This Is The Easiest Way To Make Your Life More Awesome


Our homes, our schedules, our digital lives – it’s all just an overflowing cornucopia of too muchness.

You’ve got back-to-back meetings, a deluge of emails, and a to-do list longer than a CVS receipt. If you had a dime for every meeting that could’ve been an email, you could retire and live on an island made entirely of dimes.

Our homes are now less like cozy havens and more like a game of Tetris where we’re perpetually losing. We don’t just have things; we have things to put our things in, and then we buy things to organize the things we put our things in. It’s like a Russian nesting doll, except it’s our sanity that’s getting smaller and smaller.

We’re stockpiling possessions like doomsday preppers, except the apocalypse we’re preparing for is apparently one where the survivor’s currency is USB cables and novelty mugs. You buy one throw pillow, and suddenly you’re the proud owner of a small mountain range of decorative cushions. Across the room, a pile of unread mail has started developing its own ecosystem.

Social life? What’s that? Is it that thing where you see people? In person? Sounds fake. Our idea of catching up with friends is sending memes at 2 AM with the caption “this is so us,” because scheduling a dinner requires aligning the planets. When we do manage to see our friends, half the time is spent discussing how busy we are. And social media is a bottomless pit of scrolling, a never-ending story without the cool dragon.

The solution? It’s simple but seems unfathomable: less. Sometimes, the best addition to our lives is actually subtraction. Da Vinci said perfection was “when there was nothing left to take away.” Picasso called art the “elimination of the unnecessary.” And Lao Tzu advised: “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” And great quotes have restated this same point over millennia because, obviously, humanity is collectively refusing to take a hint.

But why don’t we do anything about it? What can we do? Well, that’s what we’re going to address. We’ll get some great insight from UVA professor Leidy Klotz’s book, “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less.”

I’ve got Occam’s Chainsaw ready. Let’s get to it…


The “More” Bias

We’re all apparently suffering from a collective delusion that the answer to every problem is “more.” Don’t worry: it’s not your fault. Research seems to be showing it’s our default wiring.

Researchers gave study subjects a structure made of Legos, with a few extra Legos available to the side. They had to improve it. Wanna guess what the final structures looked like? Only 12 percent had fewer blocks than the original. Better meant more.

Tell people to improve on a series of musical notes? They were three times more likely to add notes than to remove them. Ask people to improve an essay? Again, three times more likely to add words. Improve a soup with five ingredients? Only 2 of 90 people subtracted anything. Change a vacation itinerary? Only 25% removed activities.

What about when you set up an experiment where subtraction is clearly better? Where removing things is the fastest way to solve the problem and they get paid for speed? People still add more often than they subtract.

It’s a bias. Yes, sometimes more is actually better, and we can speculate on the evolutionary reasons why this might be our default, but the evidence shows we overlook subtraction as an option, even when it’s the optimal move. When researchers hinted to subjects that removing things might be superior, they often acted on it, but without the nudge there seemed to be blind spot against realizing it on their own.

Perhaps it’s time for a firmware update to our caveman brains. Maybe we need to reboot and realize that “more” often leads to “mess”.

And as the infomercials say: “But wait, there’s more…!”


The Competency Trap

In 1977, Stanford professor Albert Bandura suggested that completing tasks fulfills an intrinsic human need to feel competent. It’s why scratching items off a to-do list is so rewarding. The issue is, we can feel also competent by subtracting. Do less unimportant stuff.

Ah, but there’s the rub. When you subtract, there’s nothing to show off. No busy calendar to wave around like a flag. No pile of completed tasks to preen over. Subtraction can make us competent but it doesn’t display competence to others. Ever wonder if everyone at the office is just typing words to justify their existence in the corporate food chain? Uh, in a way they are.

“Yes, I’ll attend your cousin’s friend’s art show.” “Yes, I’ll join another committee.” We’re so used to saying yes to everything that turning things down feels like we’re breaking some ancient law, like we’re going to be smited by the god of busyness. I’ve sat through meetings that I’m convinced were a social experiment to see how long it takes for the human spirit to break and yet “Thou shalt not decline a calendar invite” seems to be etched into the modern soul.

How do we escape the competency trap? Part of it comes down to what psychologists call “loss aversion.” We fear losses more than we appreciate gains. “Edit, cut, and subtract” all have a negative valence. Sounds lazy and we get scared we’ll be seen as lazy. They activate loss aversion.

But we can change the framing. To “reveal, clean, carve, declutter, distill, optimize” all sound positive while achieving the same result. They don’t activate loss aversion, and so we feel better about “distilling” than “cutting.”

Some people might be thinking, “That’s nice but my boss or spouse is still going to see me doing less around here and that isn’t going to go over well, clever words or no clever words.”

How can we subtract and not get into trouble? The answer, oddly enough, is to subtract even more…


“Noticeable Less”

In this madcap world of ours, the mantra seems to be: “If some is good, more must be better.” And it’s true with money and French Fries. But not with everything.

Subtraction can be a good but we need to push it far enough to reveal its benefits. We need to get to “noticeable less.”

In one medical textbook, the mere summary for the safety guidelines on inserting central catheters stretches to 35 pages. Thorough? Yes. Efficient or effective? Um… no. So finally someone was smart enough to cut the “summary” down to: “wash hands with soap; clean the patient’s skin with antiseptic; put sterile drapes over the entire patient; wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves; and, put a sterile dressing over the catheter site.”

And that has almost eliminated catheter infections at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, saving thousands of lives.

