The Power of Less – Setting Limits

by Stephen Mills on July 25, 2009



I’ve been a fan of Leo Babauta’s ideas ever since I stumbled across his blog.  His book Power of Less, The: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life by Leo Babauta. is simply fantastic.  I’m going to give you a summary of his ideas in a series of articles starting with this one.

The other articles are listed below:

The Power of Less – Identify the Essential

Leo’s ideas are true to themselves – they are elegant examples of less.  The system has two foundational steps from which the rest of the system derives:

  1. Identify the Essential
  2. Eliminate the Rest

Modern society is consumption oriented.  Everything seems to be focused towards getting more stuff.  To get more stuff we spend our time getting more money.  Time is finite and so is human ability so there is a limit to what we can do.  If we maximize productivity and time management practice, we can get more tasks done.  But by trying to maximize the number of tasks we do, we end up doing unimportant things.  This dilutes our focus and takes energy away from the more important tasks.  We also end up stressed-out, overworked, and unhealthy.

Setting Limits

Setting limits forces you to choose the essential.  So set limitations for everything you do.

Setting limits is the first of Leo’s six main principles.  Leo provides a beautiful illustration of it with Japanese Haiku.  This form of poetry requires the poet to express a complete idea in 17 syllables.  In order to accomplish this, the poet must eliminate everything that is not absolutely essential to the meaning.  The result is something very powerful.

Another example.  Imagine two reporters.  Each week, one reporter writes 30 short, quick, and limited articles that get little attention.  The other reporter writes one really good article each week.  Each article has high impact and he receives awards on some of them.  The second reporter did less, focused on the long-term, and gets promotions and widespread recognition as a result.  This is the Power of Less at work.

You can choose to be like the first reporter and “Get Things Done” or you can choose to be like the second reporter and do fewer but more high impact tasks.  How do you decide what activities are high impact?  Use the following criteria:

  • Long-term view – Will it make you a lot of money or get you a lot of recognition in the long-term?  Will it make you happy and contribute to your long-term well-being?
  • Life changing – Your career or personal life is changed for the better in some important way.
  • Makes a significant contribution to society or humanity.

Apply these criteria to your tasks, projects, and goals to help determine what is essential for your life.  I would also suggest you check out these articles:

Edit Your Life
Finding Your True Self

Setting Limits

Apply limits to all aspects of your Life – email, possessions, work hours, phone calls, internet surfing, etc.  Apply limits first to any area in your life that seems overwhelming.  It will force you to be very effective.  This is one of the greatest ideas on how to live your life I have ever found.

We lead lives filled with way too much stuff.  It weakens and dilutes our effectiveness.  Go from a limitless life of too much stuff, gadgets, information, etc. that is overwhelming, stressful and ineffective to a life of limits, focus, and incredible power.  This change will bring the following benefits:

  • Simplifies your life.  Everyday life becomes stress-free and under control.
  • You gain focus.  You are focused on a small number of things and you are focused only on what is important.  You stop doing everything else.
  • Demonstrates that your time is valuable – others will respect this.  Firm limits on what you do demonstrates to other people that you treat your
    time as a precious resource.  You expect everyone else to treat your time the same way.
  • You are more effective and you achieve more.  You are doing less busy work and more of your important work.  You aren’t spinning your wheels on the trivial.

Set limits on any area of your life that you think is overwhelming.  Examples might include:

  • Email
  • Number of tasks or projects
  • Time spent on phone calls or internet surfing
  • The number of things on your desk or workspace
  • The number of subscriptions, paper or online, you regularly read

In reality this is a small fraction of the things you will ultimately want to limit.  However you need to move slowly, changing only one thing at a time until it becomes a habit.

How to Set Limits

Put a strict limit on something you do such as checking email.  Instead of 10 times a day try checking it three times a day.  Test the result.  Can you live with it?  Can you do your job with it?  The first week or so of your new habit is an experiment and you will tweak the limit as you learn more about what is reasonable for you.  Continually adjust until you find the right level and make it a habit.

Setting limits is a powerful technique to prevent common tasks from taking over your life.  I suggest you give it a spin.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.


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{ 2 trackbacks }

The Power of Less – Identify the Essential — The Rat Race Trap
July 28, 2009 at 12:18 pm
The Power of Less – Focus — The Rat Race Trap
August 14, 2009 at 6:37 pm

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Dragos Roua July 25, 2009 at 10:28 am

Thanks for sharing this Stephen,

It’s a very useful review as I am also one of the Leo’s avid readers (is there anyone out there interested in personal development and productivity and NOT an avid reader of ZenHabits? I seriously doubt this). Setting limits is certainly one of the most ignored rules as we’re trying to do “so much”. To impress others, to gain social recognition, to please our BAHG (Big, Audacious, Hairy Goals). I found myself there a lot of time, and this is when I started to learn how to ignore.

