In January 2007, Leo Babauta launched his blog – ZenHabits – to share what he’d learned about simple living, changing habits and how to create an amazing life. With a full-time job, a part-time freelance writing career and a wife and six kids, he had no free time, no money to invest and little knowledge about blogging. But that didn’t stop him.
Fueled by his singular goal to liberate himself from his full-time job, Leo went to work writing great content day-after-day. He wrote 3-5 weekly blog posts for ZenHabits, as well as multiple guest posts and freelance posts for other major blogs in his niche.
He learned all he could about blogging. He studied things like branding, social media and blog management. Ultimately, however, he chose to focus mainly on writing the best blog posts he could for Zen Habits and other blogs. These quality posts, he says, were what drew readers and kept them coming back for more.
Leo’s dedication and focus paid off. By the end of 2007, he’d built an impressive subscriber list that numbered over 26,000. Further, he was earning enough money to finally quit his full-time job and live the life he’d imagined.
Where’s Leo Today?
Today, Leo’s readership has grown to well over 200,000 and Time Magazine recently named ZenHabits the #1 blog for 2010. Besides ZenHabits, he also writes several other blogs, including mnmlist, Write to Done and A-List Blogging Bootcamps. Outside the blogging world, he’s published several books including some best-sellers like focus, The Power of Less, and Zen To Done.
About the 20 Questions That Follow
Because of Leo’s incredible success, there’s no shortage of excellent interviews online. Recently, I sifted through many of them and picked out some of my favorite questions and answers. I also picked out some of my favorite parts of Leo’s special report titled How I Got 100,000 Subscribers in Two Years: Lessons from Zen Habits.
When it comes to making a difference in the world and living a bigger life, Leo’s story is very inspiring to me, and I hope you enjoy the following tips and wisdom as much I do.
1. Who is the person you have learned the most from?
One person? I’ve learned from so many bloggers and authors, it’s hard to choose just one. But if I had to choose one, it would be my mom: she taught me about integrity, honesty, being a good person, by the example she set. Those kinds of values show up in my writing, I think, and that seems to be appealing to a lot of people who are looking for writing from the heart, not just writing to make money.
2. You write about simplicity and frugal living. If you had to explain the benefits of frugal living briefly, how would you put it?
It’s about living within your means, so that you don’t get saddled with the burden of debt, or so that you can get out of debt, or so that you can save or invest for your financial future. Without frugality, it’s almost impossible to do these things. Frugality is also about not working just to support a lavish lifestyle, but living a lifestyle that doesn’t require you to give away your entire life to working. It’s about spending on what you need, not a bunch of unnecessary things that don’t make you happy.
3. Do you think [financial problems are] essential for people to finally realize the consequences of [materialism]?
I think financial problems highlight the underlying problems of excessive consumerism, so yes, that does tend to help. But it’s not necessary — even in good times, people spend too much and then spend too much time working, to end up with a bunch of worthless possessions (and often too much fat as a result of consumerism). If they can see, by the shining example of minimalists, that by letting go of all of that you can work less, be happier, have time for what’s important, be healthier, reduce your impact on the environment … maybe they’ll join us. I definitely think that leading by example, and starting a community-wide discussion on these important issues, is the way to start this movement.
Source: Interview with the Legendary Author of Zen Habits, Leo Babauta
4. What do you believe are the disadvantages of technology?
We have the tendency to let a good thing — this amazing tool that has revolutionized our lives — grow beyond usefulness into something that takes over our lives. Email is great, but it doesn’t need to be something we do all day long. Same thing with Twitter, cell phone calls, text messaging, Facebook, blog reading, and so on.
We need to be more conscious about how we use technology, how big a part it plays in our lives. Otherwise, it can take us away from living in the present, from the real experiences and conversations that enrich our lives, and that’s the tragedy.
5. What are the most successful methods that you have found for ignoring distractions and staying focused?
You ignore distractions by consciously clearing them. They won’t go away otherwise — you have to turn off notifications and close your email and Twitter and Facebook and news. That’s tough to do for many people because they’re addicted to them or fear what will happen if they don’t stay updated. So try a mini-test: close those things just for an hour or two and see what happens. Clear all distractions but one task and find out if anything bad happens.
