1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Our natural instinct when trying to add value is to add something. However, it may be more beneficial to subtract something. Simplification through subtraction can help us be more efficient and focused on the essential goal.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Consider a problem you are currently trying to solve or improve. How can you simplify it? What can you remove that may help you move toward a solution?
  • Experiment by trying to implement that idea.

1 Question to Ask

  •  How often am I focused on addition to add value vs. subtraction to add value?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • Discovering the act of subtraction (2:50)
  • Understanding our natural desire to add instead of subtract (4:50)
  • Is our incentive system built around adding over subtraction? (14:00)
  • Simplification is a complex task (17:00)
  • Anna Keichline and simplification in architecture (18:17)
  • Simplification means not being satisfied with complexity (25:52)
  • Doing nothing is a form of subtraction (30:21)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome to another episode of The Greg McKeown Podcast, where we explore, of course, the disciplined pursuit of less but better. I’m Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism and Effortless, and I have the distinct pleasure of introducing a guest whose work exemplifies the very essence of what we discuss here. Joining us is Leidy Klotz, a trailblazer in the world of behavioral science and a master of the art of subtraction. As a professor at the University of Virginia, Leidy has carved a niche in understanding how our decisions can be shaped for greater sustainability, efficiency, and overall impact by the simple yet profound act of subtracting.

Leidy’s book Subtract the Untapped Science of Less challenges this conventional add-more mentality opens our eyes to the power not only of less, exactly, but simplification in general. His insights have not only revolutionized approaches and design, but some invaluable lessons for everyday lives. In today’s conversation, we will delve into how subtracting, rather than adding, can lead to more meaningful and effective outcomes. It’s about redefining our understanding of value, of efficiency in a world that often emphasizes to add more, ever so more, more of the time. So get ready to unlearn and relearn with us as we explore the untapped science of less with the insightful Leidy Klotz. 

Welcome to the show. 


Leidy Klotz:

Thanks, Greg. Great to be here. I love that you said unlearn, right? Because that’s an element of subtracting, and that’s a hard one, so nice. 


Greg McKeown:

Just launch us into this subject. Help us see why you thought it was important enough to write about subtraction that you invested all of that energy into writing this book. Why?


Leidy Klotz:

Yeah, I’ve been interested in, you know, Essentialism. I read Essentialism, for example, and it’s one of those books that you know continues to shape my life, and you know you can’t even say, “Oh, it’s. You know, this thing from Essentialism.” 

It’s just one of those things that, you know, kind of shapes your thinking and also my interest in sustainability. But I think you know, if there’s a moment when I started to focus on subtraction, this act of subtraction, it was playing Legos with my, he’s nine now, but he was three at the time, my son, Ezra, and the basic issue that we had was we were making a bridge out of Legos and one of the support columns was longer than the other support column.

So me, using a little bit of my engineering background, I’m like, “I’m gonna, I can do this, I’m gonna be a good dad here.” 

And I turned around behind me to get a block to add to the shorter column, and by the time I had turned back around, Ezra had removed a block from the longer column, and that was like, okay, cool, because, you know, I was so enamored with the end state, right, this end state of elegance or simplicity, and what that showed me in the moment was that, well, there’s the step that it takes often to get there, which is subtracting, and that seems to be something we’ve since done a ton of research to help, you know, understand that it’s actually true. It’s more than just an anecdote from my son that when we’re presented with a situation that we want to make better, whether it’s that Lego bridge, or whether it’s our calendar, or whether it’s our, you know, our organization we tend to think of what we can add first and therefore, and then move on without even considering this whole other class of options.


Greg McKeown:

Love that anecdote because it does so simply explain this default tendency we have to solve by addition. And it’s not that you’re saying you can’t solve by addition, obviously you can. One of the sections of your book is emphasizing that: add and subtract. You know, the idea of, I think it’s in the section called Expand, but nevertheless, the default always to addition means that we miss, well, perhaps it is 50% of the solutions. You mentioned there that you’ve done additional research. Can you share a specific item of research that you’ve done and published that has explained this tendency?


