Take One Thing Off, Only Do Half, and [REDACTED]

Welcome to the Action Digest, the only email that brings you more action per word than a Tom Clancy novel.

We’re cutting straight to the chase today because, as we’re about to explore, what you remove can be every bit as important as what you include. 

Upcoming insights:

  • 👒 We learn the stripped back playbook that Coco Chanel used to rewrite the world of fashion and go from orphan to multi-millionaire.

  • 😶‍🌫️ New science reveals the bias that causes so many of our well-intentioned solutions to fail and how to overcome it.

  • 💥 A reversal of fortunes for the team building the world’s largest creative network reveals a principle for crossing the tipping point of success.

P.s., you can check out editions 1-11 here in case you missed them, including insights such as The Paradox Of Creative Consensus, winning creative strategies from Stanford designers, and the audacious motivational hack used by Yellowstone’s showrunner.

Seriously, there are some gems you’ll appreciate in these early editions. ;-)

1. Take One Thing Off

Abbaye de Royallieu - parc de Bayser (doc. Yalta Production)

Despite being a poor orphan, Coco Chanel had become well acquainted with the French elite by the time she’d reached her mid twenties. 

The son of a French socialite had fallen in love with Chanel in 1905 and allowed her to reside at his family’s chateau. But Chanel always felt like an outsider, a feeling exacerbated by her refusal to dress like the other women at the chateau. She viewed their fashion style with disdain, describing it as “the last reflections of a baroque style in which the ornate had killed off the figure, in which over-embellishment had stifled the body’s architecture, just as parasites smother trees in tropical forests.” 

To Chanel, luxury fashion had become too extravagant, where “complicated patterns, an excess of lace, of embroidery, of gauze, of flunks and over-layers had transformed what women wore into a monument of belated and flamboyant art.” But even more than their ridiculous fashion, Chanel couldn’t stand their financial dependence, both of which she vowed to overcome. 

So in 1910, she convinced her new lover to provide the capital to open a clothing store in Paris, and her ex-lover to provide the premises. Chanel began making and selling hats that bucked the extravagant female fashion trends of the time—simple straw boater hats, trimmed with ribbon. 

Chanel’s hats “were stripped of embellishments, of the frills and furbelows that she dismissed as weighing a woman down, and being too cumbersome to let her think straight,” as her biographer, Justine Picardie, writes. But the hats were also a massive hit. It wasn’t long before her business became so successful that she moved to a bigger store. 

From there, Chanel continued her war against excess. 

After being appalled by “those reds, those greens, and those electric blues” that she witnessed during a trip to the opera, Chanel observed that, “women think of every colour, except the absence of colours.” “These colours are impossible,” she continues, “these women, I’m bloody well going to dress them in black.” “For black wipes out everything else around.”

When Chanel designed a dress that was shorter, sleeker, and stripped of color, it was picked up by American Vogue and gave rise to a look that remains iconic to this day. 

Coco Chanel, 1935 by Man Ray Museum Ludwig Cologne

Chanel applied her playbook of subtraction upon every trend of the age. She cut her hair short, wore little-to-no makeup, and even applied her stripped back taste to interior design once she was able to build her own villa in the French Riviera. After a writer for Vogue visited Chanel’s villa, absence was praised over excess: “The motif seems to be an entire absence of knick knacks or unnecessary items. Everything one needs is there—and the most perfect of its kind—but there is nothing superfluous.” 

At the time of her death in 1971, Chanel had a net worth of (at a minimum) tens of millions of dollars in today's currency. As of 2021, Chanel was the 89th largest private company in the world.

Chanel eventually compressed her principle into a single maxim: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror, and take one thing off.”

2. Beware The Bias Toward Addition

In a 2021 study celebrated on the front cover of Nature Journal, participants were enlisted in eight different experiments. Each experiment tasked people with solving a problem or making improvements to everything from lego structures, to essays, to itineraries.

The researchers found that participants overwhelmingly tried to make things better by adding something, and failed to consider the possibility of removing something. This was true even when removal, deletion, or subtraction was a superior strategy.

When another team of researchers recently replicated this study, they found a similar bias toward addition, whereby participants generated 4 times as many additive solutions than subtractive solutions (1155 vs 297).

“We show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations,” the former research team concluded, and that “defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape, and damaging effects on the planet.”

Both studies did, however, find a way to reduce our bias toward addition. Simply remind yourself or your team that subtraction is an option. The researchers found being reminded of sayings like “less is more,” “omit needless words,” and “remove barriers.” can “remind us that we spontaneously tend to add,” and that “sayings, rules, or cues can be used to force us to think about subtractions.”

3. You Should Only Do Half Of What You Want To Do 

Understanding the power of subtraction was a tough yet vital process for one of this newsletter’s very own founders, Scott Belsky, when his team was building the world’s biggest social platform for creatives, Behance

“Behance, when we launched, was a much more complicated product,” Scott revealed at a CEO summit last year, “we had this thing called ‘groups,’ we had a ‘tip exchange’—where creatives would come and share tips with each other, we had a ‘work in progress’ capability—where people could share snapshots of work in progress. We had all these features, and if I were to be honest, I was probably just trying to hedge ourselves. I didn’t know what thing would take off and so we kind of launched V1 with so many things.” 

But then, after Scott made the decision to kill off the “tip exchange” feature, something weird happened. 

“Suddenly engagement on project publishing went up,” Scott recalled, “I was like, ‘oh, let’s try that again, let’s kill groups,’ and lo and behold, engagement on project engagement went up. So the key KPIs were served ultimately when we were reducing the scope of the product. And since then, I’ve been very insistent with the products I’ve been a part of and also advising over the years to just really be very cynical about every additional tab and every additional feature—to even have this notion of ‘one feature in, one feature out.’”

A good rule of thumb for implementing this principle is to only do half of what you want to do:

  • half of the options

  • half of the tabs

  • half of the offerings

The discipline of only doing half compounds your chance of success.

4. Never Let A Good Idea Go To Waste

The discipline of doing less is especially hard for creatives because we have a tendency to always be bursting with new ideas. 

That’s why in Making Ideas Happen, Scott argues that you should have a list of Backburner Items for every project that you have in life.  

Backburner Items are “things that are not actionable now but may be someday.” 

It could be a creative vision that you don’t currently have the resources to pull off or a vacation spot you’d love to visit someday. 

Just because an idea isn’t actionable yet, that doesn’t mean we want to forget about it. That’s why each page of the Action Method journal has a backburner section in the bottom right corner. 

When you come up with a great idea during a meeting or a brainstorming session that isn’t yet ready for action, log it safely in the backburner section. 

Then, periodically flick through your journal, paying attention to the backburner, to see if any ideas are newly ready for action. 

“Gone are the days where I walk out of a meeting with long notes and no clear understanding what I need to do. These notebooks keep me on track.”

Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder and designer

5. To Make Room For Meaningful Activities, We Must First Subtract The Meaningless Ones. 

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that writers “must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Reading books is an essential experience for informing one’s own writing style according to King, which is why he was reading 70-80 books a year at the time he penned the advice.

Aspiring writers would often marvel at this volume and ask King how he managed to make so much time for reading…

🔐 This insight, that reveals the contrarian habit Stephen King relied on to become a master of his craft, is for premium subscribers (yep, this weekly digest is reader supported). For the price of one fancy coffee per month our research team will agonize over the lessons learned from world class creative leaders and teams who make ideas happen, and send their tightly summarized conclusions directly to your inbox on a weekly basis. What a proposition, huh?!

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We’ll leave you with this…

“Elegance is refusal.” 

Coco Chanel

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