We miss opportunities due to our additive thinking

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Robert Maurer
@robertmaurer
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Less is more, said architect Mies Van der Rohe. However, it is difficult for us to accept that we should take away more and add less. And it shouldn't surprise us either since we live in a society that measures our value by the amount of money, possessions and successes. This conditioning creates a trap for our brain and causes us to develop additive thinking that ends up making us miss opportunities.

Thinking that more is always better

To improve certain objects, ideas or situations or simply to find solutions to problems, it is necessary to start a thought process that generates change. In general, because our cognitive ability is limited, we cannot consider a large number of options, so we tend to focus on the most promising ideas or limit ourselves to the ones we consider best.



The curious fact is that when we choose these opportunities, we have a tendency to add. This was the conclusion reached by the researchers at the University of Virginia after conducting eight different experiments in which they asked participants to improve various things, from projects and questionnaires to recipes, itineraries, structures and even the holes of a golf course.

These psychologists found that we focus more on adding some element, regardless of its usefulness or relevance to the problem in question. "The curious fact is that this trend is the same in engineering as it is in writing, cooking and everything else," the researchers observed.

In fact, when we think of improving an object or a situation, almost always the first thing that comes to mind is the possibility of adding something. This additive thinking can explain why we fill our agenda more and more, bureaucratic procedures proliferate in institutions and everything seems to be more and more complex.



Why does our brain turn on additive thinking by default?

Additive ideas come to mind more quickly and easily, while subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort. Since we don't have much time every day and we need to find quick solutions to the problems that arise, we tend to accept the first ideas that come to our mind, which are the additive ones, so we end up accepting the additive solutions, without considering steal something.

Later, when we have to solve more important problems in life, our brain is so accustomed to additive thinking that it does not even consider seeking solutions by subtraction. It is the victim of a continuous reinforcement that begins when we are little and never ends because the world around us tells us that we must do more, have more and be more.

Consequently, we always think about adding. We think more is always better. The problem is that the more we rely on additive strategies, the more cognitively accessible they become and over time they could become the only solution we can think of.

This ends up permeating our view of the world and growth. We think that life is adding more and more things, living more experiences and knowing more people, when many times the real change occurs when we learn to subtract.

If we do not conceive of subtraction, not only does another world of alternative possibilities escape us to find solutions to our problems, but we also deprive ourselves of the possibility of simplifying our lives and finding mental balance through minimalism.


How to balance additive thinking?

It is normal to be drawn to adding because our civilization has been built by adding more and more and our economic system prioritizes growth. However, we must be aware that many times less is more.



So the first step is to recognize the urgency to add. Simple awareness will allow us to break the habit, think differently and open ourselves to the possibility of subtracting.

The second step is to manage the emotions that assail us when we think of taking away. Because we are so attached to addition, many times the mere prospect of subtracting generates enormous anxiety. That anxiety leads us to cling to the situation we want to change and prevents us from solving the problem. Therefore, we must learn to be comfortable with the possibility of taking away and eliminating all the superfluous.

The third step consists precisely in detecting everything that is not necessary and complex. Would we be better off without this? Could we eliminate it? How could we do? We have to take our time. Additive thinking offers us faster solutions because it is automated while eliminating takes longer. But the results are worth it.


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