Books · Something to Think About

Age of Subtraction

Many years ago, bricks used to be completely solid. Houses and buildings went up with solid bricks. But in 1927, Anna Wagner Keichline patented a brick known as the K-brick, which was hollow and could be filled with “soundproofing or insulating materials, making it versatile and efficient. The K Brick led to the development of today’s concrete block.” She subtracted something in order to make it better. I heard about her from the Hidden Brain podcast, in an episode titled “Do Less.” Shankar Vedantam, the host, featured Engineer Leidy Klotz and so much of what he said intrigued me: “We pile on ‘to-dos’ but don’t consider ‘stop-doings.’ We collect new-and-improved ideas, but don’t prune the outdated ones. Every day, across challenges big and small…we don’t subtract.”

I learned the phrase in the title of this post from my father, who says that a certain time in our lives we enter the Age of Subtraction. To him, this meant less energy, weaker eyesight, feeble knees, and a general inability to go and do like when he was a younger man. Coming from a different generation, one that had not yet been inundated with ads, consumer spending, The Great Garbage Patch, Climate Change or other such beauties of late 20th century life, the concept of addition was full steam ahead.

These two supposedly opposing ideas intrigued me. Why do we resist subtraction? Why are we all about addition?

For quilters and creatives, it manifests itself in adding to our Works in Progress lists. We grab at the next line of fabric, knowing the last line of fabric is at home. While this idea might certainly have at its root the dopamine ping of a new idea, or a few likes on our work on social media, or a brilliant new color (whether in a paint tube or in cloth). But maybe at its root is also a bit of anxiety. We used to be able to buy a fabric line for months, as it was in our shops. Now fabric lines come-and-go at a fast clip. If you don’t buy it now, it will sell out.

The same with ideas: everyone’s making a quilted jacket, so we’d better get going. There are supply chain line interruptions, so for a while, bakers couldn’t get vanilla except at exorbitant prices. Uncertainty is everywhere, so we buy faster, we make faster, our list of things to make never stops. And all the while, we feel the tick of time like my father, worrying about getting it all done.

In his book, Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman brings forward the idea that if you live to be 80 years old, that’s four-thousand weeks of life. He writes about this idea of trying to get it all done:

[T]he core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done—that’s never going to happen—but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.

Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks (p. 71). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

And there’s that subtraction thing again: “decide most wisely what not to do.” Can subtraction be a new way to operate? I’ve been a time efficiency wonk for years, always trying to find a better way to add things in, organize them. Burkeman called himself a “productivity obsessive.” In this book he takes aim at that familiar time management trope of the rocks, pebbles, sand and water all piled into a jar in order, showing so-called good time management. But he notes, that object lesson is rigged, because the person demonstrating it isn’t going to bring bigger rocks, or more rocks and pebbles than can fit in the jar. (What a relief!) Yet, I still wondered about how to handle my Works-in-Progress projects that pile up. I still couldn’t get to subtraction:

[One] approach is to fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you allow yourself to work on at any given time. In their book Personal Kanban, which explores this strategy in detail, the management experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry suggest no more than three items. Once you’ve selected those tasks, all other incoming demands on your time must wait until one of the three items has been completed, thereby freeing up a slot. (It’s also permissible to free up a slot by abandoning a project altogether if it isn’t working out. The point isn’t to force yourself to finish absolutely everything you start, but rather to banish the bad habit of keeping an ever-proliferating number of half-finished projects on the back burner.)

Burkeman found that:

Making this rather modest change to my working practices produced a startlingly large effect. It was no longer possible for me to ignore the fact that my capacity for work was strictly finite—because each time I selected a new task from my to-do list, as one of my three work-in-progress items, I was obliged to contemplate all those I’d inevitably be neglecting in order to focus on it. And yet precisely because I was being forced to confront reality in this way—to see that I was always neglecting most tasks, in order to work on anything at all, and that working on everything at once simply wasn’t an option—the result was a powerful sense of undistracted calm, and a lot more productivity than in my days as a productivity obsessive (ibid.,75-76).

