The Art of Subtraction: How I’ve Redefined My Personal Wellness by Removing, Rather than Adding to My Life

BY EDIKAN UMOH

Being overwhelmed has become a regular feeling in my life. I have anxiety, and it doesn’t make it better that I seem to willingly add to the situation. I have a false sense of how much pressure and stress I can actually handle. In striving to improve my life and my work, I inexplicably, and overwhelmingly, add.

We are surrounded by the mindset of constant scarcity, so there’s always some part of my life I feel is not complete. My default thinking is “more is better”, and I’ve realised over time that it is affecting how I approach life and its ambitions.

In my mind, there is this scarcity of opportunities out there, so I tend to jump on almost anything offered to me, in the hopes that it will lead to what I’m looking for. It took me a while to realise that more is, actually, not always better, and I believe the new year was a perfect time for this realisation.

In a study published by Nature in 2021, Leidy E. Klotz, Gabrielle S. Adams, Benjamin A. Converse, and Andrew H. Hales challenged participants to modify a Lego sandwich-like structure. Each participant received a structure consisting of parallel horizontal Lego panels, connected by a vertical column that narrowed to only one block wide, where it connected to the top panel. They asked participants to “improve this project so that it can hold a brick above the storm trooper’s head without collapsing.” And it even offered an incentive.

The best solution during the experience was to remove the single block forming the thin part of the column. Subtracting one block was the fastest way to solve the problem. Yet, participants preferred to add, rather than subtract. This is evidence that we, as people, choose to instinctively add, to our detriment.

We tend to neglect subtraction. Every time we want to improve our lives, or level up in terms of either new year’s resolutions or just getting our life together, our default is to add. Whenever we try to change how things are, into how we want them to be, we often overlook the possibility of removing clutter. But at the start of this new year, I started willingly subtracting, after it was done for me not so willingly for so long.

When 2022 started, I was kicked off a project I thought I was excited about, but I felt an unexpected, huge sense of relief afterwards. It made me realise that deep down, I knew I was doing too much, but that scarcity mindset didn’t allow me to let it go. This turn of events made me start intentionally implementing subtraction and rejection in my life.

It may look like the ‘science of doing less’, but subtraction actually turned out to be about narrowing my attention. I could now devote depth and focus to the few commitments in my life. And getting to less meant doing, or at least thinking, more.

Although the scarcity mindset still prevailed, I was able to double down on what I actually wanted to do. And that’s another thing: seeing as I felt relief after that situation was subtracted from my life, it made me think more about the “why” behind some activities in my life. The level of intentionality and passion for any project I undertake is now immensely important to me, especially if it is volunteer work.

In terms of intensity and pressure, one benefit I have had from implementing subtraction in my life is preserving my mental health. It didn’t really improve it, but I know how worse it would have been with the unneeded or unnecessary pressure. I’m at a stage in my life where my mental illness can be triggered very easily, and doing less is one of the ways I manage it. Pressure and stress trigger my anxiety, which often leads to several bad mental health days in a row. Implementing subtraction has allowed me to break this loop. By doing less, I can now focus more on my mental health and make it better, little by little.

Now that I have experienced the theory of subtraction myself, and put the studies to good use, it has been something that I can easily carry at the back of my mind. The art of subtraction has become a way of life, and a healthy habit.

It has become a ‘mental model’ for making decisions in my life. Implementing subtraction and rejection has made living more fulfilling, and I have more agency. I am no longer going with the flow, or leaving my fate to other people’s decisions. I am where I am on purpose.