Updated on 01.30.09

Review: The Power of Less

Trent Hamm

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development, personal productivity, or entrepreneurship book.

lessI’ve been a reader of the Zen Habits blog nearly since its inception. The author of the blog, Leo Babauta, applies a very simple filter to countless aspects of life: how can we break it down and make it simpler?

Over time, it became apparent that there were a handful of principles that could be applied again and again to any life situation, and those principles are the core of The Power of Less, Leo’s first book.

Reading the book, it comes off like a series of eighteen interconnected and exceptionally polished blog posts. This is actually a good thing – it means that each chapter isn’t overly long, has a focused and specific point, and connects well to the other chapters in the book.

Leo separates these chapters into two separate groups: one group clearly serves to explain the underlying principles behind the “power of less,” while the next group of chapters applies these principles directly to specific aspects of life.

Let’s dig in and see what we can learn.

Part I: The Principles
Quite frankly, I found the first half of the book much less powerful than the second half. Leo opens the book by attempting to set in place a handful of general principles that can be used in any situation to break things down into simpler and more manageable loads, but it becomes clear that these principles are clearly more powerful when seen in action.

Here are some of the principles outlined by Leo in this section:

Set limits Many people who are successful in a particular area often find themselves weighted down over time with related tasks – but ones that don’t really maximize their skills or their passion. Leo’s solution to this is to simply defend your area of expertise – step up to the plate for tasks that maximize your skills, but delegate or even avoid tasks that don’t utilize your skills well.

Single-task, not multi-task When you have one big task that needs to be accomplished, turn off all distractions and focus on that task. Remember, a five minute interruption actually eats much more than five minutes, as you also lose time in refocusing on the big task at hand. Turn off your phone, close that email program, and focus!

Start small Many things that we want to accomplish in life often feel too big to deal with – so we don’t. We give up on plans for the big diet or the big career push because the size of the task seems overwhelming. The key is to start small. Find a very small subset of the big task that you actually can accomplish, then focus on that. Instead of resolving to lose 50 pounds, resolve to lose one pound this week, for example.

Try thirty day challenges If you’re looking to change a behavior in your life, try that change out for just thirty days. Want to start eating a healthy breakfast each day? Try doing it for thirty days. Want to get into an exercise pattern? Just try it for thirty days. Want to try going vegetarian? Give it thirty days and see how it goes. By the end of the period, you’ll know whether that behavior truly works for you – and if it doesn’t, you can toss that behavior off to the side.

Part II: In Practice
The second half of the book was much more inspirational and valuable to me, personally. Here, Leo focuses on applying the principles laid out in the first section to specific situations. Here are five examples that stood out to me.

Time management Leo subscribes to the “rocks and sand” philosophy of time management. You should fill your day with just a few major tasks (the “rocks”) and let the small tasks fill in the time around it (the “sand”). When you attempt one of the major tasks, focus in on it and nothing else. Eliminate every possible distraction and allow yourself to get in the flow with that task. Not only will you get done faster, you’ll often get it done better as well.

Email Only check your email a time or two a day – and never first thing in the morning. When you check it, you should set up automatic filters to get rid of the routine things (like PayPal notifications) so that you can just peek in a certain folder, see all of the ones of a certain type, and move on. Most importantly, don’t reply to everything – read an email and ask yourself if it needs a follow-up – or what the worst case is if you don’t follow-up. If there’s no burning reason to follow up, don’t – delete it and move on to something more important.

Filing See the stuff written above about email? Apply the same thing to filing. Do it regularly – every day is a good place to start. If you don’t think the document will be needed again, shred it now – don’t file it. If you keep on top of it (and don’t waste time and space storing stuff that’s not going to be used again), filing doesn’t have to be a huge task.

Daily routine Establishing a good morning and/or evening routine can be the key to a successful day. Figure out a handful of things you want to get done during that routine (a shower, reading, etc.), then do them. Make a thirty day commitment to just maintaining your routine – make that routine the focus of your day. Once it’s established and is clearly a normal part of your week, you’ll find that it has become the foundation of daily success in your life.

Fitness Start off small, with an exercise routine that you can complete without feeling completely worn out. Then simply repeat this routine every day (or on a schedule that fills most of the days in a week). Gradually, as you feel stronger, add bits and pieces to the routine. Most importantly, couple it with a thirty day commitment to a healthier diet – don’t completely transform your diet, but replace a few unhealthy items with a few healthy items (like eating a banana for a snack instead of bananas foster).

Is The Power of Less Worth Reading?
Visit Zen Habits. Read a handful of entries. Dig into the archives a bit and read some of the stuff that seems interesting to you. Are you starting to get inspired? If you are, The Power of Less will really click with you – it’s much like a polished version of the material there. If you don’t find anything inspiring, though, The Power of Less likely won’t click with you either.

There’s no good or bad about this, either. I’ve come to believe that the general philosophy of breaking things down into smaller pieces and establishing simple routines really clicks well with some people – and completely doesn’t work for others. It happens to work for me, so I quite enjoyed the book. My wife, on the other hand, thrives on the complex – I wouldn’t recommend this book to her at all.

