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Preface to “The Power of Less”

Editions Leduc kindly asked me to write the preface to the new edition of the book ”The Power of Less” by Leo Babauta, since I translate his articles on Zen Habits (“Habitudes Zen”), and also because I think they like me 🙂.

I have been translating Leo’s articles on Zen Habits for almost 4 years (according to my whims), and I love his simple, effective, and soothing style that goes straight to the point. To mark the release of this new edition, I present you with my world exclusive (let’s call it what it is) preface on simplicity, minimalism, and the dangers of the incredible choice that our consumer society offers us:

Preface to “The Power of Less

Imagine…you walk into a mid-size supermarket not far from your home. Visualize the dozens and dozens of shelves stretching out as far as the eye can see, containing tens of thousands of products, undoubtedly covering all your daily material needs (and then some!).

Let’s compare the number of product categories and the number of products available with what the French could choose from a century ago, or even compare that number with the choice our grandparents had access to in a grocery store during their childhood.

Here we have, before our eyes, within reach (and often our wallet) a choice of products that most human beings of more than two generations ago could not have had in their whole lifetime.

We live in a world of plenty.

The incredible advancements in industrial production and distribution have allowed more and more products to be created in ever larger quantities to land on growing shelves in increasingly gigantic supermarkets. In addition, advertising has become ever more effective, the appearance of multiple brands and variants of the same product forcing manufacturers to differentiate themselves from others and to push consumers to buy, creating, as needed, a desire that did not exist before.

Some food shelves in a supermarket

This abundance of choice is surely a blessing. It enables us to have a diversified diet, with products coming from the other side of the world, and to choose the products that truly suit us, whether it is their price, their features, their colors, their design, etc. Right?

Certainly. However, this abundance of choice is not without problems. Combined with increasingly aggressive and in-your-face advertising, it sometimes leads us to buy products that, in the end, do not really serve us, and which end up accumulating in our homes, cluttering up our cupboards, shelves and living room tables.

Take a look at your closet. Truly do it. Take this book with you and go see. I’ll give you a few minutes.

Good. Of all the clothes that are stored there, how many of them do you really use? How many of these do you put on regularly? And how many of them do you rarely, if ever, put on?

Now, how many of them haven’t you put on in months, maybe never?

Chances are, you haven’t worn at least a quarter of your clothes in months, and that the chances of you wearing them again are slim to none. If this is the case, rest assured; you are far from the only one!

Likewise, take a look in your cupboards, on your desk, in your drawers. How many gadgets and other products are stored there, unused, waiting in vain to see the light of day again? Look at your shelves, your living room table.

Do you still look at all those decorative trinkets, not counting when you are dusting?

In fact, the odds are good that you could get rid of 20% of your items without it affecting your life. And 20% is a minimum. The material abundance in which we live leads most of us to clutter ourselves with unnecessary objects that not only take up space in our homes, but also in our mind, which distracts us and decreases our concentration, our productivity and increases our stress. In particular, if these objects are visible when you go about your business as several studies have demonstrated, such as that of the University of Illinois in 1998 which showed that our eyes are diverted, without our being aware of it, by objects unrelated to our current task that are in our visual field. It only takes us a fraction of a second of our time each time but multiplied by the number of times our eyes wander to these objects in a day, it ends up doing a lot.

Likewise, we live in an era of temporal abundance. According to INSEE, the number of hours worked in France increased from 2,230 hours per year in 1950 to 1,559 hours in 2007. According to various surveys published in 2011 and 2012 (ECDE, INSEE, Coe-Rexecode) France is one of the countries in which people work the least in the world, if not THE country in which people  work the least in the world.

It wasn’t always like that. It was only in 1900 that a law limited daily work for the entire population to 11 total hours per day in France, and in 1936 that paid vacation was introduced, in an amount of 15 days per year. The annual duration of paid leave increased in stages until the 1982 introduction of the 5 weeks that we know, placing France at the top of the countries offering the most time off to its employees for decades. The 2011 ranking produced by the Mercer firm thus places us tied for 6 th out of a total of 67 countries.

