The Power of Subtraction

The windows at the Old Orangery in Łazienki Royal Park, also brilliantly unadorned

The windows at the Old Orangery in Łazienki Royal Park, also brilliantly unadorned

We had not been in our last home a week before I was up on a ladder.  Wobbly with jet lag, I slipped hook after hook from the oppressive drapes that hung from every window in the house.  They were entirely redundant for privacy and light mitigation as each window was also fitted with a set of blinds.  More importantly, they were consuming a third of our natural light with their voluminous girth.

Down they came, in great gathering pools, and I felt instantly lighter.  For three years, people walked into that house and commented on how bright it was.  Many of them were almost offended by the quantities of light that poured in our unencumbered windows.

I saw echoes of my nesting as two of my girls, an hour after our arrival here began rearranging the corporate housing furniture.  When I wandered in to survey their progress, they asked if they could take down the furnished (and rather garish) artwork.  I happily took it from the hook myself.

Subtraction at Home

I remind myself of all of this as I am once again setting up house.  My thoughts naturally gravitate toward where I can squeeze in a basket or add a bookshelf.  And, while I do think this apartment could certainly benefit from some additional storage, I need to remind myself of the power of subtraction.  Before running all over town (or the internet) in search of storage solutions, I need to assess what really is worth having in our home to have to store.

 So often, when confronted with a challenge, I start with what I can add.  But, the solution frequently resides not in the addition of the right thing, but in   the subtraction of the wrong thing(s). 

Subtraction in Life

I find this same principle plays out with my time as well as my physical space.  Transitions are slippery things.  There is so much new to explore and so many things that have to be done.  Before I realize it, I’m overwhelmed with all the things that have crept into my schedule, choking my best intentions.  I’m left exhausted at the end of the day, having completed a hundred things but omitting the ones that matter.  I think Gretchen Rubin’s warning is apt: “The biggest waste of time is to do well something that we need not do at all.” 

Subtraction as an Answer to Scarcity

This predilection for addition is really just a manifestation of scarcity. When I immediately jump to supplement, I’m missing the opportunity to edit.  I’m accepting the premise that the problem lies in lack.  If I take a moment to look for opportunities to deduct, it inverses my lens.  It invites me to see my abundance, and find the places where it needs winnowing.  The simple act of looking to subtract settles me, even before I’ve even removed one item or obligation.

So, today, I’m leaning into the power of subtraction.

Micah Bremner