Ep 144: Add More To Life With Subtraction

Episode Summary

Leidy Klotz, author of Subtract, shares his research on the science of taking things away, simplification, and subtraction to make more space for better ways of living. How to scale back tech use, clean up our calendars, and streamline family rules is coming up!

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When kids are driving us up the wall and we want to regain control, we add rules. Then, later down the line…we add more rules. Soon we find ourselves trying to figure out a rule for every video game and homework assignment. As humans and parents, we’re wired to add more and more structure, attempting to create a sense of security. But sometimes the answer doesn’t lie in addition–it lies in subtraction!

We often fail to consider that maybe instead of putting more on our plate, we can instead take something away. This is because in our evolutionary pursuit of survival, humans have gained an affinity for acquisition. We used to hunt and gather to acquire food, but in our modern world, this need to attain means we like to add new objects, responsibilities, and ideas to our life. When uncertainty rears its head, we automatically think addition is the answer. However, if we consider letting something go instead, we might see a better path was right in front of us all along.

In today’s episode, we’re talking to Leidy Klotz, author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. Leidy pulls from his innovative behavioral research and years of design and engineering experience to break down why we as a species feel inclined to add more and more to our lives without removing the things that drag us down.

Leidy and I are discussing why it is that our brains are so predisposed to pile more on without considering the possibility of letting something go. We also cover how we can help teens make some smart subtractions when it comes to technology, and explain how you and your teen can practice subtraction in everyday life.

Why We Take on Too Much

As a species, our inclination to keep adding comes from both biological and societal forces, says Leidy. Our ancestors learned to accumulate more ideas and objects as they fought for survival, and that urge still sticks with us today. Our consumerist society is another contributing factor, with advertisements boasting endless add-ons (if you just call now!) and commercials telling us that we NEED to buy the newest fancy gadget in order to go on with life.

The need to gain is only magnified by our desire to appear competent, Leidy explains. This urge may be what’s driving your teen to add more and more extracurriculars to their schedule, apply to 100 colleges, or have more than a few girls on speed dial! And when they find themselves overwhelmed, they often believe with even more certainty that continuing to add more will solve the problem–which of course, only makes things worse! Leidy and I title this the “the downward cycle of subtracting doom” in the episode.

If that wasn’t bad enough, not only do we love to add things to our life, we’re also afraid to let go. Leidy and I discuss in our interview why you can’t seem to ditch that old set of paints you bought years ago when you suddenly decided you would become a painter…the ones you haven’t touched since the day you got them. Getting and keeping possessions can give us some seriously happy feelings–almost like the ones we get when we take drugs or do something risky and get away with it. These powerful connections can keep us from giving up things that we don’t need.

For teens today, these intense feelings can be tied to social media platforms–ones that they know make them feel anxious, but they can’t seem to get rid off. Plus, when the newest one comes out each month, teens download it without a second thought, motivated by the all-too-human need to acquire. Leidy and I tackle how you can talk to teens about resisting addition when it comes to tech.

Helping Teens Manage Technology Use

When you think about situations where your teen tends to add until they reach excess, tech is probably towards the top of the list. Nowadays, teens have more devices, streaming services, gaming apps and social media sites than any of us ever thought possible. They just continue to add more and more tech to their lives, without giving any thought to moderation! How can we help kids fight the urge to add when it comes to technology?

Leidy offers an interesting solution, borrowed from public policy! Interestingly, he explains in the episode that our code of federal regulations has grown almost seventeen times since 1950, a testament to the human tendency to keep adding indefinitely! Leidy and I discuss how in British Columbia, three regulations must be removed whenever one is added, which helps maintain balance. 

This same idea is effective when it comes to limiting teens’ tech use.  When they buy a new video game or start using another social media platform, it can be good to prompt them to delete a few of the old ones! By watching how much they are consuming, you can help teens use tech in a healthy way instead of developing bad habits. 

Removing unnecessary clutter, whether that be iphone apps, old clothes or even ideas, can be liberating. But it’s not always easy. So how can we practice subtraction in our everyday lives?

The Importance of Practicing Subtraction

One of the most fascinating findings from Leidy’s research is that when faced with a problem, humans are almost universally certain to conjure up a solution that includes addition. Not only that, but they don’t even consider subtraction as an option, even when it’s pretty clear that it would be a much simpler remedy to just remove something.

Leidy emphasizes the importance of suggesting subtraction when your teen is in a tough spot. If they’re stressed about passing AP spanish, and want to add more and more hours of studying until they’re no longer sleeping, maybe it’s time for them to drop the academic decathlon to make time. Or maybe they want to feel popular, but steadily increasing their social calendar has led them to feel burnt out. In this case, perhaps subtraction means really looking to see who their true friends are and sticking to those people who enrich their lives the most.

