I’m delighted today to bring you an interview with Leo Babauta, the creator and blogger at Zen Habits, a Top 100 blog with 80,000 subscribers — one of the top productivity and simplicity blogs on the Internet.
Leo has a new book out called The Power of Less: the fine art of limiting yourself to the essential… in business and in life, his first to be published in print. I thought I’d ask him a few questions on how and why he’s moved from online to print for this book.
Mark: What were the major differences you found writing a book over writing for a blog?
Leo: Writing a blog is easier, because it’s in little chunks — one blog post can be written in an hour. But a book is more overwhelming, even if you break it into chapters — you can’t write a chapter a day, so it’s harder to do in little bursts, like I do with blog posts. Still, I enjoyed the process!
Mark: How long did it take and how did you find the time?
Leo: I had a hard time at first because I was actually running not only the Zen Habits blog but a blog for writers and bloggers (WriteToDone.com), planning for my wedding and honeymoon, training for a marathon, and working on a couple other projects. So I procrastinated on the book writing and it dragged on for awhile. But I did the last 1/3 of the book in two weeks, after I decided to take a break from the blogs so I could clear my schedule and focus completely on the book.
Mark: How did you go about getting your book published?
Leo: It was much easier after Zen Habits became popular — when you have 20,000 very enthusiastic readers (as I did when I sold the book — I’m up to about 80,000 now), a publisher gets excited. I wrote up a book proposal, gave it to an agent who had contacted me, and she helped me polish it up a bit. Then she shopped it around and we found the right publisher.
Mark: You’ve written countless blog posts and released several ebooks. What prompted you to publish The Power of Less in print this time?
Leo: While I reach thousands of readers through my blog and through the ebooks, I know there are many more people I can’t reach through digital means. So I decided to do the print book to reach those who are more familiar with bookstores than blogs — and there are lots of those still. It won’t be much longer when that number has dwindled to a few holdouts, but for now, it’s good to take a multiple-media attack if you want to reach the most people possible.
Mark: Do you have any offline promotion planned to reach this audience or are you hoping that word of mouth will simply spread from online readers?
Leo: I’d really love it if online readers spread the word about the book — I really think that’s the best promotion possible: a satisfied customer. But I’m also doing some print and radio interviews and promotions. The majority of my promotions, at least for now, will be online, though.
Mark: Blogs and ebooks have the advantage over print of being able to provide timely information on rapidly changing subjects. However your advice has a timeless quality to it. The messages of simplicity and focus you describe in the companion ebook Thriving on Less: Simplifying in a Tough Economy are only likely to grow in importance as we’re confronted with ever increasing choice, complexity and change in our lifetime. Was this a factor in deciding to publish in print?
Leo: I really think my message of simplicity is a perfect fit for both online and print reading. Online, our world is increasingly technical and overwhelming, so the simplicity that I recommend is extremely useful. But even for those who like to curl up with a good print book (like myself actually), it’s good to be able to read this message of simplicity, and to look around you in the real world and see ways you can simplify your life, become happier and work more effectively.
Mark: What is the main message you’re hoping readers will take away from the book?
Leo: That simplifying can have a profound impact on our lives — as we identify the essentials to be more effective and live the life we want, as we set limits and learn to say “no”, as we start small and form positive habits, as we learn to focus on one thing at a time, and as we slow down to enjoy life more.
Mark: One of your key pieces of advice on simplifying your life is to eliminate the non-essential. When I did this exercise I found my day job came up high on this list. Although I enjoy my job, a 12 hour day (includes commuting time) away from my family and the fact I’m working for someone else makes it nonessential, save for the income it generates. I imagine this is a very common situation. Do you have any specific advice on reducing or eliminating the dependency on a regular day job?
Leo: What are you more passionate about than your day job? For me, it was writing about the things I write about on Zen Habits and in The Power of Less. So I made it a goal to transition to this, over time — I couldn’t eliminate my day job overnight, but slowly I increased my income from writing and decreased my need for my day job. If you’re passionate about it, you’ll work hard at it. Make this passion one of your essentials and make time for it.
Mark: As you change your lifestyle is there a danger of growing apart from friends who are still living your old lifestyle? Should you just move on or try to change them too?
Leo: There is a danger of this happening, yes. But it doesn’t have to happen — you can still maintain your bond with your friends and find common ground. Talk with them about the changes in your life, acknowledge that there are differences between you now and that it could make things uncomfortable, and talk about how they feel about it. It could take them awhile to adjust, so be patient, educate them, be positive.
However, if people cannot accept the new you, and are constantly critical and negative, there may be a point where you decide the relationship isn’t worth it. That’s OK too … people change and relationships don’t always last forever. In the end, you want to have friendships that are meaningful and positive.
Mark: There is a huge difference between theory and practice. How successful are you at following your own advice on a daily basis? Do you have a sense of trying to live up to your readers expectations? Do you days where things go completely off the rails?
Leo: I fail on a daily basis! I’m not perfect, nor have I ever pretended to be. However, I have made most of these principles a habit for the most part, and I know that when I do focus on the essentials, focus on one task at a time, and clear away distractions, I’m much, much more effective. I also like to live a simple life, and I think my life reflects that most of the time.
I do feel that I have to live up to readers’ expectations, but I try to be honest with them and don’t pretend I’m a god or anything. They appreciate the honesty, and I think this kind of sincere relationship is much easier to live up to than trying to be perfect in the eyes of others.
Do I have days when things go completely off the rails? If you mean do I ever get lazy and unproductive, then yes! I sometimes take entire days off and just lounge around. I call these “good days”. They’re lovely. Do I also have days when things get complicated and hectic?
Yes, and that’s when I pause and simplify things. I also remind myself to take one thing at a time, and then things calm down considerably.
Mark: Some tips for leading a frugal lifestyle can prove to be false economies in the long run. Do you think eliminating cable from your life might have contributed to you being the proud father of 6?
Leo: Ha! I have definitely found ways to have fun other than watch TV or spend a lot of money, although I still do those things now and then.
However, I should point out that I eliminated cable TV *after* I had my kids, so the cause-and-effect might be reversed — the 6 kids forced me to be more frugal! Being more frugal with my kids, though, is actually a blessing in disguise — when we do things for free or cheap, we have so much more fun than when we watch TV or spend a lot of money.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers today Leo. I’m sure The Power of Less is going to find a whole new group of appreciative readers.