The Power of Less: Changing Behavior with Leo Babauta

Simple is beautiful (Photo: Razzziel)

To learn a skill, I often look — not for the best in the world — but for people who’ve made the greatest progress in the shortest period of time.

Thus, to gain muscle mass, for example, I would rather examine the training and diet log of someone who went from 145 – 185 lbs. in 1-2 months rather than consult with a 300-lb. professional who has been 300 lbs. for a decade. This also relates to the “explicit vs. implicit” (preach vs. practice) issues many top performers face when they can’t articulate an unconscious competence. I faced this when I asked lifelong swimmers for technical advice.

Leo Babauta has been a incredible model for me in the world of blogging.

His blog, Zen Habits, went from 1 reader — his wife — to being one of the Technorati top-100 blogs in the world in less than 12 months. Leo, who lives in Guam (how cool is that?), has built his audience by deconstructing his offline behavior as much as his online behavior…

In the last two years, he has:

– Quit smoking (on Nov. 18, 2005).

– Lost 40 pounds.

– Gone from a non-runner to completing several marathons and triathlons.

– Become a vegetarian.

– Tripled his income.

– Written a novel and a non-fiction book.

– Eliminated his debt.

Oh, and those children people like to use as justifications for inaction? No more excuses. Leo has six kids.

To illustrate a few of Leo’s principles for changing behavior, I am pleased to offer several exclusive excerpts from Leo’s new book, The Power of Less.

It is a fast read and a good reminder that — in a world where people tend to focus on the latest Firefox extensions and gizmos — simple basic habits are the force multiplier, not new applications. I added bolding to some parts I think are particularly important, as well as bracketed text [ ] for my comments.

The Power of Less

From Chapter 5: Create New Habits and The Power of Less Challenge

The only way you’ll form long-lasting habits is by applying the Power of Less: focus on one habit at a time, one month at a time, so that you’ll be able to focus all your energy on creating that one habit.

The tool that you’ll use to form each habit is an extremely powerful one: the Power of Less Challenge, a 30-day challenge that has proven very effective in forming habits for thousands of readers of my Zen Habits blog.

Here’s how it works:

1. Select one habit for the Challenge. Only one habit per month. You can choose any habit — whatever you think will have the biggest impact on your life.

[Tim: This is also supported by research done by BJ Fogg of Stanford University. Want to teach 60-year olds to use an SMS program to help them quit smoking? It won’t work. Those are two new behaviors. Choose one behavioral modification at a time.]

2. Write down your plan. You will need to specifically state what your goal will be each day, when you’ll do it, what your “trigger” will be (the event that will immediately precede the habit that’s already a part of your routine — such as exercising right after you brush your teeth), who you will report to (see below).

3. Post your goal publicly. Tell as many people as possible that you are trying to form your new habit. I suggest an online forum, but you could email it to coworkers and family and friends or otherwise get the word out to a large group.

4. Report on your progress daily. Each day, tell the same group of people whether or not you succeeded at your goal.

The Rules

There are only a few rules you need to follow to make this Challenge a success. If you follow these rules, it would be hard for you not to form a new habit by the end of the 30 days.

* Do only one habit at a time. Do not break this rule, because I assure you that if you do multiple habits at once, you will be much less likely to succeed. Trust me — I’ve tried both ways many times, and in my experience there is 100% failure for forming multiple habits at once, and a 50-80% success if you do just one habit at a time — depending on whether you follow the rest of these rules.

* Choose an easy goal. Don’t decide to do something really hard, at least for now. Later, when you’re good at habit changes, you can choose something harder. But for now, do something you know you can do every day. In fact, choose something easier than you think you can do every day. If you think you can exercise for 30 minutes a day, choose 10 minutes — making it super easy is one of the surest ways to ensure you’ll succeed.

* Choose something measurable. You should be able to say, definitively, whether you were successful or not today. If you choose exercise, set a number of minutes or something similar (20 minutes of exercise daily, for example). Whatever your goal, have a measurement.

