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About the book

Essential Zen Habits shares a method and a six-week program for changing a habit, and outlines steps needed to quit bad habits, deal with life struggles, and find mindfulness. All in a very brief format of “just do this” instructions, no fluff whatsoever.

Buy book: Amazon

Year published:  2015


Quotes from the book

Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change (Leo Babauta)

  • Never let your mood determine whether you should do something or not. Mood is a bad indicator of the worthiness of any activity.
  • Use mistakes as feedback. They’re not signs that you’re a bad person or have no discipline.  They’re signs that you need to adjust.
  • It’s not the things that happen to us that cause us to suffer, it’s what we say to ourselves about the things that are happening. Pema Chodron
  • It’s the nature of dealing with other people that we all get frustrated and angry from time to time. We take offense at the other person’s actions.  But the other person’s actions aren’t the problem—it’s our attachment to the ideal we have of how they should behave, which of course is unrealistic, and the real problem is the Childish Mind wanting so badly for that ideal to be true.”
  • Life is full of unforeseen detours. Circumstances happen which seem to completely cut across our plans. Learn to turn your detours into delights. Treat them as special excursions and learning tours. Don’t fight them or you will never learn their purpose. Enjoy the moments and pretty soon you will be back on track again, probably wiser and stronger because of your little detour. Steve Penny
  • Self-reflection has turned out to be one of my most powerful tools in changing my life. It becomes a mirror that helps you see what’s going on in your life, that keeps you from making the same mistakes over and over again, from being on autopilot and failing to course-correct.  Having a blog with readers is like having a journal on steroids—it forces you to reflect on what you’re doing in your life, because if you’re going to share what you’re learning with other people, you first have to reflect on what you’ve learned.
  • When we procrastinate, it’s because we have an urge to run from the difficult, uncomfortable task. We don’t want to do the hard work, or be in confusion, or fail at something, so we get the urge to run.  It stems from the fear of failure, of not being good enough.  The urge comes up, and we follow it!  But we don’t need to follow it.  We can watch the urge to procrastinate, like a cloud, but not act on it.  We can just let it float by, and get to work.  Let the cloud float away, because it doesn’t control you.  The cloud isn’t you.  It’s just a passing phenomenon, one that arises and floats away.
  • The bad habits we’ve formed are often useful to us because they help us deal with stress and boredom. Consider some of the bad habits that fit this bill: smoking, procrastination by browsing the Internet, eating junk food, drinking, addiction to TV or video games, compulsive shopping, biting nails.  All of these habits fill a strong need: they are ways to cope with stress and/ or boredom.  We have formed them as coping mechanisms, and they stick around because we don’t have better ways of coping.  So if we replace them with healthier ways of coping, we get rid of the problems of these bad habits, and start getting the benefits of better habits.
  • If you plunge into really cold water, you’ll be shocked, and you’ll hate it. But if you go into water that’s only a little colder than room temperature, it won’t seem too bad.  After awhile, it’ll feel pretty normal.  Then if the water’s temperature drops a little more, it won’t seem too bad, and soon that will become normal.  You adjust.  When it comes to changing your life, don’t plunge into the freezing water.  You’ll soon get out of the water and be afraid of going in again.  Instead, take a dip in slightly cool water.  Make a very small change.  Adapt to that, then make another.  Gradually, through a series of small changes, you’ll see amazing progress.
  • All my attempts to control things should be abandoned, and I should just accept the ever changing, ever flowing nature of my life as a river. It turns out that this model can bring me peace no matter where I am, no matter what’s happening.  If plans get disrupted, my day gets interrupted by a sudden crisis, information starts coming at me from everywhere, the pace of events starts quickening… I just picture myself as a river, with all of this stuff flowing through me.  I don’t try to hold it, control it, freeze it, but I embrace the flow.  I smile, I breathe, and I focus on one thing.  Then the next.  Not holding tightly to any of them, or wanting the river to be any certain way.
  • Resistance can be overcome by doing the smallest possible step. For meditation, I just had to get my butt on the cushion.  For writing, I just had to open up a document and write a few words.  For cooking healthy food, I just had to get out a knife and an onion.  For studying a language, I just had to press ‘play’ on the audio lesson.  For yoga, I just had to get into child’s pose.  For blogging, I just had to open up the form for writing a new post.  For flossing, I just had to floss one tooth.  For reading, I just had to open up the book and read a sentence. I think you get the point.  Find the minimum viable habit.  The smallest increment of doing the activity.  The least objectionable version.  And the resistance is overcome.
