For resolutions, is it better to add or subtract?

The New Year ritual of vowing to quit smoking, drinking or dessert is not for me. I’ve long preferred the idea that resolutions should be adding something positive rather than squeezing out bad habits. In a typical year, I might resolve to exercise more, to see more live music or to spend more time with my children. I’m not claiming I always succeed — it’s a mixed bag — but the practice always felt constructive. For a better life, I thought, one should add good things rather than subtracting bad ones.

But I am starting to wonder. Even the words “positive” and “constructive” suggest a mindset of addition. Maybe I need to learn to subtract. In their influential collection of creative prompts, Oblique Strategies, the musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt included the suggestion, “use fewer notes”. Quite so.

Leidy Klotz, author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, argues that I’m not the only one who lacks the subtractive instinct. Take a wonky Lego bridge with two uneven supports. Do you fix it by adding bricks to the short support? Or by removing them from the longer support? Most people add, when it would be easier to subtract. Klotz noticed that tendency while playing with his son, but soon collaborated with other researchers to test the Lego hypothesis in a formal experiment.

This research programme revealed example after example of what Klotz called “subtraction neglect”. Show people a recipe for soup and ask them to improve it, and they will almost invariably propose extra ingredients rather than suggest removing them. Ask people to modify loops of music and they will seek to add extra notes, not pare away at what’s there.

In one experiment, participants were invited to improve an itinerary for a day in Washington DC. The schedule was absurdly overstuffed: 14 hours, hitting more than a dozen destinations. Even so, only a quarter of people thought to prune any activities in their quest for a better day trip.

It would be wrong to suggest that we never consider subtraction. Many traditional resolutions aim to subtract bad habits, many diets call for the subtraction of calories or unhealthy foods, and I have lost track of the number of stories I’ve heard about companies getting rid of annoying meetings.

But there’s more to the art of subtraction than removing things that are obviously bad. Sometimes you need to subtract something good in order to clear space for the other good things to breathe. The soup will be improved if you take away the waiter’s thumb, but it might also be improved by removing the grated carrot. Or as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in 1939, “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away . . . ”

This feels a lot like minimalism, but there is a subtle difference between the minimalism of “less is more” and subtraction itself. One can design a minimalist house by adding a few decorations, but Klotz is interested in what happens when you actively remove something that’s already in front of you.

As an economist and a writer, I am a receptive audience for the gospel of subtraction. Editing is more often a process of subtracting words than adding them, while economists grow up with the idea of “opportunity cost” — the idea that everything you buy and everything you do is getting in the way of everything else you might have bought and might have done.

But as I pondered my weekly commitments and the list of things I was hoping to achieve over the next three months, I struggled. What could I subtract? I wanted to do all of it. Was there a trick to figuring out what to subtract? The decluttering guru Marie Kondo advised gathering everything in a particular category of stuff into one place, then item by item asking, “Does it spark joy?” This procedure works well for T-shirts but is useless for a stuffed email inbox. As I looked at my goals and my commitments, it wasn’t helping there, either.

So I wrote to Leidy Klotz for advice. Could he suggest some lifehack, some clever rule of thumb to help me do less? Sure, he wrote. “If you make to-do lists, consider stop-doings at the same time. Every time you find yourself considering a new activity or responsibility, force yourself to consider stopping two that you are already doing.” But he then tactfully pointed out that merely by posing the question “what should I subtract?” I had already escaped the cognitive bias of subtraction neglect. If I was thinking hard about the problem and couldn’t think of anything to stop doing, maybe there was nothing that needed subtracting.

Klotz suggested an experiment, which he calls a “reverse pilot”. Unlike a regular pilot, in which you temporarily try something new, a reverse pilot calls for temporary subtraction. Just stop doing something for a bit, wrote Klotz, and see what happens. “Sometimes there is no way to know for sure what the outcome will be from removing something.”

Fair enough. Although I still couldn’t work out what to subtract from my life. Exercise less? Nope. See less of the children? They might want that, but it hardly felt like a noble plan. Less culture, less music, see friends less often?

But Leidy Klotz had a suggestion, courtesy of Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps I just should do less work? Or as Da Vinci put it: “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least . . . ” Lofty genius! An appealing conceit. The promise that if I worked less I might achieve more is even more appealing. If only there was some subtle way to suggest this to my editor.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 5 January 2024.

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