Make Better Decisions by Subtracting, Not Adding

August 18, 2021

From time to time, we humans do make bad decisions.  Often biases and faulty judgment get in the way.  Dr. Daniel Kahneman has been trying to help us improve our thought processes for decades. He and Aaron Tversky won a Nobel Prize for their work in 2002.   In a prior DWM blog, we reviewed Dr. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.  In that bestseller, he pointed out that when we “think fast,” our cognitive default (because we are averse to “losing”) is to find a solution by asking “What can I add?” So, when working through an issue, we naturally tend to add more contents, more tasks, more objects, and more complexity.  We routinely overlook solutions that are based on subtractions- doing or having less. People who think slowly make better decisions by also asking the question: “What can I subtract?”

Recently a blog writer, Bob Seawright, in “Addition by Subtraction” outlined nine ways to think slow and subtract, not add:

  1. Build “Slack into Your Life.” The absence of binding constraints on behavior leads to better results. Remove barriers, ideas and items that are not helpful. Be in a position to “think slow.”
  2. Eliminate Noise.Today, there is so much “stuff” competing for our attention. Some may be helpful but most are simply noise.  Eliminating these distractions will improve our chances for success. 3.
  3. Make Fewer Decisions. Decision-making is flawed and prone to error because of both bias and noise. (BTW- Dr. Kahneman’s latest book Noise is excellent.) We should make fewer decisions. Dr. Kahneman suggests to “Train people in a way of thinking and a way of approaching problems that will impose uniformity, including the use of checklists.”
  4. Keep Your Options Open. According to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, there are two basic kinds of decisions you can make. Type 1: Almost impossible to reverse.  Type 2: Easy to reverse. He makes quick decisions on Type 2 and thinks slowly, deliberately and with consultation on Type 1 decisions.
  5. Focus on Eliminating Mistakes. NFL teams that turnover the ball less win nearly 80% of the time.  Attention to detail achieves thoroughness and accuracy-foundations for productivity, efficiency and performance.
  6. Make it Simple and Elegant. Mathematicians and scientists target simple elegance. Musicians and playwrights create dramatic tension with silence. International consultant, Marie Kondo, whose signature phrase is “Spark Joy,” suggests we should “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard the rest." 
  7. Les(s) Often Means More. (Writer note-sorry, I couldn’t help myself in putting the parentheses around the second “s.”) Educator and author Jim Collins recommends a “stop doing” list. He continues, “A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not.”  It takes discipline to discard what does not fit, especially if hours and days have gone into its creation. Good old (1918) Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style implores us to “Omit needless words.”
  8. Be Less Sure of Yourself. Voltaire wrote, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.”  Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice Chairman, 97 year-old Charlie Munger, suggests that “If you can get good at destroying your own wrong ideas, that is a great gift.” 
  9. Limit Over-Reliance on Self-Reliance. We need an “outside view.” Dr. Kahneman suggests we “Ask the smartest and least empathetic people we know to tear our ideas apart.”    Great physicist Richard Feynman supported the scientific method to root out error. However, he emphasized, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself- and you are the easiest person to fool.”  We need collaboration.


We close our blog today with an example of subtracting, not adding.  Anna Keichline was born in 1889 and became the first female architect in Pennsylvania. She invented the cement block.  She realized that solid cement blocks were wasteful because their strength was in the walls, not the center. Her “K brick” in 1927 eliminated the cement center. This type of brick, used in hollow wall construction, was cheaper, lighter, easier to handle, transport and assemble.  Another marvelous decision made possible by subtracting, not adding.

Think about it.  What can you subtract that will add to your life, your happiness and your success?




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