  • Why quit cigarettes or all those sweets you’ve been eating? Isn’t life short and meant to be enjoyed?  Don’t you deserve a treat?  Yes, these are the justifications I gave myself too.  And they’re a load of bull.  Life is short, so why waste it on pure junk?  Those things don’t make you happy—if anything, they made me less and less happy about myself.  I’ve been happier once I gave up those habits and learned to be healthy and trustworthy to myself.  Eating healthy food is a treat.  Living smoke-free is pure bliss.  But the biggest reason to change is that you love yourself.  You don’t need to harm yourself to find happiness and contentment.  Taking care of yourself is a form of self-compassion, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll feel good about how you’re loving yourself.
  • Think about your mind like a movie theater. What you say to yourself is what directs and creates the movie that plays in your mind. You can direct and play whatever type of movie you want—action, comedy, romance, horror, adventure, thriller, etc. What you don’t get to do, however, is choose how the events in your movie unfold.  So, if you can’t control how the events unfold, how can you control how the movie plays out?  It’s all in the director’s (your) creative interpretation and expression of how those events influence the main character to think, feel, speak, and act (also you).  You get to take the expression, Everything happens for a reason” and you get to determine why everything happened and for what reason and see to it that the movie plays out in a direction of your choosing.
  • In the end, after letting go of my ideals of perfection, after letting go of my striving for goals, after wanting things to be a certain way… what am I left with? I’m left with Love.  This feeling of boudless love, not for one specific person and not even limited to human beings, can motivate me to get up in the morning and write.  It motivates me to be vegan, because my love extends to animals.  It motivates me to work out, because my love extends to me, and to my kids for whom I’m setting this example of an active lifestyle.  It motivates me to let go of attachments that lead to frustrations, because why fight with someone you love?  Love can move you to be mindful, to appreciate the reality of this current moment, to appreciate and embrace impermanence as something beautiful, to be grateful, to make the most of this dewlike life.  Love can move you to overcome struggles.  Love can transform bitterness into softness, anger into kindness, self-hatred into self-compassion.  Love is both the path, and the mover.
  • You don’t control the results of growing a plant—it will grow however it grows, because we don’t have god-like powers that can control how a plant will grow. You don’t control the outcome, but you do control the inputs.  You can water it, give it more sunlight, feed it some nutrients, give it good soil, make sure bugs aren’t eating it.  You control the inputs and environment, but not the outcome.  So Grow a Plant when you’re making changes: you don’t control the outcome, so you can’t get fixated on it.  Don’t attach too tightly to the results of a change.  Instead, focus on creating a good environment.  Focus mostly on the inputs: what are you bringing to the change?  What is your intention?  What is your effort?  What is your enjoyment and mindfulness?  If you do this with weight loss, then you don’t focus on the weight loss itself.  You focus on the input: what kind of food are you eating? Are you eating mindfully?  Do you have a compassionate intention when it comes to your eating?  Are you exercising mindfully?  Are you giving yourself a good environment to support these changes?  If you focus on the inputs, you don’t know what the plant of your weight loss change will result in.  Maybe it will mean a slimmer version of you, maybe a healthier one, maybe a stronger one with more muscle.  You don’t know exactly, because you can’t sculpt your body like clay.  What you can do is water it, give it sunlight and good nutrients, and see how it grows.
  • What’s the typical feedback loop for someone who doesn’t exercise much? When she does the exercise, she gets discomfort, sweatiness, tiredness, maybe even soreness. That’s negative feedback for doing the exercise.  Not doing the exercise is much more comfortable, because she’s on the Internet doing easy, mildly pleasurable tasks.  That’s positive feedback for not doing the exercise.  The combination of these two feedback loops is why—at first—it’s so hard to form the exercise habit.  People are up against much more than they realize, because no amount of willpower can overcome a setup of feedback loops that go against the behavior they’re trying to create.  And it works like that for every single habit: eating junk food and shopping and playing games are easy habits to create and hard to break, while exercise and mediation and eating vegetables and learning languages are much harder.  All because of the feedback loops.  So what are we to do?  Reverse the feedback loops to get the behavior we want.  We want positive feedback for the habit we’re creating: rewards, praise, physical pleasure, spending time with a friend, getting stars on a chart, continuing a streak, a feeling of accomplishment, enjoying the activity with a smile.  We want negative feedback for not doing the habit: embarrassment of people knowing you didn’t do it, losing a bet, enduring some embarrassing consequence, losing the streak you’ve created, experiencing some kind of difficulty or loss.  Grease the slope.  Create public accountability.  Set up rewards and consequences.  The smarter you’ve set up your feedback loops, the better you’ll be at doing the habit.