Bring Purpose & Mindfulness to Your Work

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By Leo Babauta

Our work lives are filled with busyness, distraction, procrastination, responding to messages, checking on messages, and getting lost down rabbit holes.

We struggle to be mindful and to focus on our meaningful work.

And yet, many of us want to create a life of meaning, focus, and mindfulness.

We know this, and yet we struggle. Why? What keeps us from this life of mindful focus and meaningful work?

In this guide, I’ll talk about why we get pulled away, and then how to bring mindfulness to the process to find focus and create an impact with your work.

Why We Can’t Focus

If you think about how you spent your last few days, most of us would say we’re more distracted than we like. We procrastinate more. Or we’re super busy, responding to a thousand things, making lots of decisions, and not very mindful during this chaotic work day.

What’s going on? A number of things:

  1. We’re actually afraid to focus. The work we want to focus on is hard, full of uncertainty, uncomfortable. We want to do it, but we’re putting off the moment we have to enter into this uncertain space. We’re going to the “comfort food” of our distractions instead of the discomfort of the focus.
  2. We’re afraid to simplify. To focus, we have to clear away all our distractions, say no to social media, our phones, our messages, our email. We have to say no to the easier tasks that we’re really good at. This kind of simplicity is uncomfortable for many people, and again, we go to “comfort food” distractions and easy tasks instead.
  3. We’re constantly pulled away. You might put yourself in a space of simplicity and focus … but then your attention gets pulled away. We have so many notifications, so many messages, so many shiny distractions … and our attention is like a little monkey jumping from tree to tree. In some ways, this is because technology is designed to grab our attention. But we allow this to happen.
  4. We’re unsure about what path to take. We know we should focus, but shouldn’t we also be doing this other important task? Or those three pretty important tasks? Or checking for an important message/email that might come in? We have fear of missing something important, fear of choosing the wrong thing, fear of taking the wrong path when there are many available. This uncertainty can freeze us, or cause us to constantly switch.

OK, so it’s fear, uncertainty, discomfort, and pulled attention. How can we bring mindfulness to bear on these four horsepersons of distraction?

Bring Mindfulness Into the Arena

Armed with the knowledge of why we’re not able to focus, we’re going to further arm ourselves with mindfulness and walk confidently into the arena of meaningful work.

The first thing to acknowledge is that it’s OK to be afraid, OK to want to comfort yourself with easy tasks and distractions, OK to feel uncertainty. We’re not horrible people for being this way … we’re human. So we can look at our habits and smile on them with unconditional friendliness.

Let’s practice mindfulness in our workday with a series of questions.

QUESTION 1: What’s the best way to structure my day?

In this inquiry, we’re wondering if it’s best to constantly switch from messaging app to messaging app, from email to social media, from news sites to blogs, from small admin tasks to other quick tasks … filling up our day and not focusing on our most meaningful work.

In my own inquiry, it brings mindfulness to how I spend my time, how fragmented I allow my attention to be … and then it brings me to an intention to simplify and focus. I still need to check email and messages and do the smaller tasks … but I can lump them together at certain times of the day, and clear space for big chunks of focus and meaningful work. This intention isn’t always met, but the inquiry brings me closer to it.

QUESTION 2: What do I want to focus on?

This isn’t a question many people ask themselves each day. Ideally, you’d ask it at the beginning of each day, but also at various points throughout the day. It shifts you: you go from, “What should I check right now” or “What can I quickly do right now?” to “What is the meaningful work I want to do now and give my full focus to?”

In other words, what do I care deeply about? What kind of dent do I want to make in the world, and how can I start to make that dent right now?

It shifts from saying yes to your million things and messages, to saying no to those million things … so you can say yes to your meaningful work. So you can say yes to complete focus and mindfulness.

QUESTION 3: Why am I not focusing on it?

If you picked something to focus on and you’re working on it, great! But if you’re not … why not? What’s getting in your way? What are you afraid of? What are you comforting yourself with?

If you can identify the fear, instead of allowing yourself to habitually run from this fear … lean into it. Go towards it. Allow yourself to feel the fear, and stay in it, befriend it. Then go into your focus zone, in the middle of the fear, and let the fear be your guide and your friend. It means you are alive, that you are pushing yourself into discomfort for the sake of what you care deeply about, that you are creating meaningful work instead of running. Beautiful!

QUESTION 5: What is my intention as I focus?

As you get started with a focused session, even if it’s only for 10-20 minutes … it helps to ritualize it. Have a clear beginning, and even a clear end. What will you do to mark the beginning? Maybe stretch, smile at your work, and set an intention. An intention isn’t a goal, but how you want to go about doing the task … for example, I might say, “I want to stay focused on this task, put myself into this uncertainty for the sake of the people I care about and serve, and stay present in the middle of it.”

Keep this intention in your heart as you put yourself into this focus session.

QUESTION 6: What is this moment like, as I work in stillness?

Now you’re in the middle of the focus session … bring mindfulness to that task. That’s simply a matter of awareness and curiosity.

Bring awareness by asking: what is it like right now? What sensations can I notice? How does my heart feel as I take this gorgeous action, filled with uncertainty?

Bring curiosity when you feel like switching tasks and running … by asking, “I want to run from uncertainty, but what would it be like to stay?” The truth is, we don’t know. We think we know that we won’t like it, but actually we don’t really know until it happens. So take the curiosity stance: seek to find out. Come to this task with an open mind, and you might find a gentle wonder that you didn’t expect, in the middle of your meaningful work.

Now, you can do this for your meaningful work, but you can also do this for any task — responding to an email, answering a text message, reading an article online, contemplating a decision with care.

Bringing purpose and mindfulness to your work can be a place filled with joy, if you allow yourself to move into that space with intention and curiosity, inquiry and love.

A Guide to Moving Courageously Into a New Uncertain Space

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“We become brave by doing brave acts.” ~Aristotle

By Leo Babauta

I remember walking into my boss’ office at my day job to turn in my resignation, almost exactly 10 years ago today. I was quitting the life of a regular paycheck, to become a full-time blogger and writer.

