the simplify guy

Daily acts of simplification

Category: Book Reviews

Book Review – “The Laws of Subtraction” by Matthew E. May


It is fair to say that I eagerly awaited the release of this book from the moment it was announced. Matthew E. May is one of my favourite authors. His previous books: The Elegant Solution; In Pursuit of Elegance; and The Shibumi Strategy have all resonated with me and offer a wonderful take on making things simple. I proudly possess a Daruma Doll signed by Matt (you’ll have to read The Shibumi Strategy to find out what one of those is!) and follow his Twitter feed for regular inspiration*. So when The Laws of Subtraction was announced, you can imagine my excitement.

Subtraction is a concept that I have embraced for some time. Long before I started The Simplify Guy project, I came across the idea whilst studying photography. When taking a photograph, what to leave out of the frame is just as important as what to include. The idea is that everything in the frame ought to add to the message you are trying to convey to the viewer, and anything else serves only as a distraction. The less distraction, the more powerful the message. Executing that with a camera can involve all kinds of things like positioning yourself to get the optimum angle, using zoom to focus only on the subject, clearing a scene of litter or debris, using mono instead of colour, etc etc. Upon starting The Simplify Guy, subtraction was one of the first ideas I used to get to work on simplifying my life. It covered a multitude of things such as decluttering my house, reducing my social media feeds, unsubscribing to emails, all manner of things. It has been the single biggest driver of benefits to date, as those who have followed this blog will know.

In this book, Matt comes at the subject more (but not exclusively) from the angle of creativity and design, and the examples he uses only serve to enhance the power of subtraction as a force for good. Headed under 6 “Laws of Subtraction”, Matt describes a multitude of applications from logo design to town planning to Mars landings, and all sorts in between. Whilst I have seen subtraction described in part here and there, this is probably the first (only?) comprehensive view on the subject. There is also a good dose of neuroscience to emphasise how the brain can be freed from its day job of complexity-generation and tuned into a simpler path. The closing piece around why the film The Artist was so powerful was superb. The book is engaging throughout and cleverly switches between applications to keep the content fresh and interesting, and I’ll never look at the FedEx logo in the same way again!

Having watched some of the promos for the book prior to release, I was initially concerned that the book may re-cover some of the same ground as In Pursuit of Elegance. I was delighted, however, to find that this wasn’t the case and this book follows on perfectly where the previous left off. Even if you are new to Matt’s work and simplification/subtraction in general, this is still a great place to start. Very inspirational and highly recommended!

* Note: I am a genuine fan; there is no sponsorship or commercial endorsement involved here. In case you wondered…!


Book Review – “The Joy of Less” by Francine Jay


Francine Jay, aka “Miss Minimalist”, is a writer who I came across on Twitter whilst I was nearing the end of my 100 Daily Acts of Simplification. This week I have managed to find time to read her book “The Joy of Less“.

The Joy of Less is another one of those books that I found myself nodding in agreement all of the way through. The simple living philosophy, and the decluttering methods described, match precisely what I discovered during my own 100 day experiment. This book is primarily about decluttering but also touches on living a minimalist life in general, encouraging you to think about everything from your current possessions, new purchases, commitments and priorities.

For me, the first 90-odd pages were the most useful. These describe the general minimalist philosophy and decluttering using the helpful STREAMLINE acronym. Those who know they need to declutter, but don’t know where to start, will find this book very helpful to grease the cogs and get things moving, as well as holding your hand through the entire process. The middle third of the book takes each room in turn and walks through the STREAMLINE method for each. For this reason that section is probably best used as you tackle each room, as the theory is duplicated but with helpful tips specific to that area. The remainder of the book looks more widely than just your possessions, and the minimalist life in general.

From her description of her own home and life, I would describe Francine as a true minimalist in the literal sense – things are pared down to their bare minimum – but what I really liked was how she asserts that minimalist means different things to different people. Only you can decide how much is “enough” and wherever you decide to draw your own boundaries, this guide will help you get there.

Another thing that resonated with me was the suggestion of a “One-a-Day” approach to decluttering as an alternative to taking it all on at once. As someone who committed to making one thing simpler each and every day, most of my Daily Acts of Simplification (which included quite a lot of decluttering) were of this small bite-size variety. I can vouch for the fact that this incremental approach really does compound into a significant difference over time. Some of my improvements, when I have more time, are of the larger variety, tackling a whole room or area at once. This book has taught me that I have a lot more to do in this area. I particularly took on board Francine’s suggestion to empty the room or area completely as a starting point, and only put back in what is deemed critical. I haven’t really done this, and will do so going forward. Her method of sorting the rest is similar to my Red Tagging Exercise, only more structured. Another powerful synchronicity was the description of visualising your ideal room which is so similar to my Subtraction Exercise that I nearly fell off my chair!

The message here is that this stuff works, and if you try it you will know it to be true! Simplification is simple, you just need the resolve to make a start and to keep going. Read my piece on entropy for more on how science tells us that attainment and maintenance of order is a continuous process.

Readers will find the writing style in The Joy of Less humorous and engaging, and the content full of practical wisdom. I am now a big fan and will continue to follow Francine’s work on her blog

Book Review – “The Simple Way” by Simon Tyler


A colleague who read my blog recommended this book to me, as she had read it previously and thought it was very relevant. From the title alone I knew i had to read it, so I downloaded the Kindle version and read it immediately. In the introduction, Simon recommends dipping into relevant chapters, or taking one per week, but I am afraid I flouted that rule and read it cover to cover over the last three days!

As you may know, I spent 100 days making my life 100 things more simple with a do-first, think-later mindset. In recent days I’ve written about some of the learnings from those 100 days. As a result, as I began reading this book, I found myself nodding in agreement with just about everything Simon wrote. This is a book born out of years of practical experience with real people, and as such contains real wisdom packaged up in easily digested chunks. So this is why I just read my way all the way through it, violently agreeing with it all and reflecting on how I had discovered similar things over recent months.

To me, The Simple Way is first and foremost a book about success. It just so happens that a large part of being successful comes from the ability to make things simple. Topics such as goal achievement, time management, productivity etc are all here, presented in a way that you may find more helpful than some other, more lengthy texts.

The book is organised into 53 “Simple Notes” which are 2-4 page nuggets, each starting with an inspirational quote, and going on to challenging you to consider how this wisdom can be applied to your situation. There is a very handy grid at the beginning of the book which allows you to dip straight into any areas where you need immediate help. I would agree that the way to get most value out of the book would be to take each note one at a time, and consider and apply the learning before moving on. Theory without action is pointless right? However for the interested reader, it is still very powerful to read through and challenge yourself along the way when inevitably the words will expose something that you know you need to work on.

The other thing I really liked was how Simon references his sources all the way through. As the notes are short, it would be impossible to cover the underlying inspiration in detail, but the references allow the inquisitive to look them up and explore further as your interest takes you. I was pleased to see that we also have common sources of inspiration – where I see similar things many times, I see underlying truth and reinforcement of wisdom that I hold dear.

If you are following and enjoying this blog, then I would thoroughly recommend checking out The Simple Way!