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Subtractive Productivity: Doing Less To Get More Done

Updated on April 24, 2024By
Subtractive productivity

When it comes to getting things done, most people think the best way to be productive is to do as much as possible. But what if there was another way? What if you could actually get more done by doing less? It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s true – and it’s called subtractive productivity.

In this blog post, we’ll look at what subtractive productivity is and how you can use it to boost your productivity and achieve your goals. We’ll also explore some of the benefits of this approach and show you how to get started. So read on – you may be surprised at how effective this strategy can be!

What is subtractive productivity, and how does it work?

Subtractive productivity is an approach that focuses on removing distractions and non-essential tasks from your day so that you can focus on the truly important things. This may mean cutting out unnecessary meetings or eliminating multitasking from your daily routine. It’s all about simplifying your workday so you can get more done in less time.

There are a few fundamental principles that underpin this approach:

1. Do less

One of the most critical aspects of subtractive productivity is learning to say no – to yourself and others. This means saying no to distractions, procrastination and taking on more work and anything else that isn’t essential to your professional goal. By doing fewer things, you can focus more deeply on the things that matter and get them done more quickly.

While there are numerous examples of situations where this applies, a typical scenario is when you procrastinate investing certain funds because you want to study your options more carefully, looking for a low-risk investment. The more time you spend thinking about this problem, the longer it takes for you to invest and the more growth you’re missing out on.

2. Cut out the non-essentials

This principle is closely related to the first one. When trying to be productive, it’s important to focus on the truly essential things and cut out anything that isn’t necessary. This may imply saying no to social media or not handling client communications yourself. Anything that isn’t helping you move closer to your goal can be considered non-essential and should be removed from your list of tasks, passed down to someone else, or outsourced.

Simplifying processes by cutting out the non-essentials extends to almost any aspect of our lives and project management. For example, Elon Musk, CEO and chief engineer at SpaceX, the world’s most successful private aerospace company, said, “there’s nothing worse than optimizing something that shouldn’t exist.” He refers to a mantra they live by in SpaceX when designing and improving their different rockets, engines, and launch pads. The idea is that when you design something, you should constantly be trying to simplify it before wasting time and energy trying to make its parts better.

This same principle applies to life and business. It doesn’t make sense to put all our mental power and effort into being as fast and productive as possible on tasks we shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

For example, let’s say we’re running a cold email outreach campaign, and we’ve identified 100 contacts we want to reach out to and found their email addresses and first names, but we’re still missing the surnames of 60 contacts.

Even if we have a rock-star research assistant who will surely be able to find all the missing surnames in a couple of days, do you think it’ll make that much of a difference in the effectiveness of the outreach campaign?

It would be much better to forget the surnames, address those cold leads by their first names in a warm-up email, and use those couple of days to find verified email addresses of another 100 or more contacts to reach out to.

3. Focus on one thing at a time

Some people pride themselves on being great multitaskers. However, research shows that people who try to focus on several things at a time, even if they make it look easy, are less productive and do a worse job than those who focus on one thing at a time. This is because our brains are not designed for multitasking effectively – we are much better off focusing on one task and completing it before moving on to the next.

Pros and cons of the subtractive approach to productivity

There are both advantages and disadvantages to using the subtractive approach to productivity. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons:


  1. It can help you focus on what’s truly important: As mentioned above, only working on the things that matter will get you closer to your goals faster than working on other, seemingly important tasks.
  2. It can simplify your workday: By doing fewer things and cutting out distractions, your workday can feel more focused and manageable.
  3. It can help you get more done in less time: By focusing on one task at a time, you can complete it more quickly and move on to the next task.
  4. It can improve the quality of your work: besides helping you work faster, more focus will translate into better quality work because your brain will be fully dedicated to the task at hand.
  5. It can reduce stress levels: not having to worry about a million different things can help reduce stress levels and improve your overall well-being.
  6. It makes work more enjoyable: less stress makes you feel better at work, but so does the feeling of getting things done. It’s a strong motivator when it comes to productivity.