I was filled with an overwhelming sensation of fear, and an overwhelming sensation of joy.

I’ve now come to associate this feeling of ‘joyfear’ with the important moments of my life:

  • The first moment I held each of my newborn kids in my shaky hands
  • Starting Zen Habits, not knowing what I was doing, jumping into the unknown
  • Creating live workshops & retreats last year
  • Publishing my first book (and every book thereafter)
  • Moving my whole family to San Francisco from Guam
  • Unschooling our kids

Each of these has been incredible for me, filled with uncertainty and joy. The fear of uncertainty can lead a lot of people to put off moving into a new space in their lives, but I’ve learned to embrace this fear, to dive into it, to see it as a place of growth and transformation and learning.

This year I’m moving into new uncertain spaces (more on that next month), and I’m practicing some more with the discomfort and uncertainty of these new wide open unknown areas. I’m practicing with leaping into the abyss with joy.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far — I’m sharing in hopes that it will help others who are moving into uncertain spaces in their lives.

Find Your Devotion

We don’t put ourselves in the middle of fear for no good reason. We do it because there’s something we care deeply enough about to push into that fearful area.

Remind yourself of why you’re going into this uncertain space. What do you care deeply about? Who or what are you devoted to? This might be a cause, it might be people who are in need or struggling somehow, it might be your loved ones, it might be the team or customers you serve. Find the love and passion in your heart for this cause or these people.

Then remind yourself, each day, of this devotion. Remind yourself of it as you do each step, each task … this is what you care deeply about.

Your devotion, the thing or people you love so deeply … is greater than your fear and discomfort.

In fact, the devotion turns this uncertain space into a space of shaky and heartfelt love.

Get in Touch with the Fear & Uncertainty

Most people either run from the fear, or try to find ways to turn it off, to not feel it, to eliminate it.

Not us. We’re going to get in touch with it, and allow ourselves to fully feel it.

Why would we want to fully feel fear and uncertainty? Because it’s nothing to hate, it’s part of our experience, it’s actually the place we want to be.

Feeling the fear and uncertainty fully, allowing it to be, even welcoming it … this shows us that it’s not so bad. It’s nothing to panic about. We can grow up from our childish need to run, and instead just stay with it patiently, with gentleness and compassion.

We can touch the uncertainty and stay with it, welcome it and even find love for it.

Practice. Get good at fully feeling it. And learn that you can take it in and transform it into openness and joy.

Move Through It with Small Actions

The fear isn’t something to run away from or otherwise avoid. It’s actually the path we want to walk, because through this fear is creation. Through this fear is learning, growth, transformation, impact on the world, beauty. Through this fear is something meaningful.

So we’re going to move through it, but in small steps. We’ll use the ideas of exposure therapy to move through the fear — the idea that we can get used to the feeling by giving ourselves small, manageable doses, gradually increasing the doses in steps we can handle.

You do this through taking small actions daily.

Want to be a writer? Write a little every day, clearing space and allowing yourself to be present with your fears of writing (and failing). Want to start a company? Take the small actions required to research it, create a website, find team members, start making revenue, experimenting and learning.

Take small actions daily, exposing yourself to the uncertainty, and building trust that you can handle it.

Find Play & Gratitude

Moving into an uncertain space doesn’t have to be an exercise in rigorous discipline or self-punishment. It can be joyous and fun!

When you move into this space, see if you can find a way to play. Can you get messy and creative? Can you turn it into a game? Can you play upbeat music that gets you moving? Can you do it with others and feel the excitement of collaboration? Can you play your music for the world and see them dance to it?

As you turn it into play, allow yourself to feel the joy of that. And yes, there’s some fear mixed into the joy, but you could also call that ‘excitement.’

And in the middle of everything, pause and see if you can find gratitude for being in this uncertain space. Gratitude for being able to be here, for being alive, for being able to serve those to whom you’re devoted, with love.

Gratitude transforms the activity from one you are forced to do, to one you get to do.

Seek Support

We are not alone in this uncertain space, even if we feel like it. There are others who are forging this path as well, and we can form (or join) a group of people pushing into it as well. We can call on mentors, teachers, coaches. We can ask for support from loved ones, team members, online forums, social media friends.

When we ask for support, we are acknowledging that we are not an island, but interconnected with everyone around us. We serve others, but in turn we are supported by thousands and thousands of others who make our food, build our houses and cars and roads, create the Internet and the devices we use, and support us in an infinite number of other ways. We humble ourselves by thinking that we can’t do everything alone, but can do so much more with connection to others.

Seek support, find gratitude for that support, and feel yourself moving into this unknown space with the help of many others. May you have a joyfear-filled journey.

“Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.” ~Ray Bradbury

Retreat: Go Deep Into Mindfulness (in Tulum, Mexico!)

I’m excited to share with you a mindfulness retreat that I’m holding in early May …

In this 5-day, 4-night retreat, we will:

  • meditate every morning
  • do yoga (if you like)
  • dive deep into mindfulness with daily workshop sessions
  • have time to reflect & contemplate our lives on the beautiful beaches of Tulum
  • visit Chichen Itza, see the Coba Ruins, swim in the hidden Cenotes
  • eat some amazing food
  • and connect with other like minded adventurers

The retreat will be led by me (May 2 – May 6, 2018) and is limited to 12 participants.

Get more info and book a spot here.

I hope you’ll join me — I’m looking forward to playing and going deep together!

Three Powerful Techniques to Get Better at Habits

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By Leo Babauta

For many who started the year with great aspirations and goals of creating new habits … it’s coming to the time of year when lots of peopel start to falter on their new habits.

That’s completely normal, but we can do better.

We can figure out how to overcome the difficulties that often plague our habit-changing attempts:

  • We delay starting on the habit.
  • Our minds start to rebel from the tediousness of sticking to a plan.
  • We rationalize not doing the habit.

With those very common obstacles in mind, I’m going to share three powerful techniques for overcoming them. They take effort to implement, but you got this!

