Zenhabits’ Leo Babauta on Mastering the Art of Change

I recently got the chance to sit down and talk to Leo Babauta, the creator of one of my favorite blogs, Zenhabits. We got to chat about habit change, debt, procrastination, and the common root of all of our problems, among other things.

Leo is living proof that we can control our lives and change them for the better. He’s out with a new book called Zenhabits: Mastering the Art of Change, available on Kickstarter.

My favorite quote from the interview:

We have this reptilian fear of not being good enough, but if you put it into the light of day, we will be ok even if we do it and it sucks.

The entire interview is loaded with tips and ideas on how to start small to make huge changes in your life. If you have 45 minutes, it’s well worth it! Below are some highlights from the interview.

On the Genesis of Zenhabits

Leo: I started my journey in 2005. I was living on Guam at the time, stuck in a job I didn’t like, really unhealthy. I was 70 pounds heavier than I am now — 60 or 70, I can’t remember. A smoker, addicted to junk food, sedentary, I couldn’t get any of these habits changed. I was a procrastinator. Deeply in debt, a compulsive shopper, highly stressed out, and no time for my wife and kids. As you may know I have a wife and six kids.

It was actually a really bad place in my life, where I felt really bad about myself. I felt stuck and I was really struggling. And so, the genesis of Zenhabits was when I finally decided that I’m going to really put everything I have into making one habit stick; if I can’t do all of them, I’m going to do one. And that worked. I quit smoking, which was not the best habit to start with, I now know. But then I started running. Then I took what I learned from smoking and running and applied it to other habits. After a year I lost weight, I ran my first marathon, was on the road to getting out of debt, and I was so excited about all of these changes. I really thought I couldn’t do them, and I was able to do them. I learned some really simple things, and so I decided to create Zenhabits.

On Zenhabits, basically I write about living simply, changing your habits, and being mindful.

Being in Debt

Leo: The Simple Dollar actually gave me some really good advice on getting out of debt. When I first started reading it, I was already on the way out, but I wasn’t completely out. Another one was J.D. Roth at Get Rich Slowly, who I don’t think is doing it anymore.

But going back to 2005, we were completely broke, I was borrowing money from family to put food on the table. All my bills were late. I would take these notes from creditors and just stuff them in the drawer because I didn’t want to face it.

One of the low points was when I stole money from my kid’s piggy bank just to buy milk and cereal so we could eat. And so, yeah, it did not feel good. I felt really bad about myself.

It wasn’t until I started changing these habits that I was able to build the confidence in myself that I could now take this on.

The Similarities Between Financial Habits and Other Habits

Leo: For me there is a lot of similarity between food habits and financial habits because both of them are tied to our emotions. Its not just you’re spending $5 on this latte or this magazine, but it’s a thing that gives you some kind of emotional reward. Maybe it has something to do with your emotional identity, it’s some way that you get comfort. And so dealing with emotions and habits is a very tricky thing.

So, food is often the same way. Exercise for some people. Exercise is a very simple thing. You just go outside and start doing something, but for a lot of people, they now have to deal with how they feel about themselves — this self image that they have, and how they deal with discomfort, and I think that in a lot of ways, those kind of emotional habits are similar.

Actually, I can’t think of a good example of a habit that’s hard to change that isn’t full of emotional baggage.

The Unspoken Conflicts of Financial Habits

Leo: It’s not something that you just have complete control over. If you don’t see eye to eye [with a significant other] on your financial values — financial values are basically a statement of your value system, right? So if you don’t have the same value system when it comes to finances, you know, we grow up in different environments when we come together and get married. We have different values that we bring to the table. Those are never explicitly said, and so we have these preconceived notions. So when someone doesn’t want to spend money on something, that’s saying something that’s in conflict with what I believe. That’s a really difficult thing to deal with.

On the New Book and Why He’s Using Kickstarter for This One

Leo: I got a print book contract with a publisher and that process, I really did not enjoy. Nothing to do with that publisher, I just think the publishing process in general is one of the circles of hell, I think. That taught me that I was never going to do that again.

