Living Life By Subtractive Addition: The Lost Art Of Less

Michelangelo was a painter, author, sculptor and poet.

His works are vast, but his most proclaimed are The David, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the Pieta. He was a bold pioneer during the Italian Renaissance, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest artistic geniuses of all time.

While we get to witness and enjoy his revealed work, his creation process was arguably more fascinating – maybe even more valuable. Mark McGuiness of Lateral Action, gives us a glimpse of Michelangelo’s creation process:

On a cold winter’s day shortly before his death, the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti gathered a large sheaf of drawings from his studio and carried them outside. As he stepped through the doorway he caught his breath – first at the frosty Roman air, then at a gust of smoke from a bonfire burning in the yard.

Approaching the fire with the breeze at his back, the artist bent over and started feeding it with the drawings – single sheets at first, for fear of choking the flames, then more and more as the blaze took hold, finally dumping the whole pile into the heart of the conflagration. Reaching for a pitchfork, he scooped up stray sheets and scraps, folding them back into the flames.

An outstretched arm shrivelled and blackened before his eyes. A woman with the face of an angel flickered out in an instant.

A cathedral facade burst into flames and collapsed. A fury screamed silently in its miniature hell. Without a second glance, the artist went back into the house for another load. Then another. As the morning progressed, the column of smoke grew thicker and rose higher, visible across the city in the clear winter sunshine. Michelangelo did not stop until he had emptied the studio, until every last scrap was safely gathered in to the fire.

Until there was nothing to show for his years of toil with chalk and ink but a heap of embers and ashes.


Why would he do this?

Excellence was what drove Michelangelo. His vision for his own work was established at such a high level, that even his own toil often failed to transpire the kind of work he wanted to produce.

Therefore, he assumed editor-in-chief of his own work and eliminated the par, unimportant and unremarkable.

He wanted to leave behind only the essential – the masterpieces.

He was merciless in his editing process.

Although I’m no Michelangelo, I’ve found that my creative process adopting a similar rhythm: Nose dive into creating a ton of stuff and then abandon the surfeit until only the essential remains.

I call this Subtractive Addition.

By removing the excess, the end product carries more weight – it cuts through the noise like a knife through warm butter.

Eliminating the unnecessary makes it difficult not to see what’s important because all that’s left are the elements that are essential.

When I create this way – investing heavily into the editing process – my work tends to be tighter, more powerful, succinct.

But it’s damn hard to do this.

The aim of Subtractive Addition is to make life as effortless as possible for the reader. The sole purpose is to assist the reader in having the clearest interpretation of the most important idea, message or element of the work.

This process is easily understood, but far more difficult to do.

I’ve been writing consistently for two years now – I’m still new. However, the habit of creating and doing the work has been established. What I didn’t foresee was how painful the editing process would be.

It’s rather easy to get attached to anything you create. Work that takes hours, days, maybe even months, may need to get tossed. Deleted.

But, I’m learning that great work requires even greater discipline to eliminate the surplus. Steven King says:

To write is human, to edit is divine.

This concept isn’t revolutionary in the arts, but it provides a strikingly appropriate metaphor for life.

I’ve noticed that beyond writing, we tend to focus on only accumulating more of everything  – and never pay attention to editing. We end up bombarded with inputs, handcuffed by consumerism, and plagued with perpetual discontent.

Ironically, the pursuit of excess leads to less. The quality of everything tends to suffer when the refinement process, the editing, doesn’t take place.

In writing, when you create the first draft, it’s usually graffitied with errors and to many words. Without combing through and removing the unnecessary, all you have is a lot of words that result in a sloppy, hardly penetrating piece of work.

You can write all you want, but without subtractive addition, you’ll never have a masterpiece.

The same can be said for life.

If all we do is accumulate more without removing the unimportant, we just end up with a lot of stuff with little to no meaning.

Michelangelo cherished every piece of his work – after he erased the pieces he felt were inadequate.

What if you could cherish every piece of work you produced?

What if every pair of shoes and piece of clothing you owned were handpicked and best-loved?

What if everything you created, owned or experienced was your favorite thing?