* Be consistent. You want to do your habit change at the same time every day, if possible. If you’re going to exercise, do it at 7 a.m. (or 6 p.m.) every day, for example. This makes it more likely to become a habit.

* Report daily. You could check in every 2 or 3 days, but you’ll be more likely to succeed if you report daily. This has been proven over and over again in the Challenges.

* Keep a positive attitude! Expect setbacks now and then, but just note them and move on. No embarrassment in this challenge.

12 Key Habits to Start With

You can choose any habits in this book that you think will help you most, at work and in the rest of your life. But if I had to recommend 12 habits to start with (one each month for a year), these are the 12 I think could make the most difference in the lives of the average person (more on each habit in later chapters):

1. Set your 3 MITs (Most Important Tasks) each morning.

2. Single-task. When you work on a task, don’t switch to other tasks.

3. Process your inbox to empty.

4. Check email just twice a day.

5. Exercise 5-10 minutes a day.

6. Work while disconnected, with no distractions.

7. Follow a morning routine.

8. Eat more fruits and veggies every day. [Tim: Here is the “slow-carb” breakfast I use to start my morning routine]

9. Keep your desk decluttered.

10. Say no to commitments and requests that aren’t on your Short List (See Chapter 16, on the Simple Life).

11. Declutter your house for 15 minutes a day.

12. Stick to a 5-sentence limit for emails.

On Starting Small

Tim: Leo advocates, as I do, that you use smaller behavioral changes as a lever for major behavioral changes. In other words, start smart to seed the right habit before you aim to maximize output. In the beginning the habit is more important than the result.

Here are four good examples of “downsizing” behavioral changes, taken from pg. 42 of The Power of Less:

* Exercise: Start with 5-10 minutes a day, instead of 30.

* Waking early: Start by waking 15 minutes earlier, instead of an hour or two.

* Productivity: Start by trying to focus on the task at hand for 5-10 minutes at a time.

* Decluttering: Start with just one drawer, instead of trying to declutter your entire office or home.

Here are a few other segments I highlighted in my own notes for The Power of Less:

p. 51 Focusing on completion vs. organizing and filing

p. 62 Don’t schedule appointments (Tim: much like Arnold Schwarzenegger)

p. 80 “What’s the worst that will happen if I delete this?”

p. 99 Reducing commitments

p. 119 Decluttering the desk

p. 128 Designate a home for everything:

Designate a home for everything, and be fanatic. When you find stuff on flat surfaces, or draping over a chair, it might be because you don’t have a designated spot for that kind of thing. If you don’t, designate a spot for it immediately. If stuff doesn’t have a home in your home, you need to get rid of it, or it will forever wander around the house.

Remember: productivity shouldn’t be complicated.

Putting a good tool on top of a bad habit (process) just multiplies garbage outputs. Forget the latest and greatest technologies and go back to basics. Routines and rules, not gizmos and tools.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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178 Replies to “The Power of Less: Changing Behavior with Leo Babauta”

  1. Hello you all!

    I just want to share that when I discovered Zen habits I started to change my life!

    The second step of changing my life was discovered 4hww!

    And it’s going well, thank you!!!

    Chaging habits it’s difficult but not impossible!

    Just one step at the time and maybe fast or maybe slow we can change!

    Be patient!

    Thank you guys! Keep on going!

    Best regards!

    Pati

  2. I was wondering how you “avoid making appointments.” Is it referring to something like going to the dentist or making dinner reservations or both? Any ideas?

  3. I think this works because what is important is getting into the habit of accomplishing more than accomplishing great things right away.

    If you accomplish something you feel motivated, If you accomplish something again you feel even more motivated.

    The important thing here is the source, which is Motivation.

  4. I’m just wondering, when obtaining a skill, does the Zen Habits not conflict with your previous observations with Parkinson’s Law?

