Renewal by Subtraction

9 november 2021

Carin Eriksson Lindvall Artikel i Psychology Today

Renewal By Subtraction, Psychology Today, November 2021, p. 60

Change isn’t easy. It seems like the human instinct is to add components, making things more complicated, instead of simplifying and removing them. Many of us has experienced that in our own lives but it has also been proven in research.  A research study recently published in Nature investigated how people act in problem solving. In this study, conducted by Adams, Converse, Hales and Klotz (Nature, 2021), more than 1,000 people participated in various tests where they had to solve problems with, among other things, geometric figures and Lego. In the tests, the majority of participants preferred to add elements, even though the solution could be found more easily if some element had been removed.


The tendency to solve problems by adding new components explains also why many of us, often, at home and in organizations – when not thinking clearly through problems – try to solve problems by introducing new routines or policies. We keep adding on routines or solutions until everything becomes so complex that it’s almost impossible to get any kind of overview. We squeeze in meetings or things to do in already overbooked calendars. We try to book things even though we do not have the time or the desire to do them. We also have a tendency to continue doing things we have done before. Particularly if money, time or efforts were once invested, a waste aversion could hold us back from subtracting. We keep adding on and maybe we think briefly in the moment that we shouldn’t, but it’s easier to add than it is to remove. More and more things to do until it becomes overwhelming. Are you dissatisfied with your home? Buy new decor. Do you want to look better? Get some new clothes. Improve your kids? Add new activities into their already hectic schedule. It seems like the first thing we think of when we meet a situation is “what can we add here”?


This is also true in our organizations. It’s a well-known fact in organizational research that when a new upper-level manager takes on their position, one of the first things introduced are change programs. New solutions, routines and policies are added to an ever-increasing expansion of formal organizations. These changes offer few subtractive solutions. A proposal to get rid of routines or tasks could even have negative social consequences at work because it’s not seen as creative, positive, forthcoming or appreciative of co-workers. And we may also believe that existing solutions and routines are there for a reason, even though we don’t know that reason, so we leave it unquestioned. People end up being overwhelmed with work, sometimes doing things nobody asks for or that bring little or no value to the business. It’s no longer a solution, but still something that gets done and adds onto the complexity and inertia of the organization. It’s a routine.


Routines are difficult to change. Routines are, by definition, a common set of activities or ways of doing things. Routines are solutions to previous problems. We all have them; we have them in our daily lives, in our family lives and in our workplaces. We shape routines because it makes us in many ways more free; we don’t have to think of every step we take, we just need to rely on good routines and use our brains for better or more demanding things. And that’s the problem with routines – when we are doing them, we seldom question them. The brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, and the more internalized the routine, the less brain power is needed. And more activities can be added on, allowing time for less thinking. And we go on as we have always done.

But then the pandemic hit and everything changed. Many of our previously added routines and solutions of our daily social and working life were no longer adequate. All of a sudden, we made changes because we had no choice. It could be changes in the simple routines like hand washing or more complex ones like commuting to work. At work, we changed our meeting routines and how work was carried out. In the new work-from-home arrangement that many of us were faced with, we had to create new routines. We couldn’t stop the spread of the virus and we just had to accept the new circumstances. We subtracted social events and meetings from our calendars and to-do lists. And many of us did find it rewarding to do so. Our old pre-pandemic routines were not solutions to our new problems. Change and subtraction was possible.


The pandemic gave us a new and extraordinary experience and an opportunity to reflect on the complexity of life. The loss of old routines and outdated solutions leaves space for real change - change by which we choose to live. Maybe some of our previous routines were even complicating our lives unnecessarily? The disruption of routines and “musts” by the pandemic has given us a unique opportunity to now reflect on what is valuable/essential in our lives and to see how, going forward, social life and work can be better organized to make lives more fulfilling.


Doing so, philosophy, which is also the foundation of existential therapy, can be helpful. When it comes to routines, we can turn to ancient wisdom such as Aristotle or the stoics. Aristotle (300 BC), the Greek philosopher during the Classical period in ancient Greece who is (among many things) said to be the father of logic, is often cited: we become what we repeatedly do. And if you believe this is true, you have to be careful about the choice of habits and routines. We have to find the balance or as Aristotle called this “the mean”. The mean isn’t an arithmetic average: it’s the right balance in a particular circumstance. It can’t be computed by adding or dividing. There will never be any easy answers. The “mean” has to be lived and reflected upon.


This is a fine match with the ideas of the stoics (the school of philosophy that developed in Athens, starting as early as 300 BC). Stoicism invites us to let go of our illusions of control, to take responsibility, to overlook trivialities, and to try to see the value in our everyday lives. Stoicism challenges us not to seek perfection but to seek growth and development. Many of us have learned from our recent pandemic experience that subtraction and simplification can make lives more fulfilling; it’s a solution that also embodies the wisdom of the Stoics.


As more people are vaccinated and Covid-19 is getting more under control, we are now moving toward a new normal. We now have a tremendously massive opportunity to redesign our daily lives before we are stuck in routines that keep us from thinking. We cannot live without routines, but we must not be locked in by too many or inaccurate routines. The world we face is too complex and varied to be handled with only routines, but without them, we become lost and inefficient.


Which of your earlier routines and rituals did you really miss when you were locked down? Which changes during the pandemic relieved you? Which new routines do you want to keep or shape? Is it possible to simplify your life?


And if I dare to offer some advice: Don’t overcommit. Don’t stress it. Have the courage to take things down a notch, and take some time out to reflect on what is really important. Don’t be so busy acting that you forget to keep reflecting. Shape good routines that are solutions to the problems of today. And let go of old, unnecessary “musts”.

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