6. What tips do you have for people who are addicted to the Internet and its distractions?
I learned a lot about addictions when I quit smoking and then quit other bad habits (junk food, for example). One important thing is learning what your triggers are — what events happen just before you do the addiction? Start to study this if you’re serious about ending your addiction. Then replace the addiction with a positive behavior for each trigger — drink water, for example, or go for a walk, or write. Finally, be aware of your urges to give in to the addiction, and pause instead of giving into the addiction. Instead, take some deep breaths, let the urge pass, and do the positive behavior instead.
7. What are the five [online] tools you use most?
WordPress for my website. I don’t use any stats program, I eliminated stats tracking from my site. I use Google Docs for project planning. I don’t use any SEO tools, I believe SEO is a waste of time. Create great content instead. A tool I couldn’t live without: A text editor.
Source: Blogger Interview: Leo Babauta creator and writer for zenhabits.net
8. Do you have a well defined niche you cater to [on Zen Habits]?
No, I write for the general public — basically, everyone wants to improve their life in some way, whether that’s through simplifying, becoming fitter and healthier, finding happiness, becoming more effective at work, or getting out of debt. By not focusing on a niche, I have a much wider audience than most blogs — not to brag, but I have 200,000 subscribers, mostly because I try to solve problems that most people have.
Source: Blogger Interview: Leo Babauta creator and writer for zenhabits.net
9. What do you think of Twitter?
I think Twitter is an amazing communication tool. I didn’t get it when I first used it. But I’ve found that just like with any communication tool — the phone, email, blogs, etc. — it can be used in an infinite number of ways. You can use it to stay in touch with friends, network with colleagues, follow celebrities, get information and news, market your product or website, anything. Today, I mostly use it as a way to connect with my readers. I share useful links and info with them, share a peek into my personal life, ask them questions, respond to questions, share inspirational or thought-provoking quotes or thoughts, and of course keep them updated by linking to my latest post. I’ve found it to be an invaluable tool for staying connected with my audience — I’m glad to spend 20 minutes a day or so using it. Also, I find a lot of useful links and info on Twitter.
10. How do you define cool?
People who are being themselves and expressing themselves freely. That applies to all the cool famous people like Miles Davis and Bob Dylan and Kurt Vonnegut, and to more hip types with body art, to introverts like me who just like to write or create and find ways to imprint our souls upon the world.
11. What advice would you give an entrepreneur starting up their first business?
Make sure it’s something you’re passionate about — do it because you love it, not just to make money. If you do it for the money, you’ll eventually get tired of it and then you’ll be doing something you hate … and you can only do that for so long. If you love doing it, you’ll be more likely to sustain your energy and really work to make it a success, because if you succeed, then you can keep doing something you love for long.
Also, a word about fear: what stops us from pursuing our dreams is fear … fear of failure, fear that people will laugh at us, fear that we won’t be good enough. But if we let fear stop us, then we will never be able to pursue our dreams and make them a reality, never be able to do what we love doing for a living. You have to learn to overcome the fear and pursue your passion.
12. What advice would you give a new business owner trying to generate traffic? Are there some “secrets” that have worked for you that you can share?
No secrets. I built up an audience by sharing as much free, useful information as I could. I didn’t do it by hyping up my work, but by being useful, by doing it in my life and then sharing what I did. It worked — my site grew really quickly, and by the end of my first year I was able to quit my day job, I’d signed a book deal, I had 26,000 subscribers, and I had gotten completely out of debt.
Source: Blogger Interview: Leo Babauta creator and writer for zenhabits.net
13. For any new blogger starting out, what would you recommend to them about getting subscribers?
Start small. Don’t worry about getting thousands of subscribers – just worry about writing your next incredibly useful post. Creating great, useful, valuable content is the only way to get new readers — if your writing is great, you can attract visitors and keep them. Be genuine, write about what you know about, and be passionate in your writing.
Once you have a dozen or more really useful articles, do guest posts on other blogs, as often as possible. Again, write really useful guest posts and you’ll attract readers to your blog.
14. You have been quite successful in your blogging career. What advice can you give someone who wants to have a long-term successful blog?
Focus on one thing and one thing only: creating amazing content that helps people with their problems. Show them how to do things they want to do. That’s all. Don’t worry about branding or design or stats or MailChimp or Aweber or ads or widgets or Twitter or all that other crap. Create amazing things and people will come.