Leidy Klotz:

Yeah, well, I’ll share the most, I think, the most convincing for me, but it’s abstract, and if you want a more applied example, I’ll give that after. But so we studied this in a whole bunch of ways. One of the criticisms of all the different ways you could study something is something that you might be thinking of with the Legos, which is like, “Well, that’s just what we’ve learned to do with Legos, right?” 

And so we eventually came to this study setup where we’re giving people grid patterns on a computer screen and the basic setup of these grid patterns where there were four different quadrants and the task that people had to do was to make the pattern symmetrical from left to right and top to bottom, and we’d present them with like pre-filled blocks and the way to you can make this symmetrical by adding blocks to three quadrants or subtracting blocks from one quadrant. That was the basic setup.

So, now you’ve got a situation where people are literally getting the answer wrong because they want to add right. So they’re adding in three quadrants, even though subtracting from one quadrant is the simpler way to solve the problem, which is what we tasked them to do, to do it as simply as possible. So people are solving this right, and, sure enough, they add more often than they subtract. And then, you know, so that’s the most convincing specific demonstration. But then you can run all kinds of iterations on that to see, like, okay, is this? Are they doing this because it’s a default right or a heuristic, which you mentioned? And so, knowing about heuristics, it’s like, okay, what is our brain to go to first? It’s not that we can’t think of other things; it’s just that that’s our default right. And so the theory there would be okay. Well, if you’re overloaded, if you’re overworked, if you’re thinking about other things, you’re going to be even more likely to rely on the heuristics, right?

So, now you’ve got this grid study, and you can do another iteration of it where we’re like, well, let’s put a scroll of numbers across the bottom of the screen, and people have to click on the numbers to click an F every time a five goes by. So they’re basically texting when driving or trying to multitask, and then they become even more likely to add, right? So it’s, you know, kind of convincing evidence, number one, that we don’t think of it even when it’s the right answer and that it seems to be because it’s just, you know, our heuristic. Our default is to think about adding first.


Greg McKeown:

What is the name of the first piece of research that you did? Is this the Why our brains miss opportunities to improve through subtraction?


Leidy Klotz:

So, the best the paper is on, People systematically overlook subtractive changes, and that was in Nature, which is like the pinnacle of the academics career. It was on the cover actually. So that is where all the studies are described, and I mean for an academic article. It is very easy to understand. We put a lot of work into and the editors of Nature put a lot of work into making it, you know, easy to follow.


Greg McKeown:

Yeah, the name of it was People Systematically Overlook Opportunities to Subtract. Was that the name?


Leidy Klotz:

People systematically overlook subtractive changes.


Greg McKeown:

Subtractive changes. That’s a nice term.

Okay. So I love that. Build it from there for us because that’s that is interesting. A heuristic is a default tendency to look for addition even when subtraction would be more optimal right? And then adding to that this idea that when you’re overwhelmed, when you have more data coming at you when you’re in a VUCA environment of volatility and uncertainty, and ambiguity and constant change, you would even more fall into that heuristic.

Is that just because we always fall more into whatever our default deep programming mindset is when we’re faced with strain and stress?


Leidy Klotz:

Yeah, yeah, I mean, you’re just kind of going with your automatic thinking, but I love that you hit that already, right? Because sometimes it takes a really long time to get to. Well, yeah, this is a really problematic feedback loop, right, because the very thing we need to relieve the, the complex, you know, stressful all this information coming at us is we become less likely to do it the more information we have coming at us. So, it’s this reinforcing feedback loop. But if you can, if you can interrupt it, you can kind of move it in the other direction.


Greg McKeown:

Yeah, it’s a, you know, it’s a doom loop, right? Like we could call it an ever, ever-increasing momentum toward addition.


