Addition by subtraction

I picked up “Design Yourself: Rethinking the Way You Live, Love, Work, and Play” by Karim Rashid a few years ago because  I was looking for a book about graphic design that would inspire me to be a better designer…

“Design Yourself” was not a book about graphic design, really. But I am glad I picked it up because it’s shaped a lot of my day-to-day life since. How do you design yourself, so to speak. If you’re a designer — heck even if you’re not a designer — you can design your life so that you can get more out of it, and even be more creative.

Some of the small pieces of advice I picked up for this book are:

  • Eat pasta like the Italians do — in small portions. That’s why they’re thin and beautiful. They eat delicious pasta everyday, but in moderation (unlike us Americans that eat pasta in portions that would feed a family of four).
  • Get the most obnoxious travel luggage you can — it’s easier to find when you travel. (I got myself a polka dotted case that is very easy to spot when I travel as a result.)
  • Get a cool pair of glasses (or 6) — if you’re going to wear glasses, do so in style!

But all of those things are relatively small changes that you probably don’t need a book to tell you. The biggest thing that stuck with me after reading that book was Rashid’s “Addition by Subtraction” philosophy.

Addition by Subtraction goes something like this — when you’re contemplating getting something, think of two things you could get rid of to make room for this new thing. If you can’t think of two things you can do without, you don’t need this new thing in your life.

I still, to this day, after reading this book years ago do this every time I get something.

I want this book. Can I get rid of two books in its place? Do I even need to keep this book after I am done reading? Based on Addition by Subtraction, these are the rules I made for myself:

1. Don’t get something new when you can find something used:

I rarely buy new books. If I want to read something, I will check the used bookstore first. Same thing goes for movies, video games, or anything of that sort.

2. If I don’t need to keep a book, donate it:

After I am done reading a book, I will either donate it or take it back to stores like Half-Price Books. That way, someone else gets to enjoy it and it’s not staying with me, cluttering my life.

3. Digitize, digitize, digitize:

I am a huge film nerd. But I don’t actually own any movies. I keep the ones people have given me — they don’t know of my strict “no keeping things” policy, and it would be rude to get rid of things that were given to me. But other than that, I don’t actually own physical movies. However, I have accounts to Netflix and Amazon Prime. I can watch pretty much anything I want whenever I want. And if it’s not available via digital means, I visit my local video store to rent a copy and support local business.

4. Don’t wear what everyone else is wearing:

One of the primary reasons I thrift shop (I did it before it was cool, Macklemore!) is because I hate wearing what other people are wearing. If you are a girl, it is likely you have walked into a room to see another girl wear the exact same dress you have, or the same shirt. I say NO! to that. I like thrifting and shopping vintage to find truly unique pieces. My favorite piece that I own is a dress I found at a thrift shop that is legit from the 80s and cost me $15 bucks. I also feel there is an eco-friendly spin to shopping second-hand by getting to reuse things. (Alicia Silverstone is an advocate of second-hand shopping for these reasons.)

5. Don’t ever buy new hangers:

While I try not to own a lot of excess things as detailed above, my one Achilles heel is clothes. Sometimes things just don’t quite fit anymore and you have to buy new clothes by the boatload. It’s harder to do a one for one Addition by Subtraction exercise when buying clothes, so what I do is this — I don’t buy new hangers. If I find myself running out of hangers in my closet, I don’t go out and get more hangers to accommodate my larger wardrobe. Running out of hangers means I need to get rid of clothes. Period. Just last year, I donated about four 12-gallon bags of clothes.

Overall benefits:

Movers tend to love me, because when they come to my place and see how little they have to move, they’re usually like “is this it?

But on a more serious and personal level, I really enjoy doing “Spring Cleanings” repeatedly, and constantly assessing if I need something or not. I feel a tremendous amount of zen by doing this — it can be very liberating.

None of us really need anything anymore. I feel everything we have beyond our basic necessities is a blessing, or a “cherry on top.” Too much of a good thing can make you jaded, so I avoid having too much so I appreciate the things that I do have.


  • Jodi Henderson

    Good stuff. I’ve stopped buying hangers, too, and whenever I do buy a piece of clothing (which is rare these days), I get rid of at least one thing in my closet. As for books, I recently took about 4 small boxes to Half-Price Books. They were taking up space in my house that I didn’t have and, yeah, maybe somebody else could enjoy them. When I buy a new book, though, I usually go the Kindle route just to keep the hard copy out of my house. Some non-fiction books I prefer to have in hard copy form and those I just order from Amazon. Half-Price has been too hit-or-miss for me in that area.

    Totally agree with your last paragraph. I started a bit of a gratitude practice a few months ago and, even though I don’t do it every day, even stopping once a week to reflect on what I have has made a huge difference in how I feel about “stuff”.

    • Cecy Correa

      That’s awesome to hear other folks are also into reduction! Makes me feel like I’m not alone! :)