To improve your life and well-being, the immediate attempt is to add more to it, to increase and expand. That works, but only to a certain degree. It can actually reduce the quality of it. By practicing via negativa – the art of adding to your life by subtracting – you can make it better by hacking away the unessential.
Via Negativa What
The phrase via negativa is Latin for “negative way” or “way of denial” that’s used in theological thinking to describe God by explaining what he is not, instead of what he is. This is considered the only way for our mundane minds to grasp the idea behind the Divine.
When you look at the definition of the phrase outside of a religious context, then it simply means “by a negative way”. Rather than trying to do more and add more stuff, you focus on not doing and subtracting.
This principle can be applied to almost any area of your life. You can use it to remove bad habits, unwanted responsibilities, toxic relationships, unnecessary possessions, your psychic energy and the activities you do. Applying via negativa will improve the quality of your existence through deduction.
Via negativa is the art of getting rid of all the useless things, activities and people that don’t serve you or your cause. It’s about ruthlessly cutting off everything that’s not of importance.
Less is More
What’s the reasoning behind this?
The thing is that our time and energy are finite. There are only 24 hours in a single day which we can easily waste if we’re not careful. Everything we think, do, decide and act is taking away from us this currency of life.
By constantly trying to add more things to our life, pick up new hobbies, make new relationships or do more activities, we’re not actually improving the quality of our lives. In fact, we can potentially decrease it, as all of those things will begin to clutter.
The fact is that the more stuff you have in your life, the less quality attention you can dedicate to them. Extraordinary results and mastery in anything requires whole-hearted commitment. You have to focus like a Jedi on what’s most important for you.
Minimalism is a much more liberating way of life as you can dedicate your attention to the things and people you actually love.
Also, you may not consciously realize this, but even just a small amount of the bad stuff can undermine the good. One drop of tar inside a honey pot ruins the whole batch. One rotten apple inside a basket will begin to spread and eventually you’ll have only rotten apples.
Are You a Hoarder
This is a faulty predisposition of our subconscious mind. I would imagine it’s caused by our crocodile brain that wants to gather as much back-up energy as possible. The same applies to hobbies, people, relationships, commitments, projects etc.
How many things you have, which you don’t actually use?
- Old clothes that don’t fit you anymore
- Documents dating back to the last century
- Batteries…holy sh*t, those things are everywhere…
- Computer cables and wires of unknown origin all tangled together
- Packaging and bottles of random products…just in case
- Do you still go to that class just for the commitment?
- Are there any relationships in your life that are causing you more turmoil than good?
- How many new hobbies have you picked up recently?
We all have small tendencies to hoard useless stuff. Material possessions inside the household are only taking up physical room and cluttering our mental space. Our inner prepper is simply subconsciously preparing for a doomsday zombie apocalypse.
Via Negativa Your Stuff
Ruthlessly use your via negativa wand to declutter your household.
But I might need it in the future. We’ve all heard that before. When was the last time you said that and actually needed it?
If you haven’t used something for several weeks, then you don’t really need it and would be better off without it. You’ve probably forgot about it all together. It’s just that you’re mentally attached to it.
Here’s how to via negativa your material stuff.
- Take several garbage bags or boxes to categorize your belongings i.e. all of the clothes into one bag, papers into a box, cable cords in a bag etc.
- Look at your stuff objectively and think how often do you use them.
- Every day – good keep it, but still think whether or not you actually need it.
- A few times per week – keep it.
- Several times a month – put it in the garbage bag.
- Once or twice a year – the bag.
- I didn’t know I had this thing – you know the drill.
- Put the bags and boxes somewhere out of sight, like the garage or a closet.
- Keep them there for several weeks. If by that time you haven’t needed them, then throw them away or donate to a charity – whatever, just get them out of your space.
- Before buying new things, either get rid of the old ones or think deeply whether or not you actually need them.
You’ll be actually able to breathe a lot more freely once you’ve decluttered your household. Don’t let your emotional attachment get in your way either. The memories associated with certain objects are existing only in your head, which means you don’t need their material presence anymore. They’re embedded within your psyche but not in the thing themselves.
Via Negativa Your Habits
In his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains that the via negativa strategy is the best way for organizations and people to become antifragile(ii). You remove the downside – things, people, activities that make you more vulnerable.
Decrease the downside and you lower your potential exposure to risk as well.
The thing with habits is that we begin to notice their dominance over us only after they start to have a negative effect. You want to quit smoking only when you develop lung cancer, but then it’s already too late. It will be extremely difficult to quit because the activity has become a subconscious part of who you are. A part of your self-identity. Your entire world structure is based on the fact that you smoke.