Here are the techniques:

  1. Focus on just starting. Set a trigger when you’re going to do the habit each day — let’s say you’re going to meditate when you wake up, or work out when you get home, or read during your lunch break. When the time comes to do the habit (the trigger happens), just launch into doing the habit, without delay. Focus on getting good at this skill of starting. When the trigger happens, have a reminder note nearby that says, “Just start.” Lower the barrier to doing the habit by making it smaller (just meditate for a minute or two), create barriers to doing your usual distractions, and just take the smallest first step. You’re going to practice getting good at starting, every day. If you master this, you’ll also get a lot better at not procrastinating with other stuff!
  2. Be completely with the habit. When you do start the habit, it’s very common to focus on getting through the habit, trying to complete the task. This is a mindset that most of us have all day long — we are just rushing through our tasks, trying to finish each one. But actually this is not helpful for habits. We want to be completely present with the habit, really feel the texture of the experience, and imagine there is no end, that this moment is all there is and ever will be. It can transform the habit, turning it into a mindfulness practice, and we can even find gratitude for being able to do it. We don’t have to do it, we get to do it. This is an act of love for ourselves, and we are doing it to not only be compassionate with ourselves, but to enable ourselves to be more present, compassionate and committed to serving others. This moment of doing the habit is an act of love for everyone we know. This is a wonderful cure for the tedium of sticking to a plan.
  3. Pause when you start to rationalize. The problem with rationalizing not doing the habit is that we don’t often notice we’re doing it. We just start moving away from doing the habit. We just think, “It’s OK, I’ll do it later,” or “Screw it, I don’t really need to do this,” or “Just this one time won’t hurt.” These are not helpful thoughts. Instead, we should learn to pause. Sit still, take a breath, and remind yourself of why you’re committed to this habit. Who are you doing it for? Are you devoted to them, and if so, is your devotion larger than your momentary discomfort and rationalizations? Take this pause and remember your love, and pour yourself into this habit by just starting and being completely present with it.

I offer these three techniques to you, and I hope you’ll give them a full-hearted effort.

Mindfulness & Meditation Summit

This month, I’m going to be part of a free 10-day Mindfulness & Meditation Summit that will include me and more than 30 other renowned meditation teachers, visionary leaders, neuroscientists, researchers, writers, performers, activists, and educators.

The online summit is from Jan. 22-31, 2018 … and includes some incredible presenters: Alice Walker, Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Goleman, Jack Kornfield, Jewel, Kelly McGonigal, Alanis Morissette, and special sessions with Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Eckhart Tolle.

Whether you’re new to mindfulness practice or have been meditating for years, this gathering of over 30 leading spiritual teachers and visionaries will be sure to help you transform yourself, your community, and the world.

Registration is free, and you can sign up now.

Get Better at Dealing with Anger

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By Leo Babauta

Yesterday a loved one asked me about dealing with anger — he lashed out at someone he loves in a way that hurt her and filled him with shame and regret.

I think we can all related to this — most of us have lashed out in anger and regretted it later.

We all get angry, but we often deal with it in different ways. Some people constantly lash out in frustration at others, or stew about it and complain about it to people they talk to. Some people repress their anger, with the idea that they should never feel anger, that anger is not safe for others or themselves. Others seethe and seethe quietly, until finally they explode. Some of us do all three.

We all get angry. The question is, how do we get better at dealing with that anger?

I’m going to share some strategies that have worked for me. I have purposely tried to get better at dealing with anger, and while I am not perfect, I’ve come a long way. I don’t often yell at my kids anymore, for example, even though I used to yell at them in anger and even spank them. Now I can catch the frustration much sooner, and have found strategies that help me calm down, find compassion, even talk to them with understanding and love.

Before we get into the strategies, let’s understand what’s happening when we get angry.

What’s Going on When We’re Angry

When we get angry, it’s usually because someone else behaved in a way we don’t like. (It could also be our own actions, or just the situation in general, that we don’t like.)

This is what happens:

  1. We don’t like the way the person behaved.
  2. We feel a momentary moment of aversion to their behavior, and this causes a moment of pain — we’re hurt that they acted that way. This might only last half an instant.
  3. We then react to that hurt with a feeling of anger (or frustration, irritation).
  4. Then we start telling ourselves a story about the other person (or ourselves or the situation). It’s our narrative of what’s happening.
  5. The story keeps us angry, even if the initial pain goes away, because it keeps making the wound fresh. And then we keep spinning the story around in our heads.

So the initial aversion and pain are unavoidable, and even the anger, frustration and irritation are pretty avoidable (though you can learn to catch them earlier). It’s human. The part we can work on is noticing the story and not spinning it around in our heads to prolong and even increase the anger.

Understanding the Story

The story that we spin around in our heads is a natural thing for humans — we create stories to understand the world around us, or to put things in some kind of order we can work with.

In these types of situations, the story might be, “She’s always (doing something), I don’t know why she has to keep doing that, etc etc.” Or, “I don’t know why he has to criticize me, I was just trying to (insert some kind of justified action).” We’ve all done this, even if we’re not always aware we’re doing it.

The story is not that useful most of the time. It actually makes us angrier, and separates us from people we care about. It makes us unhappy, traps us in an emotion that isn’t helpful, and worsens our relationships.

Once we’re hooked by the story, it can spin around in our heads for a long time. Hours sometimes. Even days. It just keeps freshening our wound.

You can start to notice the story the next time you’re frustrated, hurt, angry, irritated, resentful, stressed. Just listen to what you’re saying about the other person or the situation you’re in. Just start to become aware of this story you keep replaying.

A Fresh Way to Deal with Anger

Whenever we’re angry (or frustrated, resentful, etc.), we can go into our old patterns of anger and telling the story … or we can start to try something new.

