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How I Conduct My Business

I started my own business at a late age — by the time I made Zen Habits into a business in 2007, I was in my mid-30s and had toiled through various jobs for 17 years.

So when I started out, I didn’t know what I was doing (and still don’t, but less so now). I tried everything to make money, to make my site more popular (which I thought was important). Some of it worked, some didn’t. Some made me feel bad about myself. Some things readers reacted badly to, and others they loved.

Through this trial and error, I learned some principles that work for me. I don’t share them here to show that I’m superior to anyone, but to show an example of what might work for you. To show that doing things that feel right can make a business succeed.

Here’s how I conduct my business.

  1. Readers first. This is my No. 1 rule, and it has served me extremely well. When I have a question (“should I promote X or not?”) the answer is always, “What would my readers want? What would help them most?” When the choice is between making some extra money or my readers’ interest, the choice is obvious. There is no choice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed up being part of a mega-sale or affiliate marketing campaign that would have earned me $50K (and sometimes much more) in a day or two if I’d decided to participate. I’ve walked away from at least $1M because it would have put profits before my readers. And I think my readers trust me more because of this (see next item).
  2. Trust is everything. The most valuable assets I have are my readers’ trust and attention. And the attention will go really fast if they stop trusting me. Everything else in this list is based around these first two principles. When you start doing affiliate marketing, even if you think it would help the reader, if it would make them question your motives (is he trying to help me or make some money here?), it erodes their trust, a little at a time. That’s not worth the money.
  3. Make money by helping. I put out products and courses that I think will really help people, and that’s how I make money. This works really well for me. People are happy because their lives are better, and I’m happy because the revenue I make is entirely coming from making people’s lives better. We both win, our lives are all enriched. This is not the case from advertising (see next item).
  4. No ads, affiliate marketing. These are both the same, really. When you market someone else’s product as an affiliate, it’s just a hidden form of advertising. I should note that I had ads and did affiliate marketing for a couple years before giving it up. Why’d I give it up? Well, I realized (through experimentation) that the return on this kind of business model is very bad. You get very little revenue, and erode trust. That’s a bad formula for making money. When you sell an ad, what you’re really selling is your readers’ attention and trust — they trust you to put something important in front of their attention, and you capitalize on that. Of course, most readers learn not to trust the ads, and try to skip them, and put up with them because they want the good content (or service) you’re giving them. So they no longer trust you as much, but put up with your revenue tactics. This sucks. Who wants their customers to put up with anything? Why not delight them with how you make money? Why not enrich them? Now, can everyone do this? Possibly not, but I wouldn’t reject the idea without giving it a genuine shot.
  5. Just the text – no social media buttons, popups, dropdowns, or anything else that annoys or distracts. This goes back to trust — people come to my site to read something that will add value to their lives. Not to be pushed to share something on social media, or like something, or subscribe to my email newsletter. Yes, I have a thing at the bottom to subscribe, but it’s not pushy, and I don’t promise any gimmicky downloads. When your site has a popup or dropdown that asks people to subscribe, it’s annoying. I’m sorry to be blunt but I’m speaking as a reader now — I will never go back to a site that does that. Which means I don’t read a lot of my friends’ sites because they do this. Give the readers what they want, and nothing else, and you won’t have to ask them to subscribe or share. They’ll do it on their own, and this is the kind of share and subscriber you want.
  6. Uncopyright. My site has been uncopryrighted since January 2008 (there weren’t any other sites doing this at the time), and in the last 5+ years, uncopyright has not only not hurt my business, I strongly believe it’s helped tremendously. Why? Because it helps people share and spread my work much more easily. If someone wants to use an article of mine, they don’t have to go through the hassle of trying to contact me and ask permission — they just use it. This has caused people to use my work in books, magazines, blogs, newsletters, classroom materials, art, conferences and more. This is amazing. In addition, uncopyright promotes the idea of sharing, and when you share with people, they tend to trust you more. Sharing builds trust.
  7. No sales. I’ve seen many people do three-day sales of their products (or something similar), but I’ve never done one of these (that I can recall). Why not? Because it makes no sense to the reader (remember, readers first). Tell me the reader: why are you lowering the price of your product for three days? Why only those three days? If you can lower the price for those days, why not the other days? Is it to make more money from me (manipulate me into buying the book)? Is the price too high on the other days? What if I already bought the book at the higher price — was I ripped off? These are questions the reader has no answers to, and no matter how much you try to justify the reasons of the sale, it doesn’t make sense. Either set the price at the higher price point (because you think it’s worth it), or set it at the lower price point (because you want to get it into the hands of more people).
  8. Admit mistakes. It might sound like I’m pretending to be perfect at what I do, but the truth is I’m winging it. I’m making it up as a I go along, in hopes that I won’t screw it up, and constant fear that I am badly messing up. I have more trust in this process (and in my readers) now that I’ve been doing it for seven years and nothing has fallen apart, but I have made many mistakes along the way. I’ve been overly promotional, I’ve done affiliate marketing (just a couple of times), I had advertising, I asked people to share my work, I asked for votes. Those were mistakes, but I learned from them and try my best not to repeat them. Recently, in my Sea Change Program, I removed old habit modules from 2013 (I felt they were outdated), and my members were upset. I fixed the mistake and put the modules back. People don’t expect you to be perfect — they do expect you to try your best to fix mistakes when you make them. I admit my mistakes, and try to rectify them and do better. People trust me more because of it, I think.
  9. Don’t front. I don’t pretend I’m more than I am. I think there’s a tendency in the online world to overrepresent yourself — put yourself off as an expert or the world’s leading whateverthehell. But I’m not the world’s leading anything. I am just a guy who has a wife and six kids, who has changed his life by making small habit changes, one at a time. A guy who has simplified his life and focused on being mindful. I’ve learned a lot from these experiences, and share them as much as I can here on Zen Habits. That’s all I am, and I don’t try to be more. When you only try to be yourself, you can’t fail.
  10. Forget about stats, focus on helping. In the early days, I was obsessed about site statistics. I would check my stats counter several times a day, look at where all the traffic was coming from, try to get my numbers up. Here’s the thing: you can’t do anything with those stats. If you’re getting traffic from Reddit or Twitter, you can’t do anything about that. All you can do, once you’ve seen the stats, is try to create great content. Try to help people. Try to add value. That’s what you’d do even if you had zero stats. The stats don’t change what you should do — though they might motivate you to do things you shouldn’t do to get the stats up, things that aren’t trustworthy. The stats just make you obsessive. About three years ago, I removed all stats trackers from my site, and now am freed from that worry. Now I focus on what really matters: helping people as best I can.
  11. Do what feels right. This is vague and isn’t very helpful at first, because in the beginning, you’re never really sure what’s “right”. There are lots of choices to make and it always seems smart to just do what other people are doing, what the experts tell you to do. Unfortunately, that’s often wrong. Everyone else does what everyone else does because that seems safer, and so they act out of fear of doing the wrong thing. In fact, safer is not the right thing. Doing the right thing is going to be against the mainstream. For example, when I gave up copyright, or let go of ads or social media buttons or affiliate marketing, or comments, those were all very scary things for me. It was against what everyone else at the time was doing. But in the end, I knew they were the right thing, because it was what was best for my readers. And it made me feel good about what I was doing. This is the compass you need to develop, to build trust with your readers, and with yourself. Feel good about what you’re doing, don’t act out of fear.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Chapters
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC