We have a bias towards addition. Psychological studies show that we always default to it when trying to make a change. But in an era characterized by “more,” the ability to subtract has become a superpower. Here are some subtraction strategies.
Do you have trouble saying “no”? Don’t feel bashful; most people do. Whether it’s because you don’t like to disappoint others or you suffer from FOMO, chances are you constantly say “yes” — and add meetings, commitments, and projects to your life.
The default setting for most humans is “addition.” There is an evolutionary reason for this. Having lived for millennia in an environment characterized by scarcity, we are programmed to double down when we come across a feast. That same poverty mentality primes us for a cognitive bias called loss aversion, where we fear and feel losses more than gains.
In our Stone Age brains, we treat “less” as a “loss.” And so we continuously add to our plates, schedules, and lives. Yet we’re missing a golden opportunity to be happier, more productive, and more fulfilled if we practice the art of subtraction more. It is a chronically underused thinking tool and problem-solving approach. We need to be constantly editing rather than adding to our lives.
Instead of working out more, we could also eat less.
Instead of making more money, we could spend less.
Rather than chasing more sources of fun, we could remove sources of unhappiness.
So how do we make this mindset shift?
First, subtracting and saying “no” are framed in negative terms in our minds. To overcome this bias, we need to associate subtraction with these words instead:
Second, translate your new subtraction posture into this simple, actionable question: what can I remove or reduce in my life right now to improve it?
For some, that might mean quitting a bad habit. For others, it might be eliminating a superfluous meeting or removing a toxic person from your circle of friends. You’ll be surprised at how much good can come from removing something bad from your life.
Third, get into the habit of ruthlessly prioritizing. As I tell my clients, saying “no” to others is better understood as saying “yes” to your priorities. So get comfortable with the uncomfortable notion that it’s necessary to disappoint some people if you’re going to accomplish your goals.
Fourth, remember the iron law of trade-offs and opportunity costs. If you add a new goal, project, or focus to your life, what will you stop doing to make space for it?
This is not a new idea. But it’s a powerful one — especially in an era where we have almost limitless demands and distractions tugging at our attention.