    I find it kind of strange, considering you yourself learned argentine tango but then put down a difficult goal of 6 months to compete. I would think that Zen Habits would be difficult to apply in this case to acquire a skill, because by Parkinson’s Law it becomes increasingly difficult.

    Can you please further explain how both the ideas of Zen Habits and Parkinson’s Law helps create a habit? I’m curious because I am thinking about pushing my breakdancing skill more into a competition level in a few months, and a lot of your observations upon the tango correlates with the issues I see present in breakdancing.

  5. One of the tenants I preach everyday….”Less IS more”. We have a rule in our house we follow religiously..’Something In, Something Out’..

    Great stuff,

    jt

  6. This is a really inspiring post, I’m looking around my office and I can’t see to the other side of the room as everything is piled so high, its part office part art studio only its difficult to work or create in such a cluttered environment. But the part about tackling one drawer at a time seems a lot more manageable than taking all day to do the whole room.

    After reading this I can now see that If I break everything tasks down into smaller chunks I may have a lot more success and this would encourage me to change more things.

    Great I’m going to start right now!

  7. Tim:

    The 12 key habits are simple and easy to institute. Both you and Leo are an inspiration pecially at this critical time of the year when people are motivated to change.

    Thanks for a great post.

  8. Very good post. I always try to incorporate most of these in my daily routine. However, my main goal for change daily is to cut back on smoking cigarettes haha. Any advice?

  9. I’m wondering what could have been the turning point(s) for Leo. From your book Tim, you described a few points in your life where you realized you had to change behavior and thinking i.e. discovering Pareto, getting overwhelmed with BrainQuicken when you were doing all the work and defining various future nightmares…

  10. I love challenges and how you present these ideas resonates wonderfully – my question to you.. is why haven’t you pursued the craziest challenge of them all? Where are the mini-Tim’s?

    When my wonderful ones are little there just seems so little time to truly pursue and excel in business with any rule without directly taking too much away as their needs are so high!

    … and for someone [yourself] that seems like a true challenge-pursuer this one seems like a challenge yet-to-be?

    *grin*

  11. Tim,

    Thanks for the inspiration — both the book and the blog. Your book, was one of the catalysts for me to start the process of leaving a longtime (unfulfilling) job and travel with my family for a year.

    As for Leo’s book, it’s now in my Amazon cart. Looking forward to it.

    Thanks,

    Bob

  12. Just finished Leo’s book. Loved it. I’ve already put several of his ideas and suggestions to work. It’s made a big difference already. Highly recommended!

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  14. I agree with this 100%, I have been free of my damaging addiction (cold calling) for seven months because I have been using business networking instead (less work with astonishingly better results). I would however, like to warn people about the dangers of business networking. This is from an article I wrote for the business section of the Brooklyn Eagle:

    THE DANGERS OF BUSINESS NETWORKING by Tim Seitz (timothyjseitz@aol.com)

    I think it is incredibly irresponsible for people to teach Business Networking without warning people about the dangers. The Dangers of Business Networking need to be well understood before you start actively building your business network.

    I call my brand of Business Networking – Inspirational Marketing, inspiring others to network with you and refer business to you. I teach a tele-class on using Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Myspace, Plaxo, Merchant Circle, SalesConX, Meetups and other networking tools and groups. I always let my clients know the dangers of business networking before we get started.

    The Dangers of Inspirational Marketing (AKA Business Networking)

    1. People will envy how happy you are – Don’t be surprised when people think you’re full of poop! They don’t believe you’re telling the truth because you’re happier then “you should be” in their eyes.

    2. People will ask you how you do it, then they won’t believe you when you tell them! Maybe this is like the first point, but this isn’t them not believing in your success, but not believing how you achieved it.

    3. Every time you talk to people you realize you’re networking – Wow, you’re getting really good at this and you’re not even trying, that’s almost the most fun thing about it, there is no “trying” there is only doing!