  1. It can be challenging to let go of non-essential tasks: for some people, it can be hard to let go of tasks that they think are important, even if they’re not essential. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell which tasks are essential and which aren’t, leading you to cut too much or too little for the approach to be effective.
  2. It can lead to procrastination: because you’re only working on the essentials, it’s easy to put off starting a task because it doesn’t seem urgent.
  3. It can make you feel like you’re not doing enough: this is more of a mindset issue, but at least at first, you’ll likely feel like you’re not being productive enough because you’re only working on a few things at a time.
  4. It can be difficult to stick to: without a specific plan or system in place, it can be easy to fall back into old habits and start working on non-essential tasks again.

As you can see, the subtractive approach to productivity is not for everyone. It takes a lot of self-control and discipline to focus only on the essentials and let go or outsource everything else. Those we can describe as authoritarian leaders, bossy bosses or outright control freaks will find this particularly challenging. However, this framework may be just what they need to learn to let go. If you can stick to it, you’ll find that you can get more done in less time and with less stress.

Steps to get started with subtractive productivity today

If you’re ready to start using the subtractive approach to productivity, there are several ways to get started. The critical part of the process is identifying what tasks matter and what tasks don’t, i.e., identifying essential and non-essential tasks. Here are a few steps to get you started:

Step 1. Identify essential and non-essential tasks.

To get started with subtractive productivity, you must clearly define your main goals and objectives. In other words, what do you want to achieve? Only if you know your goals will you be able to identify which tasks are essential and which ones aren’t.

The next step is to make a list of every task you need to do, both at work and at home, and to estimate how long each task will take to complete (we’ll call that the task’s processing time). You should include every task that comes to mind, from identifying tax breaks for you or your business and applying for them to more relevant tasks like analyzing the week’s business results. Make sure they’re all on the list, no matter how big or small, and no matter how short or long it will take you to complete.

Once you have your list of tasks, go through each one and ask yourself, how much does this task help me achieve my goals? You can rank each task by assigning it a score of 1 to 10, with 10 being supercritical tasks and 1 being tasks that don’t correlate at all with your goal.

Once done, order the list from high to low according to each task’s importance score. If there are any ties on the list, you can order the tasks that share the same score according to other criteria. For example, you may want to order them according to their deadlines, leaving the ones with the closest deadlines first.

Another way to organize these tasks is to order them by shortest processing time. This will ensure that you’re always working on tasks you can complete quickly, which is a great way to stay motivated.

Identifying the essential tasks

Once satisfied with your list, you must define which tasks are essential and which aren’t. One way to decide is using Pareto’s principle or the 80/20 rule. It’s a generally accepted management principle that the top 20% of the tasks and work we do account for 80% of our outcomes, so one approach you can take is to choose the top 20% of the tasks as essential and the bottom 80% as non-essential. Of course, this isn’t a rule set in stone, so if you notice that an essential task gets bumped out of the top 20%, you can always expand the list of essentials to include it.

Step 2. Outsource, consolidate or cut out all non-essential tasks that you can.

Now that you’ve identified the tasks that matter and those that don’t, it’s time to take action. Things can get tricky because it’s often hard to let go of tasks, even if we know they’re unimportant.

The first thing you should do is to eliminate as many tasks as possible without significantly disrupting your business processes. If there’s anything you can automate with the right software tool or other solution, make sure to consider it.

The next step is to try to outsource or delegate as many non-essential tasks as you possibly can. This may mean passing these tasks down to a subordinate at work or hiring an assistant or other professional to handle them for you. For example, if you’re running a crypto exchange from Singapore, you may have difficulty writing marketing copy for your website in American English. Instead of going through the effort of writing it yourself to find someone to proofread it, it makes more sense to find someone else to do this for you, preferably someone from the U.S.