What if you lived a life absent of excess?

By living a life by Subtractive Addition you can. But first, it’s important to know why it’s so hard to do so.


We Have Become Addicted To More

All behaviors have the potential to become addictive when dopamine levels increase as a consequence of the behavior.

And external achievement or acquisition is no exception. Whenever we get, achieve or experience something new, our brains fire off dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel excited, energized and “pleasured.” It’s also known as the reward chemical.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with getting, achieving or experiencing new things. However, if you’re not mindful, you might wake up one day trekking along what psychologist call “the hedonic treadmill.”

The freshness of those new Nike Fly Knits, the new car smell in that Range Rover, the adventure of that new job or the charm of that rustic bohemian loft gradually become normal, and you’re no longer stimulated.

The dopamine release is nowhere to be found. So, you go hunting for the next hit.

Jonah Lehrer calls this dopamine ergil adaptation.

We take everything for granted and get bored so easily that we end up chasing little pellets of dopamine to keep ourselves stimulated.

We’ve trained ourselves to always want more.

But there’s hope.

Even though mass consumption and over-indulgence seems commonplace, it’s not. If you feel chocked by excess, like an eagle who has clutched its prey between its claws, it may be time to assume the role of editor-in-chief of your own life.


A Few Ways To Live Life By Subtractive Addition

Be aware

This first step is living a life of subtracrtive addition, is to be aware that more isn’t always the goal. However, this is easier said than done.

The Tetris Effect occurs when people devote so much time and attention to an activity that it begins to forge their thoughts, mental images and dreams.

In a study at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, researchers paid 27 people to play Tetris for multiple hours a day, three days in a row.

After three days, the subjects found themselves thinking about how shapes in the real world would fit together – boxes on the supermarket shelf, buildings on the street or focusing on a brick wall and calculating how they would rotate the slightly darker bricks to make them fit in with the row of dark bricks.

The point? You become what you repeatedly expose yourself to.

We get suffocated with about 5,000 ads per day. If you’re not attentive, most of these ads are all about one thing: More.

More money, more sex, more power, more fame, more stuff.

So without knowing any better, we adopt a life of more.

At some point, this overloads the mind and causes mental clutter. It’s akin to a cup full of tea, yet we keep pouring.

A practical first step to editing your life is to be aware of your own thoughts. To objectively watch your mind and see what goes on allows you to witness yourself as a fly on the wall.

It gives you the power to realize that every thought that comes through your mind doesn’t have to be acted upon. You can simply watch the impulsive thoughts float by – much like if you were sitting on the bank of a river watching the water pass by.

Headspace is like a personal trainer for your brain. It’s meditation made easy. And, all you need is ten minutes per day.



Blue Sky First, Blazing Sunset Second

B.J. Novack, writer and executive producer of the timeless comedy series The Office, starts every season with what he calls The Blue Sky period.

For two to four weeks, all of the writers would show up and let it rip.

This was a time for creation – a period to try things. The creative team was throwing every idea up against the wall to see which ones would stick.

Then, they would toss out the ideas that didn’t work, eliminate the unimportant and arrive at the final product.

However, the blue sky period always came first before the masterpiece was crafted.

In other words, you need a blue sky (a period to try things) before you can have a blazing sunset (the final outcome, the masterpiece).

The formula: Blue Sky Period (try new things, feel out the new job, meet new people, move to a different city) >Subtractive Addition (eliminate the non-essential, remove the excess) > Blazing Sunset (the final piece, the outcome).



Leverage The Power Of One

Research shows that we can only truly multi-task with mundane activities like walking. But, with more complex tasks that require our attention, multi-tasking doesn’t work – we’re really just task switching. We go from one thing to another forcing our minds to bounce off of several demanding tasks.

This makes us feel efficient, but really, all it does is make us less effective at each task – and often it takes longer to complete everything in general.

In fact, David Rock highlights this in his book, Your Brain at Work:

Distractions are everywhere. And with the always-on technologies of today, they take a heavy toll on productivity. 

One study found that office distractions eat an average 2.1 hours a day.

Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all.

People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.

