This is how the creator of Zen Habits changed his life

In 2005, Leo Babauta was in a bad place: he was overweight, in debt, a smoker, and a procrastinator. He felt stuck and he didn’t know how to change his habits.

Then he discovered some invaluable advice to help him overcome his rut and change his habits for the long-term.He quit smoking and started running. He ran a marathon. He began waking up earlier and eating healthier. And then he started to share his learnings and experiences on his blog, Zen Habits. By the end of 2007, he had 26,000 readers, sold a book deal, got out of debt, and quit his day job.

On Zen Habits, and in his books, Leo shares tactical advice for changing and simplifying your life, being more mindful, and productive. He recently stopped by Asana’s offices to teach us what it means to cut the clutter, change your habits, and live a more meaningful life. He shares his approach with us.

Simplicity: identifying the essential and letting go of the rest

Many of us are familiar with that feeling of never having enough time, not wanting to say no, and trying to squeeze as much as possible into a single day. Before you commit to changing your habits, it’s important to pause and define what’s truly important to you, and what’s clutter.

This prioritization exercise isn’t just about time, it’s about the material things in your life, too. After all, those represent time we’ve spent at work earning money, and are a manifestation of what’s truly important to us.

The first step to change: don’t change everything at once

Drastic changes rarely fit into our lives, and are much less likely to become habits.

Once you’ve committed to change, it’s easy to want to tackle everything at once. But the key to changing a habit is starting with one before moving on to the next. Here are Leo’s steps to starting the process:

1. Write it down.

Identify all the things you want to change (big and small).

2. Start small.

Choose the single, smallest habit change you’d like to make and start with that. Make it something you can’t say no to. For example: decide to start every morning with a cup of tea instead of coffee. Or dedicate 2 minutes every morning to meditation.

3. Overcome initial inertia.

Consciously connect the habit to a trigger (something that you’ll associate with the habit change and will help you transition). For example: Tell yourself,  “I’ll drink my cup of tea when I arrive at work” (arriving at work is your trigger).

4. Make it a habit.

Stick to it until it becomes the new normal before moving on to the next.

Drastic changes rarely fit into our lives, and are much less likely to become habits. Think of habit-changing as an iterative process; one foot in front of the other. Soon enough, you’ll tackle the big rocks.

Getting stuck: environment, motivation, and support

It’s too easy to let yourself off the hook when no one is watching.

More than anything else, your environment will ultimately determine whether you’ll stick to your new habits. To ensure success, you’ll need to create an environment that encourages rather than discourages you.

1. Avoid traps.

If you’re trying to quit drinking, don’t go to bars. Want to eat healthier? Don’t go to restaurants where unhealthy food will tempt you. And so on.

2. Get a buddy.

Forming a habit is easier if you’re not doing it alone and your probability to succeed increases if you’re accountable to someone else. Find a work buddy or friend to help you commit and stick to your new routine. If you’re working with a group of people who want to make a change, make a commitment together. Don’t have a real life buddy? Join a community or forum online. It’s too easy to let yourself off the hook when no one is watching.

3. Keep key stakeholders involved.

Making changes can be difficult for your immediate support network, like your family. Get buy-in from them early in the decision-making process: this will help them overcome any resistance they may have and will allow you create a non-hostile environment for change.

4. Don’t force others to change.

Often, we’re excited by the new habits we’re forming and want to bring others along for the ride. But change can’t be forced upon people, so remember to lead by example. If others begin to empathize with your journey, they may want to join, too.

Team change, buy-in, and accountability

With teams and habits, it really comes down to showing up every day and building that trust.

Work culture and productivity are a set of habits we create, just as we do personal ones. As a group, we can make a commitment to consciously decide what habits we’ll adopt together. Just as you would with personal habits, you can establish triggers to help your team succeed.

1. Make conscious choices as a group.

Early on, get together with teammates to decide how you’ll collaborate (whiteboards, online tools) and communicate.

2. Establish triggers.

Once you’ve decided which habits you’d like to adopt, tie them to triggers. For example: anytime you start a meeting, pull out the whiteboard. Tying habits to triggers can also help you spot bad habits you might want to eliminate (like shooting down people’s ideas).

3. Get buy-in (even if you’re the leader).

Change is a group effort and if only one person is committed and accountable, it’s unlikely to stick. Especially if you’re a team leader, work hard to get the entire team’s buy-in to proactively change, and ask them to hold you accountable.

Teams, just like people, are very ambitious and think they can make huge changes, quickly. But if things fall apart and the changes don’t stick, they stop trusting themselves as team. Trust and level-setting are important exercise for teams.

As a team, don’t make sweeping claims like, “we’re going to create an amazing product, blog, or service.” Start with one thing: a blog post, a small feature. With teams and habits, it really comes down to showing up every day and building that trust. Over time, many small changes make way for the big ones.

9 steps to incorporate simplicity into your life

We could all be better about incorporating simplicity into our daily life and our work. Prioritization is key. Try this exercise:

  1. Ask yourself: what is important that I should be doing today?
  2. Stop for a second.
  3. Focus on 3 things.
  4. These are your most important things.
  5. Next, ask: what would be the most important thing I can get done today?
  6. Say no to everything else (you’ll get to the rest, if you have time).
  7. Tackle the most important thing first.
  8. Focus on the other tasks throughout the rest of your day.
  9. Repeat.

When you bring mindfulness to a task, it transforms your relationship to that activity from something you’re trying to get off your plate and something that adds value to your day.

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