Here’s what I recommend practicing:

  1. Notice when you’re feeling this emotion. You might be telling yourself a story as well.
  2. Meditate for a second by turning your attention to the physical feeling in your body of anger/hurt.
  3. Be curious about it: what does it feel like, physically? Where is it located? What texture does it have? What energy does it have? Does it change?
  4. Stay with it: instead of instantly going back to your story (or a new story about this meditation), see if you can stay with the feeling longer. We’re training ourselves to stay longer.
  5. See if you can welcome this feeling. It’s not something that’s necessarily “bad,” nor is it something you need to reject. Just be OK with it in your body, even friendly towards it. Smile at it.
  6. See the pain you’re feeling as a sign of your good heart that’s been hurt, that is vulnerable and loves. See it as a sign of your basic goodness. You don’t need to do anything right now, just stay in touch with this tender heart.

With this fresh response, we’re opening up to the wide open nature of this moment, not needing to harden into our old stories.

We interrupt our conditioned, habitual response, and choose a new path, one that is less harmful.

And in this moment of openness, we can now try this:

  • Give ourselves some kindness and compassion with the wish, “May I find an end to my pain; may I find peace; may I find happiness and joy.”
  • Turn to the other person and see that they are struggling, they are in pain too.
  • With this realization that they are in pain, reacting out of their habitual responses, spinning around their own stories … let this realization make us feel connected to them, as we know what that’s like. It’s not fun.
  • Send them some loving kindness as well, with the same wish,” May they find an end to their pain; may they find peace; may they find happiness and joy.” Repeat it several times.
  • From this place of compassion, you can now take a more appropriate action: give them a hug, talk to them with understanding and kindness, listen to their difficulty with compassion (and see that it’s about their pain, not about you), or at least refrain from lashing out.

We normally respond anger, out of proportion to the actual situation. But now we might be able to take a more appropriate, compassionate action (or non-action, as the case might require).

We will mess up on this practice, by the way. As with anything, we get better with continued practice. When we find that we can’t open up to the feeling, that we can’t stop from spinning around our stories … we can practice with that. We can see the feeling of helplessness, of despair, of frustration with ourselves, of giving up … and practice the method above on that feeling itself.

With each screw up, with each time we’re not able to open up … we have a new opportunity to practice. Another chance opens up, again and again, to heal ourselves and to get better at dealing with this hardened emotion.

My Depth Year 2018: The Constraints of Deep Focus

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By Leo Babauta

This year I’m going to challenge myself to go deeper by using constraints, inspired by my friend David Cain’s idea of a Depth Year.

What’s a Depth Year? As David writes:

No new hobbies, equipment, games, or books are allowed during this year. Instead, you have to find the value in what you already own or what you’ve already started.

You improve skills rather than learning new ones. You consume media you’ve already stockpiled instead of acquiring more.

You read your unread books, or even reread your favorites. You pick up the guitar again and get better at it, instead of taking up the harmonica. You finish the Gordon Ramsey Masterclass you started in April, despite your fascination with the new Annie Leibovitz one, even though it’s on sale.

The guiding philosophy is “Go deeper, not wider.”

This lines up perfectly with what I was thinking about for 2018, but adds the idea of some extra constraints. I have long been a fan of constraints, because they force you to choose, they force you to stay instead of running, they challenge you to go deeper and open up to the constraints of ritual.

For me, my Depth Year in 2018 will add these constraints:

  1. Don’t buy new things (unless absolutely necessary). I already have everything I need.
  2. Don’t take up new hobbies. I want to go deeper with the hobbies and skills I already have. Each year I get consumed by a new hobby, but this year I won’t allow that.
  3. Don’t get new books. I already have a shelf full of 20 books I want to read. I’ve created a reading list (mostly mindfulness books, plus Infinite Jest, Ulysses), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Jesus’ Son), and I don’t plan on getting any new books until I’ve finished those. And if I do finish the list, there are plenty at the library.
  4. Finish the magazines & online articles I already have. Stop looking for new things to read! I have lots already saved.

These constraints will help me open up and go deeper into what I already want to focus on:

  1. Meditation/mindfulness
  2. Healthy eating
  3. Fitness
  4. My mission (work focus)
  5. Deepening personal relationships
  6. Practicing yoga

If I spend the year going deeper with these focuses, I think that would be a great year. A year spent diving deeper into mindfulness practices (including yoga), getting healthier, deepening and getting better at relationships, and giving focus to my mission. I don’t need new hobbies, new skills, new things to learn … I have plenty to work with already.

Not buying new things (including books) will free me from the habit of looking for newer, better things. I can let that go out of my attention, which frees my attention for the things I want to focus on.

You can see the status of my rituals and Depth Year on this dashboard I’ve created. I should note that this is just my personal way of doing a Depth Year — I don’t prescribe it for anyone else.

Are you willing to live with constraints of your own? Are you interested in going deeper or wider? What would that look like for you?

Retreat: Go Deep Into Mindfulness (in Tulum, Mexico!)

I’m excited to share with you a mindfulness retreat that I’m holding in early May …

In this 5-day, 4-night retreat, we will:

  • meditate every morning
  • dive deep into mindfulness with daily workshop sessions
  • have time to reflect & contemplate our lives on the beautiful beaches of Tulum
  • visit Chichen Itza, see the Coba Ruins, swim in the hidden Cenotes
  • eat some amazing food
  • and connect with other like minded adventurers

The retreat will be led by me (May 2 – May 6, 2018) and is limited to 12 participants.

Get more info and book a spot here.

I hope you’ll join me — I’m looking forward to playing and going deep together!

A Guide to Making This Your Best Year Ever

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By Leo Babauta

Happy New Year my friends! It’s that time of year when we start afresh, with a blank slate, and think about the possibilities that the new year holds for us.

I love this time of year. It’s a beautiful thing to reflect on your past year, how you grew and what you learned, and then say goodbye to the year. And then to think about what you might create with this year, the gorgeous freshness of it all just invigorating you.

But it can also be a fruitless effort for many people, making resolutions only to break them within a week or two. I am not about New Year’s resolutions, because they are things tossed out lightly with no structure in place for success. Let’s not repeat that mistake this year!

We’re going to create aspirations that will actually happen. We’re going to dream, to choose lovely focuses for ourselves, and then put a plan in place that will make them a reality.

Let’s look at how to make this year our best year ever.

What Do You Want Your Year to Be?