Leidy Klotz:

I think if you look at that, I mean, so we’re talking about it at the cognitive skill level, right, but if you look at some of the things that everybody recognizes are bloated, like legislation, for example, I mean there’s like 17 times more legislation now than there was in 1950. And it’s, you know, people, it’s just the system that adds more than it subtracts, right, and part of it is not thinking of it, part of it is, you know, not being able to follow through with the subtractions. But you can think about that in, you know, in your workplace, right, all the things that people can claim about, “Why are we still doing this?” 

You know, a lot of it is just kind of a product of this system that is distorted in that way.


Greg McKeown:

17 times more legislation than when? 


Leidy Klotz:

I think 1950; I did the calculation in the book, so it was when I wrote the book, so a few years back.

But yeah, so then this is the US. But I think it is like the code of federal regulations in 1950 versus the code of federal regulations now, and it’s like 17 times larger now and that, you know, that exceeds the rate of economic growth over that time.


Greg McKeown:

Does it come down to a sort of incentive problem that you get rewarded for adding? And it doesn’t seem to be. At least there isn’t a normal social process where you get rewarded for having eliminated a piece of legislation like you don’t hold a, although you could. So it’s not like I necessarily think you couldn’t create those kinds of things, but they don’t exist normally and so you don’t have a normal celebratory cycle. So yeah, is it incentives, or is it, what is it really?


Leidy Klotz:

I love the words you are using. I mean celebratory cycle like I’ve tried to explain that to organizations that I talk to, and I’m going to use that term, I’ll give you credit, but it’s like that’s exactly it, right, I mean, so let me, I promise this will come back to the celebratory cycle, but, like, one of the cool things about finding a heuristic is, then you can say, well, okay, why has this happened? Why has this evolved over time? And one of the places that you go to are biological reasons, right? And you can think of biological reasons why we might add more than we subtract a lot of them around food and stockpiling supplies and goods.

But another one that is surprisingly biological is just this desire to display competence. Right? And the famous example is the bowerbirds, and these are the male bowerbirds who will go around and build these ceremonial nests. And then the female bowerbirds go and look at the ceremonial nests and decide which male to mate with, based on the nest, and that all kind of makes sense so far. But then the female bowerbird goes and builds a nest to actually raise the young. So the whole point of the male-built nest is just to show that this male bird can move sticks around in the world, and you know the thought being that, okay, well, if those genes can move the sticks around, then those would be good genes for the, for the kid, to have. And so this is this desire to show that we can interact with the world, and it’s one of the most robust findings in, you know, psychology that we all share this.

It’s not just bowerbirds, and it’s not just males. And we do it not just through moving physical things around in the world but through task completion, right? So now we’re back to the celebratory cycle. It’s really easy to celebrate a completed task. Now, of course, we’re going to say, like, subtraction is also a completed task, but there’s oftentimes not any evidence of it, right? When you add the legislation, or when you add the new rule, or when you add the employee, or when you add a hundred more words to a piece of writing, there’s evidence, and there’s something that that you can celebrate, and there’s something that’s displaying your competence. When you take those things away, I mean you need to be more intentional about creating the celebratory cycle. So you’re right, it’s not that we can’t do it, but it’s not going to, it’s not going to happen without being smart about how you, how you build that in.


Greg McKeown:

Yeah, the idea of a simplification reward is an interesting thought experiment, and you know, can, can you do it? But what do you mean by it? You know it’s a non-trivial challenge because, despite the words simplify and simplification, these words because they are describing something inherently simple, right, obviously simple. That takes us away from the idea that, actually, simplicity is a really complex subject because we’re not. I mean, okay, fine, you could say, well, let’s simplify by the thoughtless elimination of everything. Okay, well, fine, I mean that that’s simple, that’s like a simple way to get to simplicity oversimplifying it, but to really figure out how to take something, make it better but simpler. It’s an interesting problem to solve. 

One of the examples that you cite in the book that I really loved was from Pennsylvania, Anna Keichline. Can you tell us that story?