    4. Spare Time? What’s That? You used to have spare time, now everyone wants to talk to you, introduce you to someone, learn from you, take you out to eat, go to a convention or seminar with you, hey, am I supposed to be having this much fun when I’m working?

    5. Your competition may become your clients or your vendors* – Once people see how well you are doing, they may want a piece of the action. If you have more orders than you can fill, your competition may actually end up being your supplier, and if you provide a service your competition doesn’t they may become your clients, and charge their clients a fee on top of yours to get your products or services.

    6. You are Invited to Speak in Public – No one lets you be a wallflower, everyone wants you to speak to their sales team, their board of directors, their networking, civic and social groups.

    7. You Keep Getting Job Offers – Headhunters just won’t leave you alone. Not only are you an expert in your field, but your also an expert in networking, and with the down economy, businesses want to hire you to increase their sales

    ———————-

    * In a real life example, a bank branch manager at my BNI chapter had a 1-2-1 with me and two weeks later I am setting up Merchant Services for 18 bank branches! No one warned me that my business could grow so much faster than I expected it to!

  15. Tim / Leo.

    I’ve Just downloaded Leo’s book from Audible.com.

    I must say, that a lot of Leo’s ideas seem to come from T4HWW or maybe he agrees with Tim’s idea’s quite a bit. This is my opinion. Maybe I just read in to things too much.

    I admit, a lot of what I got from 4HWW was stuff I already agreed with or thought was “common sense” but some of it was provided in a different light, or if only it just made me think about it again. I think that is why I enjoyed the book so much, because a decent amount of the ideals matched some of mine.

    Most content is NEVER original content, but a lot of the stuff on focusing on only doing one thing at a time seems a lot like 4HWW. And for all I know 4HWW sounds like some other books I have never read.

    One small example is “don’t do anything else while you are eating”.

    I think 4HWW mentions, it is not a great idea to eat and chat with messenger and read email, etc. etc.

    Power of less: Not a good idea to eat and iron your clothes. Etc.

    There are a number of comps. And of course other things that do not seem related.

    I don’t mention things like batching email, “the power of saying no” etc. because that has been said before by others.

    Just an observation.

  16. Holy crap! I forgot something “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission”. Not a trademarked phrase but, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

  17. I suppose no one will read down this far, and I like Leo’s site and philosophy, I really do…. BUT….. doesn’t anyone else find it ironic that the do-more-with-less guy has six kids?

    I would suggest having fewer kids would greatly increase efficiency. Having none has done wonders for the zen in my own life.

  18. I do agree that for most people one habit at once is the best approach, I have to confess though that I am working on being the exception to the rule… though I am more motivated by improving my life than just trying to show it is possible. Most of my 101 goals are one-off experience-based goals or easy to break into chunks/bursts of interest rather than ongoing daily/weekly/monthly goals. I seriously plan to succeed in achieving everything on my Mission 101 list but the key to do this is planning… which I have and am doing a lot of.

  19. Tim, I’d like your thoughts on how we can survive the current economic downturn.

    I’m doing most of the suggestions in your book and blog to be more efficient with my time at the office (like plugging in ear phones and listening to music so my colleagues are less tempted to ask stupid questions all the time) – however, it seems I have to take on MORE tasks and accounts to justify my job as my colleagues are getting laid off – and I have to do all this without any pay rise or promotion to offset it.

    With the debts I have and rent to pay, I am seeking alternative sources of income but companies have to be willing to spend first – so what are good sources of alternative income at a time when nobody wants to pay?

    It’s times like these we are stretched to our limit to make every dollar count and get smarter with our resouces…

  20. Hi,

    After a quick (!) glimpse at your list of to do´s, I wonder: what if people work, for example, as a spokesperson. Mobile phone rings all the time, distraction is permanent, although there some “good” days. Is the only solution quitting my job? Mishyka

  21. I haven’t read the book yet but going to the library today to get it. I started implementing the concept yesterday (June 2nd). My 30 day plan is to get my home in order one room at a time. My hubby and I have seven children which adds up to a lot of laundry. This is day two. Thank you Leo, for a great,simple, rewarding, doable, challenge!

