Our to-do lists can’t grow forever. It’s time to try subtraction

The default mode of human problem-solving is to add complexity. But we must try harder to resist, say Leidy Klotz and Robert Sutton

March 24, 2022
Sticky notes on a task board
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We all know the symptoms. Too many committees, emails, software tools and long-winded syllabi. Too many new administrators adding rules and enforcing each exactly to the letter. Too many needless burdens weighing on the souls of those who signed up for teaching, research and learning.

This “addition sickness” has roots in our basic cognition. Research published in Nature last year – which one of us co-authored – documents that the default mode of human problem-solving is to add rather than subtract complexity. Across 18 studies, whether people were creating Lego models, planning travel or, yes, trying to improve a university, people systematically overlooked subtractive changes.

Academia has long been slow and wasteful. But we can do better. When people solving Lego problems were reminded to think about subtraction, they were more prone to choose it.

Imagine. Academia could be even better if we applied subtractive thinking to six sacred cows:

  1. Grading. Faculty could spend less time counting beans and more time talking to students. 
  2. Enterprise software. Let’s reverse the plague of “robotic bureaucracy” and the masses of automatic requests that result in “death by a thousand 10-minute tasks”.
  3. Reference letters. For students, they’re always positive, and excessive weight is given to prestigious recommenders, reinforcing power imbalances and insider status. For faculty, it shouldn’t take 20 or more letters from evaluators to make a promotion decision. Five is plenty – and limit each to 500 words.
  4. Meetings. Try the rule of halves on frequency, length and invitee list. And, for good measure, create a halftime check, when people who realise they will not get or add anything are encouraged to leave.
  5. Awards. Most involve self-nomination, which then require meetings and reference letters. Was there really one “best” researcher, student or administrator in your school last year?
  6. Papers. Quality is the goal but quantity has become the measure. UCL’s Uta Frith makes a provocative case that science would progress faster if researchers were limited to one paper per year.

This would be “more complicated than you think”, our opponents say. “It’s a dangerous precedent” to cut back on grading. We can’t throw out enterprise software without “giving the system a fair trial”. And amid the challenges of a pandemic, “the time is not ripe” to overhaul promotion procedures. Each of these anti-change excuses is documented in Cambridge professor F. M. Cornford’s 1908 “Guide for the Young Academic Politician”, Microcosmographia Academica. Alas, Cornford’s pamphlet remains timely.

Subtractive change will always be uncomfortable. But here are some ways to start. First, serve as a subtraction role-model: reduce the number and length of meetings, write fewer and shorter emails, and limit your speaking time. Those studies in Nature show that people use addition as a substitute for thinking. So, stop yourself the next time you are about to create that new award. Pat yourself on the back for freeing all the time required to write and read the nomination letters.

It is also important to tell your colleagues what you didn’t do. Subtraction is the path of greater resistance. This isn’t because people are evil or foolish. It is, in part, because it was adaptive for our ancestors to collect extra resources during good times, so they could survive the lean times. Many needless additions have become sources of comfort and identity. We need to bend over backwards to reward people who subtract – and that means giving them opportunities to speak up about their subtractions. Faculty could be encouraged to include individual stop-doings on annual reports. Administrators should describe how they enacted collective stop-doings. Students could be asked what a class removed from their mental models.

Third, we can put in place other rules and nudges that prevent us slipping back into the default addition mode. Every new initiative could include a default phase-out plan, and administrators should have to remove two existing policies for each new one that they add. An email system could make it impossible to write messages longer than 500 words or to cc more than 10 people. Every new accounting rule, teaching evaluation approach, or system “upgrade” could be announced with an estimate of the total hours it will cost or save students, faculty and fellow administrators.

Finally, we need to shift focus from what is lost to what is gained from subtraction. Imagine how much more time faculty would have to talk to students and engage with scholarship if they just spent 30 per cent less time in committee meetings and on email. In 2015, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca began prompting its 60,000 employees to free up time for research. By 2017, this had led to hundreds of subtractive changes that saved employees more than two million hours, the firm estimated.

In Cornford’s time it was “recognised in academic circles that time in general is of no value” But the costs of this attitude have never been higher. University employees, frustrated and exhausted, are quitting because it is so hard to get their work done.

One path is to enlist more administrators to create more rules, call more meetings, send more emails and buy more technologies to “support” us. The other path is to save ourselves from ourselves.

Leidy Klotz is professor in engineering systems and environment at the University of Virginia and author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. Robert Sutton is professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. He is currently writing (with Huggy Rao) The Friction Project: How Smart Organizations Make the Right Things Easier, the Wrong Things Harder, and Do It Without Driving People Crazy.

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Reader's comments (1)

Great article. If only we could make the changes!