Improvement by Subtraction: How to Achieve More By Doing Less

The problem in the modern world is that we think of productivity in terms of addition rather than subtraction.

We’re on a constant lookout for the latest shiny productivity app, hack or tool. We focus on doing more, cramming more tasks into our daily schedules, ensuring that we can squeeze in as much as possible.

We’re so caught up in doing more that we rarely stop to ask ourselves:

What am I trying to accomplish? What’s my outcome? Is what I’m doing right now helping me achieve what I want in the future? And more importantly, do I need to do this in the first place?

The truth is that you don’t want to do very well something which should not be done at all, because WHAT you do is so much more important than HOW you do it.

It was Peter Drucker who said that “doing the right thing is more important than doing the thing right.”

And here’s why:

It’s not about adding. It’s about subtracting.

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It’s about removing the things, tasks or activities that need not be done at all, blocking out distractions and directing our focus onto the very few things that really matter.

It’s what Drucker called “Purposeful Abandonment.” He said: “I have yet to see an executive, regardless of rank or station, who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody’s noticing their disappearance.”

Isn’t that interesting?

You see, your job and my job is not to set priorities. That’s easy, everybody can do that. What’s difficult is ​deciding what tasks NOT to tackle in the first place and of sticking to that decision.

Just do a simple exercise. Before engaging in any activity, task or project, consider asking yourself a simple question: “What would happen if this were not done at all?” If the answer is, “Nothing would happen,” then obviously the conclusion is to stop doing it.

I don’t argue about the fact that we're all very busy. It’s just that we make the mistake too often of being busy doing the wrong things.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how right we do those wrong things, it’s always going to be wrong.

. . .

The Myth of Inbox Zero and Other Bullshit Productivity "Hacks"

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I honestly don’t understand why people are so obsessed with things like Inbox Zero.

Like a lot of productivity advice out there, it makes us feel like we’re doing something productive, but does it actually matter?

Does your boss actually care how clean your table is or that you finish every day with zero emails? Does your spouse or your kids really care that you need to get to Inbox Zero before you can spend time with them?

Of course not!

One of the things I learned is that it’s very easy to obsess over what productivity system to use, so much so that you forget why you’re doing it in the first place.

The fact of the matter is that the people around you – your boss, your spouse, your team, your friends – they want RESULTS.

No one really cares how you do your work, how clean your table is or how cluttered your inbox is. What they do care is that your work is done and done well, am I right?

You see, there are two things that are truly important in your work life: contribution and results. The basic Law of Economics states that our rewards in life will always be in exact proportion to our contribution.

So for example, a question that you might get is not how do you manage and respond to emails, but how many projects did you deliver at work this year? How many new clients did you get? How many sales did your promotion generate? How much weight did you lose? How much money did you save last month?

Anything you do you do because you want to get a result; you’re doing it to have an impact on something – at home, at work, in your relationships, or in your personal life.

And I think the rather uncomfortable truth about productivity advice is that there’s no secret formula. There’s no shortcut, no magic pill and no single path to success.

What works for me probably won’t work for you, and vice versa.

This is uncomfortable to admit because in all this productivity craze that’s taken over the modern world, we love seeing someone’s beautifully laid out productivity system, replicating it, and hoping that our life will change overnight.

But that’s just not how it works.

Trust me, I’ve met a lot of top performers whose inbox isn’t always zero, whose tables aren’t always clean and whose productivity system isn’t always as elegant as you might think – but here’s the thing: they still make it work.

In fact, the most successful people I know are crushing it – even if things aren’t perfect.

That’s why they’re the most valuable employees in the organization and why they’re the most valuable business leaders in their industry.

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Shift Your Focus From Productivity to Impact

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To help you internalize this idea, I’d like to share with you a simple concept that I learned from the bestselling author and entrepreneur Ramit Sethi, and that is to shift your focus from productivity to impact.

He would argue that highly successful people are so busy being focused on the impact they’re having that they’re not really thinking about the optimum to-do list structure.

They take action and it works – even if it’s messy.

It sounds easy, but in reality it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

See, it’s really common to feel guilty if you aren’t following a productivity system to a T. Think about it. You’ve heard things like: “All successful people do X. So if I want to be successful, then I need to do X as well. If I don’t do X, then I’m going to fail.”

That’s how most of us think about productivity. And you see this all over the place: They drink this kind of tea. They follow this morning routine. They do this type of meditation. They go to bed and wake up at a certain time. They get this many hours of sleep, and on and on and on.

It’s so easy to get caught up in someone else’s “success formula” that you start to feel guilty when you aren’t living up to that ideal.

But what if there was a better way?

Start by defining exactly what success means to you. Not to your parents, not to your spouse, not to your friends, not to your community, but to YOU. What does success mean to you?

Once you’re clear about that, do whatever you need to do to live up to that definition and don’t feel guilty if your definition of success is different from what society tells you it SHOULD be.

You don’t need to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Steve Jobs to feel successful. You can define what success means to you and have the peace of mind knowing you did your best to live up to that promise.

As Ramit Sethi so eloquently suggested:

“When you shift your focus from trying to copy others, when you shift your focus from productivity to impact, you don’t have to feel guilty. Instead of feeling like you have to follow the latest productivity trend, you can do whatever you need to do in order to have the most impact.”

Take a second to notice how freeing this is just to think about it.

So instead of focusing on creating that perfect productivity system, decide to make impact your number one priority.

How do you accomplish that?

You do that by embracing the art of purposeful abandonment. You do that by stripping things down to the essential parts. You do that by removing the things, tasks or activities that need not be done at all, and directing your focus onto the very few things that really move the needle towards progress. That’s it.

Remember the words of Stephen Covey: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

. . .

What's Your Outcome?

As a final analogy, I want you to think about engineering.

In engineering, you never confuse input with output. You always try to put the least amount of input to get the most output. That’s what technology is.

So when you’re building a car, you never try to figure out how to put the most gas in to go a hundred miles. You always try to figure out how to just put one gallon in so that the car goes a hundred miles. You get what I’m saying?

So instead of focusing on input, like cramming more tasks into your daily schedule and trying to DO more, try to shift your focus on your output.

Don’t ask yourself, “What do I have to do?” Instead, ask yourself: “What’s my outcome? What’s the result that I’m after? What’s the impact that I want to have?”

Always start with the end in mind and then reverse engineer the process. Get crystal clear about what you want, figure out the few major moves that will help you get there, and then focus all your time and energy only on those activities.

. . .

The Takeaway

Don’t focus on more, more and more. My invitation to you is to focus on less, because there's always a very small number of activities that make up for most of your results.

So here’s the takeaway:

A peak performer produces more by removing more instead of doing more. He stops comparing his productivity to an ideal. Instead, he makes impact his number one priority and he makes it work, even if things aren’t perfect.

If you'd like my help in accomplishing that, check out my productivity course for overwhelmed high achievers.


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Daniel Cerescu

I'm Daniel Cerescu, and I'm the guy behind this blog. Even though most of the material on this website is free, I aim to make this free content better than anyone else’s paid stuff. My mission is to inspire and empower those who refuse to settle for anything less than an extraordinary life to live with passion, lead with purpose, and make their mark on the world.