So maybe my idea of brain-dumping everything that I think I want to do isn’t so helpful after all. And maybe setting quarterly goals, while perhaps a good idea to guide me, isn’t really helpful on a weekly basis? Being introduced to this idea of subtraction, coupled with reading about my finite life in Burkeman’s book reminds me of that old line: Saying yes to one thing means saying no to other things.

Our lives are often quantified by how money we make, or how many followers we have, or by what we produce. But always when I step back from that race, I have to include satisfaction of the process. To this day, my 96-year-old Dad has a paintbrush in his hand, working on a new painting. I want to be found at 96 (if I’m still around), with a needle in my hand, or typing at the computer writing my history, corresponding with people I love. By subtracting out things I don’t think are important, I hope to do things that I enjoy and that sustain me.

Good luck with your own subtraction challenges–

31 thoughts on “Age of Subtraction

  1. How interesting! I periodically listen to the Hidden Brain podcast but I’m not familiar with that episode. However I did see something about making not a to-do list but a to-don’t one!!! I’m more than happy to have just three things on my to-do list but need to work on my other one! 😃

  2. So true! As is always heard, life is so short. Prioritizing the things that will leave the memories is the most important thing we can do. It great to be given the permission to let some things go! Thank you.

  3. This is one of the most important things I have read in a long time. I just had to make a decision at my job that reflects this thinking. It is affirming and relieving to know that I have made a good decision. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. Thank you, too, for sharing your quilts and quilting talent with us.

  4. Great post! Currently overwhelmed with to do’s I’m trying to move one thing forward each day!

    Can’t tell you my frustration with fabric lines. You see it 6 months before you can get it, it arrives (late) and a month later is gone! You see it in a project and think oh that would be perfect for….. and can’t find it anywhere. Or worse YOU DIDN’T BUY ENOUGH TO FINISH A BORDER. Sometimes eBay is my friend!

  5. This post is just what I needed as I try to not only get organized, but to declutter and prioritize! I am definitely going to listen to the podcast and am off to find the Personal Kanban book. Thank you for such an insightful post!

  6. What a good post to read. Lately I’ve been overwhelmed by all the things I want to do. I realized this overwhelm is blocking me from getting things done. I’m interested in reading the book you refer to.

  7. I enjoyed every word of this post! I had never heard of Four Thousand Weeks but I am very close to the end of that real life chapter! At the beginning of 2022, I began what could be called the age of subtraction! I will not start any new quilts or projects until all that I want to finish have been completed. If a rabbit comes my way, I make note of it for the future if there is time. I have narrowed down the things that are important to three and that is what I focus on. I hope to live to be 100 or 120 but I need to get those three things completed sooner rather than later. I am glad to hear that your dad is still painting and enjoying his life. Thanks for taking the time with your post.

  8. Yes! My latest idea is to bring things along with me to my stitching group, like next time it will be a box of lace I’ve saved. I will be working on a project with it and share how it is done at the stitching group and then keep only enough to finish that project. Others may be interested in taking the rest of the lace to make whatever they want. If not it will then be donated to a local charitable organization for resale. The result will be one less thing taking up space, sitting unused too long!

  9. Thanks for another thoughtful post, Elizabeth. Downsizing to move from a three story house to a condo last year forced me to do some major subtraction. After a year of condo life, I am considering repeating my downsizing of unfinished projects and arbitrary stash. There will always be the next gorgeous, must have yardage; the inspirational book or pattern; the IG eye candy (although less of that in the feed, but don’t get me started on IG). So when I see a project or yardage or a quilt that I feel I must have, I have begun to tell myself that although that yardage is gorgeous, wait a week and there will be another equally gorgeous piece of fabric. After all, quilting is a billion dollar industry, and the powers that be will not stop producing fabric tomorrow. As I enter my 70’s in a few weeks, I have an enhanced appreciation of the fact that I don’t want my unfinished projects to own me. I don’t want to feel that I am working day in and day out to complete something just because it is unfinished. I have learned what I wanted to learn from some of them, and I am willing to pass them on. Others I do want to finish, and will enjoy the process without feeling the weight of guilt that often accompanies the unfinished. Thanks again, Elizabeth.

