Via Negativa: Do More By Doing Less

May 30, 2021

Most people when facing a problem or a challenge look for what more they can do to solve the problem and overcome it.

Yet, there’s a low-hanging alternative to problem-solving that is rarely considered.

What if instead of doing more, you tried to do less?

Via Negativa Examples

Let’s take the example of getting healthier and losing weight.

Most people start by adding an exercise and running routine. And if their weight loss isn’t happening or not happening fast enough, they try to workout even more. I made this mistake earlier this year when I successfully added exercise to my daily routine, but wasn’t losing weight.

Then I stopped to ask myself, “what is my #1 goal with health right now?” The answer is to lose weight (8kg to be specific).

The path to achieving that result isn’t by working out more. The science obviously says that weight loss is purely a function of calorie deficit, that is your calorie intake being lesser than the calories you burn.

Applying via negativa, I should eliminate things that I eat on a regular basis that aren’t benefitting me and therefore get to a calorie deficit.

One way to do that is trying to moderate food intake in every meal - I personally find this extremely difficult.

Another is to eliminate every junk food intake like chocolates, ice cream, chips, or anything else that you know you aren’t eating for the nutritional value but only to savour the taste and feeling. However, I don’t think 100% elimination is the path for me - I don’t want to live like a monk and shut out the simple pleasures of life.

A third and simple way has worked for me before, and after a year I’ve started practicing it again. Intermittent fasting, or more simply, I don’t eat breakfast. Do I miss breakfast? Not really. I don’t miss waking up and ingesting lots of food within an hour or two and feeling heavy when sitting down to work immediately after.

Does eliminating breakfast help me cut out 500 calories per day? Not exactly. I end up eating a bit more during lunch to compensate. But on an overall basis, I’m in caloric deficit.

Another way to go about it is by using the principle of inversion. Instead of asking “How to lose weight?”, ask the question “How to gain weight?”. Make a list of those things and put it under the “Not To-Do” list.

Let’s take another example of my sister who is trying to become more recognised as a singer and musician.

I had a chat with her about what her #1 problem and main goal is. She gave me three different #1 priorities. And that’s where I tried to apply via negativa and asked her, if she had to focus on only one of those priorities, which one would it be? Her answer: “Growing an audience of people who know me.”

So I recommended her to do just that.

She doesn’t get enough time to create content specific to IG, as well as YouTube, add to that IG Reels and YouTube Shorts. So I asked her what if she were to eliminate everything else and only focused on what’s working and where her audience is growing.

Her Instagram isn’t growing since a year, but month-on-month views on YouTube continue moving linearly upward. She is trying to create a new original song but it hasn’t quite come together yet, which is also taking up her time and mental energy.

Meanwhile, covers of popular songs have worked for her, with a few of them taking off to thousands of views. Short dance routines of the same popular songs also work, with one crossing tens of thousands of views.

Doing less would mean eliminating everything else to focus on the above two and trying to get better at them.

Of course, this is my hypothesis. Ultimately she is the best judge of how to proceed. But I strongly believe focusing on doing fewer things here will lead to more.

I obviously have to share an example about DelightChat, and how we are applying the via negativa principle in building this business.

We started off trying to build a helpdesk focused on simplicity and ease of use. We thought we did a good job focusing on a specific target audience, Ecommerce & DTC brands, and being focused on the Shopify platform only. But our focus wasn’t narrow enough. 

Building a helpdesk involves building hundreds of features that are essential to the workflow of a customer support team.

Another aspect is the support channels, or various ways in which a user communicates with their customers. But even more importantly, having a narrow(er) focus on the type of brands who will use the product.

Our target audience and their feature requirements change depending on which part of the world that brand operates, their team size, the ticket volume they manage and the various communication channels they talk to their customers. That further dictates the marketing copy and content that we put out to the world and the kind of brands it attracts.

Despite thinking that we were focused, we were actually trying to do a lot of things.

We tried building for Indian brands, which involved building WhatsApp integrations, fixing bugs related to it, and supporting the users. At the same time, we wanted to work with brands in the US, which meant building channels like Live Chat and SMS.

But we already had too much on our plate and couldn’t get to it for several months. June is when we finally aim to build our Live Chat and first SMS integrations.

Also at the same time, we wanted to work with brands that have higher ticket volumes and number of team members. The feature priorities for such brands are different from smaller ones.

For larger brands with higher volume of tickets, what’s important is being able to collaborate amongst team members, automating regular processes like ticket assignment or even auto-replying to common queries which help streamline their process, and allowing their customers to self-service wherever possible which reduces the number of tickets that their agents need to handle.

And so, applying via negativa, we decided to stop trying to be a helpdesk for small as well as mid-sized brands all across the world that use many different support channels, to a helpdesk built for mid-sized brands with high ticket volumes in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia only.

We are aligning all our actions, product and marketing wise, to attract this narrow and specific target segment of customers.

This means no longer building new WhatsApp integrations or even saying no to new customers who want WhatsApp channel support in DelightChat (this part is painful), prioritising features that solve the problems of brands with high ticket volumes, aligning our marketing content, website copy and positioning to attract only those brands that fit our target audience.

We hope we can grow faster by focusing on a narrower set of customers and their needs.

Another example from my own work - I was trying to do too much earlier and that may have negatively impacted higher-order thinking.

What am I saying, it definitely did.

I thought that the best way to build DelightChat is if I was working from 8am to 8pm everyday trying to push things forward and get things done, in product, design, marketing, customer support, talking to engineering etc.

For the past month, I took a step back and focused on doing only what’s most important and what I need to do. If a team member can do it, they should.

The not so unexpected outcome of this was - my mind had free time and space to really think after a long time.

Being knee deep in execution is one thing, but losing focus of the big picture, thinking deeply enough to make tough calls that won’t impact our immediate present but will shape our future is too important to fuck up.

By doing less each day, I believe DelightChat will go further because of the higher-order decisions and adjustments to our path that is being made possible thanks to having free time.

Similarly, I had extended by weekdays hustle to weekends and focused on side projects. While it’s enjoyable, it resulted in a place where I was busy 7 days in a week.

Once again, I wasn’t giving myself the time and space thinking deeply about the problems I needed to solve and how to solve them.

Or even just having idle time to watch YouTube videos about business, self-improvement, and other topics that feed my curiosity (“What if you fell down to the surface of Neptune?”).

All of these activities invariably have a feedback loop into my life and work.

Apply via negativa in your own life

What’s one aspect of your life or work or business that you want to improve?

Now try to think of all the activities that you are doing currently and whether they align with that goal.

Try and eliminate as many of the activities that aren’t contributing towards your goal and focus only on the ones that are.

You can also approach this using the principle of inversion. Like I explained in the weight loss example, create a “Not To-Do” list and simply focus on not doing them.

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