Book Review: The Power of Less

Today I am reviewing new books written by two colleagues: Trent from The Simple Dollar and Leo from Zen Habits. As you read these reviews, please remember that I am friends with both authors.

Zen Habits is one of my favorite weblogs. For the past two years, Leo Babauta's exploration of productivity and simple living has helped me make the most of my time. (Plus sometimes, like yesterday, he just hits it out of the park.)

Babauta recently published his first book, The Power of Less, which seeks to help readers become more efficient — and more relaxed at the same time — by limiting themselves only to the essential.

Six lessons
The Power of Less is divided into two sections. In the first, Babauta explores the six guiding principles of his philosophy, “the ideas that will help you to maximize your productivity while simplifying your life”:

  1. Set limitations. By setting limitations, we must chose the essential. So in everything you do, learn to set limitations.
  2. Choose the essential. By choosing the essential, we create great impact with minimal resources. Always choose the essential to maximize your time and energy.
  3. Simplify. Eliminate the nonessential.
  4. Focus is your most important tool in becoming more effective.
  5. Create new habits to make long-lasting improvements.
  6. Start small. Start new habits in small increments to ensure success.

The second section of the book offers practical tips for applying these six principles in various parts of your life: goals and projects, time management, e-mail, filing, daily routine, etc.

The power of less
The first section of this book disappointed me. Babauta's six principles are good, but the chapters describing them are too long and the examples vague.

Babauta writes, “These days we consume information, food, and media at a breakneck pace that was unimagined two hundred years ago.” Maybe so (that's my impression too), but I want a bit of research to back it up. This sort of book lends itself to facts and figures. There's no research cited in The Power of Less, and that frustrated me.

But I think the second section of the book is great. It's filled with ideas that I can use in my own life. As one who is completely overwhelmed by his work, the idea of doing more by working less appeals to me. As I read, I jotted down some techniques I can use to improve my own life today:

  • Have only three active projects at a time, with all others waiting “on deck”. Finish all three projects, and then move three more projects to the active list.
  • Every evening, create a list of three Most Important Tasks for the following day. Try to complete these as soon as possible, before you get distracted.
  • Limit e-mail. Check only twice per day. (Babauta recommends 10am and 4pm.)
  • If you're leaving e-mail in your inbox because you need to do something, move the task to an external list. Get the task out of your inbox.
  • Limit the length of your replies. Kris has been trying to convince me of this for months. When I reply to reader e-mail, I often want to write long, personal replies. This takes time. Although I'd like to write more, I'm going to try to limit myself to 3-4 sentences.
  • Create a simple filing system. Get rid of stacks on your desk. I'm a “stacks” kind of guy, and often feel overwhelmed by them. I bought an accordion folder, and have been working to move my stacks to this.
  • Learn to say “no”. This is a difficult one for me. For the past two years, I've been a proponent of the power of yes. I've achieved a lot by accepting the offers that have come my way. But now I'm finding I don't have time to say “yes” to everything.

More or less?
As you might expect, The Power of Less is very much like a refined and extended version of Babauta's blog, Zen Habits. This alone may tell you whether you'll enjoy the book. I liked it, but do have some reservations.

For one, the book is tech-centric. The examples are great if you're an office worker, but much less relevant if you have a blue-collar job or are a stay-at-home parent.

Also, at times the book feels like a group of unrelated parts instead of unified whole. For example, in one chapter Babauta encourages readers to focus on only one goal at a time. But in the next (and in the rest of the book), he writes of having multiple goals. Which is it? One goal or many?

Quibbles aside, I'm glad to have read The Power of Less. I've reached a point in my life where I'm questioning my priorities. Do I really want to spend 60 hours a week writing? How important is money relative to fitness and relationships? How can I find balance?

When I read The Power of Less on Christmas Day, it had quite an impact. Over the past two weeks, I've used its lessons to help me re-structure how I organize my time. I'm pleased with the changes. I have embraced the power of less — and so far it seems to be working.

Learn more about this book at the Power of Less website.

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Eric J. Nisall
Eric J. Nisall
11 years ago

I’ve had to critique friends in the past, and that was with their finances, so I know that it can be a daunting task J.D. I actually saw the book in Borders yesterday and started skimming the pages (although I didn’t buy it this time due to having only 1 40% off coupon and had a different book in hand). I agree with the title that many of the principles involved apply to both business and life. It is important to limit concurrent projects to a minimal amount since many people do lack the focus to complete even one. It… Read more »

William Mize
William Mize
11 years ago

I love Leo and his overall concept of “less is more” but this sounds more like a library loan than a purchase. I look forward to reading it on a lazy Sunday with a notepad by my side. I’m sure I could learn from it.