We are also living in an age of abundance in terms of the entertainment and leisure available to us. In one century, radio, television, video games, computers and the Internet have arrived, and many of us spend a lot of time entertaining ourselves through these. According to Médiamétrie, the French spent an average of 3.32 hours a day watching television in 2010. And beyond these tools, we also have countless possibilities to spend time that did not exist even a few decades ago: a myriad of sports, arts, various activities to take part in.

This abundance sometimes leads us to overload ourselves with activities, or succumb to all these distractions, rather than focusing on what really matters to us. We watch TV instead of reading, we play video games instead of spending time with our friends, we go on Facebook for the umpteenth time instead of being with our family. We go play tennis rather than devote ourselves to our business creation project, we overload ourselves with unnecessary tasks rather than begin writing that book that we have dreamed about for years; we give ourselves a mountain of work to do, out of fear of feeling the emptiness of boredom, when we could spend some time in peace with ourselves.

This abundance of choice, this abundance of time causes us to have to make many choices and some of those choices turn out to be inexorably unnecessary, stupid, or even both, and can lead to an accumulation of uninteresting objects, a build-up of activities from which we derive instant pleasure, although fleeting and unsatisfactory in the long term.

It was in this era of abundance that Leo Babauta created his blog Zen Habits (Habitudes Zen) and began to write articles. It was in 2007. He was a journalist in a small American island in the Pacific; he was the father of six children and worked a lot. He started to publish articles that dealt with productivity, sports, personal finance, and most importantly, happiness, simplicity and minimalism, at an impressive rate of five articles per week on average, while posting guest articles on the most prestigious American blogs. His remarkable productivity – while working full time and caring for his six children – coupled with the quality of his articles and his efforts to promote himself, earned him rapid and extraordinary success. Only two years after starting his blog, the prestigious Times magazine ranked him in the “25 best blogs”, a feat he duplicated the following year. He already had more than 100,000 readers in 2008, and this has grown over time to almost 240,000 regular readers in early 2012.

His writing style, which is simple, practical and soothing, undoubtedly has a lot to do with it, and I personally appreciated the form and content so much that I decided to translate Leo Babauta’s best articles into French, on the blog www.habitudes-zen.fr.

Leo published the book that you have in your hands in 2008, and it has been a huge success across the Atlantic. In our time overloaded with choice, Leo Babauta advocates a soothing approach, which is to simplify, to get rid of the superfluous and focus on the essential. Because what matters in the end is being happy and dedicating yourself to what you love – and to those you love.

If that’s your goal, this book will help you. However, for it to be effective, of course, you will need to apply it. That said, the majority of you will be satisfied to read it, then to put it in a corner, while saying to yourself “I will apply it later”, this ‘later’ being an obvious ‘never’, which will add this book to the list of unnecessary things you own. The best way to avoid this is perhaps to apply the principles that Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, recommends applying to his own book:

  1. Have a strong desire to learn and apply the principles that will enable you to simplify your life and focus on the essentials.
  2. Read each chapter twice before moving on to the next.
  3. Frequently interrupt your reading to question your personal possibilities of applying each principle.
  4. Highlight important ideas.
  5. Review the book monthly.
  6. Put the principles into practice whenever the opportunity arises.
  7. Turn the book into a fun game: Ask your friends to hold you accountable every time they catch you breaking the rules.
  8. Monitor the progress you make on a weekly basis. Ask yourself what mistakes you have made, what progress you have made, what lessons you have learned.

And to become aware of this maxim of the famous blogger Chris Guillebeau:

“The gap between ignorance and knowledge is much less than between knowledge and action”

The book in your hands has the power to help you live a more focused, less busy, simpler, and happier life. Give it a chance. And apply it.

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