It’s apparent that trying to do more when you’re working is not working. When you try to multi-task the quality of your work goes down and the total time you spend working goes up. Not the best combo. Eliminate the distractions at work. Do one thing at a time.

We can also spill the power of one outside of the office walls too.

At the dinner table, have one conversation.

Have one pair of expensive boots that you absolutely love instead of buying six pairs that you could do without.

Have one phone.

Have one bedroom instead of the six you don’t need.

Have one coffee mug instead of a cupboard packed with mugs you don’t even like.

Have one meaningful goal that you know you can pour into, instead of pulling nine goals out of the air in which you know you won’t give your all to.

Seneca wrote, “Everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things.”


Ruthlessly Prioritize Deep Work – Reactive Tasks Can Always Wait

Just a few decades ago, it actually took effort to not be bored. Today, the reverse is true. We simply can’t stay away from stimulation.

Everything feels caffeinated.

And the result is that we spend our fixed asset – time – reacting to everything, instead of investing into deep work.

So we fiddle with shallow work – replying to emails, re-organizing the desk, chat about future plans, attend meetings that never end,  look over layouts, draft bullet point lists. In the end this simply just fills the time. It’s not substantive.

We do this because it’s easy. The amount external distractions we are exposed to make it seemingly impossible to not react to the ping. When we give into the facade, it makes us feel productive because we’re doing something.

 But shallow, easy work isn’t potent. It doesn’t penetrate. Therefore, we lack pride in our work.

To arm yourself against shallow work, you must ruthlessly prioritize deep work. Everything else can wait. Chances are, nobody will die or visit your office with club and chains if you don’t reply to that email within 17 minutes.

The reason why this is so difficult is because we are driven by pleasure – but we want happiness. And the two aren’t synonyms.

Someone slamming a gagger can experience pleasure. Someone who finishes a marathon in three hours experiences happiness.

Shallow work provides pleasure. Deep work provides happiness.

One is immediate and easy. The other is gradual and difficult.



Impress With Character, Not Your Stuff

We’ve put a herculean effort into placing value into stuff and achievement.

If I build the business everything will be good, right?

If I get the promotion, things will settle in, right?

If I drive the new car my clients will respect me, right?

If we get the white picket fence, three car garage and the dog, everything will be perfect, right?

If I get the body I’ve always dreamed of, people will notice me, right?

None of this stuff is inherently foul. We all have ambitions that can be used as vessels for growth. But it’s when these pursuits act as a means to validate who we are as people is where we run into trouble.

We get caught in this vortex of accumulating and achieving with hopes that we get heard, noticed and accepted.

But in reality, people don’t really care about the car you drive. They may congratulate you on the new, lavish home, but they don’t really care. They’ll ask how you got the promotion, but they don’t really care. They might marvel at your physique for a second, but they don’t really care.

We think our stuff impresses people. It doesn’t.

It has little to do with our stuff, but everything to do with the way we act, contribute and treat the other person. A practical shift is to focus less on stuff, and more on character. If packing up and heading to South East Asia to help build water wells is your call, then so be it. However, for most, smaller acts of character building is more realistic.

Taking your mom to lunch and reminiscing over the good times you both had growing up.

Volunteering as a coach for your local boys basketball team.

Sending a text message to a friend encouraging them that their current project fits their strength set.

Leaving your phone in the car on date night while you have dinner with your spouse.

Lee Mildon once said, “People seldom notice old clothes if you wear a big smile.”


Wrapping Up

It’s often said that writers write about what they are struggling with.

I too, wrestle with excess. I’m in the trenches with you. Writing this piece helped me to understand Subtractive Addition beyond writing.

It’s my hope it did the same for you.


Question: Do you feel trapped with excess? How do you plan on using Subtractive Addition to add more in your life? Share your answer with me on FacebookInstagram or Twitter.

End Notes:

Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus, Shawn Achor, Mark McGuiness  and Greg McKeown for prompting this piece:

Essential: Essays by The Minimalists

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Why You Don’t Need To Be A Genius To Be A Creative Success 

New Research Sheds Light On Daily Ad Exposures 

Easily Distracted: Why It’s Hard And What To Do About It