Add to your Willingness to Subtract

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In life, it’s easier to add than to subtract. And all that addition can add up to a big problem — fast.

Life’s “Plus” Button

Take a look at the calculator in the image above. Notice anything special? It’s a common-as-dirt pocket calculator, and if it weren’t for smartphones, we’d probably still see them everywhere. But look at the keys. Every key is the same shape and size — except for the plus. Why is that? A user interface expert might tell you that most people add up numbers on calculators far more often than any other computation, so making the addition button bigger makes the most common task quicker and easier.

Oversized “plus” keys show up in lots of places other than calculators. Modern life seems determined to make it as easy as possible to add things to our lives. This trend is most obvious in commerce, where stores get larger and larger, carrying more and more goods, even though our basic needs haven’t changed all that much in the last hundred years. If you have a car or live near decent public transportation, then you have thousands of places you can go to spend time and money that would have been hard to reach in the past. The Internet offers millions of ways to add to your life, both directly and indirectly. Years from now, we’ll look back at street photos where most people are looking down at their phones, and find it strange.

While adding to our lives has gotten easier, subtraction has either stayed the same or become more difficult. Think about all the ways you could buy a couch. Probably, between brick-and-mortar retailers and the internet, you could come up with a dozen or two solutions, and they would all be easy, with free delivery and instant credit. Now think about how to get rid of a couch. How many ways can you think of? How difficult are these methods and how familiar are you with them? Is it any wonder that many of us have more furniture cluttering our homes than we really need?

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Socially, the plus button has gotten bigger as well. Facebook, MeetUp, and EVite all allow people to reach out and invite us to events and commitments that we might not have ever considered in the past. While social connection is good to have, the quality of Facebook friends usually pales in comparison to pre-Facebook, or outside-of-Facebook friends, and we are at risk of having a calendar full of events we don’t care for, but haven’t got the heart to cancel. As we hammer the “plus” button again and again, it becomes harder and harder to account for all the commitments we’ve made.

Subtracting from the Constants: Time and Energy

Having more going on in our lives wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that we’re up against a few hard constraints. The first and most obvious constraint is time. Bill Gates, you and I all have exactly the same 24 hours in a day and we always will. As long as we keep on tapping the “plus” key in our lives, we’re very likely to have the feeling that we run out of day before we run out of things we “must” do.

Even if we have enough clock time, we also require physical and mental energy to meet our agreements. While I do believe it’s possible to change our energy levels over the long-term to some extent, doing so takes time and has definite limits. Meanwhile, commitments can grow wildly in excess of the energy we have available in the moment. And because energy is ephemeral, it is also harder to measure or manage than something like time or money.

Should we succeed at burning the candle at both ends and find a way to “fit everything in”, there would probably be casualties. The first is likely to be recreation and ease. We would end up running around frantic to get everything done, but lose out on enjoying our time and having fun.

Many of us end up resorting to dirty tricks to balance our budgets of time and energy. We pull an all-nighter; we slam down an energy drink and grind onward. And we may tell ourselves all the while that this is the very last time we’ll do this to ourselves. Yet, unless we get a lot better at punching the “minus” key in the future, this situation is unlikely to resolve on its own.

Mastering Minus

So if it’s true that habitually pressing life’s oversized “plus” key is driving us batty, what can we do? In the beginning, we can recognize that a “minus” key does exist, even if it is metaphorically smaller and we have far less practice reaching it than the “plus.”

Subtraction can be folded into everyday activities. When we clean or organize, we usually do so with a mind to straighten and put away all our stuff. In fact we often ask our children “Is everything put away?” as they clean their rooms. But what if we ask the question “is there anything here that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t need to be here, or isn’t serving a purpose?” That puts a whole new spin on cleaning and organization.

Some people budget their space like they budget their money. If they add anything to their home, they remove something else, usually of the same kind. So if they add a shirt to their wardrobe, they donate or trash another one. Theoretically, at least, this ought to hold clutter in check.

Becoming more skilled at the “minus” key is another avenue. There are resources that will help you get rid of junk. Charities love donations. Personal organizers will coach you in the skills of subtracting, and hand-hold you through the process. Garage sales, Craig’s List and Freecycle are other resources that can make subtracting simpler.

Changing the way we make commitments can also reduce gratuitous life additions. I try never to agree to anything until I’ve had a chance to look at my calendar. Smartphones make this quicker, but that might not always be for the best. Rather than immediately answering “yes” to a request, you may say with absolute sincerity “I’m not sure if I can…I need to check my schedule.” This avoids the pain of a rejection and buys you time to reflect and decide whether you really want to add something to your life.

Reality television has shown us extreme cases of hoarders: people risking their relationships, their homes and their health through an inability or an unwillingness to stop collecting junk in their homes. But, just as overweight is the milder form of morbid obesity, being somewhat cluttered and over-scheduled, or being unskillful or unaware of how we add items and events to our lives, puts us on that same path towards being unable to manage our living spaces, our time, and our energy.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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