Via Negativa: The Study of What Not to Do

Sometimes the way to gain in life is through losing something
By Mike Donghia
Mike Donghia
Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
September 17, 2021 Updated: September 17, 2021

When thinking about how to improve something, most people instinctively focus on what can be added or changed.

You want to improve your life, so you ask, “What new habits can I add?”

You want to improve your business, so you ask, “What processes need to be changed or adopted?”

You want to be smarter, so you ask, “What new knowledge can I acquire?”

You want to grow in your faith, so you ask, “What good deeds or disciplines must I perform?”

You want to improve your health so you ask, “What new diet or exercise routine can I try?”

But one important rule of thumb that I’ve come to rely on is that most complex problems are easier to solve backward. Instead of asking what can be added or changed to bring about improvement, start by looking to see what can be removed or avoided.

In theology and philosophy, that approach is often called “via negativa” or “by way of removal.”

I like to think of it as the study of what not to do.

The Path of Subtraction

Via negativa has several advantages:

It’s often much easier to see what’s wrong than what’s right.

In a complex environment (pretty much all of life), even seemingly “good” additions can have unforeseen consequences. It’s often easier to predict what will happen by way of removal.

Most people spend a lot of time thinking about what to add, so chances are high that you can find some low-hanging fruit by simply asking what can be removed. For example, you can improve your health by removing daily soft drinks from your diet, or you can make your home more inviting without spending a dime by removing clutter.

A lot of what we call “being successful” is simply showing up and avoiding the big mistakes that even smart people make. There’s an enormous upside to simply not overspending your income or becoming unreliable because of your perfectionism or procrastination.

Removing things from your life allows you to focus on what’s most important.

Removing things from your life also gives you free options. For example, you can take advantage of the neighbor’s last-minute offer for dinner by simply leaving more margin in your days and weeks. Optionality is the option, but not the requirement to take advantage of the good things that pop up along the journey.

Subtractive Additions

Below are some practical areas of your life that might be improved by simply removing or reducing what’s already there.

Perfectionism. Instead of letting the false need for a perfect result slow you down, try an experiment where you give yourself a certain amount of time to make a decision and go with it.

Clutter. Instead of organizing your house and your stuff, try reducing the amount you own.

Distraction. Instead of searching for new productivity tips, start by removing the major sources of distraction in your life. If you can’t remove them, make them far less accessible.

New knowledge. Instead of reading another self-help book or blog (this one included), try writing down five things you’ve learned in the past year and spend the next year simply trying to master those.

Procrastination. Instead of searching for more time in your day or some secret to life that other people seem to possess, find a way to remove the source of your procrastination and do the real thing.

Habits. Instead of looking for new habits to add to your life, start by removing the bad ones first.

Diet. Instead of trying a new fad diet, simply eat less of the things you know are the worst for you. Another approach might be to occasionally fast from certain indulgences for a period of time. It’s sometimes easier to be totally on or totally off.

Work. Instead of adding another meeting, project, or idea, look for inefficiencies within the current system that can be removed or addressed.

Finances. Instead of making a complicated budget to follow, start with your current spending and look for a few areas that you can reduce your spending. Repeat this as often as desired.

Fasting. Instead of adding new pleasures and entertainment to your life as a defense against boredom, try a temporary fast from something you enjoy in order to renew your appreciation.

Chemicals. Instead of adding new products to your life with the goal of being healthier, consider what can simply be removed without any downside at all.

The Practice of Simplicity

In a nutshell, via negativa is just another application of the practice of simple living. There are many ways to simplify your life and benefit from that timeless, fool-proof way to help yourself and those around you.

Choosing to study what not to do is, by itself, a practice of via negativa. It’s simple to look at what you’re already doing and ask what can be removed. It’s far harder to consider all of the potential solutions (usually at some cost) that society has to offer for your problems. That path often leads to overthinking and overdoing.

Best of all, the practice of simple living forces you to pare down and decide what’s most important to you. It pushes you toward living more intentionally through the series of choices that you end up making. We hope that it proves as beneficial to you as it has been to us.

This article was originally published on This Evergreen Home.

Mike Donghia
Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.