Humans have an innate tendency to add rather than subtract. The word "subtract" even brings negative connotations.
Hoarders are the classic example. People who hold on to every piece of clothing, every newspaper, everything they think could have some use in the future.
But in many cases, subtraction is better than addition.
Intermittent fasting, lowering time on playing video games and using social media, and reducing my number of commitments for productivity are all beneficial ways I have subtracted in my own life. So why do people add nonetheless?
Leidy Klatz explores this question in his book, Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. In his studies, he found whether building, writing, cooking, or scheduling, adding more than subtracting was widespread.
This was for three main reasons:
- People neglect subtraction
- People are loss averse
- People don't find subtraction sexy
Firstly, we fail to subtract because many don't even see it as an option. Many participants in Klatz's studies didn't subtract until they were reminded it was something they could do.
For example, in one study, participants were given a twelve-item travel itinerary for a day in New York City. Then they got a list of additional activities and attractions.
The practitioners asked participants to improve the travel itinerary in any way. Curiously, only one in four participants chose to remove from the original packed itinerary! Only after participants were reminded that "changing" could mean adding or subtracting did the majority begin to subtract activities.
Secondly, we tend to add rather than subtract because of loss aversion. This was first defined by Behavioral Economist Daniele Kahneman as a bias that makes losing something psychologically twice as painful compared to the pleasure of gaining.
When we subtract, it can often feel like we are losing. This activates our primal loss aversion tendencies and makes us feel bad.
Thirdly, subtraction isn't sexy. No matter how beneficial an act of subtraction is, it's not likely to leave much evidence of what we have done.
Rarely are those prominent in history books ones who subtracted. We don't often hear about the rulers who avoided or scientists who ran experiments to confirm things we already know. Instead, we hear about majestic figures like Alexander the Great, who went on campaigns to forge massive empires, or great scientists like Albert Einstein who came up with the theory of relativity.
Unfortunately, this tendency to favor addition over subtraction has terrible ramifications on many parts of society. To show the negative effects subtraction aversion has on our lives, I will go through four modern examples. Then I will talk about the philosophy I have adopted to benefit from subtracting, Addition Through Subtraction (ATS).
💊Subtraction Aversion Example 1: Medicine
Iatrogenesis is the causation of a disease, a harmful complication, or other ill effect by any medical activity, including diagnosis, intervention, error, or negligence.
Modern medicine is a horror story of iatrogenesis. Many people in first world countries believe any pain, infection, or disease should be treated immediately.
I had one friend in school who constantly sanitized his hands before and after eating. I know people who take aspirin like it's candy when they get a cold or fever. Some people gulp Ibuprofen if they feel the slightest pain.
The issue is this medicating inhibits the body from undergoing and strengthening its own immune processes. The result, more often than not, is a weak immune system. But it can often be more serious. A child who undergoes an unnecessary operation can shorten their life expectancy by years.
Let's group all of these treatments under "naive interventionism."
The obvious solution is to subtract.
The best time to use medicines is often in the case of someone incapable of healing through natural means. So stop washing your hands every five seconds, germs can be good for you. Don't engulf medicine at the slightest hint of fever; your body needs to learn to fight these colds. Stop popping Ibuprofin like it's your breakfast; a little pain might strengthen character.
✍️Subtraction Aversion Example 2: Writing
Mark Twain often gets credited with saying, "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one."
I believe school is where we first ingrain the false philosophy that more is better when writing. Teachers assign students massive page requirements even though they have no idea what to fill them with.
Instead of stopping when they run out of things to say, many artificially expand their essays with fluff to hit the all-powerful page count. I have one friend who once wrote 12 pages for a five page essay requirement.
But great writing is often short.
I mean could any one person possibly pontificate that this sentence should be seen in the upmost of regards among those of the glorious present day society we so live in today?
Nonwriters misconceive writing as the most important part of the craft. In reality, rewriting is where your writing is formed.
Great writers spend 50-90% of their time rewriting. Many authors do 8-12 drafts before they publish their books.
In this way, the best way to improve your writing is to focus on what to subtract, not add. Shorten sentences, get rid of big words, and remove frivolous detail. Don't feel like every one of your writings has to be the definitive essay on the topic.
🧠Subtraction Aversion Example 3: Personal Knowledge Management
As of writing, there are over 48.5 million books on Amazon. And that's just books. There are nearly 30,000 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every hour.
This means more is uploaded to the internet in a week than you could consume in your entire life. We have moved from an age of information scarcity to one of abundance.