Leidy and I also touch on how subtraction can bring an unexpected blessing, by creating something additional. If you take the center out of the donut, it creates more surface area for glaze and allows the donut to cook more evenly…plus you get donut holes! When you subtract a meeting from your own schedule, not only did you remove something to release tension, but now you have an hour of time to focus on something more important or something that makes you happy. 

In the Episode…

Leidy’s innovative ideas about decision making and human behavior makes for a fascinating episode this week. On top of the topics discussed above, we talk about:

  • How our brains “subtract” in our sleep
  • Why people view subtraction in a negative light
  • How to remove barriers when trying to get kids to change
  • Why subtraction can help us with life’s big decisions

I had a blast interviewing Leidy and am excited to share his work with you! Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You have a book called Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. How did you get interested in the topic of subtraction and of less? And why do you think it’s important?

Leidy: It all started when I was playing Legos with my three-year-old actually. So we’re basically building a bridge as best as I could tell what he wanted to do. And the problem was that the bridge wasn’t level, so one of the support columns was longer than the other one. And so I tried to fix this problem.

Leidy: I turned around behind me, grabbed another block to add to the short column. By the time I had turned all the way back around, he had subtracted a block from the longer column. And so I was like, “That’s it. That’s what I’m interested in.” That like why did I not even think about taking away as an option?

Leidy: And my background is engineering, design and then some into behavioral science. And I’d always been interested in kind of minimalist designs, even decluttering your home or environmental challenges where it seems like we just kind of keep adding to solve problems that adding created. But the epiphany, so it wasn’t like my son’s bridge turned me on to all of those things. I was already thinking about those things.

Leidy: But what my son’s bridge showed me was that I wasn’t so much interested in this end state of less, but why don’t we think of subtracting as an option to make things better? And this is something we do all day every day, right? You’re constantly trying to improve your schedule, your mental models, your parenting of your teenagers. And when you’re trying to improve things, you have two basic options. One is to add to what’s already there. And the other is to take away from what’s already there. So why don’t we think of this second one?

Andy: One of the things that I found really interesting was this study where you had a bunch of squares that people could click on, and you wanted them to make the pattern to be symmetrical on both sides. And you found that people were much more likely to add than take squares away in order to do that.

Leidy: I’m glad you picked that one out. So after my son’s bridge, I was like, well, there’s been at least 10,000 hours worth of study that have gone into this. And what we found with this study is really close to what happened to me in that moment, which was I didn’t think of subtracting as an option, added, and then moved on. And that’s basically what can happen in our own thought processes.

Leidy: And one of the most convincing things that we had in our experiments was these grid patterns, as you mentioned, Andy, because they’re devoid of context, right? You can always explain, “Oh, well you’re adding to Legos. That’s just what you do with Legos.” Or, “You added to the soup recipe,” but maybe that just means people like to add to soup.” But the grid patterns were just this thing that nobody had encountered before that we created.

Leidy: And we even made a version that it was unarguably better to subtract. Right? So we had a grid set up where there were four quadrants to the grids, and the task was to make the quadrants match or be symmetrical top to bottom and left to right. And then we would pre-design these patterns so that there were extraneous marks in one of the quadrants. Right? And then we said to people, “Do this in the simplest way possible. Make this symmetrical in the simplest way possible.”

Leidy: So the simple answer was to subtract the one. But more often than not, people would add to the three and miss the right answer. Andy Hales, who’s one of the co-researchers on the paper, came up with it. And it went a long way to showing that what’s happening is that people aren’t thinking of this.

Leidy: One of the kind of followup studies we did with the grids was to have people solve the grids multiple ways. So you say, “Okay, here’s the grid. Now figure out three different ways to do it or four different ways to do it.” And then eventually they’d stumble upon the subtractive option. And when they did, they’d be like, “Oh, that’s obviously the better way to do it.”

Andy: Way better. Yes.

Leidy: Yes, so that shows that the reason they were not doing it was because they weren’t thinking of it. It wasn’t that they were thinking of it and then deciding against it.

Andy: Yes, they weren’t like, “Oh, it’s just better to add. It looks prettier when I add more boxes.” They really just jumped to the adding and kind of overlooked the possibility of even solving the puzzle through subtraction. And so why don’t we do that? What’s going on there?

Leidy: I thought you were going to give me the answer to that. The definitive kind of paper that got published in nature stops at like okay, we have this mental search process… And this is something that we do in other cases, too, right? That you think through options, so your brain is searching for potential responses. And what’s happening is we just come to the additive ones first, and then we move on.

Leidy: So that’s, what’s happening in the cognitive level. And it’s like, okay, but why? Is this biological or cultural or economic? And any behavior, there are a lot of reasons for it.

