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“I Tend to Let Myself Off the Hook If It’s ‘Only’ a Commitment to Myself”

Habits interview: Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.

I’ve “known” Leo for years, though I’m not sure we’ve ever actually met in person. Maybe several years ago, very briefly. The crazy world of the internet! I’ve been a big fan of his work for a long time, and now more than ever. (For reasons you’ll be able to guess.)

He has a terrific site, Zen Habits. He’s also doing a Kickstarter campaign to do a book, Zen Habits, that people are buzzing about. It’s about to end, so if you’re intrigued, act fast.

Naturally, I was eager to pose some habits questions to Leo — a person who is as interested in the subject as I am.

Gretchen: What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Leo: The most important thing I’ve developed is a flexible mindset: when a habit inevitably goes off track, I consider this a part of the process, and learn from it, and adapt. My old mindset was one of a fixed plan — I had a plan, and if it didn’t work, I felt like a failure. That’s a good recipe for getting derailed at the slightest bump in the road.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Exercise. I used to hate exercise, but now I feel great every time I have a great workout or run. I feel stronger, empowered, vigorous, joyful.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When I was younger, I knew I should form healthy habits, but would always put them off because life seemed to stretch out endlessly ahead of me. I could always eat healthier or exercise or get my finances in order later, because there will be time. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I wasted a lot of time on useless distractions and junk food, and that if I had just done the habits I now love doing, I would be much better off. I wasted years of my life, precious time that I can’t get back. I don’t regret it, but I’m a bit wiser now.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I now know that I can be happy in any moment, if I’m present. So forgetting to be present is the only habit that gets in the way of that happiness. Which, of course, I do all the time!

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Doing my creative work early, focusing on one thing at a time, being mindful, exercise, eating healthy vegan food, being grateful and compassionate. Not in that order.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I’ve changed dozens of habits. I started with quitting smoking, and then started running (eventually running several marathons and an ultramarathon), eating healthier, simplifying my life, waking early, eliminating debt, meditating, learning to focus, learning to trust myself.

I learned that focusing on one habit at a time worked best, and doing small habits was important. I would commit to others and ask them to hold me accountable, focus on mindfully enjoying the habit, anticipate disruptions, adapt when things went awry, progress gradually. And lean on others.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m an Obliger, for sure! I do really well when other people are expecting me to do something, when I have a commitment with someone else … but I tend to let myself off the hook if it’s “only” a commitment to myself.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Yes, I have lots of things that get in the way, but I’ve learned to take them in stride. Travel disrupts my exercise and eating habits, but I minimize the damage by eating vegan food and not overdoing it. Social gatherings also throw me off, but I just take them as bumps in the road that aren’t that big of a deal if you take the long view. In the long run, unanticipated disruptions are a part of the journey, and aren’t a sign that you’re undisciplined or anything. I try to breathe, smile, and enjoy each step.

What Brooke Shields Says about Habits: Soul Cycle, Sleep, and More

Interview: Brooke Shields.

Last week, Brooke Shields and I did a breakfast event together, to benefit a terrific organization, Room To Grow, which enriches the lives of children born into poverty during the critical first three years of life.

Brooke Shields is, of course, the super-famous actor, model — and also writer. I’d read her thought-provoking book about postpartum depression, Down Came the Rain, and I’m well into her brand-new book: There Was a Little Girl: the Real Story of My Mother and Me.

Naturally I couldn’t resist asking if she’d do an interview on my blog.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Brooke Shields: Spin Class at Soul Cycle.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Sleep is more important than I ever realized.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Drinking beer.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.) 

Exercising and getting enough sleep are my most important things for a healthy lifestyle

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Adding yoga to my routine while I was pregnant was a healthy habit I gained. Worrying about what other people though of me was an unhealthy habit I gave up after I had children and went to therapy.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

UPHOLDER!!

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties) 

Travel makes it difficult, but I always pack my gym clothes with the intention of exercising.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. I crave consistency and order.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits? 

My friend Stacey Griffiths from Soul Cycle, he motivates me like nobody I have ever met.

When Changing Habits, “Be Careful Whom You Choose To Let in on Your Change Plan.”

Happiness and habits interview: Brian Little.

I’d heard about the work of Dr. Brian Little from many pals of mine who are interested in the same kinds of subjects that interest me: human nature, habits, happiness, research, etc.

So I was very pleased to get my hands on his new book, Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being.

In fact, just yesterday, I wrote about some of the research he discusses, in the post: Which of these 8 types describes you, as you relate to your environment?

