by J.D. Roth
In 2007, Leo Babauta started Zen Habits, a blog where he chronicled the changes he was trying to make in his life. For the past seven years, he’s documented his successes and failures as he’s striven to stop smoking, lose weight, get out of debt, and otherwise improve his world (and the world around him).
Leo’s current project is The Zen Habits Book, which he’s funding entirely through Kickstarter. (As of this writing, his project has 5,691 backers who have pledged $151,450 toward Leo’s goal. That’s three times as much as he’d hoped — and there are still fifteen days left to back the project!)
Recently, Leo and I spent an hour chatting by Skype. I asked him about his background, about coping with the fear of change, and the struggle many folks face with the need to be “perfect”. I’ve edited that conversation down to about thirty minutes and am pleased to present it here as the first episode of the Awesome People project, a new series of interviews with interesting individuals from all walks of life.
Here’s the video of our conversation:
Or, if you’d prefer, here’s a link to the audio version [55mb M4A file].
Finally, for those who’d rather read the written word, the remaining 5000 words of this article contain a transcription of the interview between me and Leo.
Welcome. This is J.D. Roth, and this is the first of what I hope will be many interviews that I conduct with some of my favorite people.
Today, the very first person I’m talking to is Leo Babauta. Leo writes a blog called Zen Habits. It’s a great site for learning about how to make improvements with your life — how to live a better life. Leo and I came up in the blogging world together, and have been colleagues for a long time. He’s one of my favorite people, so I’m really pleased to have him as the first person I talk to in this series.
Leo, to start, why don’t you give us a little bit of background about yourself and how you came to write Zen Habits.
What an honor to be the first one in this series. I don’t know if your audience knows but you were one of the big inspirations for Zen Habits. I was struggling with a lot of things in my life in 2005, and in 2006 I decided to make some changes. In the middle of trying to make all of these changes in my life, I started reading Get Rich Slowly. It was a profound influence on me.
Backing up a little bit, I was stuck not only in debt but with other really bad habits:
I really didn’t know how to make any changes stick. I knew I wanted to change — I really wanted to — and it was really difficult for me to stick to anything.
That sounds a lot like my background, to be honest. I really struggled with trying to make changes too, and wanting to be somebody different. I was deep in debt, fifty pounds overweight, unhappy with my job. There were a lot of changes that needed to be made. So, what did you do? How did you fix some of these problems?
It was a bad place. And that’s really who I’m trying to reach is people who are in that place and don’t know what to do.
What I finally figured out that worked was to start with one small change. I had been trying to change everything at once, and that never works. So I decided to make one small change at a time. Slowly, over the course of a year, I changed my entire life. That really showed me the power of small changes.
I actually started with a big change, and that was probably a mistake. It was quitting smoking, which is a really hard habit to change. But I was able to stick with it because I tried a lot of different things to make that habit stick. I was really motivated. I had made a promise to my wife and a promise to my daughter, and I wanted to make it work.
You say you tried a bunch of different things. What was it that ultimately helped you stop smoking? Was it a variety of things? Or was it one thing?
It was a variety of things. Learning about triggers, and learning to replace those with more positive ways of coping with the needs that smoking was fulfilling. For example, stress release, comfort, when I was feeling bad. So, I learned about triggers and replacement habits. I learned about accountability and having support and reaching out to that support when I needed it.
I also learned how to watch my urges. This was kind of how I started getting into mindfulness. I would sit there and I would see this urge rising to smoke and it would be so hard. I really wanted to smoke! Normally, I would just follow that urge. Same thing with the urge to eat or the urge to shop. They’re all the same thing and I just followed them mindlessly.
But I started to watch them. And I realized that I don’t actually need to follow the urge. I can just watch it — this rising feeling of panic — but it goes away. It just kind of goes up, and then it crests, and then it goes down.
Sometimes mindfulness itself is enough?
The other thing was I was watching my mind rationalize why I should go and do that.