Leidy: And I think they’re strong kind of biological forces, cultural forces and socio-economic forces that pull us towards adding. And that’s chapters two, three and four in the book, so there’s a lot there. Biologically, it’s just like we’re wired to acquire. Right? We want to eat. That’s historically has helped us pass down our genes to the next generation. That’s been a good biological trait. And that kind of same instinct extends over towards hoarding stuff, for example, is like triggering same reward pathways in our brain.

Leidy: Also another biological one is this innate desire we have to display competence just to show that we can effectively interact with the world. Right? So like my son playing with Legos, part of the reason he likes to do that is because it’s like, okay, I’m creating. I’m making things. And also I’m doing the same thing that that grown-ups are doing. So those are two of the big reasons why this might be happening. Also my friend, Ben, who’s also helped with the coauthor on the research. He talks a lot about how what’s going on in our head is influenced by what we see around us in the world. And we’re just surrounded by reminders of adding. Right?

Leidy: If somebody subtracted to make things better, like somebody removed a highway through the middle of your city, for example, it’s like after a while, that reminder is gone. And so you’re not constantly bombarded with seeing these visible examples of subtractions that have made things better. So there is probably an element of it where it’s like, what we’re seeing around us in the world just reminds us to add more.

Andy: Yes. I’d say out of sight, out of mind.

Leidy: Exactly.

Andy: You forget about all the times when subtraction made things better because you don’t keep getting reminded of them.

Andy: You also had some studies showing that when people were distracted, when you had them trying to do other different tasks or have numbers flashing across the screen at the same time as doing the grids, then they’re even less likely to be able to find subtraction as an answer to the problems.

Andy: And I wonder if that means when you need most need to be able to slow down and subtract and take some things away because you’re super overwhelmed, you’re actually also less likely to be able to arrive at that solution or figure that out. It seems like a negative downward spiral of doom.

Leidy: Yes, we need to come up with a name for that… I’m so mad I didn’t put that in the book. You’re the second person who’s brought this up, and it makes perfect sense. So it’s like this very thing that could relieve it, it’s created this downward… We’ll call it the downward cycle of subtracting doom for now, in honor of Andy.

Leidy: But the experiment was there’s these numbers scrolling across the bottom of a computer screen, and you have to click whenever a certain number comes across. And so basically you’re trying to do two things at once, and it’s adding cognitive load.

Leidy: So the takeaway there is, well, if we subtracted cognitive load, we would be better at thinking of subtraction. Of course, subtracting cognitive load requires us to subtract in the first place. And so this same tendency, and we found in our experiments that this jumped right to adding kind of happens across ideas, situations and objects. So the same tendency to add to our ideas or to add to our tasks is probably taking us away from being able to think more of subtraction, which is possible to do if we slow down a little bit.

Andy: I think of this kind of creep that happens. And that it’s so easy to get into with basically anything that you do. And I think, especially with teenagers today, it’s like you start using one app, and then you add another app, and then you add another app. And pretty soon, you’re spending a little time each day on all these different apps. It takes hours because it’s kind of just gradually creeps up on you like that.

Andy: And we never take the time to go back and prune those things that maybe are not serving us as well or something like that. And I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed by things like that.

Andy: I wonder what we can do to help kids find balance or stay in a more balanced place. You start get a Snapchat, you start Snapchatting for a little while. Then now you’re on TikTok. And then you got to get on Clubhouse, too.

Leidy: Right.

Andy: And pretty soon you don’t have even hardly enough time to play Fortnite anymore.

Leidy: It’s true. I mean, these are real problems.

Leidy: Yes, I think the same thing happens in like kind of regulation where we just add more rules. Like, oh, here’s a problem. What role can we add to this? And we never think about what can we take away? And so like the code of federal regulations in the United States has grown 17 times, like since 1950 or something ridiculous.

Leidy: But I just learned that like British Columbia put in a rule where at first they started with, if you add one piece of legislation, you have to take three away. So you could very well do that with the apps, right? It’s like, if you add one thing, you have to take three away, or maybe just take one away that would at least keep you at the status quo. So those kinds of rules could be quite helpful because I think, again, what we found in the research is that we don’t tend to think of it.

Leidy: But another thing that worked in the research to get people to subtract more, was just to cue them that this is an option, just to say, “Hey, remember, you can add and subtract. You can add or subtract.” And then more people subtracted. So the rule that you have to take one app away whenever you add one is kind of a little more blunt than just a cue, but it would work in the same way where at this moment of decision where you’re trying to make the situation better, which in this case would be your digital life, I suppose. Like I’m trying to make my digital life better. I need to add Fortnite. Okay… But to fit Fortnite on here, you’ve got to take off TikTok or maybe even just the cue that says, “Hey, you just added this. Would you like to remove anything you haven’t used in awhile?”