I like to start out by reflecting on my last year … you saw a bit of that when I wrote the Essential Zen Habits of 2017 post, but I’ve been journaling about it, looking back on my calendar and emails and journal entries and monthly reviews. It was a fabulous year, and I got a lot done, struggled and learned and grew.

So take a minute to reflect on the past year for yourself. Then give it a bow of gratitude, and say goodbye.

Now it’s time to think about the coming year … what do you want to create out of this beautiful blank canvas?

I like to ask myself:

  • How do I want to grow? What do I want to learn? What skills and capacities would I like to develop?
  • What areas of my life need some refreshing? Health, mindfulness, relationships, work?
  • What do I want to put my focus on, if I could just choose 4-6 things to focus on?
  • If I were looking back on 2018 a year from now, what would be fantastic to see? What changes would I be psyched to have happened?

For me, I’ve picked a handful of focuses:

  1. Meditation/mindfulness
  2. Healthy eating
  3. Fitness
  4. My mission (work focus)
  5. Deepening personal relationships
  6. Practicing yoga

Your list will look different, of course. Take a minute now to write down your 4-6 focuses for 2018.

Why Are These Important?

As you look over your list of focuses, ask yourself why they’re important. Is it really that important that I practice yoga? If so, why?

For example, I might think, “Well, it would be nice to have a regular yoga practice. I could use the stretching, for sure.” But that’s not important enough, and when I don’t feel like it, that won’t be a strong enough reason to push through my discomfort.

A better reason: “Yoga is a mindfulness meditation, and becoming more mindful, pushing into discomfort and uncertainty, are the training I want to do that feels most meaningful to me. It sets an example for my kids, it trains me to be able to help my readers, it makes me a healthier and happier person.”

Now that’s a reason to get me off my butt, away from my computer, and on the mat.

Take a moment to reflect on why your focuses are important to you. What will get you on the mat?

What Rituals Can You Create?

It’s one thing to say, “I want to get fitter this year,” or “I’m going to write a book this year!” … but it’s another to actually make it happen.

The best way to make big things happen, I’ve found, is to create actual daily rituals that you’ll practice every day (or at least, every day that you’re able to).

A ritual is a practice that you hold to be special, not to be taken lightly, that you set apart from the rest of your day. It’s something you surrender yourself to, not allowing yourself to reject the parts of it you don’t like, but just giving in to the experience fully.

An example might be a writing ritual, where you decide to write every morning at daybreak, shutting off your phone and Internet and just writing with a distraction-free writing app (like Ommwriter). You start by clearing your space, setting an intention to focus and pour yourself into your writing for 20 minutes. You set a timer, and then you give yourself fully to the writing, not allowing yourself to switch to other tasks until the timer goes off. When it goes off, you bow in gratitude to the practice. (This is just an example, you don’t have to do it this way.)

In this ritual, you have a structure and a regular sequence … and in this sacred structure, you’ll find yourself wanting to rebel. You’ll see your habitual tendencies to run away. You’ll see your ego thrashing about. And that’s where the true learning of the ritual takes place — in the actual practice. In the discomfort of staying in it. Rituals can be transformative if you open yourself up to them.

My rituals for this year, to support my 2018 focuses:

  1. Morning meditation
  2. A Focus Session (to work on my mission) in the morning
  3. Cook a healthy meal (to be eaten at breakfast & dinner)
  4. Afternoon workout or run
  5. Evening yoga
  6. Formally close my eating period for the day at 7pm (meaning I won’t snack after that)

I have some relationship practices that I plan to set up as well, but for now, the rituals above are what I want to create.

Now pick just two of those to focus on this month. Then two next month. Then another two the month after.

Pour everything you have into practicing those rituals, daily. Now let’s talk about setting up a structure to make the rituals stick.

What Structure Can You Set Up?

So you have some focuses, you have some rituals you’d like to create … but how will you actually make them happen? How will you stick to them this year, as opposed to what you’ve done in previous years?

This is where structure comes in.

If you pick two rituals for this month, you can create some structure for making them actually happen:

  1. Pick a time and place. What space will you do them in? What time of day? Be specific.
  2. Set up two reminders.. One on your calendar or phone (digital reminder) and a note near where you’ll be at that time of day (visual reminder). For example, I might have a phone reminder to go off at 9am every day so I’ll do my Focus Session ritual, and a note by my computer that I’ll see at that time.
  3. Write down your ritual. When it’s time to do your ritual, what will you do? Clear away distractions? Practice with a yoga mat or pen and notebook? Set an intention to be fully present? Bow, light incense, stretch? Set a timer? You don’t have to do these things, but write down the sequence of your ritual. On paper.
  4. Create accountability with others. Share your intention to practice with others, and see if others have a practice they’d like to stick to. Form a Facebook group or just commit to checking in with each other weekly on a certain day every week.
  5. Review daily, weekly and monthly. Set a reminder to journal about your rituals and focuses at the end of the day. Or review the previous day at the beginning of each day if that works better for you. This daily review doesn’t have to be long (one or two sentences) but it helps to form the habit. Set a weekly reminder to review how you did (just a couple sentences) and then share it with your accountability partner(s), and renew your intention for the coming week. Then do the same thing for the end of each month — how did you do, what did you learn, what obstacles came up (and how will you adjust for them going forward), and what is your intention for the coming month?

I find each of these five elements to be incredibly helpful and important. I highly recommend that you do this for each of the two rituals you plan to focus on this month, and then again each month for other rituals you want to create.

If you do these actions — pick a few focuses for the year, create rituals to make them happen, and then create this kind of structure to make the rituals stick — I believe this is going to be your best year ever.

Let Me Support Your Best Year Ever

I have two ways that I’m offering to support you in these focuses for this year … I hope you’ll take me up on one of them:

  1. Sea Change Program: This year, my Sea Change Program is focused on helping you stick to the habits you want to create. We have a library of about 20 video courses and 20+ article-based habit modules that you can choose from — pick a handful to focus on for now. And we’re creating accountability (a larger Facebook group, habit-focused teams on the forums, and even one-on-one accountability partners if you like). Finally, I have a habit tracker app (called Habit Zen), I offer monthly video webinars, and I’ll be doing Q&As on the forum to support you. Join me!
  2. Habit Mastery Course: If you want to do a deep dive and learn to get better at creating habits in general, my Habit Mastery Course is still open. It’s a 12-week program with two video courses a week, video & audio interviews with the best habit experts in the world, bonus ebooks, a weekly Q&A, and a Facebook group to support you. Check it out!