    Sincerely in Christ,

    Leesa C.

    Eph.2:8,9

    L.J. Cramer Properties

  22. with my time at the office (like plugging in ear phones and listening to music so my colleagues are less tempted to ask stupid questions all the time) – however, it seems I have to take on MORE tasks and accounts to justify my job as my colleagues are getting laid off

  23. Starting small is also great advice for public speakers! As a public speaking coach, I encourage my clients to read The Power of Less. Truly, we can say so much more by using fewer words. And the best speeches are focused on a narrow point – not lofty and far-reaching. I just posted on this very topic on my blog. (see above).

    Thank you!

    Sarah

  24. Hey Leo & Tim,

    Better to accomplish a small goal than plan but fail to accomplish a bunch of big goals.

    If you focus on getting a small change done for 5 minutes a day, after a bit you would have made progress. But make a bigger plan–one that is daunting to you–and you risk not doing it.

    What’s great with bite-sized progress is that by doing something small routinely, you turn it into a habit. It becomes like brushing your teeth: you don’t think about it anymore, and it’d be weird NOT to do it. After establishing this foundation, you can build up your progress from there. 5 minutes becomes 10, 1 task becomes 2, and so on.

    Before you know it, you’re making positive changes in your life, and it’s easy to do because they’re a habit, rather than this big daunting plan that you don’t feel like forcing yourself to do.

    Thank you two for writing your awesome books. Inspires us to be effective, not just productive,

    Oleg

  25. Thanks for putting us onto this really great info from Leo.

    It’s a year later that I’m discovering it and it seems to me it could probably be relevant for many decades to come. I’ll be getting a copy of the book today and will begin to implement the one habit per month rule. I’ll be back to let you know how it goes. God Bless.

  26. Now, will this work for the entire 6.8 billion people on the planet, or just some of them? If the latter, how can we know if we are individually part of that fraction?

    Motivation can’t come from external sources – at all. And you can’t create new motivation “stuff” beyond what you already possess. You can’t read a book, then go and change your life. If you apply “new” motivation (which is simply life energy) in one area, you must rob that from some other area. You can’t create “more” energy.

    Here’s my alternative plan.

    Just live your life exactly as you’re doing now, allowing for the normal variations. That’s your life. It’s not going to be materially different tomorrow, next month, next year or ever. If you’re a slob, you’re a slob. If you’re lazy, you’re lazy. If you’re greedy, you’re greedy. If you’re ambitious, you’re ambitious.

    If you’re not these things, you’re not.

    You’re basically stuck with yourself. As is. As always was. Only your external circumstances change.

    If what Leo claims is true, he has achieved his improvements in his situation as a result of changing some previously limiting circumstances – not by going against his internal makeup every day. I wonder when he arrived in Guam, or his present living arrangements?

    If he was getting benefits by going against his internal makeup and living artificially, a bill for that would certainly come due, either each day, or cumulatively some time in the future.

    If you want to be happy (and I guess that’s the goal of all this), first learn to accept yourself, and then try to optimize your circumstances (e.g. don’t work in a pizza joint or a bakery or a bar, live near a park or other such open space, work close to home, dump friends who have worse internal makeup than you, don’t own a television, or a cell phone, or car, etc.)

    Getting rid of your TV and your car should be enough to “make” more rapid and beneficial changes in your life than you could ever believe possible. You’ll be the same person, only your circumstance will have changed.

    No? Too much? Okay, get back to decluttering that drawer. And good luck with that.

  27. it is amazing how far a simple plan can go, before i couldnt get any work done throughout the day and just having my task written down and try to follow on task through as you suggest has been a game breaker for me…thanks for the info and i know there is a lot of people gaining from your posts.

