The Addition That Comes from Deliberate Subtraction

When I was a kid, I worked on art projects until they were finished. Then, due to a combination of my overly-idealistic youthfulness and a lack of restraint, I kept adding details until I messed up the projects completely. After countless botched attempts to add "one more thing," I finally learned to hold back and let good projects rest.

This is a smart lesson to learn. It's useful to know when to say, "This is enough. Anything more will detract."

Even now, I talk to my writing and public speaking students about using deliberate subtraction in order to add meaning and clarity. We reduce excess words. We streamline content so only the best remains. We minimize clutter so every sentence, image, and idea adds value. It's hard work, but it reaps dividends.

The concept of deliberate subtraction doesn't just influence my classroom instruction; it also impacts my daily life. It's shockingly easy to fill a day to the brim with obligations and activity. I've had months -- years, even -- when I've kept moving, like I was running on a hamster wheel, and I rarely paused to assess if my perpetual activity added value.

When you're operating at full capacity, there's only time for reaction, not reflection. It's exhausting. And, sadly, it's also empty.

I was tired of being exhausted, so this year I grappled with the choice to slow the pace of my life in a very concrete way: I reduced my teaching load by one course each semester. While this choice to "do less" made me feel weak at first, I've since recognized it as the single greatest decision of self-care that I've made during my adult life.

I'm doing less, but I'm doing better. Addition has resulted from subtraction.

If you're tackling too much in most facets of life, let me encourage you to deliberately subtract. It might hurt to let go of good activities. It might bruise our egos to admit that we can't do it all well. It might feel like a cop-out to build margins of time and rest into our lives when, technically, we know we could squeeze in something else.

But consider the art project. Adding "one more thing" can become more of a liability than an asset when it clutters and crowds.

The practice of deliberate subtraction operates in stark contrast to the frenetic pace of our world. But that's okay. Less can be more.

No comments

Back to Top