Essential Zen Habits of 2017

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By Leo Babauta

If living in interesting times is a blessing, I have to say that 2017 has been full of blessings for me and Zen Habits.

I’m very grateful to have had all of you this year. In this post I’d like to share the top Zen Habits posts of 2017, along with an update on my personal journey …

Personally, it has been a year of change, struggle, growth, and more … here are some of my personal headlines of the year:

  • Guam & Bali: We started the year on Guam, after Eva’s dad’s funeral, and it was a great (if hectic) time for all of us with family. Eva and I also went to Bali for the first time, and it was gorgeous!
  • Adult kids: Our fourth child became an adult (only two of our kids are minors now!) … Maia not only turned 18, she studied hard for the her high school equivalency degree and passed, got a job, and decided to move to Japan to study to be an anime animator. My two adult sons got jobs as well, and my oldest daughter Chloe spent the entire year working on Guam at the local newspaper. I’m proud of all of them.
  • Mindfulness retreats & intimacy: I did meditation retreats at Spirit Rock and the SF Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farms, and took a workshop called the Art of Fearless Intimacy as I worked on deepening my marriage and getting better at keeping my heart open.
  • Travel: Eva & I took a trip to Costa Rica for the first time (it was also a scouting trip for future retreats I want to hold), and we traveled to NYC together too. I didn’t travel as much this year, which was actually a good thing.
  • Learning Go: I got a little obsessed with the strategy game Go for a few months (starting in June). I really loved learning it, but had to pull back so I could focus more on my work projects. It’s a beautiful game. My 13-year-old son Seth learned with me and is still progressing up the ranks, he’s far better than I am now!

Those are just the bigger points, but overall, I would say there were times of stagnation, times of obsessions, times of stress, and also times of incredible learning and growth and love. Interesting times.

Zen Habits in 2017

Other than the personal headlines, I’m pretty proud of what I created here at Zen Habits this year:

  1. Zen Habits Mindfulness Retreat: I conducted my first retreat, in San Francisco in April, with a small group of beautiful people. It was an experiment, the first retreat/workshop of many I hope to hold.
  2. Dealing with Struggles course: I launched my first standalone video course in March, Dealing with Struggles. I really loved working with the participants on transforming struggles into openness and joy.
  3. 44 Training Program: I launched the free 44 Training Program as a gift on my birthday, to all of you. It’s 44-day video training program to get good at mindfulness, uncertainty and discomfort.
  4. Habit Mastery course: In November, I launched my second standalone video course, the Habit Mastery Course. It is my best course on habits yet, helping you to level up your habit skills, no matter what level of mastery you’re at. I still highly recommend it, if you’re looking to create new habits in 2018.
  5. Zen Productivity workshops: One of the biggest things I started doing was creating live workshops in different cities. I started with NYC, SF, LA and SD, but I’m planning to do a bunch more in 2018. Sign up here to get notified of upcoming workshops.
  6. Nearly a dozen Sea Change courses: I was productive in my Sea Change Program in 2017, creating nearly a dozen new video courses. Now that I have about 20 video courses, and 20 other article-based habit modules, I’m going to change up Sea Change in 2018 to be focused on going deeper into these topics and holding each other accountable, rather than creating new courses. More on this soon!
  7. Habit Zen habit app: This year I worked with two excellent developers and we really created a great web app for tracking habits, called Habit Zen. It’s invite-only for now (and there’s no phone app yet), but we made it look great, added some excellent habit stats, a habit log/journal, and soon will have daily habit tips and accountability groups.
  8. My mission: In April, I announced my new personal mission: To Help the world transform fear & uncertainty into mindful openness and joy. It’s what drives all of the projects you see on this list, and will drive even more projects in 2018.
  9. Attended three events: I had the pleasure of speaking/participating at three amazing events this year: Camp GLP, Tribe Conference, and the Rich Litvin Intensive. All were amazing, and I met a lot of incredible people there. More events in 2018!
  10. Honored on the Fuel List: I had the honor of being named one of the people on Thrive Global’s Fuel List (from Arianna Huffington). Some really amazing people on there.

As you can see, it was a busy year for me. I plan to do some new things in 2018 too, more info on all of that coming up!

The Best Zen Habits Posts of 2017

To wrap up this year, here are my favorite Zen Habits post from 2017:

And more

For more best of Zen Habits:

The Simplicity Cycle: Returning to Paring Down to Find Your True Needs

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By Leo Babauta

Simplifying your life isn’t a single project that you can finish and be done with — it’s actually a cycle.

At least, that’s what I’ve found in my decade plus of simple living … I’ve downsized numerous times, in all areas of my life, and I keep finding myself coming back to the process of simplifying.

The Simplicity Cycle goes something like this (it’s a little different each time):

  1. Inspiration phase: You find something that sparks an interest, and you start exploring it (reading about a new topic, diving into learning a new subject, exploring a new activity or hobby, creating a new project or venture, etc.). This is the inspiration phase.
  2. Addition phase: This leads you to more complexity, as you explore, buy things, read more and more, find new inspirations and ideas. This is the addition phase.
  3. Contemplation phase: At some point, you might pause to consider the bigger picture of what you’re doing. Is this the best way? Is this really important? If it is, what’s the most essential part of it? Can you pare down? Many people skip this phase (and the next) and just keep doing the first two phases.
  4. Paring Down phase: If you decided that you want to pare down, this is where you start to let go of things. You figure out what’s essential to what you have been doing and learning, and if you don’t scrap the entire thing completely (which can happen), you might just keep a few key things. For example, if you start learning about chess, you might buy a set (or two) and a bunch of books and apps and go on a bunch of websites. But in the paring down phase, you might decide that chess isn’t important enough to keep in your life, or if it is, you only need one chess set, two really key books, and one website or app. The rest you let go of. Again, many people skip this step.