  28. Hey Tim,

    I like your book (a lot), but found that trying to do everything at once a little overwhelming. I read a lot, and found that I was trying to do too many things at once. So I stopped reading a lot of books, and am focusing on doing right now. This is the first time I’ve perused any one’s blog in about a 3 or 4 months.

    I came to pretty similar conclusions about changing behaviour, that I need to take a month and focus on one thing, and try not to add too much more into that.

    That’s how I got my finances under control – I found being in debt and fear over losing even more money a barrier to getting some things going from 4hww. Now, almost out of debt, and almost ready to start my 4hww. But that’s another story.

    So here is where I am: I want to exercise, and eat healthier! I don’t want to be jacked, I don’t need to be the hulk, but I want to have a healthy fitness level along with some definition, right now I’m scrawny, 145 lbs and can’t gain weight (I’m sure you could direct me to a work out plan of some sort…). But I also want to start eating right, because I eat a lot of processed, canned and cheap stuff, along with a lot of sugar. Would you suggest I work towards eating well the first month, and then the exercise the next month? Because Leo seems to suggest that I should only work on one habit a month, and those seem like two different habits, though they seem to me to go hand in hand?

    Let me know what you think, if you would be so kind. Hope all is well.

    Jeremy

  29. I like the idea of setting easy goals and staying focused on them at first. It’s all about starting the process and getting things going on. When easy goals are made putting effort to achieve them is much easier. And achieving that mental state of succeeding is when great things are starting to happen. Great post.

  30. How true it is that we need to focus on the basics and the step-by-step process if we want to accomplish the big things in the end. It always amazes me how I manage to zip to the top of the heap in some new endeavor simply by putting my nose to the grindstone.

    Sometimes, I even feel guilty about it, like I’ve skipped some steps and don’t “really” belong there. But in the end what I realize is that I’ve put in the work (consistently) that 95% of people aren’t willing to do. And I’ve done the work in the smartest most efficient way possible. The basics are everything.

    And the cool thing is, once you’ve mastered the basics in one area of your life, they seem to transfer to other areas. Was it Musashi who said “To know one thing is to know 1000 things”?

    Great post.

    Cheers,

    Ralph

  31. Well…after reading this I can now see that If I break everything tasks down into smaller chunks I may have a lot more success and this would encourage me to change more things

  32. Hey Tim, I love your “cliff notes” of the book! I actually bought the book and read it and realized that you already highlighted the important stuff! I could have saved myself time and reduced my information intake by just trusting you! Where can I find more of your “cliff notes” on other books you’ve found extremely helpful??

    Thanks!

  33. I like your opening statement about not looking for the best in the world but looking for people who have made the greatest progress in the shortest time. I am often telling people: “Success is the journey; how far we have come. You can be born with money but you can’t be born with success.”

    People often look up to people that were born into wealth or were “gifted” success when others who work hard to come so far are often unnoticed.

  34. The Power of Less: Changing Behavior with Leo Babauta Oh my goodness! a tremendous article dude. Thank you Nevertheless I’m experiencing difficulty with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting similar rss downside? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Regards, Teak Manufacturers

  35. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is wonderful blog. A great read. I will certainly be back.

  36. Valuable info. Fortunate me I discovered your site unintentionally, and I am stunned why this twist of fate did not came about in advance! I bookmarked it.

  37. Hi Tim, great post I really am a believer of the power of less and keeping it simple. I like the tips here, focusing on one thing at a time and choosing easy goals.

    Keep up the good work.

    Chris

  38. Slow down the podcasts tim some times I listen to each one two or three times to take it All in please ,looking forward to seeing you down under .

  39. How does this work with ommissions – when the habit is to not do something rather than do it

    E.g. don’t eat chocolate or don’t check email until 3pm.

    It seems it would be a different process. Any advice welcomed.

  40. Thanks for sharing this bright article! I like the idea in starting on your small goals then move to you big goals.