  10. This absolutely resonates with me and the way my husband and I try to live our lives. We aren’t perfect at this by an means, and we certainly hadn’t necessarily read these books or heard these exact philosophies or names before, but it’s very much in alignment with the way we strive to live. And let me tell you – making a big move can turn the “do 3 things” thing on its head! Sometimes I still think that writing out the huge list is beneficial – it keeps those things from kicking around in your head so that you KNOW you’ve chosen the right item or items to focus on for the day. I think Dumbledore says something like this in one of the Harry Potter books: “Sometimes, my head feels so full that I can’t get a proper look at my thoughts and memories…” Anyway, thank you so much for this, I will be reading it to my husband so we can discuss more. And we will probably be writing out a big to do list so we can confidently pick and move forward.

  11. Thank you Elizabeth for a great post. My husband even read it and enjoyed it as well, the way you put things together is so amazing. Thank you for taking the time to send your thoughts out onto the blog for those of us to read who can’t quite express ourselves as eloquently as you. This is a pist i will pass aling to others.

  12. Thank you writing about this topic. All around us we are bombarded with do more, have more and keep up. As someone living with a cronic disease I have learned to say no, both professionally and personally. Preserving the strength I have for all that I must do and want to do. Once I told my pastor (who is my boss) why I don’t volunteer for outside of work projects that stress was eased and gave me the freedom to help where I wanted as I was able..
    I usually take a book with me when camping so this one will go on my list.

  13. Great post! I pretty clearly recall deciding in my 40s that I had to give up something every time I agreed to take something on. I still have trouble with overcommitting, though 😉 I want to do it all!

  14. As I’ve gotten older I find myself thinking about the things I want to do vs the things I REALLY want to do in the time I have. That includes trying to refrain from adding more stuff to my life as well as trying to purge in other areas. It’s an ongoing process and yet I can feel the ties slowly loosening. The hardest part might just be steering clear of new fabric. Thanks for another insightful post.

  15. Thank you for this post, and for the links/rabbit-holes in your first paragraph. I’m deep into the Age of Subtraction, and much has been subtracted, often against my wishes, but I’m still making small things and communicating with the world outside. I was reminded to look back at another post of yours I’d saved, from March 16, 2012: The Done Manifesto. One good thing is that I’ve already tried some of the new fads (e.g. granny squares and quilted jackets) the LAST time they came around, or even the time before THAT!

  16. Elizabeth I had not heard of the Age of Subtraction but seem to have been starting to live my life that way. A few years back we moved from our acreage with a large house, shop and studio to a one bedroom apartment. I downsized a lot and have continued to do so while keeping up with my To-Do Lists. In the spring when we lost my great granddaughter everything just stopped for a few weeks. Once it was time for me to be ready to start doing again I took stock of what was on my ToDo list. I left the Board of my Guild and can now pick and choose which activities I want to do. I choose to spend more time communicating with my family, reading and writing when I have something to say on my blog. I choose to spend more time helping my friends. I choose to only work on the quilting projects that touch my soul. So that is my list of 3. I will add your recommended book to my list. It does seem like a logical read. I’m so glad your father is still painting and that you are choosing ToDo Less. 😉

  17. Thank you, Elizabeth, for this wonderful post! This is a topic I’ve been thinking about and trying my best to act on since I retired 6 years ago. Where/how we direct our “attention” is EVERYTHING and becomes more and more important as we age and time becomes more and more limited. Another good book on this is “How To Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell. In the quilting realm, I’ve been lucky that I’m naturally a “finisher” with an average of 3 “active” and 3 “hibernating” projects at any given time. I usually start something new only when something is completed. Limiting the purchase of new fabric is an ongoing challenge and I’m proud of myself for BUYING NOTHING at the recent show I attended!😊. Thanks again for your eloquent presentation of this important subject.