If you can’t outsource or delegate tasks, see if there’s any way you can consolidate them. Can you combine several small tasks into one larger task? For example, instead of checking your email, social media, and CRM software every hour, can you check them all once every two hours? Is there any way to consolidate all notifications into one platform instead of working on several platforms separately?

Step 3. Group essential tasks into categories.

Now it’s time to focus on what’s important. To do this, start by grouping the essential tasks into categories. This will help you further prioritize and focus on the most critical tasks first. As stated before, grouping them according to their deadlines is a good starting point. For example, you may want a list of tasks that need to be completed today, this week, this month and so on.

You can also group tasks by their type or nature. This is particularly effective because by working on similar tasks in a row, you avoid the mental fatigue associated with switching from one kind of task to the next and can maintain focus for longer periods of time. If you still have the opportunity to prioritize further (i.e., you still have several tasks within each category), you can prioritize them according to the shortest processing time.

Step 4. Create a schedule and stick to it.

By now, you have your list of essential tasks polished and ordered according to different criteria, and you have a good idea of how long each task will take, so it’s time to start scheduling. 

Start by allocating specific times for each task and schedule breaks between tasks to avoid mental fatigue. Once you have your tasks scheduled, stick to the schedule as much as possible. This may not be easy at first, but with practice, it will become easier and eventually second nature.

What’s most important when starting to work according to your new schedule is to focus on one task at a time.

Combine subtractive productivity with these tips to really boost your work week

By following the above four steps, you’re well on your way to increasing your productivity through the subtractive approach. However, although this framework is highly effective, you can still improve it by combining it with other popular productivity tips.

Subtractive Productivity: How Doing Less Can Achieve More - Taylor Pearson

Tip #1: Map out your week with a massive action plan

A massive action plan or MAP is a popular tool used by many high achievers and entrepreneurs. The premise is simple: each week, you sit down and plan out the most important tasks you need to complete to move closer to your goal. The MAP is different from your tasks schedule in several ways. Firstly, it only includes the most important tasks you’ll work on throughout the week. Secondly, it’s focused on a specific goal or outcome. This helps to keep you motivated and focused week after week, as you can see the direct connection between the tasks you’re completing and the goal you’re trying to achieve.

Tip #2: Make periodic breaks an unbreakable rule.

The Pomodoro Technique is a popular time management technique based on working in short bursts of 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. After four pomodoros (i.e., after working for two hours), you take a longer break of 20-30 minutes.

You can combine the Pomodoro Technique with the subtractive productivity framework to create an even more effective productivity system. The main idea is to reduce the number of distractions and interruptions during your work periods so that you can make the most of your time. By setting a timer for each work period, you force yourself to stay focused and work uninterrupted for the entire duration. And by taking regular breaks, you give your mind a chance to rest and recharge so that you can return to your work refreshed and ready to focus.

Tip #3: Keep a daily journal

Keeping a daily journal is a great way to track your progress, set goals and reflect on your day. It can also be a valuable tool for identifying areas where you may be wasting time.

If you’re not sure how to get started, there are a few different journaling methods you can try. The most important thing is to find a method that works for you and that you’re comfortable with.

Tip #4: Track your progress.

Measuring your results and tracking your progress and your time is crucial to any productivity system. Without feedback, it isn’t easy to know what’s working and what isn’t.

There are a few different ways you can track your progress. One popular method is to use a productivity journal, as mentioned above. Another option is to use a tracking or planner app, such as RescueTime or Toggl. These tools can help you track how much time you’re spending on each task and the results you’re getting.

The bottom line

The subtractive productivity approach is a highly effective way to increase your productivity. By cutting away, outsourcing or delegating non-essential tasks, you can free up your time to focus on the things that matter most. You can further enhance this approach by combining it with other popular productivity tips, such as mapping out your week, taking regular breaks and tracking your progress.

When implemented correctly, the subtractive productivity approach can help you get more done in less time to achieve your goals and live a more productive life.

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