Monday, November 17, 2014

Interview with Zen Habits's Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta
Leo Babauta was a very different person in 2005. He was 70 pounds heavier, a chain smoker, huffing and puffing to a job he hated. He was in serious debt and he had no time for his wife and three kids. Even when he did, he preferred to just veg out, because he was so spent. He was miserable and he knew it. He also knew that to get out of his misery he would have to make some changes, let go of some deeply ingrained habits that he had developed as security blankets. This was perhaps the scariest thing.

I am an avid reader of Zen Habits. I always get something great out of his posts. His posts talk about manageable, simple things that I can actually do to great effect. He is finishing his latest book about changing habits, Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change. Let me tell you, there is no one more suited. He is the poster boy for changing habits. He has done it!

Always unconventional, he is crowdfunding his book. His book will not be sold in stores or on Amazon. It will only be available via Kickstarter.

This week I had the awesome opportunity to interview Leo.

Everyone wants to make changes. Few can stick with those changes. In your book, you share some of your tips on how to make change last, through a process called mindfulness.

First off, can you explain what exactly “mindfulness” is?

Leo: In the book, I compare mindfulness with a spotlight: usually we go through our lives not really aware, not seeing the present moment, not noticing our thoughts. Mindfulness is simply shining a spotlight on all of that, so that we’re aware of what’s happening. It takes practice to remember to do that, but when you do remember, you can see the resistance in your mind to change, you can see your rationalizatons and urges, you can feel when you’re resentful or frustrated. If you can’t see any of that, you can’t change it. Mindfulness also helps me to appreciate more about each moment, and to enjoy the moment more fully.

Leo, everyone can relate to where you started. There are many of us who are in debt, hate our jobs, could lose a few pounds, start an exercise program. We all WANT to make change. We know we SHOULD make a change, but just can’t. I know for me, I can have the best of intentions, but I either forget, because the habits are so ingrained, or give up because it’s too difficult.

But you actually did it! You overcame all of the really “impossible” obstacles, quitting smoking, drinking, overcoming debt, etc.

Many people get overwhelmed because they know they need to make a lot of changes, but you didn’t make all of these changes at once. You say you started by making just one change. You started by quitting smoking and gave it all you had. Once you slayed that dragon, you moved on to the next. Tell us about that. How did you decide which one to take on first? How did you deal with the tough parts, the cravings, the fidgeting, the bad moods?

Leo: Well, I did try to change a bunch of habits all at once, but that wasn’t working for me. I kept failing. So I decided to just try one, and pour all my energy and focus into that. I chose quitting smoking because I thought it was the worst thing I was doing and I really wanted to change it. I don’t recommend that as a first habit change, though — choose something easier. But yes, I did have to deal with cravings, bad moods, and very strong resistance. What helped was mindfully watching the urges arise, and then not acting on them. I also learned to cope with stress in other ways (other than smoking), by breathing, meditating, taking a walk, doing some pushups. I also learned to call on other people when I was having a hard time, and to distract myself from the urges when necessary, to delay action on the urges until they went away. Finally: I learned not to believe all the negative self-talk that I found myself doing.

Get the book!
Personally, I am trying to finish a few writing projects that I am struggling to find time for. After a full day of work, I just want to nap and veg out. I have been setting two hours a day that all I can do is go to my office and write. It’s just that so many other things seem to vie for my attention then. Its all too easy to postpone my writing time for something “quick” [and necessary] like unloading the dishwasher, checking email/voicemail, etc. Before I know it my two allotted hours have passed...again.

Leo: Yes, exactly! We think of the productive work as this big block of time, a huge task we need to get done, but the email or dishwasher are quick tasks that seem much easier. So we do the easy and put off the huge chunk of work until later. What if instead, we just saw the writing as an easy task — something you can do in a couple minutes. “Just start writing” should be the task you think of … and then, once you start, maybe you’ll want to continue!

You talk about relaxed productivity. I love that. I know few things get done when we are running around like chickens with our heads cut off, but if we breathe through it. It all gets done. I work at Starbucks and when it’s really busy, I know I can get it all done if I just move a little slower, breathe through the steps. Unfortunately people usually want me to move faster. They don’t realize that if I rush around they’ll have to wait until I fix my mistakes. There are several jobs like mine, where if people don’t see you running around, they think you aren’t taking it seriously or are being lazy. They don’t realize that the less you are in panic mode, the more productive you will be.

It’s the same with habits. If you are taking on too much at once, you are not setting yourself up for success. You will quickly become overwhelmed. How did relaxed productivity help you with your habit changes?

Leo: That sense of urgency, which is created in our own minds, becomes a mental habit that we have a hard time getting out of. When you rush through one task, you are suddenly looking for the next one, and then the next, and it’s neverending. What I’ve found useful is to slow down, focus on one task, give it some space, loosen up my tightened mind. When I finish that one task, I try to give some space before starting the next task (when I remember).

Has this helped with my habit changes? Well, it’s important to give the habit its own space as well … if we just see the new habit (let’s say doing a workout) as something to rush through before you do your next task, it won’t have any focus, and you won’t enjoy it. Instead, treat this new habit as an event, something worth giving your attention and time to, something to be relished.

These are Buddhist concepts, but it is possible to practice mindfulness and Zen without being Buddhist, right? There are things that parallel with Christianity, for instance. Things like impermanence and leaving attachments sound very much like Christian concepts as well.

Leo: Yes, the ideas of impermanence and non-attachment are fairly widespread, and you don’t have to be a part of any religion, really, to try them out. It’s obvious that our time here on earth is fleeting and limited, and so life itself is impermanent. Nothing lasts, everything changes. It’s how we deal with that impermanence that determines our happiness. And so non-attachment is simply a way of dealing with impermanence — if everything changes, don’t be attached to one state. And with practice, it works really well.

I love how you always talk about being grateful for the moment. You don’t necessarily mean, Yay, I’m encountering hardships, but being grateful for the experience and the corresponding lessons. Can you talk about some obstacles you faced when you were conquering habits, and how you dealt with them?

Leo: I’ve faced so many obstacles! From not wanting to do the habit today, to feeling guilty if I missed, to not trusting myself to stick to a habit, to opposition from other people in my life to my changes. Actually, my entire book is about how to deal with these obstacles … but in brief:

Have there been instances where people in your life have responded negatively or uncomfortably to your changes?

Leo: Oh, definitely. I’ve had family members who were resentful when I tried to eat healthier, or people who mocked my quitting smoking, believe it or not. Probably the most negative reactions we’ve gotten is from becoming vegan, and unschooling our kids. We’ve learned that other people will be resistant to change, and we have to learn how to handle that in stride. We try to deal kindly and gently with other people like that, and to slowly educate them or at least get them to understand a little. Slowly, though, I’ve surrounded myself with people who are more supportive.

Are there any habits you wanted to but haven’t changed?

Leo: Sure, lots … I’ve been inconsistent with meditation, and I’ve quit language learning about 5 times. That’s OK — we’re all learning! I try not to be too hard on myself, but learn from my mistakes.

You are selling your new book on an unconventional platform. Can you tell us how we can get it?

Leo: I thought it would be fun to cut out the middle man, and sell directly to my readers. So you can only buy the book on Kickstarter: the Zen Habits book. This will help fund the printing of the book, and you can also get it in digital format (Kindle, PDF, iPad, web) and even be a part of webinars and a coaching program if you choose the higher reward levels.

Thank you so much, Leo!

 You can always read Leo’s stuff at

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