Sunday, November 18, 2012

How to subtract when things aren't adding up

"To attain knowledge, add things every day; to attain wisdom, subtract things every day." Lao Tzu

It is ironic that all our life we focus on addition - adding more figures to our salary, adding more stuff to our homes, adding more of everything that we can. But most of our happiest moments happen when we 'have things' that money cannot buy for example being with people we love, exploring natural beauty and enjoying clean air and fresh water. 

There are significant examples in our own life, in the lives of many others, in business, and in design about the power of simplicity - the value of less. So, this post is about subtraction - it is about my own attempts to edit my life and hopefully inspire the same thinking in my readers.

Here's a story about my tryst with subtraction. It is a simple story but it is my story. I have always been a heavy luggage variety when I travel. Recently, I had to travel for a week and my immediate tendency was to add everything to my luggage. However, this time around we (my spouse and I) added a constraint to the travel - no checked baggage. That constraint immediately forced me to think small and pack less. When packing, I focused on the essentials, packed for multi-use, and during the trip did some laundry. The luggage was much lesser but I didn't miss anything on my trip. Result was that there were no delays associated with waiting to pick up the luggage on both the legs of our journey and we were out of the airport, stress-free, in less than 30 minutes! Unexpected and so fulfilling. However, this first-time editing of luggage wasn't easy. My first instinct when I started to pack was still to add stuff. But then I stepped back and consciously removed and re-planned. They say all big changes have humble beginnings; it is true. This was a small step towards packing less for travel but it led to big leaps in my head about trying to get more with less. My efforts to do more with less continue.

Here are some articles and talks that helped me get started. 
1.    Law #1: What Isn’t There Can Often Trump What Is  -“When you reduce the number of doors that someone can walk through, more people walk through the one that you want them to walk through.” — SCOTT BELSKY, founder and CEO of Behance and author ofMaking Ideas Happen
2.    Law #2: The Simplest Rules Create the Most Effective Experience -Keeping it simple isn’t easy. By exploiting subtraction in innovation, we’ve been able to create an environment of freedom and creativity that allows us to thrive.” — BRAD SMITH, CEO, Intuit
3.    Law #3: Limiting Information Engages the Imagination -“Subtraction can mean the difference between a highly persuasive presentation and a long, convoluted, and confusing one. Why say more when you can say less?” — CARMINE GALLO, author of The Apple Experience
4.    Law #4: Creativity Thrives Under Intelligent Constraints -“Here’s the key to the conundrum for managers who want to stoke the innovation fire: That close cousin of scarcity, constraint, can indeed foster creativity.” —TERESA AMABILE, author of The Progress Principle
5.    Law #5: Break Is the Important Part of Breakthrough -“If you kill the butterflies in your stomach, you’ll kill the dream. Embrace the feeling. Save the butterflies.” — JONATHAN FIELDS, author of Uncertainty
6.    Law #6: Doing Something Isn’t Always Better Than Doing Nothing -“When we’re faced with the greatest odds against us, often we need to edit rather than add.” — CHIP CONLEY, cofounder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and author of Emotional Equations
  • A post on The Power of Subtraction that lists five laws of subtraction for business leaders. But the concepts apply to everything.  
I read this somewhere, “When things aren’t adding up in your life, start subtracting.” It cannot be said more simply than that. All one needs is some conscious focus and the willingness to let go. There are so many things we can subtract from our lives on a daily basis - chaos and clutter, useless activities and meetings, unproductive conversations, negative thoughts and negative people, bad habits, etc. The list is endless. 
We have the power to subtract to make life more meaningful. I have realized that I may not be able to let go of everything in my life but I am not longer afraid of making small changes because these do have big impacts.


  1. Love the example you gave of light packing. Lets me understand the concept so much easier. :)

    1. Thanks for your comment Neekita! Glad you enjoyed the post and the example made sense. When editing our life, every step matters.

  2. I subtract one thing by not replying to this p...oh wooops! That was a good post. Would you say a haiku is like a novel, or poem subtracted? And Twitter a blog subtracted? Or do you need to remove things altogether rather than distill them?

    1. Chris, good to hear from you! I am glad you liked the post. I like your examples of haiku and twitter. Though there is still a lot of waste even in 140 characters!

      I feel that some things can be completely removed - like negative thoughts while others need to be 'distilled' (love the word!) like our relationships with people.

      If everything could be subtracted from our life perhaps that'll be the time of our death. We come with nothing and we leave with nothing....too philosophical perhaps!