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Less is more …

… so is adding our default

By Jen Stern

, |

Less is more …

… so is adding our default

By Jen Stern

, |

4 min read

We acknowledge, in so many fields, that less is more, so why do we struggle to achieve minimalism, simplicity, unfussiness, austerity and/or uncomplicatedness? Evidently, according to new research, it’s because we are hardwired to add, rather than subtract – a tendency that unconsciously leads us into situations akin to the hideous (and intentionally ironic) list of words above.


While not in the same league as the study I’m going to discuss below, I have just done some ‘research’ of my own. I fed the word ‘improve’ into the thesaurus function in MS Word, and came up with (among others): expand, increase, further, enrich, upgrade, build up. We seem to be hardwired to associate growth with improvement, and bigger with better.

Less might be more, but how do we get there?

Leidy Klotz, author of Subtract: the untapped science of less, describes an epiphany he had while playing Lego with his son. They’d built a bridge, but it was uneven, so Leidy turned around to pick up another Lego brick to build up the short side to even up the bridge. By the time he’d turned back, his three-year-old son had removed a brick from the long side, and achieved the goal in less time, using fewer resources.

He packed up the unbalanced Lego bridge, and posed the questions to students, lecturers, researchers and almost anyone he could think of. And all of them solved the problem pretty quickly – by adding to the shorter side. Now there was nothing wrong with this solution, but it is interesting that no-one (other than a three-year-old child) thought of the other solution. Granted, having found a solution that works, there is no reason to look for another, but the fact that people automatically solve problems by adding, rather than subtracting, is interesting. As Klotz says: ‘Whereas less is an end state, subtracting is the act of getting there.’

Subtracting – why is it so hard?

Klotz, an engineer whose research explores the overlaps between engineering and behavioural science, teamed up with three colleagues from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, also from the University of Virginia, to study the phenomenon.

Carrying on with the Lego theme, they built a tower with one extra Lego piece in one corner, and then tried to balance a platform on top. Research participants were asked to make the platform stable and, you guessed it, most people added numerous Lego bricks to stabilise the platform, when they could have achieved the same end by just removing one.

Not surprisingly, they found that most people, once having found a workable solution, did not exhaustively explore all other options to see if there was a better way. But what was surprising is that the vast majority of people automatically opted for adding, rather than subtracting, thereby making things more complex. It seems that we humans are hardwired to do just that, and it’s the rare, rare person who will automatically subtract rather than add.

So what?

Well, you may think, so what? As long as the problem is solved, does it matter how it was solved? And, quoting a time-honoured cop-out: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ But this attitude leads us to accepting mediocrity and – even worse – perpetuating the tendency to add, rather than subtract. The authors suggest that it is this tendency that has led to our culture of busyness – creating more complex and demanding schedules, Möbius strip-like to-do lists, and system management that is so bogged down in red tape that it no longer serves any identifiable purpose. And, even worse, by constantly adding, rather than subtracting, we are using more resources than necessary, which negatively affects our bottom line – both as organisations and as a planet.

Even the minimalist guru is not immune

I think one of the most interesting illustrations of this tendency is Marie Kondo. The KonMari method of decluttering starts with getting rid of stuff, which makes sense, and which is in stark contrast to the way most people handle decluttering – by ‘investing’ in a series of file boxes, cute containers and wardrobe organisers. But what’s really interesting about Marie Kondo is that she has written four books on the subject. Four!

Even the queen of clean and mistress of minimalism could not help just writing one more book so she could add in a new brilliant insight, or a different way of saying the same thing for a slightly different audience. And then another, and another. (Make it five books if you include the kiddies’ version of sparking joy through decluttering – Kiki & Jax: the life-changing magic of friendship.)

And in the real world?

We can’t change the way we are wired, but we can train ourselves to stop and question our responses. Say, for example, that your employees don’t log their hours accurately. They do great work, and the project is being well executed, and on schedule, but the accounts department has to do so much extra work to figure out the payrolls, because some team members are not logging their hours accurately. Well, there are a number of ways to solve this:

  • You could employ someone to oversee the teams, and ensure that they log their hours accurately.
  • You could create a reporting system to force them to log their hours.
  • You could try to create a simpler logging in system.
  • Or you could do away with the logging in system, as it is not contributing to the work. Yes. Think about it.

Whatever industry you’re in, the chances are there is something that’s not working perfectly, and you really do need to fix it. So, once you’ve come up with your first two or three ideas, stand back and say to yourself: ‘But could I fix this by just doing away with …?’

The answer may surprise you. Pleasantly.

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