Leo Babauta of Zen Habits was an overweight smoker resigned to living as a big fish in a little pond in Guam who broke a laundry list of bad habits to move to California, work his dream job, and run ultramarathons.
Leo joins us to talk about the lessons he learned while trying to quit smoking (and what made him succeed after so many failures) and how these lessons transferred to every other positive life change he’s made since, including: running, waking early, eating a healthy diet (becoming a vegetarian and eventually vegan), tripling his income, writing novels, eliminating his debt, building up an emergency fund, and losing 65 pounds — to name just a few. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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Leo Babauta grew up in Guam, what he calls a sort of smaller Hawaii — where everyone knew everyone — and everything about each other. He was a writer for a local newspaper, and never really thought he’d make it as a writer elsewhere — he settled for being a big fish in a small pond.
But now he’s a writer in Davis, California (after making the big move to San Francisco in 2010), married, with six kids. What prompted the decision to get out of his small pond? A series of changes since 2005 that reads like a laundry list of accomplishment.
He quit smoking in 2005, which was the first change that set the rest in motion.
“I kept trying and failing at it, and I just kept beating myself down after failing. So I said, ‘Well, this doesn’t make any sense! Why can’t I do this?’ So I poured myself into the research and figured, “If I could just do this one thing, maybe I can make these other things happen.'”
Rather than setting out to do 20 things, Leo set out to do one — which in itself was no small task because everything seemed equally urgent. But what he learned about breaking bad habits and forming good ones on the journey to quit smoking transferred quite well to his other positive life changes: running, waking early, eating a healthy diet (becoming a vegetarian and eventually vegan), tripling his income, writing novels, eliminating his debt, building up an emergency fund, and losing 65 pounds — to name just a few.
He started his blog, Zen Habits, to share what he found worked — and what definitely didn’t.
Understand the Problem Is Bigger Than You
Leo understood the problem was bigger than himself (if he continued smoking, his kids would probably pick up the habit down the line, as statistics have shown). He realized that putting off the discomfort associated with breaking the habit was a selfish act.
“Face the discomfort, face the truth, and start to do the hard work,” he says.
Practice Discomfort Daily
Find a place and a time each day to get out of your comfort zone.
Let’s say you want to write more, but you’re always finding ways to procrastinate and excuses not to do it. Create a ritual by devoting a specific time and a specific place to write for 20 minutes every day, beginning with a specific setup — like a drink of water and a few yoga poses upon waking. You can signal the beginning of your writing by turning on music or lighting a candle to set a certain mood.
You’re creating a ritual — you know there’s a beginning and an end. it’s something you practice every day so it’s continued and you get better at it.
“You have a space you do it and you consider it sacred…sacred is just elevating the mundane and everyday into something that’s special,” says Leo.
Set an Intention
“You might even set an intention at the beginning of the ritual,” says Leo. “I find that to be really useful. I’m not setting a goal for the outcome, but I’m actually setting an intention for how I’m going to show up in the space. So my intention might just be, ‘I’m going to sit here with my discomfort of writing and do nothing but write, or sit here and do nothing.'”
This makes the ritual more mindful by forcing you to confront the object of your discomfort without distraction by email, bad TV, or whatever stories you generally tell yourself to avoid the discomfort — because if you’re not writing, you’re thinking about how you’re not writing. “By allowing myself to fully feel it, I’m saying, ‘Well, this is something that’s part of my experience and I’m not rejecting it; I’m actually allowing it in, welcoming it, and maybe even finding some gratitude for it because it’s actually something amazing,” Leo says.
What Happens When You Stop Telling Yourself Stories
By focusing with practice and intention, you become more aware of how the discomfort makes you feel on a physical level. Rather than telling yourself the discomfort makes you feel like running away or continuing your story in an abstract way, you’re actually pinpointing how mental discomfort is making you physically uncomfortable.
“[You might say] well, it feels like a tightness in my chest,” says Leo. “I’m actually being curious and investigating this actual, physical feeling. One of the interesting things about this is, first of all, you’ve interrupted your pattern. This is a habitual pattern that we have of spinning the story around.
The second thing we actually realize is if you…investigate this with curiosity, you’ll actually find it’s not that bad. It’s just like a little bit of tightness in our body and we overreact with a story.”
Allowing ourselves to get comfortable with this discomfort is a way of getting to know — and trust in — ourselves better. It makes it less likely we’re going to punish ourselves or others as a reaction to feeling this way.
“You can actually welcome this feeling into you, which is completely a 180 from what most of us do,” says Leo.
The Destructive Habit of Evaluating Everything We Do
Over the course of any given day, you’re going to do things you’ll find worthy of either praise or critique. But this constant evaluation doesn’t end with ourselves — it permeates everything and everyone in our lives.
It’s perfectly natural, but it also happens to be quite destructive because, as Leo explains, “every time you evaluate yourself, you are hurting your happiness.”
If we did something worthy of praise, we might feel momentarily happy, but it also brings into focus all of the things on our list we haven’t done yet — which is a bummer.
If we did something worthy of critique, we already feel terrible. But it causes us to really pick apart why we feel terrible — which is a bummer.
This constant evaluation sends us into a pattern of going toward the things we judge as “good” and avoiding what we judge as “bad” — we’ll always seek rewards, but we’ll also always run away from the pain and difficulty that accompanies them.
Instead, Leo suggests cultivating an alternative mental habit: finding gratitude and contentment in this moment. He adds, “Yes, that’s hokey, cheesy, corny, and so on. But it works like a badass.”
