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 We collect new-and-improved ideas, but don’t prune the outdated ones.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–