25 Mar

Book review: The Power of Less

I recently asked the directors of each office in our unit (External Affairs) to join me for an informal book club, and the first book I gave to each of them was The Power of Less by Leo Babauta.  This selection was a no-brainer.  Colleges and universities everywhere are dealing with budget constraints, and we’re constantly doing more with less.

Work, kids, and other demands…life seems to get more hectic by the day, and I welcomed the idea of trying to simplify.  Babauta defines “simplicity” quite simply: identify the essential; eliminate the rest.   He’s right when he says, “We consume more, and we produce more, and we do more than ever before.”  But there is eventually a limit, and as we all know, doing more doesn’t necessarily translate into being more effective.

The book is divided into two main parts – “The Principles” and “In Practice.”  The Principles refer to his six principles of productivity:

  1. Set limitations
  2. Choose the essential
  3. Simplify
  4. Focus
  5. Create habits
  6. Start small

In the second section, he gives insight on putting the principles in action – related both to work (e.g., tasks, time management, and e-mail) and personal life (e.g., daily routines, health and fitness, and motivation).

The book is full of simple yet powerful messages, with several useful tips and reminders (such as batch processing for smaller tasks) along the way.  Can I apply all of them?  No way.  For instance, our directors spent a large part of our group discussion debating how often we should check email each day (and agreed that we’ll never achieve the author’s suggestion of two).

I do recommend The Power of Less.  In my opinion, the concepts are not earth-shattering.  In line with the theme of the entire book, they’re simple and straightforward.  But it takes awareness, focus, and discipline – all of which this book can help provide – to put these concepts to work.

My takeaways boiled down to two of the six principles: Choose the essential and Focus.

Choose the essential

This principle best summarizes the book.  Babauta advises to set limitations in everything we do.  By doing so, we choose the essential.  “By choosing the essential, we create great impact with minimal resources.”

An important question – how do you define “essential?”  In our school’s advancement work, the essential means directly impacting the university’s reputation, relationships, and most importantly its resources.  Phrases like “high impact,” “move the needle” (my favorite), and “meaningful” are increasingly part of our department’s vocabulary when it comes to work plans.

For me, the book hammered home the importance of keeping the broader perspective.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of news releases, special events, stewardship activities, .edu and social web updates, and so on.  At the end of the day though, did I spend my time doing work that truly matters?  Did I advance the department’s goals and the university’s goals?


According to Babauta, “Focus is your most important tool in becoming effective.”  Yes!  We’ll always deal with distractions and the urgent, but I have become more intentional in trying to “single-task” to be more productive.  Doesn’t it feel great when you’re “in the zone?”  As much as multi-tasking is a way of life (I even describe myself as a multi-tasker on my Twitter profile), you can’t achieve true focus.  Babauta gives specific steps on how to single-task.

His related comments about focusing on the present resonated with me as well.  No matter what you’re doing, focus on that (and slow down).  This takes practice.  If I’m in a meeting, I’m usually thinking ahead to the next meeting.  Can simple focus help you reduce stress and better live in the moment?

Here’s hoping that by limiting yourself to the essential, you’ll become more productive and create more excitement, involvement, and support for your campus.

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2 thoughts on “Book review: The Power of Less

  1. I read this book last year and still employ some of the techniques I learned. I’m an advocate of the MITs method – Most Important Tasks. I think about them on my drive into work, I write them on my office whiteboard, and I cross them off throughout the day.

    While some days are a struggle, overall this method has made me happier about my work. I was productive before, but now I’m intentionally productive on projects that I need to work on.

    The office book club idea is a good one. We started something similar, and are reading The Story Factor. I recommend it.

  2. Chas – you’re right about the MITs. It’s often a struggle to limit them to three, but this technique has been a helpful for me, too. Thanks for the book recommendation. We frequently remind ourselves here that “stories are stickier than stats,” so I’m interested to check it out.

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