If you’re into simplifying and figuring out what’s essential, you’ll do the last two steps. If you’re like most people, you’ll just keep doing one and two, which leads to a growing amount of clutter and complexity.

What I’ve Learned from the Cycle

As you might guess, I find the last two phases really important. But I also think the first two are important, because they’re about continual learning, curiosity, growth, exploration, creativity and more. I haven’t been able to stop myself from doing the first two phases, at least a few times each year. So I continue to repeat this Simplicity Cycle, several times a year.

The first two phases are where you get excited about something, where you get motivated and you’re moved to find out as much as you can. This is an essential human drive, and I would never want to suppress it.

But here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I have to hold myself back from acquiring in the Addition phase. I do this by reminding myself of how much I wasted in the last few Addition phases, when I bought too many things. It’s really hard to hold back when you’re excited. But it’s important to remember that following your every urge isn’t necessarily a helpful thing.
  • The Inspiration phase can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes it’s just a fantasy that grips hold of us (like wanting to become a black belt at something) when we see a photo or read an inspiring story of someone doing something cool. There’s nothing wrong with these photos or inspiring stories. There’s nothing wrong with the fantasy that forms in our heads. But when it grips us, and brings us to the Addition phase, then it can lead us to spend too much time or money or effort on something that’s not really that important — it’s just a fantasy that’s taken hold. The reality will be quite different once we dive into it — becoming a black belt will take years of hard work, and the payoff won’t be exactly what you dream it will be. That’s not to say we shouldn’t go after it, but we should realize it will be very different than how we picture, and probably not as exciting.
  • Often the Inspiration phase is started when we think we really want something, even need it. But it’s not a true need. We rarely explore how to get our true needs met without the Addition phase, and it’s something worth considering as we think about the big picture of our lives. What are true needs? More on that in the next section.
  • The Contemplation phase can come at any time — maybe even before you start the Addition phase! Maybe right after you start it and you pause to think about whether this is something you should be doing. Basically, you take a step back and look at the big picture — why are you bothering to do this? Is it just a fantasy or is it meaningful to you? Is the reality going to be anywhere close to the fantasy? Is there a more purposeful way you might be living? What are your true needs here? What can you get rid of, and what’s truly essential?
  • The Paring Down phase can be very liberating! Once you’ve had a realization that you want to simplify, it can be a huge burden to let go of things that you’ve been holding onto. At the same time, it can be difficult to let go if you’re still holding on to hope. And there’s the regret of buying too much or acquiring too much, the regret of being wasteful. But it’s not wasteful if you got something out of it, if you learned something from it. So give thanks to whatever gave you something, learn from the experience, and let go.

In this whole process, I find the real learning is about true needs. It’s hard to understand true needs until you’ve gone through this process a few times. Let’s take a look.

Finding Your True Needs

Going through this cycle helps you see that you can let go of things you don’t really need. They might actually be giving you a burden you don’t want, and letting go is liberating. You free yourself of it, and you’re even happier — you didn’t need it in the first place!

Going through the cycle a second time, and then a third, is just more learning about figuring out what you don’t need. And learning to let go of what you don’t really need.

If you go through the cycle a bunch of times, with consciousness, you can start to figure out the kinds of things you crave for and that excite you that aren’t really true needs. They seem cool, they’re shiny, but they don’t really satisfy anything deep within you.

I’ll give you a few examples of things that didn’t satisfy a real need for me:

  • Chess: I really enjoyed learning about chess, but the competitive aspect of chess, and the hundreds and thousands of hours you need to spend on practice to get anywhere near good were not anything I really cared about. And honestly, getting really good at chess didn’t hold real meaning to me. The true need was learning, and I can do that for free in many areas of life.
  • Gourmet food: When I moved to San Francisco, I discovered some amazing restaurants, from neighborhood gems to Michelin-starred world-class gourmet spots. I went crazy for about a year, going to as many as I could afford. It caused me to gain weight, lose a lot of money, and get tired of that kind of rich food. I did the same kind of deep dive with pizza, coffee, wine and beer at different times. To be honest, it was all a waste, and I’m glad I’m over it! The true need was exploration, and I can do that without needing to get broke or overweight.
  • Lots of books: At different points in the last 10-15 years, I’ve gone overboard in buying books. I love books, to be honest. I love the hope that each one contains, but I can go overboard with that optimism, and buy more than I can possibly read. The true need was, again, learning. I am not against books, but I am now more honest with myself (not always) about how much I can actually read.
  • Survival gear, travel gear, tech gear, hiking gear: Every now and then, I really get into a topic and decide I want the best gear in that area. I bought cool survival and travel gear, and too much ultralight backpacking gear. I don’t go overboard with tech gear, but sometimes I get a craving and cave in to that craving. None of it has really mattered to me in the long term — it’s all short-term lusts. The true need is really to get outdoors and explore.

None of those areas met my true needs — they were all extraneous, even though I thought they were important at the time.

In the end, going through the process helped me to realize what I really needed. And to let go of the things I thought were needs.

Some things I now think are true needs:

  1. Food, water, clothing, heat, shelter, and basic safety, of course.
  2. Love and connection.
  3. Learning, exploration.
  4. Play, inspiration & creative outlets.
  5. Getting outdoors, being active, being present with nature.
  6. Stillness & peace.

There might be more. Beyond the basic needs of the items at the top of the list, the others are about love and nourishment in some way.

And when I remember these needs, I can remember that these needs can be met in a variety of ways. Not only in the way I’m fantasizing about. I can meet my needs by simply going outside and going for a walk. Talking with a loved one or an interesting stranger. Reading something online. Meditating and finding stillness.

Simple things, that cost nothing. Simple things, that nourish me, and require no additions to what I already have. Simple things, that allow me to let go of the rest.

Simple things, that are available all around us in beautiful abundance.