Just reading the subtitle of Brian Little’s book was enough to show me that he and I have many interests in common, so I was very curious to hear what he had to say about his own habits and happiness.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Brian Little: In the first chapter of Me, Myself and Us, I talk about how our “personal constructs” shape our lives.  These are the conceptual goggles through which we view ourselves and others and typically take the form of concepts like “bright” “lover of cats” “stupid” “sexy” “utterly disorganized” etc.   Sometimes these personal constructs become so habitual that they decrease our degrees of freedom to live well and wisely.  [Gretchen: In my habits framework, I call this the “Strategy of Identity.”] Similarly with our personal projects which I feature in the closing chapters.  While personal constructs are ways of thinking; personal projects are deeds that we do in our daily lives.  They too can become calcified, predictable and stale and there are ways in which we can begin the progress of redesigning our personal projects so that we are more likely to thrive and flourish.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?  

I have the habit of reflexively trying not to be habitual.  Some might regard this as chimerical.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That you need to let others know about your resolve to engage in healthy habits–its hard to do sustain them if you are the only one aware of them.  But be careful whom you choose to let in on your change plan.  In Me, Myself and Us, I discuss various dimensions of personality that would not be conducive to helping you in a nurturing and supportive fashion.  And the characteristics that might work for me might not work for you.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?    

My tendency toward perfectionism.  But it helps with other aspects of my well-being–like a sense of efficacious achievement (which can be quite joyous in its own way).

Which habits are most important to you? (For heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

The habit of alacrity–responding eagerly to the unfolding opportunities in life.  Even if they force me to act out of my comfort zone.  I am a biogenic introvert, but my passion is being a university professor and professing often requires that I act out of character–that I act as a pseudo-extravert–to convey with gusto (one student called it pesto!) the field of personality psychology to my students.  I think the key to successful professing is to have highly combustible students and then light a match.  If I were habitually opposed to lighting matches my deepest core projects would remain unfulfilled.  And this applies to the pursuit of all core projects in our lives.  They sometimes enjoin us to act out of character and much of Me, Myself and Us is concerned with examining how we do this in our lives.  Acting out of character can be exhausting, however, and we need to find restorative niches in which we can return to our more natural psychological state.  I find restrooms in which I can hide after a lecture to be particularly salutary.  Susan Cain spent part of Chapter Nine in her Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, describing how this can sometimes lead to embarrassing interactions.  I expand further in my own book.  

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I quit smoking by sheer bloody mindedness in early adulthood.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger

Because I value alacrity I would say that I am generally an Upholder.  But I am rather skeptical of “fixed” traits and can often be a Rebel, particularly when I feel that there have been unreasonable constraints placed upon the pursuit of my core projects or of those I love.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)  

The slings and arrows of outrageous overload prevent me from being as vigorously healthy as I might be.  But I guess I need to weigh whether being say, ten pounds lighter, or supple and super strong would be worth trading off for avuncular warmth, laughter and the capacity to chill and enjoy life.  Some people can do it, but I’m not so sure I could.  That said, I recently gave a talk to 500 fitness experts and came away emboldened to become svelte.  The glow lasted for 18 hours.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?  

When I met Susan, my wife, I was struck by a lightning bolt that changed me and my habits forever, but the details shall remain between us.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?    

Depends on the habit.  I don’t embrace resistance unless matters of honour are at stake.  

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Do cats count?

“No One Wants to Admit They Were Tricked by the Size of a Scoop or the Shape of a Glass.”

Habits interview: Brian Wansink.

I’ve been a big fan of behavioral scientist Brian Wansink for years. He does intensely interesting research on eating behavior and consumer habits, and his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think was a resource for me as I was writing Better Than Before.

For instance, he’s done a lot of research to show how much convenience influences whether and how much we eat. It’s astonishing how much convenience matters. The lesson for habits? Make it easy to do things right, and hard to do things wrong.

Brian Wansink has a new book, Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. It’s crammed with ideas to make it easy to eat healthier–without even noticing that you’re making changes. The book is fascinating, and surprisingly lively and funny–this isn’t a dry review of the literature. It’s a fun read.

I so agree with this approach of “mindless eating” to eating habits. Whenever someone tells me, “I need to make healthy choices,” I think, “No, don’t make healthy choices! Choose once, then stop deciding. Use habits. Mindfully use mindlessness to get where you want to go.”

