Greatist Journeys explore amazing stories from extraordinary people.
Maybe it’s not about how many tasks we cross off our to-do lists or how fast we lose weight. And perhaps it’s not just about reading motivational blogs or buying fish oil in bulk. For Leo Babauta, journalist, author, and founder of the blog Zen Habits, health and happiness are products of self-confidence and accomplishing meaningful work. We asked Babauta for his thoughts on how to make small changes that add up to a truly zen lifestyle.
The phrase Zen Habits — what exactly does that mean?
It means something different to every person who reads it. For me it was just a reminder to be present and live more mindfully.
Why do you think it is so hard for people to achieve a happy and healthy lifestyle?
I think a lot of it has to do with the environment that we create for ourselves. For example, healthy eating habits, it’s really hard to do when you are surrounded by junk food, which has been designed to tap into our evolutionary desires to eat fat and eat sugar and all that stuff. That’s the same with procrastinating and getting distracted on the Internet and just basically anything that we have a really hard time changing. If we change that environment to be more conducive to better habits then we really help ourselves out.
Can you give a specific example of a bad habit you might have and how you might break that bad habit?
I started with quitting smoking and each trigger that I had for smoking. So for example for stress, smoking was fulfilling the need of relieving that stress. It wasn’t a healthy way to fulfill it so I had to find a replacement habit that fulfilled that very same need. I had several ones, exercise would be one, another one would be deep breathing and just kind of self-massage, I could do some push-ups. Because if you just take away the bad habit then you just have this empty hole, this need that hasn’t been fulfilled. You have to figure out why you have that bad habit.
I saw this interesting post you had that debunked all these myths about productivity. So what would you say is the best way to get more things done in the day?
The thing is, when I first started the blog, I was very focused on productivity, but these days I find it less important. What we do a lot of times is we try to get a lot done, or at least that’s the goal. And so we’re very busy, we’re very efficient at getting those tasks done, but at the end of the day we don’t always feel like we have a lot to show for all that work we did. And so what I’ve been focusing more on is getting the important things done, which I think is not necessarily what you might call productivity, but for me it’s about doing important work. Another thing for me is doing things that excite you. I think that if you can find a job or create a job like that then you can focus on the things that excite you, that are fun, that you’re really passionate about, then it makes it a lot easier to get those important things done and at the same time you really enjoy the work that you’re doing.
If a reader comes to your site and their main goal is just to get healthier, what do you think is the first step they can take?
I definitely think you should start small because a lot of people try to change their entire lives and don’t realize that’s really tough to maintain for very long. It’s not about how fast you can burn some weight or how fast you can run your first 5K; it’s about how long you can sustain those healthy habits and live healthy for the rest of your life. I found two habits that really matter. One is to just get into the habit of daily activity. Because I think we are killing ourselves by sitting around all day staring at screens! The other one I think is really important is to just start to eat whole foods. I would just start with one meal a day and replace maybe something that we’re eating — refined flours or junk or fried stuff — with some healthy whole foods. If you change one habit at a time you’re much, much more likely to succeed.
You tell people they should stop always trying to improve themselves and be more content with how they are. Why do you think people are so obsessed with self-improvement?
I think that we all have insecurities and we’re worried that we’re not good enough — that we don’t look good enough, that we’re too fat or too skinny. So we buy all these products to fulfill those needs. And I think that those insecurities lead to us not only buying health products but also information products, whether that’s blogs or magazines or self-help books. And those products are always telling us, “This is how you can be better,” and so they’re tapping into our insecurities. So instead of addressing those insecurities we’re trying to buy our way out of them and I don’t think that ever leads to contentment. I have to confess I am a victim of that and I also take advantage of that by having a self-improvement blog.
Do you think there’s any way to reconcile those two functions of self-improvement publications?
You know, I haven’t figured that out quite yet, but it’s definitely a really important question and as the people in the blogging community we should be thinking about that. I try not to take advantage of it. I tell people, “You don’t really need this; you can do this without me.”
Have you found that there’s one thing that makes people happy? If not, how do you think people can find what makes them happy?
I think we focus more on the external and superficial things like losing weight and looking better or accomplishing a lot during your day, but we don’t really go into those inner things, which I think are probably the most important things. Because at the end of the day, if you’re not happy with yourself, then it doesn’t really matter how much exercise you did and how much you accomplished, then you’re not gonna be happy. I think a real key is learning to feel good about yourself, realizing you’re already perfect and start[ing] to become content with just who you are and what you already have. Just be grateful for that.
In your career as a blogger and an author, what have you learned and what’s been most rewarding for you?
One of the most amazing things that I’ve learned is that there are other people like me out there. You know, I used to feel so alone. I felt this yearning in me not only to change my habits but to simplify my life. And so I learned how to do some of that and I started writing about it but I didn’t think that too many people would read it. And then I found out that there were other people like me out there, other people on the Internet who are looking for the same kind of thing, and connecting with them has been one of the great revelations of my life. It’s not only that I’m not alone but that we can do it together. And by sharing this information together and by doing the things together as a group we increase our individual power and we can accomplish a lot more. That’s what blogging has been for me. I’ve helped other people, but they’ve helped me, too. There’s nothing like this in the history of humankind and now its available to pretty much anyone who can access a computer. And I think that’s incredible.