So I started doing e-books again. But, there is a big difference between doing a digital book, and a book that you get into someone’s hands. So I really wanted to make it beautiful and a timeless book. So, what I decided to do was self-publish it, make it a print book, but also with e-book versions, and crowdfund it.

So it’s on Kickstarter, and amazingly it’s already funded, and I can’t believe that — its just overwhelming, the support. Which is actually another thing that you don’t get when you sell your book in a book store. The traditional publishing route is completely divorced from that interaction with the reader.

The Common Thread Connecting All of Our Problems

Leo: I would give people this habit plan and sometimes it would work brilliantly, and other times they wouldn’t put it into action. I would be like, “Why not?!”

So I was kind of frustrated with this process and I was trying to figure out what was going on here. I realized for a lot of people they really just don’t believe in themselves, and so they had failed at sticking to habits and making changes so often that they no longer had trust in themselves. So that was one really core issue.

But there were other issues too, like people were just busy so there was initial resistance to starting the change. Then there were people who would be excited about this change and they would pour themselves into it, and then a week later they would get busy or they just didn’t feel like doing it, so there would be some other resistance that would come up. So I started to play around with this idea of resistance.

This resistance is getting in our way. Once the resistance comes up, if our motivation isn’t greater than the resistance, we’re not going to do it.

The Influence of Mindfulness and Meditation

Leo: They have transformed my entire process of change. I used to be at that place where I was like, “My life sucks, I suck, and I need to make some changes.” That can lead to change, but what I found was that even when you change, you still criticize yourself, you still beat yourself up. Like I lost a lot of weight, but I would look at my body, and say, “Ugh, well, it’s still not great, I need to make it better and better.”

So then I started asking myself when will it ever end? When will I stop being unhappy with my life? And I realized that could end today and I could be happy with my life right now. I could be happy with my body, I could be happy with everything around me, other people. Instead of thinking, “Oh, everything sucks, I need to change it,” I can be happy with it.

The follow-up question is, of course, “Well then doesn’t that mean we’ll never make any changes if we’re happy with everything in our life?” What I found is that [mindfulness and meditation] has changed everything. Because what I do now is tell myself I’m happy right now in this moment, with myself, with the world. However, I can still get up and do something because I have an intention to do some good in the world.

So, quitting smoking wasn’t just that I was really unhealthy. It was also to inspire my wife to quit smoking, and it was also to show my kids there was a healthier way of living than what I was doing.

[Connecting to the larger world] is often an act of compassion. Compassionate acts for others is often a more powerful motivator. So that is basically my process now. I bring this intention of compassion, or inspiring others or doing something good, and that helps me to want to make a change.

Now, what the outcome will be, whether people will actually find use in this, I don’t know. I have no control over it. I don’t know if people are going to read this book and think it’s amazing and change their lives. All I can do is put what I can into it and then see what happens.

So for habits, all you can do is bring the best intention into it, put effort into it and have compassion and put all of that stuff into it, but you don’t know how this habit is going to turn out in your life, and you never do. So if we don’t have control over the outcome, focus on what you do have control over, which are the inputs. And then you don’t give up when things turn out how you were hoping.

On Procrastination

Leo: I’m going to write a whole bonus guide on procrastination, because it’s such a big problem. Procrastination applies to not just doing work but all kinds of habits. We procrastinate on exercise, on our finances. So procrastination is actually something that is universal across all habits.

Procrastination is really facing that resistance, and feeling fear. So procrastination, at the root of it, really is fear. Fear partly of failure, but also fear of being in a scary place. Like taxes I used to put off because they were so complicated I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I would be in the act of doing taxes, and I would be confused — that’s not a fun place to be. There’s a discomfort of confusion and not being good at what you’re doing. So often the fear of that causes us to procrastinate.

We have this reptilian fear of not being good enough, but if you put it into the light of day, we will be ok even if we do it and it sucks. We will be ok if we do it and we’re uncomfortable, or we’re confused and we’re not good at it. So the rational way of looking at it is, you’re going to be just fine, so just do it. You’re actually going to be worse off if you don’t do it.

If you enjoyed this interview, I highly recommend checking out more of Leo’s writing on Zenhabits.

You can also back Leo’s new book project on Kickstarter.

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