The Big Idea: According to research, the human brain tries to solve most of life’s problems through adding solutions, instead of removing things that might easily fix the problem.
For years I studied productivity.
I took online courses, I read books and research, I was obsessed. I wanted to go faster and have more impact.
I took on more commitments at work. I set more goals every year. I accepted every social invitation. I constantly looked at promotions. I volunteered at church. I mapped out every part of my life I could improve—and tried to fit it all in.
But before I knew it, every piece of real estate on my calendar was booked solid for months.
To be more productive, I only thought about adding things.
The effect on my life? I diluted my impact by taking on too many things, and I experienced extreme internal restlessness, exhaustion, and impatience.
The simplest solution was right in front of me—but I overlooked it for years. It never occurred to me.
Doing less would have brought me more impact by focusing on only a few really important things. I would have had more down time to recharge. And I would have experienced more internal peace, clarity of mind, and settling in my restless spirit.
By and large, we are a culture of adders.
We rarely think of the benefits of not doing something.
I still need constant reminders.
Research shows your brain has a strong tendency to overlook solutions that involve subtracting things
A fascinating new series of studies published in Nature magazine (People Systematically Overlook Subtractive Changes) provides scientific support for how our brains have this natural tendency.
After eight experiments, the researchers found that 90% of the participants in the study looked for solutions to a problem that required adding something, even though taking something away would have been a far simpler—and more efficient—solution.
In one great example, participants were asked to make the roof of a Lego structure level. The clearest solution was to remove one corner brick—but the majority of people chose a solution that involved adding several more Legos to the roof.
This study has astounding implications for nearly all areas of life—if you can put it into practice.
The human brain, and the values of our culture, love the idea of more everything.
We are addicted to more.
We rarely think of the benefits of less.
If you are still skeptical, I dare you to experiment with one of the ideas below, and see what happens in your life.
What do you have to lose?
Take action now
- Goals. The human brain is a goal-setting machine. And many high achievers mistakenly assume that more goals are always better. But we often overlook the idea that setting less goals may increase our efficiency and likelihood of achieving that goal by radically focusing on the few most important goals we have.
- Finances. Most people are looking for ways to make more money. But research shows that most people don’t do a monthly budget, take on too much debt, aren’t saving enough for retirement, and live beyond their means. For most of us, the best solution is spending less instead of constantly looking for ways to make more.
- Commitments. In the modern era, there is virtually no limit to the amount of things you can commit to. But every single thing we allow into our lives fights for our time, the most important resource you will ever have. It’s far too easy to join another social media platform, accept a coffee invitation, or sign your kids up for another activity. I once read that a person can only sustain an average of about seven meaningful relationships. If you have a family, it might mean that you only have room in your life for a few close friends. But often, we shoot for quantity over quality in terms of relationships. Try cutting back on your relationships or commitments. Go for greater depth and see what happens.
- Work. Most workplaces only think of adding more meetings, committees, or new projects. If you are a leader, don’t overwhelm your employees with new initiatives or shoot their focus full of holes by setting a ton of meetings scattered throughout the week. Try eliminating meetings and stacking only the most important meetings on one day of the week, so your employees can get into a flow on important projects by dedicating large chunks of focused time. This is a massive gift you can give your team—and is likely to boost your teams productivity which should boost your companies profit. Don’t be afraid to cancel or eliminate meetings that have no clear purpose or benefit. You can always restart meetings if you discover you really need them. See this great WSJ article by bestselling author Bob Sutton entitled Why Bosses Should Ask Employees to Do Less.
- Possessions. In his incredible book Sabbath, author Wayne Mueller says that we vastly underestimate the time that every single possession takes away from our life. They can easily steal our ability to be present. Nearly everything we accumulate requires storage, maintenance, cleaning, or insurance. Every time I click purchase on Amazon these days, it seems like they offering me the full protection plan on anything from a children’s toy to a nose hair trimmer. Think twice before you accumulate that next thing. It’s a slow death by a thousand cuts.
- Clothing. Do you ever have trouble deciding what to wear because your closet is jammed full of clothes you don’t like? Maybe it’s time to thin out your wardrobe and pick a few outfits you love. Heck, it might even save you that 20 minutes every day you look at yourself in the mirror wondering why you bought that shirt.
Have a great weekend!
*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.
Want more? Suggested Resources Below
- 9 ways to improve your life through subtraction, and the science behind it by Joshua Becker
- Nature Magazine—Adding is favored over subtracting in problem solving.