Do more by using the power of subtraction

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See if you can use the power of subtraction to create more time for writing in your life…

By Ann Gomez

Engineering professor and author, Leidy Klotz, was building a Lego bridge with his young son, Ezra, when they encountered an engineering challenge. The support towers on either side of the span were uneven. How to fix the problem? Klotz’s instinct was to add more to the shorter tower. Young Ezra did the opposite. He brought the taller tower down by subtracting.

Klotz invited many of his colleagues to fix the bridge and their instinct was the same as Leidy’s — they all added more bricks. This prompted Klotz to do some pioneering research on our cognitive bias to solve problems by addition, rather than subtraction.

In a series of experiments, Klotz and his team asked people to improve a recipe for soup, loops of music, a piece of writing, a travel itinerary, and an abstract patterned grid of gray and white squares. The overwhelming number of solutions included more: more ingredients, more notes, more words, more activities, and more squares.

It’s so common to want to add more to our days; more to our lists. I should know — this is definitely my default tendency. I’m usually tempted to tackle it all. Now.

But when our lists are longer than our days, we need a fresh approach to the way we work, even if it seems easier in the short term to manage our work the way we always have. But managing is not thriving. And we all deserve to thrive.

It may seem counterintuitive, but if you want to do more, you need to use the power of subtraction. Subtract the non-essentials. The distractions. The nice-to-do goals. Simplify to amplify.

In Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, Klotz says, we pile on “to-dos” but don’t consider “stop-doings.” We collect new-and-improved ideas but don’t prune the outdated ones. This spreads us thin and dilutes our impact.

I bet you can see the problem in your own garage. Most people my age learned to ride bikes using training wheels, and this is how we started out teaching our own children. Then along came balance bikes, and we learned all we needed to do was remove the pedals.

When we strip away the excess, we use the power of subtraction to focus on what matters most. Previously, I’ve written about identifying your three core priorities and protecting your time and energy for these priorities. Then we can move onto the other shiny objects on our list. As my team will gladly tell you, I am guilty of “shiny object syndrome” and I enjoy adding to my list. But I’ve learned that success requires us to concentrate our energy. Too many priorities and too much choice, leads to feeling over-committed and overloaded.

Taking control over how we spend our time means we make the sometimes tough choices to subtract non-essential activities. It empowers us to say no to activities we might have said yes to out of habit or obligation. And when we cut out these activities, we have more time to focus on what we value most. Filling up our time with high-value activities prevents the others from absorbing more than their fair share.

This is how we create the space we need to focus on what matters most. That’s how we do our best work. And that’s how we thrive.

For more strategies you can use to set yourself up for success, see Ann’s latest book, Workday Warrior: A Proven Path to Reclaiming Your Time, published by Dundurn Press, 2022.

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