Josh Kaufman

Bestselling Author, Business & Self-Education


The Power of Less - Leo Babauta

This post contains my personal notes about the big ideas in Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less. My book notes are different from many of the book summaries you’ll find on the web. Instead of following the structure of the book in question, we’ll isolate and examine the key ideas and themes that make the book useful. Along the way, I’ll tell you how I actually apply the ideas. Enjoy! - Josh

You don’t have to feel like you’re bearing the weight of the world on your shoulders in order to be a productive person. In The Power of Less , Leo Babauta masterfully teaches the fine art of focusing on the essential and eliminating the superfluous.

About Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta is the author of the Personal MBA-recommended book The Power of Less , as well as the blogs Zen Habits , mnmlist , and Write to Done.

Here are 10 big ideas from Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less

1: Simplicity means identifying what’s essential, then eliminating the rest.

It’s easy to get caught up in the demands of modern life - the world is constantly increasing in complexity, and placing more and more demands on your attention. If you try to tackle everything that grabs your attention, you’ll constantly find yourself stressed, overwhelmed, and burned out.

Simplicity is the art of focusing only on what’s essential to your goals and your personal satisfaction, and ignoring the rest. Instead of paying attention to everything, simplicity is choosing to pay attention only to things that matter the most, and ignoring the rest.

2: Focusing on the essential produces the most results for the least effort.

Since you only have so much time and energy each day, focusing only on what’s most important allows you to spend a much greater percentage of your time on things that will produce the most results.

Instead of spreading yourself too thin, focusing on the essential helps you accomplish the things that matter most. That requires making decisions: constantly choosing what not to focus on or care about at that particular moment in time.

3: You must set limits - they don’t set themselves.

Most people avoid setting limits, which is a mistake. Without limits, it’s easy to assume that everything is important, and that you’ll be able to do whatever is necessary to get everything done.

Without setting limits, it’s very easy to waste time and energy working beyond the point of Diminishing Returns. Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time allotted" - that’s why it’s easy to work until you collapse, surf the internet endlessly, and spend too much money on things that don’t really matter.

You must set limits for yourself. The essence of prioritization is deciding not to do something. If everything is a #1, must-do priority, you haven’t really prioritized anything, since you haven’t made a choice.

4: Focus on only one thing at a time.

Multitasking is a myth - our brains are only capable of truly paying attention to one thing at a time. When we think we’re multitasking, all we’re really doing is rapidly switching the focus of our attention from one thing to the next. Every time your focus shifts, it takes your mind a while to load the information it needs to operate effectively.

That’s a Friction cost I call the “Cognitive Switching Penalty" - every time you switch focus, you pay the price. The less you switch, the less of a price you pay to be productive.

5: Limit your active goals and projects to no more than 3-4 at a time.

Of all of the recommendations in The Power of Less , this is the most challenging, the most controversial, and the most powerful.

If you’ve ever created a list of all of your active projects, it’s likely that it contains over 30 things you’d like to accomplish. Some projects are personal, some are family-related, and others are added to your plate via your work. You may not feel like you have a choice about taking on these projects, but you do.

Think of this recommendation as a way of applying “overwhelming force" to a task to get it done as quickly as possible. Instead of trying to do 30-40 things at once (and failing miserably), limiting your active projects to no more than 3-4 preserves your focus and attention, allowing you to actually accomplish your most important objectives quickly move on to the next.

Personally, I keep a list of projects I’d like to do in a “Someday / Maybe" list, which David Allen recommends in Getting Things Done. The most important of these projects are promoted to my active list, which I keep on a 3x5 index card in the notebook I use to track my to-dos. This simple practice helps me focus on what’s most important right now, and temporarily ignore the rest.

6: Establish three Most Important Tasks (MITs) every day, and do those before working on anything else.

All people are created equal, but all tasks aren’t. On any given day, there are a few things that you could accomplish that would represent huge progress toward your most important projects. Those are your Most Important Tasks (MITs).

For maximum daily productivity, create a list of 2-3 MITs in the morning (or the night before). When you start work in the morning, your goal is to accomplish your MITs as quickly as possible - unless there is a true emergency, all other tasks can wait, since they’re (by definition) less important.

Once you accomplish your MITs, the rest of the day is a bonus - you’ve already accomplished the tasks that represent major progress toward your most important objectives.

6: Batch similar tasks together to preserve your focus.

Every time you switch the object of your focus, you lose a great deal of productivity - the nefarious Cognitive Switching Penalty. To avoid the penalty, it pays to find ways to switch your focus less often.

Batching is the practice of grouping similar tasks together, then tackling them all at once. Take, for instance, checking e-mail - if you check every 5 minutes, you’re constantly switching your focus and incurring the penalty. If you check and respond to your e-mail at set times during the day (say, 10:00am and 4:00pm), you can get the same amount done in less time.

Errands are particularly useful to batch - how productive would it be to drive to the grocery store every time you want to buy a single item? Putting what you need on a list, then buying everything at once is clearly more efficient. Doing multiple errands at once, like going to the post office right before you go grocery shopping, is even better.

Personally, early afternoons on Monday and Friday are my “miscellaneous task" times. Having a set time to batch non-critical tasks makes it much easier to stay focused, while still keeping on top of routine tasks like paying bills, cleaning, and routine car maintenance.

8: Installing positive habits is easiest when you start small, then build on your early success.

When attempting to create positive Habits , most people make the mistake of trying to make too many changes at once. Installing or changing habits takes willpower, and willpower is a very limited resource. Spread your willpower too thin, and it’ll be difficult to make any of your desired habits stick.

For best results, focus only on installing or changing one habit at a time, and start with small increments. If you want to start doing 100 pushups a day, start with one. Every day, add another. Building on momentum makes it much easier to make the habit stick.

Whatever you do, focus on ONE (and only one) habit at a time. Practice that habit until it becomes second-nature, requiring no thought or willpower to do every day. Then, and only then, should you choose another habit to install.

9: Consciously minimize your active commitments, and don’t be afraid to say “no" to new ones.

Unless you consciously control your active commitments, they’ll expand until you’re overwhelmed. It’s tempting to say yes to everything in an effort to be supportive and helpful. Few of us like the feeling of denying requests for help or disappointing others, which makes “yes" our default response to requests.

Here’s the truth: your time, attention, and energy are finite. When you overwhelm yourself with commitments, you’re shortchanging the most important activities that will contribute the most to your productivity, satisfaction, and success. You’re also shortchanging the less important commitments, since they’re competing with all of the other critically important projects in your world.

It’s ultimately kinder to the people you care about to be very up-front with them about your current priorities. It’s never okay to “half-ass" commitments - either commit to being “full-assed," or “no-assed." Compromising your commitments by keeping the weight of the world on your shoulders leads to poorer results for everyone involved.

10: Slow down, pay attention, and enjoy the process.

Life can quickly pass us by unless we choose to slow down. Looking back on life, one of the most common regrets people express at the end of their lives is that it all went too quickly, and they didn’t focus enough on what was clearly the most important - family, friends, important contributions, and enjoying the small moments of life.

Slowing down is the best gift you can give yourself, your friends, and your loved ones. When all is said and done, no one really cares how many zeros you have in your bank balance, what your job title is, or how many followers you have on Twitter.

Recent research indicates that memorable experiences do impact your happiness and life satisfaction, so it pays to focus on ways to create memorable experiences. Slowing down and mindfully enjoying your daily experience of life is simple, effective, and free.


Published: September 29, 2010 Last updated: September 29, 2010

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