I was very eager to hear what Brian Wansink had to say about habits in general, and about his own habits.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits and eating. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Brian: After conducting hundreds of food studies, I’m increasingly convinced that our stomach has only three settings: 1) We either feel like we’re starving, 2) we feel like we’re stuffed, or 3) we feel like we can eat more. Most of the time we’re in the middle, we’re neither hungry nor full, but if something’s put in front of us, we’ll eat it. I all but guarantee that most people with a few spare pounds would lose 20 pounds in a year if every time they had a craving they would announce – out loud – “I’m not hungry, but I’m going to eat this anyway.” Having to make that declaration either prevents you for eating, or if you do indulge, it prevents you from overindulging.

A second finding is that most people think they are too smart to be influenced by candy dishes, television, or the shape of a glass. When we show someone that they ate 30% more because we gave them a large scoop at the ice cream social, they will deny it. That’s what is so astonishing. No one wants to admit they were tricked by something as mundane as the size of a scoop or the shape of a glass. That’s what makes these cues around us so dangerous to our diets.

What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Most people believe they are Master and Commander of their food choices. They aren’t, but I want them to see that they can make small changes that can put them back in the driver’s seat. I want people to see that making small changes in their kitchens and routines will make all the difference with no real sacrifice.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Before both breakfast and lunch, I think of one thing that’s happened so far that day that I’m grateful for. At dinnertime – if I’m home and not traveling – I have a slightly different routine. Each person in the family (including me) shares what happened that day by answering 4 questions: 1) their high point, 2) their low point, 3) who they appreciate most and why, and 4) their plan for tomorrow.   It gives them a chance to celebrate the good things that happen, realize that each of us has daily disappointments, thank a person who helped them out, and to raise their eyes toward the future. All three of my daughters get their moment in the sun, and it makes me happy to see each one shine.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When you get up in the morning, you can say “This is going to be a tremendous day,” “This is going to be OK day,” or “This is going to be a terrible day.”   Regardless of what you say, you’ll be right.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

The most top of mind that gets in the way of my happiness is very vivid right now:   It’s thinking my work is more urgent than my young daughters.

I’m in DC now because I gave a House and a Senate Briefing on something related to Slim by Design. An hour ago, I was on the phone with my middle daughter, and she asked if I knew these people and I said, “No.”

She replied, “But Daddy, why do you have time to read your book to strangers but not to us. We’re more important than strangers. We’re your little girls.” I’m still choked up and wiping my eyes.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Dreaming big, staying positive, building other people up, laughing as much as possible and making other people laugh.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

The only way I can do it is by avoiding what I call the Tyranny of the Moment.

Generally speaking, we can commit to making a small change in life, such as not eating sweet snacks before dinner. We can write it down, cross our heart, and announce it to others. We can really, really mean it. But fast forward two days. It is been a hard day at work; you finished a 45 minute commute; you are drained, and you know frozen Snickers bar is waiting in the right corner of the freezer door. It is easy to break your cross-the-heart commitment. After all, today is an exception – it was a tough day and, come to think of it, you did not have a very big breakfast. Your plan of the year has just been thwarted by the tyranny of the moment. And the moment – this one exceptional moment – tyrannically wins every time.

Sometimes that inner voice actually whispers to us, “I know I said I’m not going to eat out of vending machines at work, but today’s different – it’s been crazy,” or “I know I still have to do my sit-ups today, but it’s late – I’ll do twice as many tomorrow when I wake up.” I know I should have had only one glass of wine but this is really a great dinner and a really good wine.” [I talk about this problem in the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.]

There is only one thing that is strong enough to defeat the tyranny of the moment.

Habit.

As mentally disciplined as most of us like to think we are, nothing beats having to face facts each night and check off a box. We have very selective memories, but I use tools such as this checklist to let us know just why – or why not – we have painlessly lost two pounds on the 31st of the month.

This basic approach works for well or other habits also.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

80% Upholder, 20% Rebel.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Since I try to invest heavily in other people, I’m tripped up when a key relationship isn’t going well — it’s tremendously disorienting. A while back, my wife and I were having difficulties, and it threw me out of balance so much that it distracted me away my mindlessly healthy routines. One day I woke up and realized I had gained over 20 lbs.

I went back to these routines (they’re in Mindless Eating, chapter 10), and lost the pounds in about 4 months. It was an unfortunate reminder about what happens when we let healthy habits (and relationships) slip.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

You were raised in Kansas City [wow, good memory, Brian!], and I was raised up the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa. My parents were extremely loving and supportive, but there wasn’t an expectation I would go to college or the means to very easily make it happen. I did go to college, and to try and support myself, I struggled selling Amway. I worked all the time, but I blamed my lack of success on being too shy, not smart enough, not having a suit, and so on. One day a friend gave me a copy of an old book called The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz.