Right now, one of the things I struggle with — and I’ve written about this before — is that I like to drink. I like a glass of wine. Kim likes a glass of wine. Over the past couple of months, we’ve tried to do things where instead of drinking we replace that urge with something else. Sometimes that means having club soda in the fridge. Sometimes when the urge strikes, I’ll just go for a walk instead. I like this idea of “habit replacement”.
Yeah. It can be hard to parse out what that habit is doing for you. There’s different needs. Sometimes it’s comfort, stress relief. Sometimes it’s socializing; smoking did that for me, as well. Drinking may be something where you socialize with friends or with your wife or girlfriend, and that’s kind of the thing that you share together. Just cutting it out leaves this gaping hole. What are you going to do instead? I think going for a walk is a good thing. Or maybe having a new ritual where you drink warm tea together in the cold November weather.
That’s what we did last weekend. We made tea instead.
So what happens is that the urge comes up, the trigger, the need for something, and now instead of doing the thing you don’t want to do, you’re going to do a new thing. But it takes a while for that to become as habitualized as drinking has become. That’s another thing I learned: Stick with one change for a while until it becomes habitualized. Then I could move on to the next thing.
So, over the course of 2006, I changed my entire life. I lost a lot of weight. I ran my first marathon. I started to get out of debt. I reduced a lot of clutter. And then I started Zen Habits in January 2007. It’s obviously grown a lot since then, but so have I. I’ve learned not only about habit change but also about becoming happy with myself. I’ve learned how to not be goal-oriented yet still able to achieve things. I learned a lot more about mindfulness.
So, I’m pouring all of that now into a new book. I actually struggled with this book, but the book is about struggles, so I guess that it’s good I struggled with the book. I needed to learn from that struggle.
One thing that I did that was really fun was in the beginning I got a group of ten people together and they became my “alpha testers”. I started writing the book for them. As they gave me their problems and their life situations, I started writing for them. They would put [my advice] into action. I would give them accountability and they would give me feedback. They were able to tell me what works and what doesn’t work or what they didn’t quite agree with. So, I saw all of these gaps in my writing. I was able to get feedback and fill in a lot of the things I didn’t realize I needed to fill in.
I wrote this book as a kind of grand, philosophical zen book that was going to help people through all of their hard times.
What do you mean by that? A philosophical zen book?
Well, I’ve been studying zen Buddhism. I’m not a zen priest or even a Buddhist really, in the full sense of the word, but I’ve been studying it because a lot of the ideas there help me. The practical ideas. I’m not so much of a spiritual guy, but I’m a very practical guy. So if you tell me to do A, B, and C and it works, then I think that’s a really useful idea. So I pull those ideas out.
I’ve been studying zen, and one of the most important things about zen is understanding the nature of life as change. Everything in life — including our selves — is changing. Our relationships with people, our relationships with ourselves, our relationships with our health and our money. It’s constantly changing. That actually induces fear in people.
What we want is some kind of stability. We want things to stay in our comfort zone. When things change — we get an illness, we lose a job, or even small things like plans get changed or someone interrupts us — that causes this frustration or anxiety or fear. What I’ve learned is that is this is at the root of everything, from our procrastination to our habit changes to our money problems. There’s this fear at the root of everything. And at the root of the fear is this frustration with change. If we can learn instead of resisting the change to embrace the change and to see it as a good thing, and to see that this is the nature of life and the nature of our selves, then we can be more at peace.
That’s not to say that we’re just going to accept things and step back and not do anything. But it’s starting from a place of peace.
I’m going to use an extreme example here: You have people who stay in unhealthy relationships — perhaps even abusive relationships — and I’ve found from my own reading and my own experience that a lot of times people stay in these relationships precisely because they are afraid of change. It’s “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”. From my own experience, I discovered that a lot fo times, when I actually embrace the change and make the leap and take the risk, the change is so much better. We think it’s not going to be because it’s uncomfortable. Making the change is scary.
Some of this book is about acceptance. The misinterpretation of that situation is: “I’m going to accept this person as abusive and accept them how they are and just accept my fate.” That’s not what this book is about. It’s about accepting the nature of change and realizing that while you might accept somebody for who they are, you also need to accept they might be a harmful person to be with.