Leidy Klotz:

Yeah, so she was, she’s just an amazing person around, you know, born around 1900 or so, and she’s the ended up being the first registered woman architect in Pennsylvania. She volunteered for service during World War I. There’s these great like archival documents of her saying like, “Yeah, I’m happy to serve, but could you give me something a little more dangerous, perhaps?”

She was also kind of a serial inventor on the side, and her best-known invention, or the one probably that influences us the most today, is called the K-brick, and so what it effectively is is the predecessor to the hollowed-out masonry block that looks like a squared-off figure eight that you see today and so before, on a kite by. The blocks were solid, right, okay, this has been working great for a long time. And you know, she realized that one way to make blocks better was to remove parts of them and you know, not only did it make the blocks lighter, it made them, you know, perform just as well, make them easy, easier to move around. I think there’s an insight there a little bit. The reason she thought of it is because she really observed workers using the blocks and she realized that this would be easier for them. But so it’s just better in all these ways and for the history of innovation in the, in this very basic thing, literally a building block.

Nobody thought of it until nobody executed it, I guess, until she came along. So I think you know one lesson is like how powerful it can be. But also you know, when everybody else is overlooking something, there’s real power for people who can, who can use it right. You’re exploiting this opportunity in the, this inefficiency in the market of improvement, basically.


Greg McKeown:

Yeah, it’s a. It’s an interesting challenge. You know, when I think about what she did, this innovation through simplification, it shows, it’s a tangible example that you, obviously one, can do it and secondly, that therefore, you can also celebrate it, because that’s tangible, that’s real, and here we are celebrating it in maybe not that many people, it may be outside of architecture, invention, or maybe you know, maybe the suffragette movement, maybe they, maybe they haven’t heard of an Anna Keichline, but still there’s plenty of people that haven’t. So an illustration, a hopeful illustration that you can get to the point where you culturally reinforce simplification. That you know and I there are, there are lots of other examples, right? I mean, well, actually, this is one of the curiosities about this to me because the most valuable company in the world has demonstrated that there is an actual addition in value to people that can be measured. You know that that I’m talking about Apple, and so it’s so odd to me, or it was at first when I was seeing this and then I tell why? Why aren’t other companies doing this? Why doesn’t everybody just say let’s go for innovation through simplification? Look over there, that’s incredible, the value Able to produce. Why do you think people aren’t just doing that? Why don’t they copy that strategy? It’s so established through the company of Apple.


Leidy Klotz:

I’d be interested in what you think, too. But one of my theories is that this, the end state of simplification, distracts people from the fact that this is actually going to be to do. And I don’t mean like significantly harder. But when you’re adding, we’ve just seen, just cognitively, right, adding comes to mind automatically. It’s not that we can’t think about subtraction; you just have to remind yourself or, you know, have a good discipline, problem-solving approach, right? So it’s a little bit harder cognitively. 

And then, when it comes to, you know, things in the real world, physical things, subtracting is more steps, right, because to take something away you have to have added in the first place. And I think that the building block is an interesting example, right, that’s working okay, everything’s fine. We’re just trying to make it better by taking something away. So you know it’s. It’s not that this end state of simplicity, in the case of subtraction, was actually easier to get to. In fact, it was harder to get to. It was more cognitive steps, and it’s more kind of steps in the real world, and I think that’s something that, I mean, obviously, Apple appreciates.

I talked to another company. It’s a speaker company, and they were saying, I mean, they got this. They said when they went to just take a component away from one of their tried and true designs, they budgeted more design time for it then if you add something in. Basically because the taking something away now, you have to see how it interacts with the whole system when you add something. They’re like, “Okay, we basically know that this isn’t going to make anything worse, and we can just evaluate the additional added benefits.” 

I think, in some ways people kind of underestimate how challenging it’s going to be, and I know that I mean, your second book, Effortless. You know that’s one of the lessons, right? This is, yes, it is. It ends up making your life easier, but you have to be disciplined to get to it right. You have to do maybe some extra planning work to get to it.