Subtraction wasn’t worse; it was better because somebody pushed it to the point where it made the important salient. “Noticeable less” makes the vital things stand out. They’re not drowned in a sea of unnecessary details, like a life raft in a tsunami of blah. It’s realizing that if everything is important, then nothing is.

Editing means twice the work to get fewer words. And, as in the competency trap, people don’t see the editing. But by making sure you push to “noticeable less”, the benefit is obvious to others.

But “noticeable less” is not only true for writing. When you’ve dealt with stifling bureaucracy, a simple, efficient system stands out like neon. What do those gorgeous homes you see on Instagram have in common? Big price tags, for sure, but I seriously doubt they look cluttered.

Instead of doing more mediocre things, rushing to show off you’re working, do less but use the saved time to think, to edit, to prioritize toward noticeable less. That effort is unseen but, if done correctly, makes the end product stand out.

Sound like I’m living in a dream world? Do you think 99% of bosses would prefer an exhaustive 40-page report or a very good 20-page report — with an awesome “executive summary” at the beginning? Noticeable less takes the cake.

How do we get to noticeable less? Three things can help:

  • Begin with the end in mind: Ask, “What will make this good?” We usually start with trying to do everything. That’s the competency trap. Think about the end product and what it takes to get there.
  • Try less before more: Early on, ask yourself, “How simple can I make this?” We often start like we have no constraints but we always do.
  • Subtract early: You wouldn’t move house and then get rid of stuff. Cutting early makes organizing easier and speeds you on the way to noticeable less.

Doing this not only makes the end product better; it’s less stressful. Subtracting can be like taking off a pair of tight shoes you’ve been wearing for years.

So what’s another way that subtraction can improve our lives – dramatically reducing effort, still getting everything done and making us happier?


Don’t Buy Stuff. Buy Time.

We buy a fancy new kitchen gadget, convinced it’ll transform our lives. But if we spent that money on someone to clean our house, suddenly we have this magical thing called free time. A Bluetooth-enabled egg tray is not going to make you happier. But the research shows getting some help with those chores will.

Elizabeth Dunn, a professor at the University of British Columbia, did a study of 6000 people and found that those who spent money on time-saving services like cleaning, cooking, and household maintenance, were happier.

I can already hear the objections, “But those are rich people!”

Wrong. They checked the subset of those making minimum wage: same result. In fact, overall, a correlation was found between greater happiness and fewer to-do’s.

The answer is less. Another study: two groups of people. Give both money. Tell Group One to spend the cash to remove something unpleasant from their schedule. Tell Group Two to buy that shiny thing their heart desires. Follow up later. Guess what? Group One felt more positive, less negative, and less stressed.

We can’t all afford to outsource everything but we can probably trade off a few new shiny things for more free time. It’s choosing sanity over stuff, peace over possessions.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn how to make sure the responsibilities don’t start adding up again once you’ve subtracted…


Sum Up

Here’s how to improve your life through subtraction…

  • The “More” Bias: We’ve got a blind spot when it comes to subtraction, even when it’s the best solution. Think about it: hoarding is a fairly common disorder. We don’t see out of control minimalism. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a reality show about monks who get rid of too much stuff.
  • Avoid The Competency Trap: You can’t say, “Sorry, I can’t make it to your dog’s birthday party; I have a previous engagement with my sanity.” But reframing subtraction can make doing less feel acceptable. Clean, carve, declutter, distill, or optimize.
  • Get To “Noticeable Less”: The best books you read are well edited, the pretty homes you ogle aren’t cluttered, and short medical checklists save lives. Pushing less to the extreme isn’t lazy; it improves things by making what’s important salient.
  • Don’t Buy Stuff, Buy Time: I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a smaller TV and time to watch it than a huge TV and no time to watch it. Buying time makes you happier than buying stuff.

Embrace less and suddenly you’re tossing old concert tickets, takeaway menus from restaurants that no longer exist, and that weird gadget you bought off a late-night infomercial that’s supposed to turn potatoes into gold or something. It’s like your house is losing weight. It’s no longer a 3D jigsaw puzzle of stuff. It starts to feel like an actual place to live, not a storage unit for your past and future selves.

Say no to more chores and activities. Let go of FOMO. Do good work that moves the needle instead of work that just shows you’re working.

And how do we prevent a “Revenge of the MORE”?

Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great”, says that a “to-do” list isn’t the only thing that’s valuable. Sometimes it can be even more beneficial to have a “not-to-do” list.

When doing case studies on how 11 companies went from mediocrity to top performers he found, “my research team and I were struck by how many of the big decisions were not what to do, but what to stop doing.”

The companies turned themselves around more effectively not by doing more, new things but by subtracting the bad behaviors. And this can also work for “You, Inc.” It doesn’t just prevent the negative activities but also frees up more time for what’s effective and what makes you happy. Make a “not-to-do” list from your biggest time wasters and the things that drive you crazy and suddenly doing the good stuff seems a lot easier.

Often, the biggest step is just giving yourself permission to subtract. When you do, it’s like you’ve been wearing a backpack full of bricks and you’ve just discovered you can take it off. You feel lighter, freer. You realize that all this time, you’ve been running a race nobody forced you to enter. It’s like discovering a new planet where time moves at a reasonable pace.

Let’s strip away the excess, the clutter, both physical and metaphorical. In subtracting, we might just find something more valuable than what we’re giving up. We might find a bit of peace, a bit of space, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of ourselves that got lost under all that stuff…

I could write a few more paragraphs but you get it.

Sometimes less really is more.


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