Accepting the nature of change also means you could embrace a new change, which means a new you.
We have this identity: “I’m in this relationship with this guy who loves me. Yes, he hits me but he loves me.” This identity is something you can actually grow to like. Getting out of that relationship means you are no longer that person. You’re now a person who is alone and maybe not with somebody who loves you. That’s hard to accept.
Part of the acceptance process is accepting that there can be a new you that can be just as good — or even better — than the old you.
I’m really big on trying to get people to be as true to who they are as possible. That can be a tough thing. Who are you? It’s tough to know sometimes who you are. But in my own instance, anyway, I’m very aware of when I’m doing things that go against my nature, when I’m acting in ways that aren’t true to myself.
I’m going to pull off a bookshelf here. Since this is the first video interview I’m doing, I’m sure this book will come up again and again. This book is called How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne. This book, which was published in 1973, is probably the most important book that I’ve read as far as helping me learn to change, but to change in a way that’s true to myself so that I don’t have to be somebody different for different people, to just be myself as often as possible.
I think you walk the walk. You are as authentic as anyone I know online. It’s really inspiring to see that, and I think it gives people courage to that they can be themselves and it can be okay. They can admit their vulnerabilities — which I think you’re really good at — admit that their not perfect. We have this tendency to want to show the perfect side of us.
That’s actually what I just wrote down! About five minutes ago, I wrote down that we are not perfect. That’s something I wanted chat with you about briefly. I know it’s a bit of a digression but…
You were talking about how people online, self-help people, sometimes they don’t feel genuine, like they’re not real. For me, that’s a real struggle. You and I, we are just people. We make mistakes. We struggle with things. And yet at the same time, we’re trying to write and encourage people to make positive changes. How do we get people to trust that we know what we’re talking about when we still make mistakes?
I think the important thing to recognize is that everyone is going to make mistakes. Even though I try to walk the walk with personal finance, I’m still learning things along the way and I’m still making mistakes. I’m willing to wager that you’re not perfect either.
I definitely make mistakes. I struggle. I struggled with writing this book. I deal with the same things that everyone else deals with on a day-to-day basis. I’m definitely not perfect. I don’t follow my own advice. That’s the dirty secret of self-help books and blogs: Nobody follows all of their own advice all of the time. But when we do, it’s great!
What I always say is that we’re writing about are the things that we struggle with most. I write about fear because I struggle with fear and self-doubt all of the time. That’s why I write about it.
Absolutely. And we find something that succeeds, we’re so excited because we’ve finally found something that works and we want to share it with everybody!
And you know, I don’t think people actually trust people who come off as perfect. I think we trust people who are vulnerable and who are willing to share the good and the bad. That’s real. We want to make a connection with someone who’s real, and we can’t connect with someone who is plastic and perfect. That’s not a real thing.
This actually relates a lot to what I’m writing about in the book, which is these ideals that we have. We idealize these people that we read about online. Sometimes that ideal can get in the way. If you want to make true change, we have to get rid of these ideals of how perfect our life is going to be once we make the changes. That’s not real! I mean, you’ve made a whole bunch of changes in your life, but your life isn’t perfect. You’re still struggling.
My life is much better. It’s much better than it was a decade ago — or five years ago, even — but there’s still stuff that I want to improve.
Right! So, people have this ideal of what they’re going to get to. But once they start making the change, if they get to that ideal and it’s not what they thought it was, they become disappointed or frustrated. “Why isn’t my life so much better?”
If you say, “I’m going to quit drinking, and my life is going to be great, and I’m going to be slim, and free of all that stuff” — full of zen — when you start doing it, it’s going to be way harder than you idealized. You can get discouraged and quit the change because it’s not what you thought it was going to be. This ideal of what this change was going to be can often get in the way.
What I am teaching people to do is to see that this ideal is actually the thing stopping you, to let go of it, to accept the reality that’s in front of you. That’s a hard thing to do.
I’m not clear exactly what you mean there by letting go of the ideal. If you want to get out of debt, that seems to me an ideal and something worth striving for. Are you saying to let go and just accept the debt? Or what do you mean?
