In 2005, Leo Babauta was 70 pounds overweight. He smoked cigarettes and ate junk food. He was disorganized and deeply in debt. Now, the father of six is trim, and runs triathlons and even ran a 50-mile ultra-marathon. He eats a vegan diet, cleared out clutter and his inbox, eliminated debt, saved up an emergency fund and wrote a bestselling book, The Power of Less, and a novel. All the while blogging about it on Zen Habits, named by Time as one of the top 50 websites, with more than one million monthly readers. He shares his Zen approach to change.
Q: Humans are creatures of habit, and often keep doing things we don’t really even want to do, or know aren’t good for us. How do you change that?
Babauta: Sometimes we stick with habits, even habits we don’t like, like smoking or eating junk food, because it’s much more comfortable to stick with what you’re used to, than go through the discomfort of change.
A lot of what helps are small, micro changes.
Instead of trying to change your entire diet at once, which is very uncomfortable, try making a little change, push your comfort zone just a little. Add a couple vegetables to your dishes. Get used to that, then that becomes your new comfort zone.
I did that. And changed my life completely. But slowly and gradually
Q: What was the first micro change that you made?
Babauta: I was living in Guam at the time, with my wife and our six kids – though we only had five at the time, and now we live in San Francisco. I was just unhappy with my habits. I was working way too much. I didn’t have time for my kids. We were living paycheck to paycheck, really struggling to make ends meet. I was really unhappy with myself, and unhappy with my ability to stick to anything.
I was motivated to make changes not only for myself, but also to show my kids what a better life would be. That’s always been a big motivator for me. I knew if I continued to smoke and eat junk food, they would grow up and do the same thing. I wanted to change for them.
I started by giving up smoking. Every time I hard the urge to smoke, I’d just sit there. What I didn’t realize, is that was a form of meditation. And then, when I found myself stressed, instead of smoking, I’d go out for a run. That was my stress release.
Running became another form of meditation. I would watch these thoughts arise, ‘You should stop running, because it’s too hard.’ Then, I would turn to the present moment , and think instead, “It’s amazing that I’m outside. I’m usually in front of my computer. I’m moving my body, and it feels great.’ Though it was uncomfortable, I started appreciating great things about it.
Now, quitting smoking is a huge undertaking, because there are a lot of triggers for smoking and other bad habits like that, like stress eating, and being around other smokers. So I don’t recommend taking that on as the first micro change!
Q: So your first micro change was to quit smoking – which is not so micro a change! Then you started to run. What came next?
Babauta: I found that every little success changed my self image. That was a big thing too. Really being unhappy with yourself drives these downward spirals – you feel really bad, which drives you to a habit you don’t like, like smoking or shopping or eating, that makes you feel even worse.
So when I made a small change and succeeded, I created this positive spiral. The more I succeeded at something, the more I began to trust myself. And then the more I succeeded. I was motivated to succeed, that was huge for me, too. I wanted to trust myself and feel better about myself.
I also found accountability was huge for me. When I was quitting smoking, I had some online forums. When I started running, I wrote a column about my training for my first marathon in the largest newspaper in Guam. I didn’t want to give up, because I didn’t want to let people down.
That’s why I started Zen Habits. To continue having accountability for my own changes.
I encourage people to start a blog, or use Twitter, or Facebook. It can really motivate you and stick to things if you tell other people, and commit to being trustworthy to yourself.
Q: You write about failure a lot. Once you started, was it all smooth sailing?
Babauta: I fail all the time. I tried to quit smoking seven times and failed seven times before I finally made it stick. When I first failed, it was a hit to my self image. But then I started to observe and learn from failure, rather than think I failed because something is wrong with me.
I’m constantly making mistakes. And now, rather than think I failed, I think it’s part of the continual process of learning how habits work, the way we work, the way our minds work.
Q: What’s your best advice for making micro changes?
Babauta: I tell people to start by picking and committing to a small daily practice. I like something you can do in the morning before the day gets crazy. Something you can do in two to five minutes. Wake. Do a few push ups. Go for a walk. Meditate. Five yoga poses. Drink a cup of tea. Or journal. A gratitude journal is amazing
Whatever you pick, be fully committed to doing it. Don’t miss a day. But if do, don’t miss two days in a row. And while you’re doing it, the important thing is not to just try to get it over with, but be there, present with that task. So if you’re drinking a cup of tea, don’t just down it and get to your email. Actually stop and be there with the tea and fully experience it. Appreciate it. You’ll notice your mind start to wander, but the practice is to come back repeatedly to what you’re doing.
Once you’ve practiced one micro change for one month, you can apply bits of it to other parts of your life.
The thing about change, people will want to start out very ambitious. I say start small and leave yourself wanting more. That’s more sustainable if you want a lasting change.
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