oversleeping, excessive consumption of digital content, etc. Eliminating unhealthy habits is as important as bringing on new good ones.

Work: The tendency to overlook subtractive transformations shows up all the time in work-related areas. We are always looking to introduce new meetings, processes, and product ideas without pausing to consider possible gains from cutting products or subtracting processes. It’s always fashionable to introduce new stuff as it makes us feel productive. 

Finances: This one is relevant for everyone. Saving= Earning- Expenses. We always think of increasing the left side of the equation by increasing our earning. But there is a more significant benefit in the subtractive value of reducing our expenses, particularly during our younger years, that would help us fast track towards financial freedom much sooner in life.

Our natural tendency is to add and add more to our lives but sometimes subtracting is the best and most efficient way to deal with our day-to-day challenges. This is my big takeaway from this weekend’s reading.

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