When Things Aren't Adding Up, Start Subtracting
Less is more in the pursuit of happiness
“To attain knowledge, add things every day; to attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” Lao Tzu
I began thinking about today’s newsletter whilst sitting on the living room floor, knee-deep in my kids’ books and toys.
As I’ve mentioned before, I like clearing, tidying and sorting – if my mind feels full or overwhelmed, one of the best things I can do for it is pull out a drawer and re-organise. (I realise that may sound like actual hell to you, please read on, we do go beyond tidying!)
This particular mission was inspired by my son’s Montessori-inspired nursery and their strict simplicity policy – they put very few toys out, to encourage the children to focus their attention on one thing at a time. Yes, I thought, this is what I want for my children: less choice, more focus.
(We did used to have less toys, but then we also used to have less kids. Something about going from 1 to 2 seems to have more than doubled the amount of crap – and the work, tbh. I get most of it second hand on eBay but still…)
So I was tackling this particular heap of crap in my regular Home Edit style, with a box and a place for everything. I looked up new storage solutions, wondering where I could fit an Ikea Kallax (answer: nowhere), when I had a sudden realisation: I was trying to solve the problem of too much stuff, with more stuff.
And that led me to consider that pretty much whenever I need a solution to a situation I’m stuck on – a feature I’m writing, a workshop I’m creating, a house I’m tidying, a party we’re throwing – my instinct is to add. I buy another storage box, read another self-development book, find another quote and so on.
Turns out I’m not alone. “In our striving to improve our lives, our work, and our society, we overwhelmingly add,” explains Leidy Klotz, the author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. “We overlook the option to subtract from what is already there.”
Klotz, a behavioural scientist, also came to this (career-defining) realisation through his kids. (They’re good little teachers!) He was building a lego bridge with his son – it was lopsided, and while Koltz reached for another brick to fix it, his son simply removed a brick instead. His mind was blown, he’d never thought to subtract.
Indeed, most of us don’t. It’s human instinct to add; our ancient brains have a scarcity mindset, so they struggle to subtract. As this study in Nature explains, when it comes to making changes in our lives, our default reaction is always: more, more, more! We continue to add, even when we know that on a micro – too many toys – and on a macro – too many everything in the whole world – level, that we need to stop.
To be clear, I believe the huge technological, scientific and industrial advancements we’ve made are incredible – clearly it’s better to be alive now, especially as a woman and a Jew, than at any other point in time. But also, our culture of accumulation isn’t making our lives any better, right? We add more stuff and we place more demands on our time and energy… and then we wonder why we don’t have the resources for what’s actually important to us in life.
Research actually shows that (beyond a good standard of living) people who buy more material items are less happy than those who don’t. Psychologist Barry Schwartz’s explains this with his “paradox of choice”. Basically, because we are bombarded with options in life, no matter what decision we make it feels wrong because there is always at least one other option we could have chosen instead. As Schwartz explains in his TED talk, “the more choice we have, the less satisfied we become.”
We’re all suffering from decision making fatigue – think of the last time you ‘researched’ a skincare product or pair of trainers, only to find yourself down a rabbit hold of indecision, multiple browser tabs open, each one telling you to buy a different thing. (If helpful, I actually set myself a time limit for things like this – last week I gave myself 5 minutes to research and choose a home printer and then quickly bought it. I refuse to ever regret my decision, even if it turns out shit.)
Our default to add means we are overburdened. We are stuff rich and time poor. And of course, we’re decimating our planet and many of the people on it.
While researching all this, I came across a somewhat terrifying statistic: the average household contains more than a quarter of a million items.
That is a lot of stuff.
And the thing is, stuff doesn’t just fill up our houses, it also takes up our time - time that is getting scarcer, in large part because we completely ignore subtraction as a way to relieve our clearly overfilled schedules. (More on this later.)
So I’ve been thinking about what I can take away from my life to add to it, and my mood-board/inspiration for this task is one of those chic, perfect, well-organised menus you get at places like Cafe Cecilia and Apricity. I want my life to be like that (as opposed to a Wetherspoons pub menu that serves pasta, curry, steak, quinoa salad and nachos and generally feels disorganised, confusing and unappealing).
Too much choice is a burden for the mind, the soul and the stomach.
Here are a few things I’m starting with in my mental minimalism journey…
Cookbooks I’ve barely opened and never will
Any friends from whom I (always) get less from than I give
Less social media
Streamlining my work life
ALL THOSE MANY EMPTY JAM JARS
If I have less cookbooks, I’m more likely to open and use the ones left behind. If I give up (for now) the friendships that don’t help me, I’ll have more resources for the ones that do. The social media point is obvious - there are many studies showing the mental health benefits of this. In terms of work, I often say yes to projects before thinking through the time and energy implications involved. I’m trying to change that and this idea of subtracting takes it even further… are there any projects I can simply take away? And jam jars, well, in essence, my relationship with my husband will be better if I stop hoarding them.
There’s also the lifelong, and very important, subtraction journey I’ve been on for sometime, which is taking away or minimising the thoughts that don’t serve me. Most of us accumulate unhealthy and draining thoughts, and most of us need to keep on top of regularly and systematically clearing them out. A daily mental health detox, if you will.
I also try (and sometimes fail!) to talk less and listen more. Because that makes me a better person. To distract myself less, to say no and do nothing or meditate more. Because that makes me a happier person. To declutter my kid’s schedules as well, because a micro-scheduled life is surely a stressful and joyless one, devoid of the special moments that happen in the unplanned, quiet times. (I literally can’t imagine anything worse for anyone’s mental health than to take an Elon Musk approach to time.)
I’m nowhere near capsule wardrobe stage, but I kinda like Jo Elvin’s #weekonawall idea of laying out your clothes for the week. I guess it subtracts the amount of time you spend thinking about what to wear (if you’re the kind of person that indeed thinks about those things.) Fun fact! At 25 I gave up buying new clothes for two years (documented it on a blog, imaginatively titled: nonewclothesforayear dot com). The experience made me appreciate what I already had so much more. Probably time to think about doing something like that again…
Look, this stuff is obvious. Minimalism is not a new trend and I don’t believe I’m writing anything here that hasn’t been said before. I’m just saying it again, mostly for myself – fairly recently I bought 3 second-hand cake stands from eBay, bit excessive by anyone’s standards…
The fact is that when you live with less, you’re forced to prioritise. Happiness doesn’t come from taking on everything that comes your way or blindly adding more and more stuff to what you already do. Thinking deeply about what you could subtract from your life and mind, makes you realise what’s actually important and what you would never, ever want to give up.
So, if are after more of something in your life – time, fun, health – and no matter how hard you try it’s just not happening, this is your invitation to think about what you might need to subtract instead. Maybe that’s the key to what you’re looking for: subtract to add, subtract to make progress.
As any good editor knows, it’s in the subtracting that the magic of an article, book or magazine happens. It’s about having the confidence to trim words, lose paragraphs or cut an entire story altogether.
Be brave, cut.
Are you a seasoned minimalist? I’d love to hear any tips you may have!