Improving by removing, an underutilized strategy

If you want to improve situations, objects or behavior, you have to think about how you want to do it. Researchers Adams et al. (2021) examined whether people are equally likely to try to achieve those improvements by adding things (additive transformations) or by removing things (subtractive transformations). For example: how do you improve a text? How do you improve a job? How do you improve a recipe? When trying to achieve improvement, are people more likely to add or remove components (words, tasks, ingredients)?

Observation Studies

Adams et al. first conducted some observational studies in which they found that the study participants were more likely to add things than to remove things. 

They did eight studies in which they showed that people are more likely to add components than remove them. In these studies, people were more likely to add components than to remove components. 

For example, in one controlled observation, they asked participants to make a series of digital grid patterns symmetrical by modifying them. Adding or removing could be done by clicking on the boxes and took the same amount of effort. Only 20% chose to remove surfaces and 80% by adding boxes.


In eight experiments they then showed that people tend to think better by adding rather than improving by removing in the following situations:

  1. when they are not explicitly urged to consider removal as an option
  2. when they had only one chance (versus several) to recognize the shortcomings of an additive search strategy 
  3. when they were under a higher (versus lower) cognitive load


I recognize this tendency to think about adding rather than removing. But removing it can be extremely powerful. 

I remember how I once went through a work process with colleagues in search of everything we could remove without this leading to a deterioration of our added value. We were surprised by how many small and sometimes bigger things we could delete without affecting the quality of our work. We were also surprised at how much less time and effort our new process took. Removal of activities had worked very well. Sometimes less is more.

One way to see what you can delete is through the circle technique. Here you can read how you can do that.