  18. Such a great post, lots of things to think about.
    Once I retired I have been more focused on my personal journey and am getting better at letting go of finishing those things that stop bringing joy. My downfall is Block of the Month programs as I absolutely love them and there always seems to be another I can’t resist, yours included!😆

  19. I have been introducing this idea at work. Although I framed it as spinning dishes. If we can only safely spin so many dishes, we have to decide which to take down and place in the China cabinet to be spun later or accept that some will fall and break. My boss loves the idea and has asked the whole team to identify those tasks that maybe we shouldn’t be doing at all (the trouble with being reliable and dependable and good at what we do is that we also tend to get work meant for others).

    I love having a name for this concept.

  20. Maybe that’s why I feel like I never get anywhere or get anything done lately, I keep on adding projects or ideas. (the traveling doesn’t help) Once school really gets going, I will have to sit down and take a serious look at what stays and what goes.

  21. Always nice to read well-thought-out concepts that resonate with my own fleeting thoughts on the same subject that have been floating about, but not crystalized. I think I heard this guy talking to Sam Harris too…definitely a worthwhile way of trying to deal with our busy busy world. Thanks for engaging the topic!!

  22. Dear Elizabeth,
    I totally agree with that post… that’s what I try to manage the last two years… sometimes I fail, sometimes it’s easy to let it go… but I definitely feel better and more grounded.
    It’s a long and windy road to substraction!
    Hugs to you my dear friend 🤗

  23. Thank you for this Elizabeth! I’m bookmarking it, and will be contemplating how to apply it to my work life and my creative life. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and stuck lately, and something has to give!

  24. I have always enjoyed your dad’s ruminations, you’ve been good to share them periodically, and the “age of subtraction” is such a wonderful pearl. Having retired 16 years ago, I’ve had ample time to quiet down and reflect on all sorts of things. These days enjoying a sweet breeze is way more important than sewing “just one more piece” and walking a funny dog who jumps like the reindeer on Polar Express brings way more joy than finishing that duffle bag. Over time the one-more-piece and the duffle bag will get done and if they don’t – it’s ok. There is a season for everything.

  25. Last spring, my sewing and quilting had come to a virtual standstill because I was overwhelmed by my huge stash of (unwanted) Civil War repro fabrics from back in the day. Every time I thought of starting an exciting new project, I was just frozen with guilt over all that expensive fabric lurking on my shelves. I thought about trying to sell it, but was immediately overwhelmed with having to unfold, measure, photograph, list for sale, and then (hopefully) box up and ship all that yardage. 😮 The solution came when I realized that many local animal shelters have volunteers who make cage mats and cage covers for the animals. Donating all that fabric to three local shelters was the perfect solution for me! It allowed me to just weigh the fabric to estimate the yardage (for taxes, as donations), box it up and drive it to the shelters, where they were absolutely delighted to get it! Voila! I subtracted a whole truckload of guilt and immediately felt lighter. Now I am happily working on way more than three projects! I guess I have reached the age where I don’t want to make arbitrary rules for myself (such as an upper limit of current projects) and I have enough “squirrel” moments to keep them all WIPs and not UFOs. 🤣 Whatever works, right?

  26. Great post that I have reread several times. I hope to share this with our guild and my husband thought it was good also. Thanks for all the wonderful recommendations – off to listen to Hidden Brain!

  27. Dear Elizabeth,
    During lockdown I took pause and read every post here, commented regularly, felt more at peace with life’s lists, was calm…and YET. I KNEW it was a contrived and mandated upper limit on obligations, tasks, etc. Then the world opened up and the calendar suddenly filled. Now I I’m back to needing to read and absorb wise words about subtracting and finding balance again. I wouldn’t have it any other way though, and this post is crucially timed as I navigate forward. It resonates with me as I try to subtract “should” or “need-to” items so I ALLOW myself more time to quilt. Thank you for linking it in your newer post so I was able to catch it—late—-but never too late!

  28. This was an important post for me to read. The idea of deciding what NOT to do and feeling at peace about it is a monumental thought.

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