Jeremy M
Jeremy M
11 years ago

Yeah, interesting. I’ve heard stats on the increasing flow of information, but never heard citations of studies. I wonder if there are any done in a concrete and scientific manner… This is also the sub-title of Paradox of Choice – why more is less. So less is more, right? This is also touched on well in Kessler’s It’s Not About the Money, though not with the steps that you list here. Hmm. That is a weird review – on one hand, I feel like you’re disappointed with the book, but on the other I think the individual parts were good… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Jeremy M
Oh, I’m not disappointed with the book, really. I was just hoping for more based on Leo and Zen Habits. My expectations were high — perhaps unrealistically high. And yes, the book was well worth it, and has probably paid for itself already. Without The Power of Less, I wouldn’t have been able to implement the time-management system I’m using this year.

HIB
HIB
11 years ago

J.D.

Nice review of the book. I too like facts and figures so I see where you are coming from.

I haven’t read the book myself, but I will wait until I’m either able to get it through the library or paperbackswap. If I REALLY like the book, I’ll then look into purchasing it. I’m frugal and that’s the way “I roll”.

Thanks for your insight on the book!
Cheers!
-HIB

vilkri - setting up a budget
vilkri - setting up a budget
11 years ago

“Less is more” is gaining popularity. Maybe the current economic crisis teaches us that we don’t really need all the things that we think we need.

Leo
Leo
11 years ago

Thanks for the honest review, J.D.! I’ve been a fan of yours since before I started Zen Habits, so it’s an honor to be reviewed by you. I’d like to make an offer to your frugal readers … buy The Power of Less and I will give you one of three bonuses: 1. The Zen To Done ebook, usually a price of $9.50. 2. The Zen Habits Handbook for Life ebook, usually a price of $6.50. 3. An exclusive audio podcast of weight loss tips from me, packaged with a special audio interview – me interviewing GTD author David Allen.… Read more »

Shanel Yang
Shanel Yang
11 years ago

Thanks for the review, J.D.! Appreciate the even-handed review, even though you’re friends with Leo. Looking forward to your review of Trent’s book, which I assume will be later today since it wasn’t in this post and you said you’re doing that one today, too! : )

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
11 years ago

You bring up an interesting question — whether any objective research can show whether we really ARE consuming more and taking in increased information. More than who, where? Thinking back on my misspent youth in the Cretaceous, I’d venture a guess that it’s not that we’re taking in more information, but that we’re exposed to different kinds of information in different ways. Consider a hunter-gatherer in the woods or on the plains. The amount of information coming in to this individual is vast: the weather; the direction of the wind; the sounds and scents on the wind; the season, the… Read more »

Katrina R.
Katrina R.
11 years ago

“Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday.” I’ve been thinking about that quote lately.

I’ll read this book … I’m also curious about Ali Velshi’s new book, Gimme My Money Back. (Different topic, of course, but if we’re talking books today …) 🙂

kick_push
kick_push
11 years ago

thanks for the book review jd.. i’ll check it out at borders sometime soon

Craig
Craig
11 years ago

I have read other reviews about this book in the blogosphere as well. Seems like it has a lot of good points, not sure if it’s the book for me. I really respect your review especially since you come out and say you are friends with the authors.

Mrs Money
Mrs Money
11 years ago

I think that living with less is so gratifying. My family has done it for years, not out of necessity, but because we care about our impact on the environment. Great review!

Billy Fischer
Billy Fischer
11 years ago

Thanks for the review. I’m definitely going to read the book. Personally I’ve always struggled with the check email only twice a day recommendation. I work in the business of having clients, and my clients are the fuel to my business. So, it’s very difficult for me to do this, but at the same time, my attachment to my inbox kills me.

Suggestions?

Andrea
Andrea
11 years ago

I am going to email less often like JD- shorter and start deleting the quantity of jokes/”news”/information that is basically useless and time cluttering. I often do write a short list of tasks the night before or on the way to work -but I need to remember to keep the list in front of me- and accomplish. And I hope to have less drama in my worklife(like they say Obama does)

susan
susan
11 years ago

re simple filing: I’m a “stacks” person also…and over the past few months, I’ve found this very old fashioned “tickler file” system to be a great assist:
http://www.synergyinstituteonline.com/detail_article.php?artid=303

Mark
Mark
11 years ago

I have not read the book but I plan to. Question about the 6 guiding principles. It seems like the first three are redundant. Number 1 states: Set limitations. By setting limitations, we must chose the essential. But this is principle 2, Choose the essential. And by choosing the essential, one automatically eliminates the nonessential, which is principle 3 or simplify. Wouldn’t it be easier to wrap all that into one? Simply limit to essentials. I understand the need to break things down but based on principle number 3 of simplify, I think it can all be reduced to 1… Read more »