15. Are there any pet peeves or things that you see on other people’s blogs that could be suppressing their success?
Too many posts about nothing that a reader really cares about. Too much clutter aside from the actual articles. Too many ads and promotional stuff instead of great content.
16. What have you learned from your enormous success as a blogger?
I learned that, as a blogger, there are lots of things I could do – read and respond to comments, answer email, check my stats, check my earnings, fiddle with the design or blog widgets, mess around with different ad systems, chat with other bloggers, and so on and so on. But there was only one thing that really mattered for my branding efforts and for the growth of my blog: writing great posts. I tried to post quality articles on Zen Habits 3-5 times a week – I was doing daily posts early on, but discovered that it overwhelmed my readers, so I learned that 4-5 was more ideal, and 3 posts in a week was the minimum.
And so that became all that I focused on: writing the best posts I could – for Zen Habits and for other blogs. These quality posts were the things that drew readers and kept them coming back for more. A great post could get popular on delicious.com, draw dozens of incoming links, and get me dozens of new readers.
I still did the other stuff, but not during writing time. Writing time was (and is) sacred, because it was the most important thing I was doing at the time. Still is. Everything else was just distraction.
Strip away everything that gets in the way of writing, and focus on the writing.
17. What are the qualities that have made you a super-blogger?
I achieved blogging success because I have a coincidental blend of a number of characteristics:
- I love writing and am fairly good at it, having done it for almost 20 years.
- I know my topic and am passionate about it, living it daily in real life.
- I love technology and have a passion for learning this medium.
- I love connecting with others and do it with enthusiasm.
- I have a background in headline writing, at a daily newspaper.
- I am a reflective person.
- I have knowledge and interest in marketing, and have really studied a lot of key principles and simplified them for my purposes.
18. What are the top 3 tips you would offer to an aspiring blogger?
First, as the saying goes, Content is King. All of the other stuff really helps, but it starts and ends with great content. You have to write posts that are relevant to your potential readers – teach her to do things she’s always wanted to do. You have to write posts that are extremely useful and packed with info they need – but at the same time, concise and not too wordy. You need to write posts that are accessible, scannable, and have great headlines.
That’s the key to successful blogging. Focus on that. Each day should be spent writing great posts, not on social media or networking or marketing or checking stats or working on ads or your blog design or widgets or the latest apps or email or RSS reading or anything else.
Write great posts. That should be your main occupation, and do this before any thing else. If not, you’ll fail as a blogger.
Second, once you’ve got the content, learn some cheap but effective ways to promote it. Networking, writing LOTS of guest posts, and when you get large enough, promotion through social media and ebooks. That’s pretty simple, but of course it takes a lot of hard work. Don’t forget to keep your focus on the content, however.
Third, it’s all about the reader. When you start writing about things that are only of interest to you, or putting things on your blog to make money but not benefit the reader, or linking to things because you hope it’ll help with networking efforts but forgetting to ask whether the reader cares about these links… you’ve forgotten the reader. And then the reader will soon forget you.
Everything you do should be for the reader. And you’ll be rewarded with great readers – and that’s what it’s all about. When you make a connection with your readers, it’s a magical thing. It’s something that can change your life, and theirs. It’s what blogging is all about, and it makes all the hard work more than worth it.
If you focus on these three aspects, your blog will grow for sure.
19. Any goals for this year you would like to share?
I don’t do goals anymore. I pick something I’m passionate about and work on that. It works brilliantly. I’m free of worry about whether I’m achieving goals or on track or if I can pursue a new opportunity that’s not in my goals or if I’ve failed in my goals. All I do is pour myself into something I’m passionate about and I love it completely and without reservations.
20. Let’s end this interview with a few “words of wisdom” for my readers, a few tips which you think people should keep in mind as online entrepreneurs.
I think too many people are focused on making money. That shouldn’t be your priority. Make your first priority be doing something that you love. If you blog, for example, write about stuff you love. That will show through in your writing, and people will enjoy that, and the money will come naturally as a result. But if you focus on things just for the sake of making money, that will also show through in your writing, and it will turn people off. Write and work from the heart, not the pocketbook.