Overloaded? Introducing the power of strategic subtraction

Simon Breakspear
30 April 2024

How the counter-intuitive idea of subtractive thinking can set us up for better output and productivity.

This might sound a little familiar:

I’ve been flat out all week. I’m exhausted, and I don’t think I’ve achieved anything.”

– NSW School Leader

Educators and leaders tend to be overloaded and exhausted. It’s easy to get stuck in a relentless ‘additive cycle’ of expanding the number of commitments, programs and initiatives in the hope of achieving more. But what if the answer to driving productivity and positive change in our teams, organisations, and systems lies in doing less?

As humans, we tend to struggle with subtractive thinking. Whether it’s a lego-brick structure, an essay, a golf course or a university – our first instinct when aiming to improve something tends to be to suggest adding new things, rather than stripping back what is already there. However, there is power in strategic subtraction.

It’s time we discovered The Pruning Principle and applied it to our schools. When we look to nature, we see that in order to promote new growth, we have to prune back some good along with the bad in order to set the tree up to bear even more fruit. It’s about looking at your school’s initiatives and your own to-do list and implementing a regular, intentional subtraction process designed to stimulate long-term growth and health.

We must continually prune our schools in order to unlock the long-term growth, outcomes and organisational renewal that we seek. This preventative measure redirects energy and resources to where they can have the most impact, bolstering overall vitality and fruit-bearing potential. It is an artful balancing act of subtraction and preservation. 


ChallengeI’ll leave you with this question:

How could you improve your team’s overall energy and output this term through strategic pruning?

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