Via negativa, Latin for "negative way," describes knowledge obtained by negation. This method of description is rather counter-intuitive. Since an early age, we're taught to describe objects and ideas in the "positive" way (via positiva), using traits or characteristics that help define the subject. For the vast majority of cases, via positiva describes objects and ideas in a straightforward and succinct manner ("that car is red," or "this book is a space opera"). In more abstract cases, or cases where the set of possible traits is too big, via negativa can be more useful instead. This is particularly so when trying to describe the limitless.
When the ancients tried to describe the divine, they ran into a problem with via positiva. Because in the attempt to define what God or the divine is via positiva, you end up limiting what is in essence unlimited. Rather than try to describe what God is, via negativa (apophatic theology), lists what God is not through the process of elimination. Notably, eight of the ten commandments are instructed via negativa.
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
- Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy
- Honour thy father and thy mother
- Thou shalt not murder
- Thou shalt not commit adultery
- Thou shalt not steal
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour
- Thou shalt not covet (neighbour's house, wife, slaves, animals, or anything else)
In more technical terms, via negativa works by leveraging the asymmetry of knowledge. Negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works). What we know to be right could turn out to be wrong tomorrow. Conversely, what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right tomorrow, at least not as easily. To use Nassim Taleb's example of black and white swans,
If I spot a black swan, I can be quite certain that the statement “all swans are white” is wrong. But even if I have never seen a black swan, I can never hold such a statement to be true.
When it comes to our personal productivity, we don't know what 'hack' or tool is going to work for us. Productivity systems are highly personal. We come from different backgrounds, have wildly varying personalities, and are tackling a myriad of different challenges both personal and professional. In such individualized circumstances fraught with a high degree of randomness, any prescriptive solution is bound to fall short. What works for an insanely conscientious person won't necessarily work for the procrastinator on the other end of the conscientious scale. Any attempts to generalize productivity advice usually ends up removing nuance, and reduces any substance to banal tropes of the "follow your passion" variety.
What we do know, however, is what is unproductive. Through "addition via subtraction," we can take steps to reduce behaviors we know are unproductive, and leave room for the things our future selves would be proud we accomplished. Via negativa is not a productivity system per se. Rather, it's a method—the negative way—for you to find out what's not working in your existing system. It works because it doesn't ask you to find what is most productive, it simply asks you to reevaluate what you know is clearly not.
How to leverage via negativa
- Identify triggers that are clearly not productive.
- Design systems to remove them.
What are the notifications, triggers, or other stimuli that's subverting your attention? For me, that was YouTube and its recommendation engine and autoplay setting. This is a lethal combination that's swallowed many productive hours. Upon recognition of this destructive pattern, I downloaded a Chrome extension to block all YouTube recommendations, comments, and the entire homepage, and breathed a sigh of relief.
This two-question exercise has become a part of my weekly review. Not all of your well intentioned systems are going to work. It takes time and some trial and error to rewire maladaptive patterns. Over a number of weeks, I've deleted most social apps from my phone (except for messaging), and use StayFocusd to block or limit the time I spend on certain sites (Reddit, news, etc.).
Indeed, minimalism (digital and lifestyle), essentialism, and the Marie Kondo method all leverage the asymmetry of disconfirmation. These movements arose, in part, in response to the encroachment of technology into our lives. Rather than adopt newer tools to curb the old, these movements asks us to remove the non-essential. They recognize that new technologies are designed to heighten their perceived benefits (and exploit our neomania) and obfuscate their costs. The way to stop modernity from crowding out what matters most is the negative way, via negativa.
Think of your productivity in the same way Michelangelo saw David. When asked by the pope about the secret of his genius, referencing his sculpture of David, Michelangelo answered,
"It's simple. I just remove everything that is not David."