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Book Review: Leo Babauta’s “The Power of Less”

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Writing is an easy thing to make complicated. Non-fiction writers, in particular, have to juggle ideas, approaches, pitches to competing publications, research leads, interview notes … and that’s just the actual work. Add in para-work activities such as checking e-mail, incessant Googling (how did we do research before Google?), and chatting with writer pals about your assignments on Facebook, and suddenly, it seems like there’s hardly any time left to write.

Author and blogger Leo Babauta offers a common-sense alternative to clutter, both cyber and real-world, with his new book “The Power of Less.” Babauta, who runs the wildly popular Zen Habits blog, offers easy-to-follow advice for getting control of one’s priorities, time and habits, and helps readers achieve more with less effort.

Babauta’s theme throughout the book is very basic: discover what is truly important to you, and let go of the rest. Some of the most important keys from “The Power of Less” for writers are:

Learn how to single-task. Babauta is not a fan of trying to do more than one thing at a time. His approach is do what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, and then go on to the next task. Back in the old days, this was called focus. Whatever you want to call it today, breaking your writing day into a series of things that you work on until they are done can be far more satisfying and efficient than trying to do work on 3 stories simultaneously and getting next to nothing accomplished on all of them.

Learn to multi-project. Staying on-task doesn’t mean you are manacled to one project at a time — which is a good thing, for many freelancers would starve if this were true. Babauta recommends selecting up to three projects to focus on at any one time; that way, if you are single-tasking your way through a project and hit a delay (e.g., a source needs to call you back, you’re waiting to hear if your editor wants revisions), you can go to the next project on your list and hit the most important tasks on that one.

One goal, many actions. This suggestion is a variation of the task vs. project distinction noted above. Babauta recommends having only one major goal at a time, and that it be a fairly ambitious one—one that could take as long as a year to achieve. However, to make it manageable, your “one goal” should be broken down into sub-goals. For example, if you want to be published this year, your first sub-goal might be to research books in the same market as yours and come up with a focus that differentiates your idea. Drilling down even further, Babauta says it’s important to break each sub-goal into daily tasks, so that you are constantly doing something to move toward completing your goal.

Establish a daily routine. I’m a big fan of establishing positive creative habits and it appears Babauta is too. He walks readers through some simple, healthful ways to structure their days. Finding habits and routines that work for you is the first step to building a creative “grid” that grounds you, and allows you to continue writing, even when outside life events create upheaval and drama.

Fans of the 80/20 principle will find some familiar arguments here, but the book is more than just a restatement of that theory. Babauta deals at length with the difficulties of utilizing technology while not being distracted by it and the challenges of making long-term changes and habits “stick.” His book is especially laudable for its simplicity and for not attempting to be a “system” that you have to go to a workshop and buy special equipment to “manage.”

The most useful piece of advice I have taken from “The Power of Less” is continually asking myself as I move through my day “do I want to do X, or do I want to achieve my goals?” The question cuts through all manner of distraction and competing priorities and has helped me, after only a week spent reading Babauta’s book, accomplish several writing tasks in about one-third the amount of time they had taken in the past.

Whether you’re wanting to increase your writing productivity, tackle an intimidating goals such as writing a book, or make some changes to your habits to make your life happier overall, I heartily recommend “The Power of Less.” It’s a quick read that will influence your thinking long after you have set it down.

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