Amy
Amy
11 years ago

I enjoyed this review, but I’m a little stymied by the email-twice-a-day regime. I can and will commit to cutting down the non-work email traffic I recieve and generate. However, I feel it’s important for me to check it often, as I work in for a technical company, on a project with team players that are located internationally, and some of my coworkers and suppliers preferred method of communicating is email. Alot of their questions need fast answers. Also, with this program, sending an email is the way to keep records that you did send ‘the info’, if a problematic… Read more »

thomas
thomas
11 years ago

Efficiency is key to economic prosperity. Take notice Government.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

Thomas at #19 is absolutely correct, and I think this is something that should get more attention, but doesn’t seem to come up that often. It takes a certain amount of effort to build things (or grow them or cook them or write them, or whatever). If we want nicer things than we had before, it stands to reason that we’ll have to invest more time to create them than we used to. This costs us leisure time, and at some point we hit a limit. We can either sacrifice the quality of our work, and therefore the efficiency of… Read more »

Leo
Leo
11 years ago

@Billy Fischer (and Amy, who had a related comment) … you wrote: “I work in the business of having clients, and my clients are the fuel to my business. So, it’s very difficult for me to do this, but at the same time, my attachment to my inbox kills me.” I definitely hear you — most of us feel this need to check email and respond quickly, as we feel our jobs depend on it. But do you think your clients/co-workers can’t wait half a day or a day for a response? That’s rarely the case — when we send… Read more »

Leo
Leo
11 years ago

@Tyler: Actually, your comment is perfectly relevant to the review of my book, as it’s exactly what the book is about to a large degree. Spot on.

mythago
mythago
11 years ago

“Check your email twice a day” is definitely not advice that is great if you’re an office worker!

Leo
Leo
11 years ago

@mythago: I realize that it’s not advice that works for every office worker — which is why they’re suggestions, not mandates, and I tell people to find the tips that apply best to their lives. However … many, many office workers (including myself) have put this into practice with great benefit. It depends on the job, of course, but often you’ll find that you don’t really need to check email as much as you think you do. And more importantly, you learn that if you wean yourself from email, you can get more important stuff done. It’s amazing how much… Read more »

Billy Fischer
Billy Fischer
11 years ago

Leo – Thanks for responding. Well, I bought your book and am planning on giving it a try. Am I ready to check email twice a day, probably not. Maybe I can start with four times or so instead of staring at it all day.

Regardless, I’m planning on changing some habits to improve my life. Looking forward to reading the book.

Leo
Leo
11 years ago

@Billy Fischer: Great! Thanks for buying the book – much appreciated.

As for the specific number of times you check email … it’s not as important as setting limits and times to check email (instead of being inside your inbox all the time). You really have to find the limits that work best for you, as you’ll see in the book.

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
11 years ago

I’m a frequent reader of Zenhabits, and I love its teachings on simplifying and discipline. It definitely builds quality of life.

On the downside, I don’t find it to often address concern for others besides self, or the building of real character, above and beyond seeking an easier, more pleasant life. For me, those are big things to overlook.

BPT - MoneyChangesThings
BPT - MoneyChangesThings
11 years ago

Some of the advice sounds impractical – many of our lives are made of a zillion projects, both home/domestic, professional, and communal if you’re involved in volunteer activities. I do find 2 things centering. One is the OHIO concept, Only Handle it Once. Go through your mail? Get rid of all the junk on the spot, take the relevant docs out of the envs, and put them where they need to go, all at once. At least then the piles are already “processed”, even if you have a “i need to look at this” pile. My second simplifying strategy is… Read more »

msturtz
msturtz
11 years ago

I find that there’s a huge difference between saying “I should be happy” and actually being happy. That is, it’s one thing to say fluffy words like “Simplify your life! Make time for the essentials!”, and quite another to actually effect those changes. I have a well-paying job, a caring wife, a beutiful 16mo old daughtor, and everything I could possibly need to be happy, and yet at times I still “want”. Mostly I “want” a bigger house in a more desirable part of town, but I also “want” to spend more time skiing, “want” to have more time to… Read more »

Bryan @ Frugal Logic
Bryan @ Frugal Logic
11 years ago

I would also like to ignore my Inbox for half a day, but it’s kind of hard when I do technical support and some of the work arrives via email.

I get where Leo is coming from though and if I was working in another role I would definitely be tempted to only check email two times a day.

My main distraction is Internet News Addiction. I’m getting better though, since I started blogging I’m not so inclined to go from news web site to news web site.

Abby
Abby
11 years ago

I’m a semi-regular reader and noticed that saying No is hard for you. If you haven’t read it already, you might want to check out The Power of a Positive No by the folks at the Harvard Program on Negotiation (they wrote Getting to Yes, Difficult Conversations, and several other super-helpful books). I used to have a hard time saying No, but I find it much easier when I think of it their way (that I’m saying no in order to say Yes to an underlying value, and that saying No isn’t necessarily saying No to the relationship — I… Read more »

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