You notice yourself judging yourself: “I’ve been lazy today! Ugh.”
You say, “Ah, I’m doing it again. Don’t waste one more second on that habit.”
Instead, you pause and find a way to be grateful for something in this moment, about yourself or your life. You find a way to be content with what you have, who you are, and what is going on right now. You experience the sensations of this moment, as they’re happening.
And repeat. It doesn’t matter if you sucked at doing whatever you were doing, or you have been lazy or procrastinated or forgot to do something. It also doesn’t matter if you did something good — your gratitude and contentment don’t depend on how you do at anything. You can do something well and be grateful and content, or you can do something poorly and be grateful and content.
“Say you’re scratching an itch and it starts to bleed — that’s not good,” says Leo. “I’ve got to stop scratching these itches because it’s obviously causing me problems. So sometimes when you have an itch, you can just habitually start scratching it. You can recognize that you’re scratching it and recognize that it’s going to lead to bleeding…the main point of it is just actually staying with the itch and recognizing that the itch is not that bad…it’s not good or bad; it’s just an experience. You could actually reframe it if you want and say, ‘This sensation means that I’m learning, that I’m growing.'”
Dealing with Anger
People are complex. We grow up adjusting to and coping with certain circumstances in ways that no longer serve us in adulthood. Sometimes these habitual reactions cause us to behave inappropriately, which triggers similarly archaic habitual reactions in others.
For instance, we may be stressed out about something going on at work, and then come home and lash out at our spouse, who then lashes out at one of the kids.
As with any other area of discomfort we’ve already discussed, this is a time when we’re creating and spinning stories, deflecting blame for what’s stressing us out onto other people (even when they’re in no way involved).
“When you put yourself into uncertainty, you’re going to see your habitual reactions come up and you will justify those reactions,” says Leo.
If you’re interested in seeing your own habitual reactions, Leo gives us this challenge:
Try five minutes of meditation every day for the next 30 days starting tomorrow as soon as you wake up.
“So you wake up, maybe go to the bathroom, drink a glass of water, and nothing between that and meditating. No writing down in your notes, no checking your phone. No nothing!
“Try and accept that challenge. And if you don’t accept the challenge, see what’s going on in your mind when you try to justify not accepting the challenge.”
By how you’ve chosen to deal with the challenge, you’ve shown your habitual reactions to being put in a box.
For those who have accepted the challenge:
When you wake up in the morning, what does your mind do when it realizes you’ve committed to meditating? (Make sure to have some visual reminder in your line of sight — whether it’s a note or an object — so you don’t forget.)
Do you make excuses to avoid meditating, or are you able to go right to meditating? If you’re able to meditate, what thoughts are trying to intrude?
“Sometime along the way you’ll see your mind’s habitual reaction,” says Leo. “What’s your escape? Because when you put off external escapes, your mind will try and create its own escapes.”
If you commit to meditating and then decide not to, Leo wants you to email him at [email protected] and let him know what habitual reaction got in the way of meditation. He won’t respond, but he will read it.
“Tell me what your mind’s justification was. I would love to hear this!”
And if you are able to meditate for 30 days, Leo asks you to notice what’s going on in your head, and notice what you’re feeling. Shine a spotlight on the feeling and just be curious. Welcome it and stay with it for as long as you can.
Sometimes not taking action can cost us time, money, and missed opportunities, but indecisiveness is something even the most seemingly headstrong among us deal with sometimes.
So how can we learn to become more decisive? Try this process for the next series of small, non-life-disorienting decisions you have to make (like what to wear on a date or whether you should order the waffles or the pancakes — not if you should lay off 300 people or climb Everest off season). It’s a way to build trust that even decisions ending as failures aren’t going to result in the end of the world.
Recognize that you’re feeling uncertain — and that this is a habitual reaction.
Gathering enough information to be reasonably informed about possible outcomes is fine, but don’t allow it to be an excuse for indefinite delay. Give yourself a deadline.
Dive in. Deal with what happens rather than fussing over what you think should have happened. Realize that you’re fine.Again, if we’re talking about bigger decisions that have far-reaching consequences, definitely weigh your options carefully before diving in.
“On a less scientific note, one thing that really works for me is to come from a place of curiosity rather than fear,” says Leo. “Fear is stopping us from making the decision, but what if we had a place of curiosity where we’re saying, ‘Well, I don’t know the answer, and that’s perfectly okay to not know the answer, but I would actually like to find out more about this! I’ll never know the perfect answer, but I would actually like to find out what this path is like.’ And so you go down that path and you’re like, ‘I don’t know what that other path is like, but now I’ve learned a little bit more and it’s actually amazing to explore something new rather than, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go down the wrong path and I’m not going to walk down any path.'”
THANKS, LEO BABAUTA!
If you enjoyed this session with Leo Babauta, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
AJ Harbinger - author of 1157 posts on The Art of Charm
AJ Harbinger is one of the world’s top relationship development experts. His company, The Art of Charm, is a leading training facility for top performers that want to overcome social anxiety, develop social capital and build relationships of the highest quality.
Raised by a single father, AJ felt a strong desire to learn about relationships and the elements that make them successful. However, this interest went largely untapped for many years. Following the path set out for him by his family, AJ studied biology in college and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he began to feel immense pressure from the cancer lab he worked in and began to explore other outlets for expression. It was at this point that The Art of Charm Podcast was born.
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