Leo Babauta on his new book, “focus”

Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I’m not the productivity type. I take a fluid approach to life, rarely set goals, and would rather empty my schedule than jam more stuff into it. To me, it’s a serene and creative way to live.

Over the last year, however, my digital commitments have increased dramatically – and I’ve found that between email, blogging, Twitter, and the myriad requests that fill my inbox, it can be difficult to find the mental space to write and create.

Enter “focus,” the new book by Leo Babauta from Zen Habits. It was just what I needed to read, at the time I needed to read it. It’s not about getting more done, but rather doing less; for when it comes to our work, it’s the quality (not the quantity) that determines our happiness and success.

I was so excited about the book, I asked Leo if he’d stop by and tell us a little more about it – and fortunately for us, he so kindly obliged.

Francine: It’s an honor to chat with you, Leo. My readers and I are always looking for new ways to pare down our lives, and practice a minimalist lifestyle. How can “focus” help us?

Leo: Focus is simply about finding sanity in a digital age that has increased the urgency, frequency, intensity and ubiquity of the distractions in our life. It’s about finding focus for whatever you need: focusing on creating, on your inner voice, on finding stillness, on getting things done.

Francine: Many of us have decluttered our desks, and streamlined our workspaces. Yet when we sit down to work, we still find ourselves distracted – by stuff like emails, IMs, and our Twitter feeds. What are some things we can do *right now* to reduce this mental clutter?

Leo: The first step is always awareness: be more conscious of what urges you have, what distracts you, why you’re doing it. Once we become more aware, we can address the root problems (usually related to fear). But right now, you can simply turn off the Internet for 30 minutes — and find out that it won’t kill you.

Francine: With the advent of social media, our friends and acquaintances are no longer limited to the people we physically meet. How can we manage online relationships with hundreds (or thousands) of people, while preserving our sanity?

Leo: Start with the realization that it doesn’t matter if you have thousands of friends, and that a few quality friends (online or off) are much more valuable than thousands of surface-quality friends. So sure, connect with people online, but find the ones who you really connect with, who enrich your life, and concentrate on those. Then unfriend or ignore as many of the rest as possible — a few people might get offended but most will just go on with their lives, because in the end, none of that matters.

Francine: In “focus,” you advocate “single-tasking” over multi-tasking. Why do you think it’s a more effective (and enjoyable) way to work?

Leo: Multi-tasking seems more productive, but it’s part of the myth of “busier is productive”. It isn’t. It’s just busier. And more stressful, more distracting, more fragmented, less focused. When you focus on just one important thing at a time, and clear away distractions, you’re able to give it your full attention, do your absolute best, really pour your mind and heart into it. That’s effectiveness, not jumping around between 10 unimportant tasks.

Francine: I’ve always thought of you as a goal-oriented kind of guy, and was surprised (and delighted!) to read that you’ve recently “broken free of the shackles of goals.” Can you tell us more about this transformation?

Leo: It’s been a gradual transformation for me, over the last few years actually, as I explored simplicity. A little more than three years ago, I realized that there was no way to know what opportunities might present themselves in the future, and that planning based on such woefully incomplete information was a waste of time. So I simplified. I gradually gave up goals and have been goal-less for nearly three years, even though for a little while longer I wrote about achieving goals … because my readers would ask me about how to do that, all the time. I’ve learned that goals lock you into one path, when really there are many possible paths. They keep you focused on the future rather than enjoying the present. They block out possible opportunities because you’re focused on one thing, and they limit our ability to learn new things, discover alternate destinations we didn’t imagine from the start.

Francine: As a writer, I’m fascinated by the way you created “focus”: posting the chapters online, soliciting reader feedback, then revising and expanding. Are you happy with how this model worked, and will you use it again for future books? What are your thoughts on individual versus collaborative creativity?

Leo: It’s been absolutely the best thing I’ve done as a book writer. Writing a book is a long, isolated, difficult, overwhelming task. I’ve made it public rather than isolated, so you’re motivated … short bursts rather than one long writing period so it’s not too difficult … small rather than big so it’s doable. And the feedback loop is almost instant, rather than waiting until the entire book is done — for me that’s really improved the book, because readers pointed out holes that I didn’t realize were there.

I like to collaborate with other people, because more and better ideas are generated when you bounce things off each other. But in the end, creation is best done as a solitary act, in isolation. I love connecting, but I love solitude even more.

Francine: I love haiku for its economy of expression. Can you sum up the message of “focus” in a haiku for us? :)

Leo: I won’t follow the common haiku form, but here’s 17 syllables:

let the world rush past
sit quietly present
find yourself, and create

Francine: Brilliant. Thank you so much Leo, it’s been a pleasure talking with you!

To wrap things up, I’d like to share one of my favorite excerpts from the book. It’s from the chapter on single-tasking, and sums up what “focus” means to me: eliminating distractions so that I can fully appreciate every moment of my life.

Imagine instead, a single-tasking life. Imagine waking and going for a run, as if running were all you do. Nothing else is on your mind but the run, and you do it to the very best of your abilities. Then you eat, enjoying every flavorful bite of your fresh breakfast of whole, unprocessed foods. You read a novel, as if nothing else in the world existed. You do your work, one task at a time, each task done with full focus and dedication. You spend time with loved ones, as if nothing else existed.

This is summed up very well by something Charles Dickens once wrote, “He did each single thing as if he did nothing else.” This is a life lived fully in the moment, with a dedication to doing the best you can in anything you do — whether that’s a work project or making green tea.

