Is Subtraction The Key To Your Well-Being & Productivity? A New 'Nature' Study Thinks So

June 1, 2022

Let’s do a wellness check-in, dumplings. How are you feeling, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually? I’m doing well physically, but my mental and spiritual health is honestly lagging. My to-do list is long. I have multiple deadlines for different projects weaving in and out on my calendar. I often find myself doing things I’d rather not spend my time doing, such as dishes. Sometimes I get wrapped up in negative interactions with strangers or acquaintances—such as two recent instances where my friends appeared to be getting snubbed by my mutual acquaintances. (Even when something is not happening to me directly, it distresses me to witness people I admire receive ungracious treatment.) This isn’t even counting little annoyances and passive aggression of professional life. It’s a lot, isn’t it?

My recent solution to feeling down and burned out was going out and getting myself a new perfume. (Pauline Rochas Le Deuxième Parfum, if you must know!) It was wonderful to treat myself to a self-gift. But I am aware that my fundamental problems haven’t really gone away—I’m still unhappy, but I just smell nicer. Does this feel familiar?

Luckily, before I found another thing to splurge on (something I seriously was considering), I discovered a new study published in Nature that provides a sobering perspective. According to researchers at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, people facing problems rarely think of subtraction as a solution and default to addition, even when it’s not helpful. (Oh my god, this is why I thought buying a new perfume is the solution to my overbooked schedule!) But don’t feel guilty—it appears that human beings are “additive by nature.” To an average human, “Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort,” said Converse, one of the study’s authors. And the more they rely on additive solutions, the more they resort to that strategy in the future. (Cue: me remembering the relief and brief joy upon buying some self-treat, then using that whenever I feel frustrated.)

The human tendency to add, not subtract, happens in all sorts of disciplines and situations, such as engineering, writing, cooking, and health (see how often we try a new supplement rather than cut out an unhealthy element). This is bone-chilling, people.

The idea of subtracting isn’t completely new: several years ago, I read an article about mega-designer Phillip Lim who claimed that “the more comfortable you get in your own skin and the more you know yourself, it’s more about editing out. Not adding.” It stuck in my mind back then, and I think I’m definitely at a point where reducing my stressors is more important than adding random things. Here are things to consider subtracting:

  1. Wasted time on social media. How often do I stop using social media and go, “Wow, that was time well-spent, I feel so loved and happy and restored.” Literally never. I do often tear myself away from scrolling and think, “I feel rejected and less-than.” Not only does it feed my insecurity, it also takes away from time that I can constructively spend on work/pleasure.
  2. People who don’t lift you up. We all know who they are. If you have friends, acquaintances, or strangers who get under your skin and make it impossible for you to return to your day with equanimity, these people have to go! If your primary mode of interaction with them is social media, it might be worth it for you to block them or hide their profile from your newsfeed. (Better still, just reduce social media in general.) If they ask you to hang out, find a way to be true to yourself and compassionate—meaning, gently explain why you don’t want to hang out.
  3. Emails. Random notification emails and advertisements spike my stress hormones without fail. Spend 2 seconds unsubscribing and blocking them—you don’t have to do it all at once, just do a few at a time (I just did Facebook this morning!)
  4. Unimportant work. I get a lot of requests for projects and appearances. For me the question is, do I really need to do this? If the answer is yes, commit without grumbling. If it’s a no, then decline—but again with kindness and professionalism. My preferred way to say no is to do it immediately, out of consideration for someone who worked up the courage to ask. I definitely don’t hem and haw or ghost someone—it’s not professional.
  5. Household chores. Is there anything you can outsource? You don’t have to suffer nobly through broken faucets and stained bathtubs. Can you hire a TaskRabbit? Would you rather have some peace of mind for less than $100?

Do you have anything you would like to subtract?

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Photo: Marissa Grootes


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