interview with Leo Babauta of Zen Habits


Leo Babauta of Zen Habits is an inspiration to many, with his practical approach to life and change. He has completely transformed his entire existence from overweight, smoking, junk food eating guy, to marathon running, vegan, minimalist, and lots more too. I am really excited about his new book Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of change, which he is launching a kickstarter for on November 17th. This means it’s a globally crowd funded project, which is also a really exciting concept.

So Leo, thank you for your time, and welcome from me and my community based here in Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world. I am hoping to spread your Zen Habits message a little bit further here.

Firstly, would you be able to talk a bit about your latest book Zen Habits – Mastering the Art of Change, which is being released very soon.

Leo: I wrote this book for anyone who struggles — with habit change, with dealing with major life changes, with frustration or anger or any other difficulties. It’s written for the me of 9 years ago, but also for my kids, for every reader who has written to me with a difficult life situation.

The book starts off as a practical guide to making one small habit change, but turns into a guide to dealing with any problem, any kind of struggle or fear. It’s about the nature of life, at its core, and how to cope. And I steal liberally from Zen Buddhism, just between us.

Me: You’ve become recognised as an expert in changing habits and simple living through your writing. Does it feel odd to think about where your personal journey has taken your life?

Leo: It’s odd to be considered an expert when I think back to where I started, struggling and not knowing what I was doing at all. But I learned an incredible amount through change, and through helping others change. Looking back at what I’ve gone through, and how far I’ve come really amazes me. It did when I started Zen Habits, a little over a year into my journey, and it amazes me even more now. I’m a completely different person now.

Me: Was there one specific catalyst that triggered the beginning of your change journey?

Leo: Yes, definitely. I was motivated to quit smoking because I knew that it was bad for my kids, seeing their dad smoke, and I knew they’d probably become smokers someday if I didn’t quit. I was motivated to change my eating and fitness habits, because I felt I was destined for a heart attack, and I wanted to see my kids grow up. I was motivated to get out of debt, because sometimes I couldn’t make ends meet or put food on the table for my family. I was motivated to simplify because I felt I didn’t have time for the important things: my wife and kids. So the specific catalyst was wanting to do something good for my family.

Me: Do you think it’s necessary for people to have a major life epiphany to initiate meaningful change in their lives?

Leo: I don’t know about necessary, but I know it’s much more likely to happen if you feel some pain, and find some inspiration. The pain of not liking where you are, and the inspiration of seeing a better possibility, seems to be the pattern that works best. I now know that you can make changes for other reasons: to explore and be curious and learn, and to help other people from your change. But when you’re stuck, pain is often needed to get you unstuck.

Me: I am a pretty disciplined person. If I want to establish a new habit, I just do. Generally it feels quite easy. What do you think makes change easier for some, and more difficult for others?

Leo: You have a lot of trust in yourself — you trust yourself to stick to a commitment, and trust that you’re capable of it. Many people, my old self included, don’t have that trust. They’ve failed so many times after so many attempts, they don’t really believe they can do it. This is a false belief, because they can do it, but often we need to prove this to ourselves. Think about a relationship with someone else: if they burn you a bunch of times, you’re not going to just trust them anymore … you need them to earn the trust back by showing up repeatedly and not hurting you. This is the relationship we have with ourselves — if we have lost our own trust, we need to earn it back by showing up repeatedly. This is best done by taking on very small commitments: just go out and walk for 2 minutes after work. Then do it the next day. Don’t commit for a month — just do it today. And one step at a time, you earn the trust back.

Me: People make all sorts of justifications for maintaining bad habits. Your response to this, that justifications for bad habits are full of crap, resonates really strongly with me every time I hear someone rationalise something they know is bad for them. Have you got any advice for someone who is on the brink of initiating an important change in their life, but is still rationalising or thinking they can do the bad thing just a little bit?

