Addition by Subtraction

Justin Berry |

This quarter’s column is a bit different as it is about a topic that is personal for me. It is not directly related to finance, but the way of thinking I am going to discuss can make a significant difference in the financial portion of your life.

For many years, I have strived toward a goal of minimalism. I do not just mean with physical possessions. That is an important part, but limiting physical stuff is just a piece of the overall idea. For me, minimalism is about freedom and having the flexibility to focus my time, energy, and resources on the few most important purposes in my life. I use a minimalism framework for decisions in many areas of life and I have found it to be very helpful.

It also comes up in conversation frequently with physician families I coach. Over the course of a year, I will meet professionally with hundreds of individuals and couples. I hear about the good things and I hear about the bad things. When things are not going well, many people default into thinking “what do I need to add to my life to make it better?” Is it a new house? A new car? A big international vacation? A new wardrobe? A new friend? I think the opposite question is equally, if not more, powerful.

“What do I need to remove from my life so I can more effectively focus on what is most important to me?”

First, the category most people think of when they hear the term minimalism: physical stuff. I do not want to paint an inaccurate picture that I am a minimalist extremist and could live comfortably with just the things in a backpack. I still have a lot of stuff. This was made abundantly clear during the recent Oregon wildfires. We were in a level two evacuation zone and within about two miles of the level three line, so my wife and I spent time deciding what we needed to pack in our cars to take with us if we got to level three. We clearly still have too much stuff.

When I evaluate an item, I typically think of two questions:

1) Does this item provide value to my family?
2) Does this item provide enough value that it justifies the space it takes up/the cost it creates/the hassle it causes?

If both answers are not a resounding yes, that thing is getting donated, sold, or thrown away. Minimalism with physical items is not just about getting rid of stuff I have accumulated. It is also about not buying new things unless they are necessary and add significant value to our lives. This approach decreases our family’s spending, cuts down on environmental waste, and frees up physical space. All worthwhile outcomes in my opinion.

With physical possessions out of the way, I want to focus on habits in my personal and professional life. It is extremely easy to fall into behavioral ruts. Just because something has always been done one way does not mean that it must continue to be done the same way or that it still needs to be done at all. Good examples of addition through subtraction are:

- Removing the habit of looking at national news in the morning
- Removing TV, tablets, and phones from the bedroom to protect sleep
- Deleting tasks at work that are not in full support of my primary purpose
- Removing myself from regular interaction with people who are perpetually negative or judgmental of others
- Stopping the habit of eating after dinner
- Removing most social media apps
- Removing the habit of having my phone nearby when I play with my daughters

There are many more as well. While this category may not appear to have a direct effect on finances, it does free up time and energy from unnecessary or unhealthy activities and allows me to shift that time to focus on family, health, and work.

I have no idea if this column will be helpful to anyone who reads it, but I hope it at least makes you think about your things, your work, and your habits from a slightly different viewpoint. Best wishes for a happy and healthy final stretch of 2020.