Greg McKeown:

So, now that you’ve mentioned that, let’s just put that into context, right? if you had to summarize Essentialism in a single word, you could say it’s about focus. And if you summarize Effortless in a single word, then it’s simplification, and that’s not a bad way to think about it. And I think one of the most important ideas in Effortless is the principle of building systems that make execution effortless. 

And so, yes, in exactly what you’re saying that you invest perhaps a little more upfront, but your return on effort not just your return on investment, but your return on effort, your ROE, is much higher over time because you’ve built something. And that’s what you’re saying here is that simplification, in this sense, is whatever the people that produce a complex product do. And then you keep going.


Leidy Klotz:

Exactly. Keep going is the perfect way, right? Yeah, it’s past it. It’s past the complexity. You got to go past it and that’s just more work. It’s more time, more thought, but it’s fun. 

I mean, when I think about this when writing right, it’s like you’ve got when you have the manuscript, and now you’re editing. I mean, I find that, maybe not everybody likes it, but I find that a much more engaging challenge. And I think it’s the same way when I think about design, right? You know that it basically works and now you’re tinkering, trying to make it even better. It’s just I think it can be fun, even though it’s more work.


Greg McKeown:

Yeah, right. So that’s one challenge, right? It’s that idea that simplicity on this side of complexity is worth nothing, but simplicity on the other side of complexity is worth everything and so okay. 

So one of the reasons that simplification as a strategy is underutilized is because people just are satisfied with complexity that took a lot of work to develop something that works, even though now it’s really complex and isn’t as smooth or as effortless for the user for as simple in its design. So, and I think that’s a reasonably good argument for why people don’t adopt it as a strategy, even though it’s on display at Apple all of the time, right, like? I think that’s a reasonable explanation. It’s one explanation.

There’s another piece, though, to the puzzle because there’s other versions of simplicity, even in an innovation cycle, like, I think, about Google search engine. That’s just by default, that’s just because they didn’t know what they were doing and they weren’t designers, and they just were like, okay, how do we program? I mean, that was simplicity out of necessity, or perhaps a lack of, almost ironically, a lack of design aesthetic. It’s like, “Okay, we’re just doing this thing, we’re just doing the minimum viable product to get this thing going, this is our skill level, whatever.” 

But that simplicity was an enormous advantage to them over the other consumer web solutions that were around at the time. So, yeah, it’s a different kind of innovation through simplicity, but there’s lots of examples of this.


Leidy Klotz:

Yeah, no, and it’s great, and I think that’s really important to point out, and sometimes that just like going right to simplicity especially, yeah, is the best approach if you can do it, but it’s hard to do. It’s interesting. You said the design aesthetic, though, because I mean, if you think about, you may be familiar with Edward Tufte. He’s like kind of the guru of information design and one of his principles is to what is it? Maximize the information-to-ink ratio right.

I’m not saying like Google’s font is right or anything like that, but in terms of the information-to-ink ratio, it’s like, hey, here’s what I need, here’s the box, here’s some branding, there’s Google up there and go for it. I mean, the design aesthetic, I think works. But yeah, I think that’s a really good point that it’s not the. There are other forms of simplicity that are sometimes called for. There are also some forms of just doing. Nothing is often called for, like, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be trying to solve some problem that doesn’t actually matter. Maybe doing nothing is the right approach.” 

So, you know, subtraction is just like one of these classes of opportunities that we can try to make things better.


Greg McKeown:

But doing nothing is a subtraction. It’s just before we make that thing; let’s just decide if we need to do it. Elon Musk describes a five-step process for problem-solving in an engineering context, and the first one is to question the requirements.

So he’s front-ending the simplification into the process. He’s saying, and that actually, I think, is a non-trivial thing for us to explore for a moment because this is one of the things that I found in researching Effortless was that the master simplifiers seemed to come at the act of simplification in a different way to the amateurs. So, like expert simplifiers, were thinking of it from the very beginning in just the way that Musk is describing here. But it was also true for Jobs. And it was also true, you know, at Amazon with Bezos and the principle. Well, let me just give an example of it first.

