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.

Posted on: January 7, 2009.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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172 comments on “The Power of Less: Changing Behavior with Leo Babauta

  1. I’m living by one rule: Simplify!

    Over the past 12 months I have implemented many of the hints and points above with some interesting and fantastic results.

    It’s surprisingly not difficult, and over time, testing and playing with changes to routines to improve performance (and results) has become an enjoyable challenge.


  2. Hey Tim,

    Great post!

    I’ve been buried under a personal to-do list for a long time, and only recently after applying tips from 4HWW (80/20 principle, Parkinson’s law, etc.) have I been able to nearly clear the whole thing out! A lot of Leo’s tips seem to echo much of your own advice, and I look forward to experimenting with them.

    Regarding 4HWW, I’ve actually just rounded the corner to the muse selection stage–and I had a quick question for you:

    Though you caution against selling ingestibles (citing the resultant customer service burden), how much of BrainQUICKEN’s bottom-line (and therefore your ability to design your ideal lifestyle) comes from the fact that ingestibles lend themselves to repeat-orders and lifelong customers?

    It seems that information products, though attractive for reasons you’ve mentioned, don’t possess this feature. Subscription-based information products would, but of course then you’ve shackled the expert (presumably yourself) with the burden of regularly generating content.

    It seems to me that the recurring-order nature of ingestibles is more attractive than the simplicity-of-production nature of information products. How would you weigh in on this comparison?

    Thank you for your response, your book, your blog, your videos, your show (I hope it gets picked up!), and anything else I’ve forgotten to mention. =)

    All the best in 2009 and beyond,


  3. Leo is a great inspiration to bloggers and life designers. Following yours and his blogs (and books) is a great way to get great information for inspiration sources that you know is tried and tested.

    I think Leo’s best tip is to just change one thing at a time, it helps maintain focus. Increasingly we are under the pressure to do more, and get to places quicker when in reality we need to prioritize and take the correct small steps to get us to where we are aiming.

    Re: “in a world where people tend to focus on the latest Firefox extensions and gizmos”…Oooops…guilty, but I’m working on it.


  4. sounds interesting. i have just started reading a self-discipline book by Theodore Bryant. it look promising so far. have you read it and have any comments?


  5. I’m just eating this stuff up.. I’ve started my transformation towards 4HW and these tips are just the kinda stuff that makes you feel so great – cause I’m already doing them and thing alike.

    One thing I really do recommend that I’ve learned thus far:
    Make absolute and explicit decitions – this save you from many things you could do to dropping your self to W4W…

    But what I wanna ask TIm is: When have you if ever – rethinked the rules of the 4HWW doctorine?


  6. I had discovered Zen Habits just a few months ago, but it’s now one of the top blogs I read (of course along with four hour workweek). Great post, very inspirational!


  7. Hey Leo,
    I couldn’t agree more. Tim actually gave me some great advice in this area on the last live call he did (the night before the launch of his pilot). He explained that the dreamline process is more about elimination (focus) than it is anything else. In other words get rid of everything else and just focus on what your trying to make happen in the next 6-12 months. That turned it all around for me.

    Rob-Jet Set Life


  8. Just finished reading it. What I love about the book is that it’s truly enjoyable to read. Many other “productivity” books give you the feeling of anxiety as you think of your to-do list. Leo’s book has the exact opposite effect, which is profoundly refreshing…

    – Scott


  9. Your book definitely inspired me to think in a simpler and better way and motivated me to accomplish things that I didn’t think possible before. I still have problems getting around to forming good habits for myself though, so I’ll definitely be buying this book real soon.


  10. Typical out of the box thinking !!

    So efficient. :)

    Tim, im starting a diet from your program, already lost 4kg in 5 days.

    I would like to ask you something : How do you personnaly feel during the diet off day (saturday) ? I mean what is the effect on your mind, stress … of reintroducing carbs for one day which elevate sugar rate in the blood ?



  11. The book sounds great!

    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.



  12. Simplicity is something I try to practice daily. I’ve just received my copy of The Power of Less and so far, it’s been a great map. I’ve never been much of a reader. Up until a few years ago my favorite book has been “Of Mice and Men”. So to give you a gauge on the latest books I have read in the past two years: 1. The Da Vinci Code, 2. Small Is The New Big, 3. The 4-Hour Workweek, 4. The Long Tail, 5. The Power of Less. Thanks for the inspiration, Leo (and Tim!)


  13. Tim – Thanks for the timely post. Timely as in just in time to set me back on track for my 2009 goals. I am looking for the kanji poster you mentioned a while back. After 20 years, I have forgot more kanji than I remember. That is at the top of my priority check list.

    Must start up the routine. Learn 5 kanji before touching a computer every day.


  14. After reading 4HWW, I decide to go on an information diet: stop all these RSS, feeds, email update from blogs, etc and loosing so much time online and cut it down to 3 blogs:
    – 4HWW , because I am addicted
    – Zen Habits, for simplicity
    – Random Roger (, for his financial inside
    And now I discover that Leo and Tim read each other blogs, how random is that!!!
    Vincent (from France living in the US).


  15. Leo has a great blog and his viewpoint comes across clearly. I really need to work on single tasking. It is so tempting to want to do several things, but I noticed I accomplish more when I push myself to focus one thing at a time.


  16. Hey, Tim
    thanks, amazing article.
    Does Leo share with details for start-up bloggers in his book?

    I have to tell you that even your book is not published in russian, you have a huge army of fans in Russia. I ‘ve read your book first time more than a year ago, and since then sending 10-15 books every month to Russia to my friends and my friends’ friends by mail to quench their thirst…

    Also, being an inventor myself (who is not an inventor, right?), by blogging I inspire other independent inventors to patent, test and run their ideas and inventions themselves. I used your testing strategy myself, and actually I borrowed it as a testing step for the blog, if you don’t mind, of course [click on name for link to site!].

    The idea of One-Army-Man – and you are its greatest representative – is fantastic and fits so well in modern entrepreneur world.

    Many thanks to you, if you need a coach of Russian, you got one. And one more thing: know that we need your book in russian!!!



  17. Great post, Tim. I’m really glad that Leo included the part about posting your goal publicly. I started doing that a year and a half ago and it’s made a massive difference. First, I just did it with a friend over email. Then I did it with my coach. Now I do it through a Basecamp message called “Daily Check In”. There are times where I think none of the other pieces of advice will work for me unless I’m making it public to at least one person.