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. :-)

Talking with Tammy Strobel

Tammy Strobel

Tammy Strobel

I have a special treat to share with you today — an interview with the fabulous Tammy Strobel, who blogs over at Rowdy Kittens! As many of you know, Tammy left her day job earlier this year to start her own tiny business. She recently gathered up her experience, advice, and some inspirational case studies into a new ebook, Smalltopia, for those who’d like to do the same.

*****

Francine: Tell us about Smalltopia, and who can benefit from reading it.

Tammy: Smalltopia will benefit anyone who is interested in leaving a traditional 9-5 job. It’s full of tips, tools, and strategies that will help folks create personal freedom through a very small business. The guide is broken up into three sections: Smalltopia Philosophy, Smalltopia Essentials, and Smalltopia Case Studies.

The part I’m most excited about is the case study section. It features stories from more than a dozen folks that run the gamut of experience. From those who are just getting ready to break up with their day job, to crazy successful small business owners. The list of rockstar contributors include: Leo Babauta, Chris Guillebeau, Jessica Reeder, Chris O’Byrne, Russ Roca, Laura Crawford, Karol Gajda, Chloe Adeline, Victoria Vargas, Karen Yaeger, Jules Clancy, Heather Levin, Matt Cheuvront, Tyler Tervooren, and Everett Bogue!

Francine: How did living a minimalist lifestyle help you start your own small business?

Tammy: Living a simple, minimalist lifestyle gave me the financial freedom to leave my day job and start my own business in February 2010. In essence, I was able to cut a lot of unnecessary expenses and take a big risk. If I still had a car payment and a huge two bedroom apartment, there is no way I would have been able to build a profitable business around my blog.

Francine: What has been the greatest challenge, and greatest reward, in your experience as an entrepreneur?

Tammy: Overcoming fear! :)

When I start getting scared, I write and think about where the feeling is coming from. Usually my fear has no basis in reality and I do my best to push past the emotion. I’m incredibly lucky because my partner is supportive of my business goals and I have a few amazing mentors who have urged me to pursue my dreams. Whenever I get stuck, I can count on my mentors and comments from rowdy readers to remind me that what I’m doing is important.

Francine: Can you give us some tips on setting up a minimalist home office?

Tammy: My office is very very simple. All I need is my laptop, a table, chair, moleskin journal, and a pen. I either work at the kitchen table, in coffee shops, or at the library. So I don’t have a traditional office set-up.

For those of you who want to have a dedicated office space in your little home, try implementing some of these tips:

1. Say goodbye to paper piles.
2. Recycle excess paper.
3. Organize items you use frequently.
4. Invest in a minimal desk.
5. And finally keep your office simple and organized.

Francine: What’s it really like to be your own boss? Tell us about a typical workday in the life of Tammy Strobel.

Tammy: I don’t have a “typical” day. Sometimes I stay at home. Other days, I’ll cafe hop or work at Powell’s for a few hours. I love supporting local businesses. For example, Portland is know for it’s yummy Stumptown coffee and I go local cafe’s that serve the good stuff. :)

Every morning, I write down a list of my daily intentions. My intentions include 3 to 4 things that I need to get done. I also make time for yoga, biking or walking. The beauty of working from home is that I can work when I feel creative. Yesterday, I was having a creativity block and decided to unplug and go for a walk. As soon as I stepped out of my house and into the park the ideas started flowing and I started writing in my journal.

Francine: Do you think purging our clutter can help us think more clearly and creatively?

Tammy: Yes, yes, and yes! :) Without so much clutter in my life, I spend less time cleaning and more time working on creative endeavors, like writing and photography. If you have a lot of clutter in your life, I highly recommend starting the decluttering process today.

Francine: What are three things you’d like to accomplish (either personally or professionally) in the next year?

Tammy: 1. Recently, I signed on with a literary agent and started working on a book proposal for the print world. My goal is to finish the proposal within the next month. And then we’re hoping a publisher will pick it up. :)

2. I’m planning on taking a digital sabbatical every weekend. So that means no email, no twittering, facebooking, or Internet surfing. I’ll be spending my weekends writing, doing yoga, and hanging out with friends. :)

3. We’ve been talking about building a tiny house for a number of years and I think it might actually happen next year. My friends Dee Williams and Katy Anderson are going to help us build our little dwelling.

Francine: Thank you so much, Tammy; it was wonderful chatting with you!

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{If you’d like to read more about minimalist living, please consider buying my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}