Addition By Subtraction: Gaining More With Less

Most of us are searching for more in this life. We strive for more money, more accolades and more possessions. We are conditioned to believe that more is better, but is that always the case?

What if we flipped this idea on its head? What if we cut items out of our lives rather than trying to add more to them? Could we learn to become more content with less?

The exercise of gaining more with less is called addition by subtraction. What is addition by subtraction? Where did this concept come from? What does it mean and how can we make it work for us?

Addition by Subtraction

Mathematically we know that a sum grows larger when we add two numbers together.

  • 2 + 2 = 4
  • 4 > 2

We also know that subtracting one number from another makes the original number smaller.

  • 4 – 2 = 2
  • 2 < 4

So how could the idea of addition by subtraction ever work? How can we gain more by having less or taking things away? How can two ever be greater than four?

Addition by Subtraction in Sports

The concept of addition by subtraction was first introduced in the sports world. Traditional sports teams spend a large portion of time searching for new talent. Coaches typically believe they need more talent to produce a more successful team.

But somewhere along the way a coach realized he didn’t need more talent. Instead he needed to cut underperforming players who were dragging down the team.

Similarly he didn’t need more practices. He needed practices that focused on teaching the skills necessary for success.

So, instead of adding new players and new practices he started cutting players and routines.

After implementing these changes his team improved and thus the phrase “addition by subtraction” was born.

Addition by Subtraction with Chocolates

Imagine a simple scenario. I hold two boxes of chocolates in my hand. The box on the left contains ten pieces. The box on the right contains twenty. You may choose either box free of charge. Which will you choose?

Most of us will reach for the box with more chocolate inside. It’s human nature to want more, but what if you are on a diet, watching your weight or diabetic? Would it make sense to choose the larger box in those cases?

Can we actually gain more by having less? In this case better health and fitness.

Addition by Subtraction in the Workplace

Many years ago I worked for a boss who believed any problem could be solved by adding more engineers. “We just need more people,” he used to say.

Whenever we ran behind schedule he added more meetings and brought on additional staff, but neither helped. In fact, those two actions often increased our delays.

Talented software engineers wasted precious time in conference rooms rehashing the same old ideas. They wasted even more time rewriting code originally written by unskilled engineers.

What we really needed was addition by subtraction. We needed to cut meetings and staff that were keeping us from completing our tasks.

Addition by Subtraction with Children

“I want to watch Paw Patrol,” my youngest announces. “I want to watch Chopped,” my oldest declares. Who gets to choose first? Who went first yesterday?

Every Saturday morning the kids negotiate over their favorite shows. We only have one television in the house, so they can’t both get their way at the same time.

Who will watch their favorite show first? Will they watch two episodes back-to-back or take turns? Having fewer televisions allows them to gain new negotiating skills they wouldn’t have honed if we owned two separate TVs.

We have two young boys in our house, but we don’t own any duplicate art supplies or toys. When my children want to draw or color they pull a small, purple pencil box from the shelf and get right to work. They must wait patiently for the crayon they want or the scissors they need to use.

With less toys and art supplies they learn to work together. They share and negotiate with one another. If they can’t use the bright blue marker they make adjustments to their artwork. When they can’t access the scissors they invent creative ways to fold and strip paper with their hands.

They become more inventive with less resources at their disposal. Sharing tools teaches them to compromise and collaborate with one another. That’s the magic of addition by subtraction.

In this case, they gain more camaraderie, teamwork and creativity by having access to fewer tools.

Gaining More With Less

The concept of addition by subtraction doesn’t just apply to business, sports, chocolates and young children. It also applies to our day-to-day lives. When we strip the unwanted excess we create space for the things that matter.

So what can we purge to better our lives?

Fewer Commitments

This pandemic has completely restructured our day-to-day activities, commitments and obligations. I no longer need to drive my oldest son to basketball or soccer practice and my husband no longer has to suffer through an hour and a half commute.

When we take away these obligations and routines we carve out space for things that are more important. We now wake up slowly on Saturday mornings. We giggle and read books in bed rather than rushing off to practice.

In the early evening my husband and I sit out on the deck and chat about the days events. We treasure these simple moments rather than squeezing them in between the endless list of daily chores.

Most of us need fewer events on our calendars. We follow the same routines without questioning why we do the things we do.

Maybe it’s time to remove the unpleasant and unnecessary obligations from our to-do lists. We might not be able to quit our jobs, but are there commitments we can get rid of? Can we remove the excess and make time for the activities and people we love?

Less Stuff

Decluttering is a perfect example of addition by subtraction. When we remove excess belongings from our homes we reduce the amount of maintenance required to own them.

We don’t have to whittle away all of our possessions to feel the effects. Most of us can learn to live simply with a lot less stuff. Even more importantly, when we stop adding more stuff we can also stop working so hard to pay for it all.

When we declutter we gain time and energy.

Less Technology and Social Media

With a few short keystrokes we can access nearly all of the information in the world. Yet all of this knowledge wreaks havoc on our emotional well being.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all other social media outlets can suck away hours of our lives. We sit down to relax for just a minute and don’t move for countless periods of time.

What if we stripped away this incessant information? Might we feel happier, healthier and better adjusted?

Fewer Toxic People

Do you have a friend or family member who quite literally feels toxic to you? A person that seems to know just what to say to make you upset? How would your life change if you removed this person from your thoughts?

Can you limit your interactions or completely remove your need to be with them? Can you focus on surrounding yourself with positive people who lift your soul rather than people who try to crush it every chance they get?

Imagine how much happier and healthier you would feel without the negativity surrounding you. Is it time to lose these harmful relationships?

Letting Go of the Past

Some of us hold on quite deeply to the traumas of our past. We churn over the same thoughts and ideas day after day. “What could we have done differently,” we repeatedly ask ourselves.

We think about our life plan and ponder where we went wrong. Then we hold on to the hurt and pain of those decisions, but holding on to the past will not change it.

We can gain so much more by removing these negative thoughts from our minds. It’s difficult to look forward if you are constantly looking back.

To better our lives we need to remove the negative feelings associated with prior events. How can we release ourselves from these unhealthy thoughts?

What Can you Subtract From Your Life?

Think carefully about this concept of addition by subtraction. What can you subtract from your life to improve it?

Some of us will need to purge our to-do lists and weekly calendar of events. Others will need to declutter and subtract items from their home.

Maybe you need to remove certain routines from your life or at least learn to shorten them. Perhaps you need to subtract unhealthy food and ingredients from your daily calorie count.

If you aren’t sure where to begin start by subtracting just one thing from your life each day for a month.

At the end of the month ask yourself if you feel calmer and happier? If you do you’ve used the concept of addition by subtraction to better your life.

5 thoughts on “Addition By Subtraction: Gaining More With Less”

  1. I ‘d like to remove constant worrying from my life. It’s one of the things that I’d like to subtract from my life. I know it’s not an easy thing to do but it’s doable. 🙂


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