We are missing a lot of options when solving problems or considering ways to improve our lives. Not only does our brain edit our options down before presenting them for consideration, we also prefer to solve stuff by adding complexity rather than removing it.

Researchers ran a series of eight practical experiments, looking at how we seek to improve objects, ideas or situations.

For example, when you’re trying to persuade someone, you’re pitching an idea or; as a manager, you want to encourage a particular behavior in your team.

It’s hard work thinking about all the possible solutions to your problem. So, your brain attempts to saving energy by presenting a smaller number of ideas, rather than listing all of the alternatives.

Why writing your ideas by hand is more effective than typing or texting

When problem solving, it’s a good idea to dump all ideas onto a page without editing them. Don’t validate them. Don’t make them perfect. Just write them by hand. Handwriting activates parts of your brain associated with learning and processing information. Researchers have reported typing words relies on shallow processing and doesn’t stimulative creativity. And you want to get creative! So get them all on a piece of paper, then step away.

Go for a walk, make a cup of tea, hang out with the kids. Don’t worry, your mind is still working on it in the background. Random ideas will continue to percolate through. Write them down as they come so those gems aren’t forgotten. Or speak them into your phone and transcribe them using online transcription software (I use otter) and add those ideas to the same piece of paper. When you feel all ideas are on the paper, take a look. Often when I’ve done this, the diamond in the rough has been lurking in the bottom third of the second or third page.

How our brain saves processing power

So to save effort and expended energy, our brain presents us with a shortlist of possible solutions for review. But did you know that when you’re doing this, you’ll also attempt to find a solution by adding something rather than removing something. That’s right. We’ll automatically attempt to fix something by doing more or adding an extra feature, rather than by taking something that’s not really needed away. So just think how that’s showing up in your project joyful life.

the productivity app loop

Are you stretched tighter than a rubber band at work? Chances are you won’t even consider that thing that you can delegate with a bit of upfront thinking. There’s no time for that. Instead, you’ll buy that new workflow app with the fancy boxes that change colour when things get done.

So now, you’re learning this new app. You’re transferring your tasks from the old productivity app. Clearly that one didn’t work because you still don’t have enough time to do all the things. But wait, hang on a minute. What if the solution to your problem lies in not doing all of the things?

Here’s my question for you. Where can you invest some upfront time to delegate a repeating task to someone in your team?

How to solve a probleM by doing less

So how can you apply this research in your everyday? Here’s the framework, it’s all about critical thinking.

  1. Write what you’re seeking a solution for at the top of the page. Write it in a way that opens your brain for problem solving. So for example: who do I need to be, to do the things necessary to generate an additional $10k of income each month?
  2. Write down on a piece of paper, all the possible solutions to this problem. There should be at least 25 ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem at the time. Don’t be tempted to edit them, censor them, or make them “better”. That will stifle your creative flow. Simply, write, write, write.
  3. Take a highlighter and highlight all the ideas that are adding a feature, doing more, or adding something.
  4. With a different coloured highlighter, highlight all the ideas that are removing something. Got none? That’s okay. That’s your brain trying to save you some energy.
  5. If you’re taking away solutions are a little low, consider how could you solve this problem, or improve this situation by doing or providing less?

What work life balance is really about

If you are looking for a better work life balance, start with the foundation. A joyful life is in doing less better and being more.

Reference

Adams, G.S., Converse, B.A., Hales, A.H. et al. People systematically overlook subtractive changes. Nature 592, 258–261 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03380-y