Addition By Subtraction

A few years ago, I visited a remote village in Kenya and stayed for over a week.
I was there to write about the Kenyan people and their needs. I was supposed to write some sort of novel plea for help, and link that need to my friends (other gym owners). Then we’d buy wells and build schools.
But the thought that kept recurring–and ultimately stopped me from writing anything related to charity–was, “I can’t believe how happy everyone is here.”
Let me give you an example:
At lunchtime, I walked with 300 kids from their school to a small satellite village three miles away. It was hot; the road was dusty. Most wouldn’t make the return trip in the afternoon, because the return trip would be even hotter and dustier. They spent the morning sitting on rocks in a stifling classroom without books. And there was no job waiting for them–or even a high school.
I walked with one kid until we reached his house. It was pole-and-rope, with sticks forming the roof. There were two rooms: one for the family, one for animals. His mom was boiling water in the family’s room. She was thrilled to see me–and not because I had any money, just because she seemed thrilled to see everyone.
Life in these villages is hard, but simple. I saw women and kids playing at the watering hole as they prepared for their hour-long walk home. They cracked up when I dropped my pail of water after 20 feet. They told stories as they ground their corn into a pulp–vigorous exercise lasting over an hour, done every single day for their entire lives. They smiled more than half their waking hours.
Now, I’m not saying that poverty is the key to happiness. Trust me: I’ve tried living broke, and I’ve tried living well, and living well wins. Hands down.
I am saying that the key to happiness is the removal of–stuff. The removal of distractions. The removal of unnecessary decisions. Sometimes, the removal of choice (have you ever been stuck in a coffee line behind someone who couldn’t decide what they wanted? Well, every second of indecision in your day creates stress and erodes your willpower later.) This is why Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day: he had other decisions to make, and didn’t want to use up his daily attention allowance deciding which polo shirt to wear.
Sometimes, this means doing less at the gym. One of my favorite clients was feeling burned out by work stress, so I told her to take a month off and to read two books. That’s it. She’ll be back in a few more weeks.
Contrast this idea with what you’re being told by your doctor, health specialist or personal trainer. Are you being told to cut distractions from your life…or to ADD stuff?
“You need to start taking this drug.”
“You need to start eating this superfood.”
“You need to buy new shoes every 300 miles.”
“Buy this supplement.”
You don’t need MORE stuff. You need fewer choices and mastery of the basics.
When most people come to me for coaching, they’re wondering: “How much time will I have to add to my day to do this? Can I even fit it all in? I’m busy ALREADY!”
My job is to help them filter their time (you’ll actually save a lot of time by exercising with us,) their budget (it’s expensive to eat garbage food) and their daily attention (you don’t have to fight yourself over the gym every day if you have an appointment.)
It’s addition by subtraction. A lot of my job is telling people how to make their lives easier, not harder. Most people save money by coming to Catalyst because they stop doing needless, self-destructive things. And their stress goes WAY down, too.
Try this exercise: every five minutes today, stop what you’re doing and write a 1-word description of the task you’re currently working on. Yes, it’s tedious. But at 8pm tonight, look at that list and ask yourself, “What’s ONE thing I can eliminate that will make everything else easier?”
Steve Jobs decided he’d wear the same outfit every day.
I decided to get up at the same time and start with writing every day. Then I go to work out with my beloved noon group at 12. Those things are blocked in my calendar.
I eat the same breakfast every day. I buy the same groceries at the same time every week.
Yesterday, I shared Ray and Carole’s simple instructions on fitness (“Exercise until you’re happy.”) This is their recommendation on eating, taken from Michael Pollan:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Does that help with your eating?
Simplify, simplify. Chop wood, carry water. Optimize, then automate. And work up to smiling 50% of your day.

1 thought on “Addition By Subtraction”

  1. Hey Coop! How are you?
    I just read this article, and wanted to let you know how great it is. It’s also timely for me. It’s the same theme I’ve been working on this week in my Precision Nutrition coaching. I’m realizing that endless choices are paralyzingly for a lot of us, leading us to do nothing, or sit and eat. I guess the universe is sending me a pretty strong message.
    Keep up the good work, I love reading these.