When you compare the gain (I don’t know…ash and smoke in your mouth, or the emotional release) with the potential downside (cancer, poor lung capacity, expectoration), then it’s obvious which one wins in terms of value. By avoiding smoking all together via negativa you avoid the risks all together.
Swap Out the Old Before You Bring in the New
Via negativa-ing your habits also means that you first get rid of your bad habits before you start adding good ones. In the example of smoking, it doesn’t matter how many supplements you take, as the cigarettes will still undermine your efforts.
- You can’t out-exercise a bad diet
- You won’t lose weight by eating healthy one day of the week
- You can’t have quality relationships if you have selfish tendencies
- You won’t become financially successful if you still spend more than you earn
- You won’t improve your health if you exercise for an hour but still sit in a chair the rest of the day
It doesn’t matter how much you add, if you jeopardize it with other activities. Not doing something is a lot easier than trying to pick up new positive habits. First getting rid of the downside will set you on your way and you can potentially built up on that success in the future by adding, but first you must subtract.
Via Negativa Your People
As humans we’re social creatures. We empathize with other people and use language to correspond with them. Tribal co-operation and working together was one of the driving forces of the evolution of culture. However, it can have its downsides.
The limbic system governs our emotions and creates social hierarchies. It’s our monkey mind that seeks social validation and approval of others, because it’s good for reproductive success. What’s bad about it is that it predisposes you to want to please everyone. That’s how social media works as well – like hoarding.
An anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that humans can maintain only about 150 stable relationships[i], because that’s the number of an average tribe in the past. People of the 21st century have obviously managed to overcome this limitation by having hundreds and thousands of friends on Facebook. Of course our cognitive capacities have improved over the course of centuries and we’ve adapted to being more social. However, it’s still true that the less people we have in our circle, the better quality will your relationship with them be.
Seth Godin uses a great analogy for this in his book called Tribes. The idea is that in a world full of 7 billion people, there are countless groups and populations for any niche imaginable. Motorcyclists who like to drink wine and listen to jazz – check. Soccer-moms who take judo classes – possibly. A cult of CEOs coming together on Wednesday evenings to scream at each other and do other crazy stuff – maybe too bizarre, but potentially.
- Stop all negative relationships that don’t serve you
- Don’t feel obligated to hold onto old commitments
- Avoid people who you know are going to become troublesome in the future
- Find your tribe and focus on providing value to them
- Dedicate yourself to a smaller circle of people
- Bring love and quality experiences to your closest friends and family
Via Negativa Your Time and Energy
The same applies to how much time and energy you dedicate to your activities. You may be doing something that doesn’t actually serve you, either by habit or because of wanting to hold onto some relationships.
When you say you’re “too busy” or don’t have enough time then it’s not the actual case. You’re simply all over the place and lack focus. It’s all a matter of priorities and you need to set them straight via negativa.
Fact of the matter is that our psychic energy is finite and we can only dedicate a certain amount of it to any given thing. What’s worse, time is not on our side either and is constantly running down on us. Without us even noticing it, we can potentially waste a lot of our waking life on activities that don’t add a lot to our existence.
The underlying principle to remember is to know what your purpose is. What’s the one thing you want to accomplish in life. Once you know that, focus the majority of your time on habits, people and activities that promote that. This is the surest way of achieving extraordinary results, as you’ll be increasing the quality of everything you do.
Via negativa your daily routine and see where are your energy leaks
- Is this activity, hobby, project, endeavor or commitment in an alignment with who I am and what I want to accomplish?
- Am I getting more benefit or harm from doing this?
- Does the gain outweigh the potential downside?
- Do I have to exert more energy to get the same results?
- Can I accomplish more by doing less?
To optimize your energy and time, you would have to practice via negativa in conjunction with the Pareto’s principle. It’s the 80/20 rule, where 80% of the effects are derived from 20% of the causes. What activities will help me achieve the most results with the least amount of effort? Via negativa that as well.
By subtracting from your life, you can actually add more to it. The quality of your relationships, time, activities and overall existence will improve.
Before you start adding more new, make sure you get rid of the old first. Otherwise you have 2 things to handle and it’s impossible to multi-task effectively. You’ll also start enjoying yourself a lot more because of being able to dedicate your attention to solely what you love.
Focus is the essential component of achieving extraordinary results. With too many random stuff cluttering your physical and mental space, you won’t be able to concentrate on what’s important. Use the art of addition by subtraction and via negativa everything that’s keeping you down from your true potential.
As for the end, I want to leave you with Bruce Lee’s quote, who obviously knew what he was talking about. “It’s not the daily increase but the decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”