With this abundance of new information, most people tend to consume only content created in the last 24 hours and lots of it. After adding pictures, videos, games, etc., we reach the volume of 34 Gigabytes of information on average per day.
Ironically, many people crave to consume because they don't "want to miss out." But it's consuming in this way that makes them miss out!
It places them in a severe case of what David Perell calls the "Never Ending Now"—blind to their place in history, engulfed in the present moment, overwhelmed by the slightest breeze of chaos.
Once again, the obvious solution is to subtract and flesh out a Personal Knowledge Management workflow (PKM). PKM is the art of capturing information that resonates with you and fostering it for creative acts down the line. To create an effective PKM workflow, you have to have a filter on what you capture.
My favorite way to do this is to define a capture toolkit—a set of mediums you have chosen as essential to your information diet. It also helps to come up with your twelve favorite questions in life and filter the information you consume through them.
Finally, understand the Lindy Effect, which states the future life expectancy of nonperishable things like books is proportional to their current age. If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. Old information is often more valuable than new.
🤑Subtraction Aversion Example 4: Consumerism
America's outlook on adding changed after Truman's Inaugural Address on January 20, 1949. In his speech, Truman decreed America's aim should be to "free peoples of the world… to lighten their burdens." How would America do this? Through buying more stuff. Consumerism was born.
Americans started buying in droves. Ad companies rolled in the big bucks as their ads were marketed on television like crazy. Malls, shopping centers, new stores, and more started getting built up all around the country.
Unfortunately, consumerism has a dark side because it functions primarily off addition. We know from countless studies buying more rarely makes you happier. In fact, it often makes it harder to find sustainable happiness. This is because of the hedonic treadmill.
The hedonic treadmill is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a baseline level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. While addition can make us happier in the short term, it often makes it harder to enjoy life in the long run.
Adding artificially raises your baseline level of happiness. As you gain more and more, you find you start struggling to relish the small things in life.
The solution is once again to subtract. Learn to love what you have. Enjoy simple pleasantries like a nice walk, a picnic, or a good book. Finding joy in these activities will allow you to enjoy more of life.
This is because most of life is apparently mundane. You won’t usually be skydiving from a plane or taking a trip to the Bahamas.
🌟What is the Solution?
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu advised, "To attain knowledge add things every day. To attain wisdom subtract things every day."
Hopefully, these three examples have shed light on how universal subtraction aversion is in modern society. In response, over the last couple of months, I have adopted a philosophy helping me benefit from subtraction. It's called Addition Through Subtraction (ATS).
ATS holds values as my primary decision maker. Anytime I have to choose whether to add something to my life, I first ask if it helps me in one of my three central values:
If it doesn't add to one of these three things, I don't add it. I do the same the other way around. If something I have hurts my three main values more than it helps, I subtract.
Here are some quick examples of how I have implemented ATS:
- Intermittent fasting. Most of the time I only eat twice a day. This saves me time and energy making food and gives me the flexibility to decide when to eat in response to others.
- Video games. I haven't played video games consistently in years. I would rather play the game of real life than escape from it.
- Social Media. I have no social media other than Twitter. This gives me time to deepen the relationships I do have through physical interaction, video calls, and phone calls rather than form a net of hundreds of "friends."
- Productivity. Any productivity guru will tell you doing more often comes with doing less. Most problems come from conflicting priorities. Tackling a 20-item to-do list only makes it likely most of the things you are doing are pointless.
Through ATS, I'm living a more stable and happier life. I'm avoiding the terrors of the hedonic treadmill. And it's all because I see subtraction for what it is.
It's important to understand subtraction is not always the right option. I'm not advocating for subtraction in every circumstance. ATS as a philosophy works on the concept that you can add OR subtract.
If you want to adopt this philosophy into your own life, here's what I suggest you do. First, take out a piece of paper and write out the 20% of things that bring you 80% of your enjoyment in life. Then write the 20% of things that bring you 80% of your unhappiness and frustration.
When I did this myself, I found exercising, hanging out with friends, and writing gave me most of my enjoyment. 80% of my unhappiness and frustration, however, came from negative people and pointless conversations.
Now draft three values exemplifying the 20% of things bringing you 80% of your enjoyment and negating the 20% of things you hate. Don't make it harder than it has to be. You can change these values at any time in the future.
Using the three things mentioned before I realized I cared most about my health, relationships, and teaching in life.
Once you have chosen three values you are comfortable with, put them somewhere you will find them easily, in your wallet, for instance. Keep this with you at all times for a couple of months. Use it to remind you of what matters most whenever you make a decision on adding or subtracting something from your life.
Thanks to Astrid Helfant for the conversations which helped form this post.