There’s nothing wrong with it as long as you realize that it is just an ideal — and when you get out of debt, it’s not going to be what you imagined.
Oh, I see. It’s not just going to magically make your life better.
Right. But here’s the thing. You have this ideal you’re striving for — being out of debt, which is a great ideal to strive for (I’m not saying to not have any ideals because it’s impossible not to have any) — but the steps you’re going to have to take — I might have to cut back on things I normally do or maybe not shop at Amazon for a month — you might also have an ideal about how each step is going to be great for your life. But when you take them, they’re way harder than you thought. They feel like sacrifice.
Now you’re struggling with this mismatch between the ideal you had for this change and the reality, which is a lot more uncomfortable than you had anticipated. It’s not that this reality is horrible. The reality of not shopping is you’re not getting some new thing, right? It’s not that bad. But the reality of not shopping versus the ideal of not shopping is different. You want that ideal.
You were like, “My life was supposed to be zen and perfect!” and life isn’t. It’s harder. It’s more uncomfortable. Because you want that and you’re only getting this, you’re now feeling a lot of frustrating, anger, disappointment — all these bad things — what Buddha calls suffering.
That almost sounds like Yoda in The Phantom Menace.
Exactly. The suffering comes not from the reality of the situation but from the mistmatch between the ideal and the reality.
It’s sort of expectations versus reality. There’s an equation that most of us have probably heard: Your happiness equals the difference between your expectations and your reality.
Right. If they match, then happiness is great. But expectations are ideals really. So are plans, and so are goals, actually. They’re all ideals. And there’s nothing wrong with having them but just realize that they’re not going to match reality. What you need to do is constantly readjust what you imagine things to be to to what the reality is.
I think that’s key. You’ve got to be able to readjust and adapt.
What I’ve found is that the bad feelings that come from this mismatch are what stop people from [changing]. They thought they were going to do a perfect month of this habit, right? Then they miss a day and they’re like, “What happened? I didn’t do what I thought I was going to do.” Now they feel bad about themselves.
Instead of just going and doing the next day, which is the perfectly rational thing to do, we now have this emotion — that comes from this mismatch of reality and ideal — and we stop doing the habit. You start this downward spiral. You don’t do it the next day because you feel bad about it. Soon you’re not doing it at all, and you’re feeling really bad about yourself. That’s where I was in 2005, and I’ve been in that place numerous times since then.
Going back to the philosophical thing, I wanted to write about acceptance and ideals. I wrote chapters on each one of these things. But I went back to read them and I thought that nobody’s going to want to read this philosophical treatise on zen. So, I scrapped nearly 50,000 words. Instead, I restarted the book. Now it leads people through making one small change in their life, one day at a time.
Each chapter is for one day. And each day you learn some new thing about habit change, about change in general, about ideals and acceptance. One at a time. Through the course of a month, you’ve actually made a change — or you’ve made some progress. But you’ve also learned a lot of things on dealing with change itself.
Then in the last part of the book, I show how to apply these different lessons to life changes in general. If you lose job, lose a loved one, go through illness — all of these things that everyone struggles with — here’s how to deal with that using the things that we learned through those first thirty days.
There’s another part part in the book that I’m really excited about. I got this idea from [computer programmers]. They have these methods for managing projects: agile programming and scrum programming.
One of the things they do is these little sprints, a week-long sprint. They have a plan. The plans, of course, are ideals. They execute the plan. And then they review the plan at the end and say, “How many days did we take to do it? How did we do compared to what we thought we were going to do? What got in the way? What were the obstacles?”
I’m doing the same thing with habits in this book. I’m using the idea of a habit sprint. Every seven days, you’re going to do a review. You’re going to look at what your obstacles were. How many days did you do the habit? What got in the way? And what solutions can you apply to those obstacles? Add these to your plan. The plan evolves every week. It gets better and better, adjusting to the reality.
