Thoughts & Observations

The Answer Isn’t Always Subtraction


When we feel overwhelmed, overworked, or overly busy, we often learn to have one default response: stop doing as much. Subtract. Withdraw. Take things off your calendar. Readjust your expectations. Don’t try to accomplish all that you’d hoped.

Doing an assessment and adjustment can be helpful to refocus our priorities, but sometimes in an effort to rebalance our overwhelm we move too far in the opposite direction: if taking one or two social engagements off your calendar and creating some white space is good, then taking them all off must be even better.

But whereas scaling back a bit can lead to a sense of empowerment, withdrawing completely can lead to a sense of defeat. It can lead to a sense that you aren’t capable – sometimes not just of a specific task, but of almost anything. (Which is why sometimes when you’re feeling like you can’t make progress, doing something as simple as washing all the dishes in the sink and putting them all away can shift you back into a mindspace of capability.)

The hidden challenge of our desire to subtract is that it can often be driven by something much deeper: fear and discomfort.  Are you feeling overwhelmed for instance, not because of the pure number of social events on your calendar, but because each one causes discomfort or anxiety? If they were each as enjoyable as eating a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie, would you be as quick to take them all off your schedule?

In that case, taking every social event off your calendar doesn’t actually address the problem, and it gives you no opportunity to practice being in discomfort and simply sitting with it. Because you sense that you are actually avoiding a deeper challenge, you feel diminished instead of renewed.

And in many instances, pushing yourself to actually do more – to write and publish something a few times a week instead of a few times a year, or to meditate daily instead of monthly – makes it feel less uncomfortable (or at least gets you to the point of understanding that the discomfort is worth it).

A feeling of wanting to retreat and withdraw doesn’t just come from a number being too large or a calendar being too full. And subtraction isn’t always the best answer.