Leidy Klotz is the Copenhaver Associate Professor at the University of Virginia and author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, which will be published next week.
Today, for the first time in a year, I went to the grocery store just to get coffee. Choosing from the selection of cold brews was a daily ritual before the pandemic hit; I had missed it. So, with case counts falling where I live, I decided it was time to bring back the coffee trip.
I noted this addition to my daily routine because I’ve spent the past decade studying the opposite: how, when and why we subtract to improve our lives. As my colleagues and I have discovered, humans are both biologically hardwired and culturally conditioned to think more is better, even when it’s not. That we need Marie Kondo, Cal Newport and Tim Ferriss to champion decluttered homes, empty inboxes and shorter work weeks only hints at how many other useful subtractions we’re missing, sans the perfect guru.
The pandemic has forced us all to subtract from our lives in ways we never would have considered on our own – often for worse, but also, in some ways, for better. Sure, in lost friendly hugs and family visits there is no silver lining. But we’ve also had to get rid of mandatory evictions, in-person voting and commuting to the office just to prove that we are, in fact, working. We’ve saved carbon and met our neighbours. We’ve spent less time in line and more time at our destination.
As I realize how easy it was to add back my coffee excursion, I wonder: Will we be able to hang on to the best of pandemic subtractions once the worst of COVID-19 is behind us?
To know when less is actually more requires attention. We have to work against our first impulses, and then we have to accept that the results may be invisible – all the words
winnowed down cut from early drafts of this column. This means that even when we do manage to take away, the benefits are out of sight and, if we’re not paying attention, quickly out of mind. So now that the pandemic has made editors of us all, let’s take notice. We’ve subtracted time-sink meetings, commuting and in-person checkups. As the pandemic recedes, not everything needs to come roaring back.
Maybe you’ve noticed, like me, that much of what was once “essential” travel for work is time better spent reading, reflecting or even Zooming. Or maybe you live in one of the many cities where new travel patterns and mindsets have sped plans to remove automobiles from selected streets, providing more space for people of all ages and income levels to safely access the outdoors. Planners have long known that removing cars can do more good than harm. Now, the rest of us have seen it too. Unthinkingly returning to business as usual would eliminate all these gains: in work productivity, in community space, and even in the trend toward creating a more inhabitable planet, thanks to reduced air pollution since the pandemic began.
Keeping the edits we like is one thing, but the biggest prizes will come if we can remember that subtraction is always an option, going forward. With the vaccine rollout picking up, it feels possible to imagine life anew. We are rethinking our daily schedules, our city streets and our social norms. Leonardo da Vinci defined perfection as when “there is nothing left to take away.” If we can instill that honing the status quo is just as valid as augmenting it, we’re more apt to make our own renaissance.
We can go on subtracting unhelpful rules. Sure, evictions and voting lines are dangerous during a pandemic. But might such rules be permanently edited to create a healthier society? While we’re at it, now that we have seen how cozy our colleagues look wearing hooded sweatshirts, can we finally end the collared-shirt charade? Whether for time-stressed regulatory bodies or uncomfortable office workers, pruning outdated rules and customs would leave more time and attention for essential work.
Speaking of rules, the pandemic has shown us we all can use common sense in deciding whether to enforce them – or not. The traffic officer who zealously policed non-resident parking on my street hasn’t been around lately. I suspect he has more important work elsewhere plus a newfound empathy for parkers without the requisite sticker. In this same spirit, I’ve relaxed due date enforcement for students in my courses. As long as they turn in their assignments before the grader gets to them, what do I care? My boss took the same philosophy for my delinquent annual report (which allowed me to get this column written first). It’s all been fine. There has been no outbreak of illegal parking or late assignments. In fact, it’s been empowering and humanizing to give each other these breaks. Why stop now?
For our collective knowledge and for our own mental models, let us heed Lao Tzu’s counterintuitive reminder: “to attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” The Chinese philosopher’s advice is thousands of years old, and timely. We have plenty of opportunities to add; we can bring our favorite experts’ thoughts directly through our earbuds; we can ctrl+f to find specific themes in classic texts; and we can Google to satisfy even the most curious kids’ questioning about dinosaurs. As with a densely packed city or rulebook, the more knowledge we have, the more transformative it can be to prune some of it.
Keeping the subtracting mindset would sharpen our ideas. It seems we have successfully subtracted the stigma against working from home. What else should go? Having been forced to parent my kids during the work week – and then thinking about all the people trying to do the same while working lower-paying and in-person jobs – I have realized that the playing field is not as level as I thought it was. It’s embarrassing to find such misconceptions lurking in our own thoughts about how the world works. And removing them can be uncomfortable. But Copernicus couldn’t show the world that the Earth orbited the sun as long as he thought the opposite was true. Subtracting our own mental baggage is how we can chart a better path forward.
Now as ever, there is no single approach, not to change our schedules or our minds, and not to improve our cities or our society. Much of what we have been forced to take away we will eagerly welcome back again. But in our haste to put things back to normal, let’s not forget that it took a pandemic to get us to consider so many things we might be better off without.
As for my coffee, I’ve decided to keep having it delivered by the case. Sure, I enjoyed those 15 minutes at the store, the sweet siren song of consumer choices, the familiar faces of the employees. But I now know that I prefer getting my caffeine fix while reading to my kindergartener, or while watching my infant turn into a toddler. The veil has been lifted. Now, will we keep subtracting?
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