If you didn’t do [what you planned] but you do the review, it’s not useless. You’re going to get better and better over time. This is a way to evolve your habit plan to fit the actual reality of your life, which is going to be different than my reality or J.D.’s reality. There’s no other way to do that than to adjust as you go.
I think that’s smart. One of my mottos at Get Rich Slowly has always been: “Do what works for you.” By that I mean that we each have different skill-sets, we each have different situations. There’s no one right way to solve any problem. There may be some best practices that work for more people, and those are where you should start, but you shouldn’t listen to anyone who tells you there’s one right way to do something. Because there’s not. There are different approaches. You’ve got to find the method that works for you.
Here’s the way I look at it: I feel like life is like a river. We’re all going down this river. We’re each in out own little boat. Too many people just let the current take them wherever it goes and so they end up slamming into rocks and against the shore. They don’t take any action to direct where their boat is headed on this river.
What I want people to do is be more self-directed.
But I also feel that once you’ve directed yourself to wherever you want to be in the river, it’s okay to kind of let go and let the current take you until you see you’ve drifted a little to far in one direction. Then you’ve got to be a little bit goal-oriented and get back to where you were or where you need to be.
That’s my imperfect metaphor that I’m working on.
It’s funny because I use the river as a metaphor, as well. I think it’s a very common metaphor, used in many different ways. This river is doing a lot of work for us.
For me, what I learned when I started creating Zen Habits — because I was very goal-oriented in the beginning — is that I had goals at the beginning of 2007 for the end of 2007. At the end of the year, I was going to get to these top ten things. I was going to work everyday toward them. The reality of my life changed so much during the course of that year that those goals became meaningless. They had nothing to do with what my life was now. If I had tried to stick with them, it would have been pure folly. It would have been dumb to stick with goals that I had set back when I imagined what my life was going to be like in January.
One of the key quotes in my book is, “The art of life lies in constant readjustment to our surroundings.” Goals are a fixed destination, but what if it’s better if we go to a different destination? We might not know that until we get half-way there. It’s not about having no goals; it’s about readjusting as we go.
That makes perfect sense. I think that being adaptable and responsive to life is key.
Again, I want to reiterate that for me and who I am — at the core, I’m the same person I was a decade ago but I’ve made some fundamental changes to my life so that my life is more representative of who I am. I get the impression that you’re in the same place, that the improvements you’ve made and the continual adjustments have improved your well-being, as well.
Yeah, absolutely. But I actually think I’m a different person. That old person has some similarities and there’s definitely some commonalities, but I don’t think I’m the same person I was then. And I think I’m constantly changing.
You know, my ex-wife (Kris) and I have a fairly good relationship. We have lunch every now and then. She told me recently, “J.D., you are a completely different person than the person I was married to.” I don’t know whether that was meant as a compliment or not — I think it was more of an observation — but I will admit that who I am on the outside is absolutely different than who I was on the outside five, six, seven years ago. I feel like that’s because it’s realigned more with who I am [on the inside]. But I’ve also made adjustments. The talk I gave at World Domination Summit a few years ago was partly about how I’ve gone from being an introvert to an extrovert. A lot of people don’t believe that’s a change that can be made. But it can. I’ve done that.
I think that one thing that might not have changed about you is your idea of who you are at your core. You can see the outside has changed, you can see that. But in the middle, there’s still this core J.D. that hasn’t changed. But that’s your idea of what the core J.D. is.
At the heart of zen, actually, is the idea that that core J.D. doesn’t exist. I scrapped that from the book because I don’t think people really want to read that. It’s just an idea of who you are. You think there’s this inner J.D. but actually the inner J.D. is constantly changing. So much so that — kind of like the river. You think that river is the same but that river is completely different water than it was two minutes ago. It just look the same. We just have an idea of the river that has remained the same, but the river itself is completely different.
I think the inner side of us is a constantly changing river. It only looks the same.
Wow, that’s deep stuff, Leo! That’s probably a good place to end it. Thanks so much. Glad to have you as the first guest on whatever I end up calling this series of videos. I hope we can talk again in the future.
Definitely. I can’t wait.
Updated: 02 December 2014