Regardless, The Power of Less is well-written, easy to pick up and read either all at once or in bits and pieces, and is simple and approachable enough that anyone can tackle it.

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  1. Fred says:

    I would certainly agree with the 30 days trial. Start one thing and stick with it for 30 days… it is usually accepted that it takes 20 to 30 days to create a habit.
    Secondly, measure the results or the change – it is a fact that everything that is measured improves – it is like magic.
    http://www.zenhabits.net is worth reading.

  2. Fred says:

    I would certainly agree with the 30 days trial. Start one thing and stick with it for 30 days… it is usually accepted that it takes 20 to 30 days to create a habit.
    Secondly, measure the results or the change – it is a fact that everything that is measured improves – it is like magic.

  3. Kate says:

    “Remember, a five minute interruption actually eats much more than five minutes, as you also lose time in refocusing on the big task at hand.”

    I know this is true. I’m a writer, and getting back into the story, getting back into the flow of the paragraph I’m on, getting my mind back into the dialogue I’m writing, can take time after an interruption. If you’re familiar with the concept of *flow*, that’s what I’m talking about. Getting the flow back takes time. What’s worse is the frequent conviction I have that what I write after the interruption is inferior to what I would have written before.

    HOWEVER. I have developed a medical condition that makes prolonged sitting downright painful for me. I need, medically NEED, to get up at regular intervals and stretch, move around a bit, keep my joints and muscles from freezing into position. In order to help myself remember to do so, I’ve got a program loaded on my computer that dings and flashes at me when it’s time to get up and stretch.

    I’ve got it set for twenty minute intervals; a shorter interval is way too little, while every half hour leaves me a bit stiff when I stand up. But while it’s helped me keep some basic flexibility, it’s been playing hob with my productivity. Each break is only one or two minutes, as I stand up, walk around a bit, and do some stretches. But it’s enough to break the flow.

    Any suggestions? I don’t want to give up the program, since it DOES help. But that bell goes off, it seems, at just the wrong time, every time! There’s an option where you can postpone for five minutes, or even ignore that particular stretch session, but when I let myself put it off once, I wind up ignoring it, sitting for a couple of hours, and needing painkillers for the resultant aches. Not a happy thing.

    I should add that, while I’m sixty, younger people can have similar conditions with similar effects. So I suspect I’m not the only reader who could benefit from some suggestions on how to maintain flow even when you HAVE to interrupt things in order to stretch!

    Thanks in advance.

  4. SteveJ says:


    I love that you pointed out that “Power of Less” wouldn’t work well for those that thrive on the complex. I read zen habits pretty regularly and I get the principles but I just can’t make it work. Leo appears to be a very minimalist type person, and it works well for him. I don’t do well with zen: I can’t just appreciate my surroundings, to go with the flow and do only the important stuff. That said, while complex systems appeal to me, they don’t really work for me either. I have to try something, fail at it, and then cobble it onto my incomprehensible hodgepodge of habits and tricks to continually refine what makes me happy and productive.

  5. jana says:

    i have to say i am a fan of leo’s system. of all the frugality/finance/organisation blogs and websites, only the simple dollar and zen habits i visit regularly (plus sometimes a peek to 43 folders/lifehacker).
    i agree it depends on the person. as my family history contains lots of experience with living simply, and lots of experience of some hectic times, i have sort of tried both, liked the latted when i was in my twenties – and now appreciate the simplicity as i am in my thirties. especially the “singletasking” (ie avoiding multitasking) and making emailing simple click with me, and i am currently trying the MIT system. also having a budget helps, and motivating myself by reading the simple dollar and zen habits. i have always thought that trent and leo share some traits although they have a different experience in life.

  6. Sharon says:

    Kate, have you tried voice-operated computer software? You could keep talking while you stretch.

  7. SteveJ says:


    Probably way off, but could you break your work into 15 minute increments? I’m thinking something like every 4th break, plan for the next 4 breaks (1 hour), then rather than being tied strictly to the clock (maybe use it as a backup), you take your stretch break between tasks. I picked 15 mins so if you go over a few minutes, no big deal.

    Do you think a different program might help? I tried one of the timing programs for and I always got annoyed and shut it off. For Christmas I got a kitchen timer and it’s working pretty well thus far, it’s always visible and since it’s a physical object it feels more real.

    I have two tricks I use for picking up flow after longer breaks (lunch, doctor’s appointments, end of day). One is to either take notes before you stand up, so you could reflect on those during your stretching, hopefully keep your mind in the groove. The other is to leave some tiny task undone, it gives me a clear indication where to pick up. I find the latter is far more effective, though I sometimes obsess a bit about that undone thing while I’m away from my desk. So in one case I’ll write an email but leave it unsent. When writing I might leave an obvious misspelling, or write a rough series of phrases that need to be polished into a paragraph. The key here is I know exactly what needs to be done next (and how I’ll do it), but I “break it” on purpose. It’s no good to outline a section and then have no clue how to tie everything together when I come back.

    My last thought is that a better chair might make it less painful to sit for 20 minutes, you might be able to take breaks less often. I’m not a doctor, I just know lots of folks with back issues that swear by this brand of chair over another.

    Good luck, I’m sure Trent has some good ideas.

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