Leo has generously released a free version of “focus,” in addition to a deeper, full version. The full version includes several bonus chapters by Leo and other authors, videos, three PDF guides, and audio interviews with David Allen, Seth Godin, and Dave Navarro.

As most of you know, I rarely promote books or other products — but reading “focus” had such a profound impact on me, I wanted to share it with all of you. And rest assured, my recommendation comes from the heart: Leo has decided (quite admirably, in my opinion) to forgo an affiliate program for the book. My only incentive for recommending it is that I think you’ll love it as much as I did. :-)

15 comments to Leo Babauta on his new book, “focus”

  • JLouise

    Amen! I am very fortunate to have a lifestyle where I have not had to get sucked into the multi-tasking and constant “media” focus so many people seem to have become victim to. I really hope more and more people begin to pay attention to the message of simplicity, minimalism and “single-tasking” because, gosh, it makes life so much more enjoyable.

    I love Zen Habits. Thanks Francine.

  • Ashley

    What a great interview! Thanks Francine and Leo. The focus message really resonates with me. My goal (aargh!) is “Pay attention in the moment”. Whenever I actually do that, it feels like I’m really living instead of just “thinking and moving”.

  • Ashley Laurent

    I am a minimalist, and I am a musician. I spend about 6-7 hours a day practicing. I feel, as a musician, not having goals would be pointless time wasted during practice sessions. In fact, as you reach more specialized fields of study, I find that you are constantly setting new goals as you reach them, which allows for marked progress and development. This endless goal setting, for me and for many others, is the reason why we continue to do the things we do–essentially a path of artistry. This journey requires so much self-sacrifice that, ironically, being a minimalist allows me to free up my life of mundane tasks and focus on one encompassing, engrossing goal. To do anything well, full energy much be placed in it. I guess this viewpoint is a sort of “carpe diem” philosophy of minimalism, just with more pointed directions. In pursing my life’s passion, with flexible, open, and rigid goals, I feel more opportunities have opened up to do the things I love in my endless journey on the path to artistry.


  • Wow, great timing. I’ve been really struggling with my focus for the last couple of months due to losing my job (I’ve got another one lined up that I’m supposed to start Monday).
    One thing really sticks out for me here. ‘Multi-tasking seems more productive, but it’s part of the myth of “busier is productive”.’
    The truth is, the human brain is incapable of conscious multitasking. We can do task switching, but NOT multitasking. I hate doing interviews where I’m asked if I’m a good multitasker. I want to say “No, but I task switch very efficiently and quickly.” Instead I just say yes, because I know that’s what they want to hear :( Living a minimal life reduces the opportunities for our brains to task switch away from what we are trying to focus on. If we could truly multitask, focus wouldn’t be a problem.

  • hi francine,

    thanks for this. i really love the part about connecting on-line w/people. i’m so worried about hurting peoples feelings that i spend an inordinate amount of time on-line making sure i don’t. this is really helpful to me.

    also, i just cleaned out my closet again and used your line about the ex. i will be doing a post and linking to you.

    thanks so much for the hard work you put into your blog.


  • Meg

    Brilliantly done interview!

  • It’s so nice to hear the term, single-tasking. This is how I live and I’ve always felt on the outside with the extreme popularity of multi-tasking. I’ve really not been a fan of the whole multi-tasking bandwagon. In truth, I’m completely turned off by the term. My oldest and dearest friend brought it up the other day and I just cringed. Single-tasking is the way to live and you described it perfectly with your example.

    I can see goals from both angles. I’ve lived goal-less and it’s a beautiful, magical and wonderful way to live. Right now I live with goals and I’ve accomplished so much and exactly what I’ve set out to accomplish too, so I’m getting a great deal of fulfillment from it. I think there’s times in your life when living with or without goals will provide the most growth for a person.

  • I look forward to reading the book! Focusing on a single task and being present is so helpful for being effective. I find that time goes by much quicker and the task is actually more enjoyable because my mind isn’t wandering around.

  • Thanks for posting this interview. And thanks, Leo, for sharing your book!

  • […] new book, Focus, is, of course, in line with his idea of making progress by doing less. In an interview about the book with Francine Jay, he says, “Be more conscious of what urges you have, what […]

  • I enjoyed the interview with Leo. He’s a brilliant guy, isn’t he?
    I have several of his books and they’re all helpful.

    Thanks for that and too for your your article on “Traveling Lightly Through Life” on Leo’s blog. I think it is positively brilliant, really!

    And, it is immediately helpful to me. I just moved from Southern California to Oregon (with my daughter, her husband and 2 grandkids, by the way). And while I did purge a lot before the move, I could have made it significantly easier by purging more. Your article will belp me do that–before the next move!
    Thanks again.

  • Concepció

    I also want to thank Francine for posting this interview and specially, Leo, for sharing his book. And Penelope Trunk (http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/) por the link to the interview in her last post… Regards from Barcelona, Spain!

  • […] of the speakers in this video are:Leo Babauta from ZenHabits, who’s topic was how to change your habits. follow the path of simplicity, and […]

  • […] of the speakers in this video are: Leo Babauta from ZenHabits, who’s topic was how to change your habits. follow the path of simplicity, and […]

  • Tina

    I don’t think I had seen this before. I have read some of Leo’s essays. My new goal is to get rid of paper clutter. I have been shredding piles of paper because even though what we have is much less than many people, it is still too much. I have also been giving some DVD’s we haven’t been watching to the library. I have a few pieces of furniture I can give away when they are empty.

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