I really look forward for the next articles in this series.
.-= Dragos Roua´s last blog ..“I Can” versus “I Do” =-.


Jodi at Joy Discovered July 25, 2009 at 11:42 am

Hi Stephen,
I think these are all really useful suggestions. I love the Haiku analogy. I have simplified my life in many ways, like canceling magazine subscriptions that were only piling up unread, limiting my news and TV watching, and limiting my email time. I still need to pair down other things, as my focus is still not exactly where I would like it to be. These other suggestions you make are helpful and inspire me to get going NOW! Thank you! Have a great weekend!
.-= Jodi at Joy Discovered´s last blog ..The Truth Will Set You Free =-.


Anthony Parkes July 25, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Excellent post. Leo is truly an amazing guy. Choosing only the essential is so important to living with purpose, living productively and taking action. I have to work on setting limits… I’m quite unproductive. It requires a huge amount of willpower, focus, and determination though.

Great blog! Just subscribed, definitely looking forward to more amazing posts!
.-= Anthony Parkes´s last blog ..How to Become a Flirting Maestro =-.


BunnygotBlog July 25, 2009 at 2:10 pm

This is a very interesting article. I feel because I have encountered some challenges over the years from gender related issues. I would put more pressure on myself and set a no limits to proving I could manage in a male dominated field. One of colleagues approached me and asked ” why I was killing myself – what was I trying to prove”?
I thought about that for a long time. I was surprised other people picked up on my behavior. I knew I was trying to prove I could do the job as well as any man could.
Bottom line is, I had proven to the company and my colleagues my value but I hadn’t taken the time to access myself. This time is what I call my robot mode, all I did was work. I spent little time doing anything else. Not a healthy way to live.
Settling limits are important because if you don’t, you over work, over think and miss out on so much. You’re never satisfied and always thinking you need to work until perfection. Which is again the mindset one has established that isn’t realistic. Breaking old habits and setting limits is a very good thing.
.-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel Prize Laureate & Poet =-.


Oscar - freestyle mind July 25, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Thank you for the review Stephen, I’d like to read this book one day.
.-= Oscar – freestyle mind´s last blog ..Habit #3 – Collect and Process =-.


Crafters100 July 25, 2009 at 6:53 pm

This article is so on the mark. It seems to be a subject that is gaining foothold in the global collective consciousness, too.
.-= Crafters100´s last blog ..YAHOO…I won this calendar =-.


Positively Present July 25, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Great post! I still haven’t read The Power of Less… I need to get on that! 🙂
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..positively present: the soundtrack =-.


Arswino @ Inspirational Quotes July 25, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Great stuff here, Stephen. I like the idea of setting limits on any area of our life that we think is overwhelming. These are which can make us stress indeed.
Thanks for sharing, Stephen.
.-= Arswino @ Inspirational Quotes´s last blog ..Blind Bus Passenger =-.


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills July 25, 2009 at 11:28 pm

Really important concept Stephen. Lately, I have limited myself with regard to the messages in my SU toolbar. I don’t check them until everything else is done. I was starting to feel like all I did was look at sites that others wanted to share. Avoiding these minor interruptions has really helped me stay focused.
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..Empty Nest Syndrome – The Other End of Parenting =-.


alex - unleash reality July 26, 2009 at 12:47 pm

hey stephen!!

haha, liked your description of a haiku. never heard it put succinctly like that. reminds me of twitter – the modern equivalent, life in 140 characters. or less 😉

very big on limits. i used to be really bad with this, leaving things till last minute and finally pulling magic off at last second.

going back to university tomorrow so this has come at the right time.

thank you.


keep well mate
alex – unleashreality
.-= alex – unleash reality´s last blog ..Emotional Sleight of Hand: 5 Practical Tricks to Feel Good Right Now =-.

Reply July 26, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Excellent post… You have very well summarized Leo’s advice in this post.
.-=´s last blog ..Top 10 Things To Do to Develop Your Peace of Mind & Sleep Like a Baby =-.


Karl Staib - Work Happy Now July 26, 2009 at 6:31 pm

I’m a big fan of Leo’s too. His articles have helped me simplify my life.

I’ve been limiting my Twitter and Facebook time and it’s been a big help. I get 2x as much done in the same amount of time.
.-= Karl Staib – Work Happy Now´s last blog ..Does Your Company Need an Extreme Makeover? =-.


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