Leidy: I guess also, the way our brain prunes synopsis. So when we sleep, one of the things that our brain does is prunes the connections that we haven’t been using, and that allows it to devote more energy to the connections that it is using. And so I guess we could kind of automate our computers to do that too. Where if you haven’t used an app for a year, it just goes away.

Leidy: But that doesn’t really save you any time because you’re not using it. The question is how do you think to remove TikTok because you finally realize it’s not making your life necessarily any better? Or is it making it that your life would be better if you were spending time on some other app?

Andy: Yes. Or realizing that you’re spending more time on your device than you were six months ago and that you were six months before that. Sort of like setting some sort of rules for yourself to just make that more conscious.

Leidy: Yes, and I think we’re poking fun at teenagers on their devices here, but it’s like that’s the exact same thing grownups in quotes do. Right? I get some new task at work that I’m assigned to, and I’m like, “Okay. Yes, I’ll do that. That aligns with my mission. I’m on it.”

Leidy: But very rarely do you think about like, “Oh, what’s the stuff that I’m doing that doesn’t serve me well anymore?” And so we just overload ourselves in all these different ways with the same basic process where we don’t think to take things away. It’s hard. My friend, Ben… We were two years into our research, and we were talking about this issue in our own personal work lives.

Leidy: And he’s like, “Hey, I’m taking our research to heart. I said, no to a new committee meeting.” I said, “Well, Ben, you didn’t actually say… You didn’t actually subtract there. You just didn’t add.” So that’s like not adding Fortnite, but it’s not the same as taking away something that you’re already doing. So it’s easy to just miss the concept, but when the problem is that you’ve got too much to do in the time that you have, you need to take some stuff away. You just can’t add slowly.

Andy: Yes. Only add the really, really, really good stuff.

Andy: So talk to me about the idea of inversion. What is inversion, and how does it apply to subtraction?

Leidy: Even after we think of subtraction, one of the reasons we might not choose it is because we perceive it as something that’s bad. Right? And of course the whole premise of the book is like, of course, there is times when subtracting is bad and makes things worse. But what we’re specifically talking about is when taking something away makes it better. And so one thing is to try to continuously explaining that. It’s like, “No. Subtraction is not bad. Subtraction’s not bad.” But subtraction does have a negative valance. I mean valence being like how people feel about a word. And there’s researchers who will go on the internet and code all the words and what they’re associated to, and you can figure out, okay, this word has a neutral valence. This word as a positive valence, this word has a negative valance and subtracting has a negative valance.

Leidy: So until everybody reads my book, it’s going to have a negative valance. So in the meantime we can, we can invert, right? So instead of calling it subtracting, use use synonyms that don’t have the negative valance. And one of my favorite examples is this brilliant landscape architect named Kate Orff. And she she’s done a lot of cool, green infrastructure projects. And the example in the book is Lexington, Kentucky. She has this beautiful plan for downtown Lexington. And a lot of what she did was take away some of the built up concrete infrastructure in the downtown and reveal a stream. And then also create some parks and create some connectivity. And so, subtracted a lot of stuff.

Andy: Yes, right.

Leidy: But if you look at our drawings, she’s got four big words on the drawings that are like, this is my design theme and a clean carve and reveal are three of those words. And all three of those are like synonyms for subtract, but they’re all, they all sound way better than subtract. So I think yes, if you’ve thought of subtraction and you’re trying to convince other people of why it can be good, you do well maybe to come up with a synonym for it if they haven’t read my book yet, because it’ll avoid this negative valence and avoid this perception that that less is a loss because less is not a loss.

Andy: I also love this phrase that you have in here… Maximize the information to ink ratio, which is also sort of a subtle way of doing that. You’re talking about maximizing something, but you’re actually talking about simplifying it.

About Leidy Klotz

Leidy Klotz is the author of Subtract. As a professor at the University of Virginia, Leidy has authored more than 80 original research articles and secured more than $10 million dollars in competitive funding to support his and others’ work in this area. Leidy has taught thousands of students, including 21 Ph.D. advisees, whose designing and teaching shapes the world. His research on the science of design has appeared in both Nature and Science, and he has written for The Washington Post, Fast Company, LitHub, The Globe and Mail, and The Behavioral Scientist. The range of implications of Leidy’s research have been highlighted in outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Grist, The Boston Globe, and national newspapers on five continents.

Before becoming a professor, Leidy designed schools in New Jersey and before that he played professional soccer. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife and Lego-building son.

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Find Leidy on his website, LinkedIn, and Twitter.