Becoming a Productive Designer: An Interview With Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta, a blogger famous for the philosophy of keeping life and work simple has kindly allowed us to interview him about blogging, design and how we can all work with less clutter.

We’ll be talking about a regular day for Leo, how blogging has launched his career, and the principles he suggests for a designer to be more productive. It’s great to speak to someone so genuine and passionate about their philosophy, and I hope you enjoy reading what he has to say.

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Please tell us a little about your blog, book and the lifestyle/work advice you’ve inspired people with


My blog, Zen Habits, has regular articles on things I’ve been doing the last few years in my life — positive changes like simplifying, becoming more productive and organized, getting fit and healthy, eliminating my debt, spending time with my family, and generally becoming happier. It seems to have struck a chord with many people and within its first year, Zen Habits was one of the Top 50 blogs in the world, and today it has nearly 100,000 subscribers.

My book, The Power of Less, is a condensed version of some of the most important parts of my simple productivity philosophy from Zen Habits. It shows how to do less and accomplish more by focusing on the essentials and eliminating the non-essentials.

The lifestyle I advocate is a simple one, based on what truly matters in life. I’ve gotten thousands of comments and emails from people telling me that this simple advice has turned their lives around — things like starting small and taking baby steps, forming new habits, limiting yourself to the essential.

I’m fascinated to know what a regular day for you entails – how do you manage your freelance career with other responsibilities?

I don’t actually freelance anymore, but focus more on my blog and businesses. I’ve been transitioning to making money for myself, rather than writing for others.

However, whether I’m working on my own businesses or freelancing, the basics are the same: I pick three really important things I want to do each day. One of those things is usually writing a blog post, and the other two are often related to other projects I’m working on. I try to do those three things first, and only after I’m done with them do I do routine and less important things like email and online reading and the like. I also try to get some exercise in early, before the rest of my life gets in the way of that.

However, that’s the ideal — I often stray from this routine. When I can stick to these basics, my day is much more productive.

How do you feel that Internet and phenomenal uptake of ‘blogging’ has helped your success?

It’s indubitably the reason for my success. Before I started blogging, I was a freelance writer but my audience was very limited — I live on Guam, with a population of 160,000. As a blogger, I’ve been able to reach millions of people around the globe. Without the power of blogs to connect writers to a vast audience, I’d still be limited in what I do.

One thing I love about blogging is that it’s incredibly empowering. Only a decade ago, to get information out to a large audience, you had to go through the gatekeepers of the media — newspapers, television and radio stations, magazines — but today the gates have been thrown wide open. Today, there are no gatekeepers, which means that anyone can get his message out, and the size of the audience depends on things like how good the message is, how useful it is to readers, how persistent the writer is in spreading the message — not on the opinion or mood of an editor or the space a newspaper has for content.

What is your experience with website design – are you solely a blogger, or do you occasionally dabble in the design of your site?


I’m not very good at design. I know a good design when I see it, and I can give decent direction to a designer, because I know what I want out of a design. But I can’t do the design myself. My current design at Zen Habits was done by a very good designer friend, and my other blogs use free WP templates.

I really, really love minimalist designs. My current favorite is

Which principles do you feel can help a designer or developer to be more productive?

A good designer or developer who understands the principles of minimalism — to only have the essentials, and not have anything that isn’t necessary — will easily understand the key principles of simple productivity, which are pretty much the same thing. Take your to-do list and pare it down to only the most essential items, and focus on those before anything else. Take an index card and write the top 3 things you need to get done today — the really high-impact tasks that will make a big difference on your work and life.

By the same token, focus on your top projects and really try to get them done before moving on to new projects. Focus on one task at a time, and eliminate distractions, if you really want to be effective. Don’t multitask, and don’t allow distractions to pull your focus away from the task at hand.

Use the principles in The Power of Less to create these productive habits, one at a time.

Are there any ‘Zen Habits’ you would suggest for those in the field of design?

The concept of “Flow” is important, I think: it’s the ability to clear away distractions and concentrate on one engaging, challenging, enjoyable task, to really pour yourself into that task, so that the world around you disappears and you lose track of time. This is Flow, and it’s essential to really enjoying your work, to being in the moment, and to being incredibly effective.

I always feel relaxed with an uncluttered computer – are there any tools you use to keep your Mac free of distractions?

My favorite tool, of course, is Quicksilver. It’s unobtrusive and fast and minimalist, and yet so powerful for launching programs, opening documents and folders, and doing quick tasks without launching other programs. I don’t keep icons on my desktop, and don’t really file stuff anymore — I have one folder for things I’m working on and another for an archive, and I use a combination of Quicksilver and Spotlight to find the files I need without having to file.


I also do most of my work online, using Gmail, Google Docs, Gcal and WordPress to ensure that all my info is stored online, accessible anywhere, without having to store stuff on my Mac.

What further resources would you recommend to those wanting to know more about ‘The Power of Less’ (obviously in addition to your book!)

There’s a website for The Power of Less, which has a ton of free resources, including a companion ebook, audio podcasts, interviews, Twitter tips of the day, and a 30-day Challenge for people trying to form new habits. You can also find hundreds of free articles on my blog, Zen Habits, or follow me on twitter!

A big thanks to Leo for the tips and advice, and I hope you’ve found it to be a useful insight. Do check out his blog and book, and you’ll be on the right track to an efficient and productive lifestyle in no time.

Do you have any tips for designers to be more productive? How do you reduce the clutter and distractions in your working life?