So when Amazon was first up and running, they had, let’s say, 100 employees. They have a meeting to discuss the checkout process, and at the time, you know, maybe there’s 28 clicks or something in the process, and they’d assigned a very capable engineer to think through that process and to simplify it because the drop-off rate was extraordinary, right? And you can imagine, E-commerce is brand new. I mean, even now, you see the problem, but at the time, it was immense because people just felt so weird putting in their credit card, and you know you have to put in each piece of information, and it was the first part of your address, click, next part, click and so on. 

And so he worked on that problem for two months. He tried to simplify every step in the process. In a way, what we were just describing about this approach to simplification as the final thing. You know, let’s now do a bit more than the less conscientious designer would do. But somewhere in that meeting where they finally were coming together, just the three of them talking about this, Bezos turns to them and says, “Look, I’m not talking about simplifying every step in the process; I’m talking about no process.”

And this is how the one-click, you know, selling comes to be, so he protects that for the next 20 years. You can argue. I mean, people have argued that it was a bit unfair for Amazon to be able to maintain control of something so rudimentary, but when I spoke to the engineer, who’s no longer at Amazon, he told me that he, well, he first of all, he completely defends Amazon’s right to have that control. You know, for a period of time, like IP, because he said, “Everyone was thinking about that problem the way I was. All of our competitors thought about it that way. Only Bezos had the insight that what we need is not to streamline every step that we already have. It was how do you eliminate all of those steps?” 

And this idea I came to think about this is to start with zero. It was exactly what Apple did with DVDs. You know, the DVD burning software that he had, where they went from 5,000 pages to a simplified version, and he was like, “No, no, I mean one step, one little rectangle, and pull your content there and press burn.”

That’s the app that he wanted. No one else thought like that, and so I’m curious about this, what your thoughts are about these competent subtractors who seem to just come at all problems with this simplification first thinking?


Leidy Klotz:

Yeah, it’s almost like they’re subtracting. They’re taking on the kind of mental model of this situation first and seeing if subtracting can be used there. I guess what I mean by that is like, yeah, you’ve got the 17 steps in the Amazon process and that’s the thing that you’re trying to simplify. But before digging into the 17 steps, they’re questioning the mental model of the whole purchasing process, right? And can we subtract from that? And I think that, not surprisingly, it’s really, really hard to subtract from the things that we think already, right?

There’s a famous, one of my favorite psychology studies, this guy, Leon Festinger. He was studying this and basically trying to figure out, trying to have evidence of what happens to people when they’re confronted with very obvious evidence that something they thought isn’t true. And so he joined a doomsday cult, which is a brilliant premise for a study because now you’ve got, either you’ve got the evidence, or you’re in the cult, and when the doomsday comes, you’re covered. 

But so he, what happened is people are sitting waiting for the doomsday to come, the clock strikes midnight, nothing happens. They, five minutes in, they’re still debating if that’s the official clock of the doomsday and then nothing happens.

About four in the morning, the cult leader is like, “Well, look, we staved off the doomsday with our faith,” right? And so, rather than change this belief that’s so obviously true, you’re kind of bending it around right and trying to, you’re trying to fix the 17 steps or modifying the 17 steps to go back to your example versus just saying, “Hey, look, you know, my previous conception of this needs to be completely modified.” 

I don’t know if that’s helpful at all, but I do think that. I do think that there’s a step there you know, I talk about it in my book that, like, the first step is to subtract before you improve. Right, subtract from the, from the your conception of the problem, before you dig into looking at things that you might subtract.


Greg McKeown:

For everybody listening. What is one thing that you heard today that you can put into action, and by that, I mean put into subtraction? You know, what’s one thing that you can eliminate from your life, from the physical things around you? What’s one idea that stands that you can now implement to the benefit and simplification and subtraction so that you can learn to breathe again? Who is one person that you can share this with? How can you continue this conversation now that this conversation has come to a close? Thank you, thank you, really. Thank you for listening.