This book gave me a transforming level of confidence in myself and my mission.  I reread that book 10 times within the first month and at least 30 more times since. Within a semester my grades went from a 2.5 to a 3.8, I met my wonderful college sweetheart, my college money worries disappeared, I ran for the student senate, and I committed myself to become a professor who changes eating behavior – oh, and I bought a suit.

I’ve given that book to over 200 people over the past 25 years.   Most think it’s pretty hokey, dated, or simple-minded. I understand that, but I would also understand if their thinking – as a result – never grew any bigger than the thinking they inherited from their parents.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Embrace. That was the theme of Mindless Eating, and that’s also the theme of Slim by Design: “For 90 percent of us, the solution to mindless eating is not mind­ful eating—our lives are just too crazy and our willpower’s too wimpy. Instead, the solution is to tweak small things in our homes, favorite restaurants, supermarkets, workplaces, and schools so we mindlessly eat less and better instead of more. It’s easier to use a small plate, face away from the buffet, and Frisbee-spin the bread basket across the table than to be a martyr on a hunger strike. Willpower is hard and has to last a lifetime. Rearranging your life to be Slim by Design is easy.”

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Absolutely. This happens all of the time. I am a very coachable person. Sometimes that coach is a 5-year old daughter who tells me drink less Diet Coke, and sometimes it’s an author whose book I’ve read over 40 times.

“If You’re Always Future-Oriented, It Tends To Come At the Expense of the Present Moment.”

Habits interview with Chris Guillebeau.

I’ve known Chris for years. I don’t remember how we met, originally, but I’m a big fan of all his bestselling books and last year, I spoke at his terrific World Domination Summit in Portland.

I’m very excited for him, because his latest book is coming out tomorrow — I love the book, and I love the title so much, I wish I’d thought to use it first. The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life.

It’s not easy to dream big, and it’s not easy to turn that dream into reality. Chris provides the essential blueprint for people for whom the happiness of pursuit — such as Chris’s crazy successful quest to visit every country in the world! — is a key part of the pursuit of happiness. If you’ve always wanted a quest, this is the book for you.

I wanted to ask Chris about how he thinks about habits. For him, I know, it’s very important to feel free and to make the choices that are right for him. Some people (e.g. Rebels) think that habits are inconsistent with a life of freedom and choice — so I was curious to hear Chris’s perspective.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Chris: Every day I have coffee and pastry of some kind around 3 pm. I say “around” 3 pm because it doesn’t need to be 3 pm on the dot—I’m not that obsessive. But there’s a window: 2:45 is acceptable, and so is 3:30. 4 pm is pushing it.  Once in a while I have a crazy afternoon with a two-hour long meeting or something right during the window, and we get into 4:30 coffee-and-pastry time. That creates a minor crisis, but yet somehow I overcome.

This habit has made me happy for a dozen years and more than one-hundred countries. (I should make some sort of coffee-and-pastry global index.)   

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Many people who pursue quests and other long-term goals are very future-oriented. They’re always working toward something and seeking to make incremental progress. They are “strivers,” essentially. Overall, I believe this is a healthy way of life. People who have hope and look to the future tend to be healthier, have better financial habits, and so on.

But—and this is no small problem—some of these habits can indeed interfere with happiness. If you’re always future-oriented, it tends to come at the expense of appreciating the present moment, something that we know has a lot to do with happiness. Therefore, their challenge is to continue focusing on the long-term goal, while making sure to occasionally look up and appreciate their current surroundings.

I wrote this answer in relation to the people I studied for The Happiness of Pursuit, but it could just as easily apply to me.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

My most important habits relate to creativity and productivity. Every day I focus on outcomes and deliverables instead of time-based commitments. I try to avoid impromptu phone calls, because I find them to be disruptive to creative work. I work with a to-do list in front of me. Sometimes I go off and do something else, but I find the list to be grounding and helpful when I get off track, which is often.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I believe we’ve had this conversation in real life! About two years ago, you said I was a mix of questioner and rebel, with a bit more emphasis on the questioner side of things. (I’d question that assumption, but that would be playing to type.) [Yes, I think Chris is a Questioner with Rebel leanings.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. Routine rules my life, perhaps sometimes to a fault.  For someone who’s been to every country in the world, I’m really more of a soft adventurer. Every day I do mostly the same things, from working off the to-do list to having my coffee at set times. I’ve forged a life around these and other habits. I always want to improve, of course, but I have no plans of answering the phone more often or quitting the pastry.