Via Negativa

The art of adding to your life by subtracting from it

Remember the last time your coworker said about his new goals? Then followed with how he wanted to read more, hit the gym more often, or work longer hours. Sound familiar?And do you have the same urge to do more when you think about making progress in your own work and life?

To improve one’s well-being, the conventional approach would be to add more to one’s life. It works sometimes but not all the time. And it only works to a certain degree.

Often, adding more is not necessarily a great move to make. For example, the Paradox of Choice stated that more options can lead to poorer decisions and lower satisfaction. Too much of a good thing can make it bad. The tradeoffs and sacrifices you need to make in order to get more become impractical after a certain point.

via negativa

So how do you add more to your life? A somewhat controversial approach is called Via Negativa — the art of adding to your life by subtracting.

Remove what you don’t want and don’t care about

The first step in adding more to your life is by subtracting what you don’t care about. It’s easy to feel you want — or even need — something others have. But do you? Rather than following others blindly, be radically honest with yourself about your values and priorities.

Ignore the secondary goals

Your secondary goals can quickly become a distraction to your primary goals. Yes, you can have anything you want, but not everything you want especially at the same time. Implement Buffet's 25/5 rules: List 25 goals you want to achieve in the next ten years. Select the top five and ignore the remaining 20 at all costs until you’ve accomplished the top five goals.

Simplify the decision-making process

Find out what you care about and spend more time and energy on that. If you don’t care about reading, don’t bother with it. For example, I don’t care about fashion, so I made a default wardrobe plan and stick to it whenever I shop for new clothes. And here is a secret, I bought all my clothes and pants from one single brand that fits my default wardrobe plan.

Remove people you hate from your circle

They say you’re the average of the five people you associate with the most and it’s true. Make a list of people you hate spending time with and who drag you down. Then, reduce the time spent with them. This way you could spend more time with people you love and people who push you to a higher standard.

Eliminate bad habits and routines

The second way of practicing Via Negativa is by subtracting habits. Building good habits is the best way to improve your life. The compounding effect of getting 1% better every day makes you 37 times better at the end of a year. What many people forget is that bad habits also have the same compounding effect.

Identify and then break bad habits

Look into bad habits that hold you back and find ways to break them. While we’re trying to build new habits, it’s crucial for us to break the bad habits we already have. What you want to avoid when you’re pushing forward is that at the same time you’re moving backward.

Measure your progress and eliminate ineffective routines

Have you ever thought about why you’re doing what you do now? It’s easy for people to fall into a routine and live their day without much conscious thinking. When you focus only on how many hours you work instead of the impact of your work, you hit a plateau and stagnate quickly. It’s important to measure your routines from time to time and remove the unnecessary ones, so you have more time and energy to focus on what matters.

Reduce the number of open commitments

Maybe you’ve done a great job at breaking bad habits and eliminating inefficient routines. But do you still feel overwhelmed? As if you’re not making any progress? If yes, it’s because you have too many open projects at the same time. Every commitment — both in work and personal life — take time and energy. Review your current obligations and try to keep a maximum of three open projects at one time.

Avoid bad decisions and stupid mistakes

Often, a poor decision or a stupid mistake can undo all the hard work you’ve done and the success you’ve accomplished. To get more out of life, learn to avoid making stupid decisions.

Be open-minded to be less wrong

An accurate understanding of reality is the essential foundation of any good decision. In the book Principles, Ray Dalio stated that “raising the probability of being right is valuable no matter what your probability of being right already is.” Only by being as accurate as possible about reality, you can make better choices and avoid stupid mistakes.

Minimize risks while maximizing rewards

Great rewards usually come with high risks. It’s where the mindset of getting more and more becomes problematic because it typically ignores the increasing risks. There are people who spend years accomplishing everything they have only to lose it in months because they ignored the risks. Sometimes, it’s smarter to focus on minimizing potential risks rather than maximizing the returns.

Stop reinventing the wheel

Do you know someone who never listens to advice? And who thinks experience is the best teacher? Indeed, experience is a great teacher, but the best teacher is other’s experiences.

Experience keeps a dear school but fools will learn in no other —Benjamin Franklin

Instead of wasting time inventing your own solution, seek insights and wisdom from people who have already been there. You can read books, get a mentor, or ask advice from people who have done what you want to do. This simple act doesn’t only save you time, it helps you avoid some unforeseen pitfalls especially if you are the kind of person who tends to dive in head first, and alone.

When less is more

Like understanding different types of growth, our mind finds it difficult to grasp the idea of Via Negativa. It’s not how we commonly think about improving and getting more out of our lives. However, this is the critical mental model that many high achievers and top performers adopt.

To be happy, focus on wanting and having less. To get better at anything, remove bad habits and inefficient routines. To win, manage risks and avoid doing stupid things. Sometimes, the best way to add more to your life is to subtract more.


  1. I first read about the idea of Via Negativa on The Art of Manliness recommended by Tim Ferriss in his newsletter.

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