Leo: There’s a little child in our mind, who doesn’t like discomfort and likes things the way we’re used to doing them. This child is in control of us in so many ways, because we just act on its every command, even whining about not being able to do it, and why do I have to? I had to learn not to listen to this child — it’s going to cry and complain, but you can comfort it, and then go on to do what you need to do anyway. If you don’t learn to hear this little inner child, and then not be ordered around by it, you’ll never make lasting change.

Me: You have a big family, a wife and 6 kids. Was there any resistance from your family as you all moved away from a traditional consumer lifestyle? What was one of the biggest challenges for you all?

Leo: Oh, yes. There’s always resistance to change, from yourself and those who are affected by it. My wife has been very supportive, but she didn’t want to do some of my changes at first. So I asked for her support for me to make a change, and said I wouldn’t push her. But often my example gave her the idea that she might try it too. With the kids, it’s more of asking them to try an experiment, and explaining why we’re doing it. They usually understand the why, but resist giving up things they like. After trying the experiment, they often see that their lives aren’t so bad, and the change didn’t destroy their world. They might still wish we didn’t make the change, but it’s not usually a big enough deal for them to put up a fight.

What often worked for us, as we gave up shopping and cable TV, is to do things that are more fun than that. Play things together outdoors, go for picnics and hikes, visit people, make cupcakes together, play board games. We don’t always do these things, but when we were giving up consumerist things, we often did, and this made the changes a lot of fun.

Probably the biggest challenge was Christmas gifts — they love getting gifts on Christmas, and transitioning away from this seemed like a big loss. But we gave them experience gifts that they loved, and so while they still might miss getting all the presents, I think they see that all the toys were not really adding as much to their lives as the experiences.

Me: Is there something which your family enjoys doing together as a real ‘slowing down’ thing?

Leo: Playing games together. Cooking or eating good food. Recently we played the game “Werewolf” with them, and we had so much fun we didn’t want to go to sleep.

Me: There are a lot of dichotomies in simple living. For me, something which stands out, is that making real food from scratch actually consumes a lot more of my energy than the more processed food path of my past. It feels good, but it’s sometimes also really draining. Is there anything in your simpler life that unexpectedly consumes more of your energy than you would have thought?

Leo: Spending a weekend getting rid of massive piles of clutter was always exhausting, though luckily I don’t have to do that so much anymore. Cooking continues to be a time-consuming thing, as does unschooling the kids.

The way I look at it, though, is that we’re going to use our time and energy doing something, and it might as well be something that makes my life better. It might be eating processed foods, but that comes with hidden costs, like getting overweight and having big medical bills and the stress of health problems later. So it only seems easier. Getting rid of clutter seems tough, but the alternative is letting clutter pile up and having that drain you because there’s so much you haven’t dealt with yet. Unschooling might be hard, but the alternative (for us) is letting the kids go to school and learning to hate learning, and not learning to think for themselves. That’s a huge hidden cost.

Me: And finally, I spent 3 months as a vegan at the beginning of my ‘change’ journey, and I found it really interesting. I know you and your family are vegans, and I am always very curious about veganism. What influenced your shift to veganism, and what is your favourite family meal?

Leo: I started out experimenting with vegetarianism for health reasons — I was eating a lot of processed junk and fried meats, and the idea of eating all vegetables seemed healthier. But I went vegan from vegetarian not for health reasons, but out of compassion for the animals that suffer so much under our food system.I’ve found that I love vegan food so much that I don’t miss food that was cruelly raised and slaughtered for my benefit. I’ve found that I can be perfectly healthy eating plant foods, and that if animal foods aren’t necesary for health (as my good health proves), then killing them is just for pleasure. I get plenty of pleasure from my plant foods.

I love eating some kind of plant protein (tofu, tempeh, seitan, lentils) stir-fried with a bunch of vegetables (onions, kale, spinach, mushrooms, broccoli are in my everyday dish). And Eva likes tempeh and veggies with quinoa. But the kids love pizza (and if I’m being honest, I do too).

For up to the minute information on Leo’s kickstarter, the best way to follow him is via Twitter.

Linking with Essentially Jess for IBOT and also With Some Grace for FYBF