New Book: Soulful Simplicity

I’d like to recommend a book by a good friend, Courtney Carver of Be More with Less … her book Soulful Simplicity comes out next week, and you will love it.

It’s about the power of simplicity to improve our health, build more meaningful relationships, and relieve stress in our professional and personal lives.

Check out the first chapter here, and pre-order the book now to get a bonus.

A Training Program for Single-Tasking & Focus

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By Leo Babauta

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I heartily believe in giving your full focus to one task at a time. Single-tasking and focus are at the heart of my productivity method.

Pick one important task, and give it your entire focus. Finish that (or at least a chunk that you choose to work on right now), and then do the same with the next task. There’s simply no better way to get things done, one important task at a time. Even small tasks benefit from single-tasking with focus.

But knowing this and actually doing it are two different things. There are lots of things we know we should do, but putting them into practice, and being consistent about it, are simply much harder.

I think the answer is in intentional training.

We aren’t good at doing things we know we should do. That’s obvious. But how do we get better? By not trying? By trying, failing, and then not learning from the failure but instead being critical of ourselves about failing? Most of us just keep repeating the same mistakes, don’t get better, and don’t understand why we can’t get better.

So what if we trained ourselves to get better?

There are a number of important ideas in training that we can use to get better at single-tasking and focusing:

  1. Train in small doses to start with.
  2. Train at the easy level, and only progress with mastery.
  3. Train repeatedly, as perfectly as you can.
  4. Use the failure as feedback, and adjust.
  5. Vary the training.
  6. Practice regularly, instead of allowing yourself to forget.
  7. Focus on micro skills — instead of training your entire baseball swing, focus on one part at a time.

With those ideas, we’re going to train ourselves to get better at single-tasking with full focus.

The Focus Training Method

First, ask yourself whether this is important enough to train yourself in. Do you really care about finding focus, or is everything fine as it is? If it’s not fine, what difficulty does it cause you? Is it worth it to train yourself to relieve that difficulty? Do you care deeply about this? Remember that as you practice and feel like skipping the training.

Now here’s the training method I recommend:

  1. Set yourself to train in 5-10 minute bursts, 2-5 times a day, every day. There is a temptation to train for an hour, or 30 minutes, because 5-10 minutes seems silly. But we’re not attempting a marathon just yet — we want to train ourselves before we attempt a marathon. So set your practice for 5-10 minute intervals of full focus, then 5 minutes of break, then another interval, and so on. Let two of these short sessions a day be your minimum, even on weekends or when you’re traveling.
  2. Train at the easy level, don’t start with hard tasks. If writing your book is such a hard task that you really dread doing it, don’t start with that. Or maybe it’s doing your taxes/finances, or writing a difficult report or letter. Instead, start with easier tasks that won’t cause you to panic or totally dread doing it. You can work your way up to the hard tasks after a week or two, and when you do, just start in small doses (5-10 minutes).
  3. Use any failures as really important feedback for adjustment. If you get distracted or pulled away from the task, that’s completely OK — the only failure is the failure to learn from your mistakes. Failure is actually super important for training — if you’re not failing, you’re probably not pushing yourself into new learning. Failure is how we get better in training — notice what went wrong, and figure out how to adjust. Every time you mess up, think of this as a big golden opportunity, and relish the idea of reviewing what happened, and seeing how you can adjust and improve. Distracted by Facebook? Block it. Disconnect from the Internet. Give your spouse the wireless router. Tell people on Facebook you won’t be on Facebook until 5pm each day. Figure out what you need to do, and adjust.
  4. Mix up the training. There’s value in repeated training, but studies have shown that we learn best when we vary the training. Try to focus for 5 minutes one session, then 10 minutes the next. Try to focus on writing in one session, then reading in another, then writing an important email in a third session. Keep the difficulty level about the same, but mix up the tasks and even the micro skills you practice.
  5. Focus on 2-3 micro skills at a time (see below). Each practice session, just focus on a couple micro skills. Then mix it up in the next practice session. Eventually you’ll get so good at certain micro skills that you don’t need to think about them, they’ll just be easy. Then you can move on to others.

You can lengthen the training sessions (but no need to alter the number of sesions for awhile) as you get better at the training, and start to master the micro skills below. Don’t be in a rush to lengthen the training, but when you do, just add 5 minutes to the session.

So you might start with 5-10 minute sessions, then after a couple weeks, try 10-15 minute sessions, an so on. I wouldn’t recommend going longer than 30 minutes unless you do work that requires you to keep everything in your head (a complex mental model) and taking breaks is actually detrimental to the task.

The Micro Skills

There are lots of micro skills you can practice, and you’ll find some of your own as you adjust your practice based on mistakes and continued learning (blocking Facebook when needed, for example).

But here are some that I recommend practicing:

  1. Pick several important tasks to work on today. Each morning, or maybe even better the night before, you can pick three important tasks to focus on for the day (or the next day). What tasks will move the needle on your important projects, or important areas in your life? You might have a million to do, but just pick three. You can always pick three more if you finish those early.
  2. Pick one of those important tasks. In the morning, pick on of your three important tasks to focus on first. Yes, they’re all important. But you’ll get to the others later — for now, you can only do one. Pick one and focus on that. Btw, after you finish your three important tasks, you can decide to focus on smaller tasks (like answering email, paying bills, replying to messages, etc.) for half an hour or whatever you need. They’re valid things to use for your focus training sessions.
  3. Set yourself to do that task with focus. That means decide that you’re going to do nothing but focus on this task. You’re going to use it as a practice session. You might set a timer. You’re going to practice the micro skills in this section with this task, consciously, and not switch.
  4. Clear a space and make this feel important. That means clear a physical space (however clear you can get it in a minute or so) and clear your computer of whatever you don’t need. Turn off your phone. See this as a really important training session, worth using up some of your life instead of just a mindless task to get through.
  5. Set an intention. As you get started, set an intention for how you want to practice. Examples: “I want to be fully present as I read this article,” or “I want to practice focus deliberately as I write for 10 minutes,” or “I am going to do this task with love in my heart for the people I’m serving.” The intention is a way to remind yourself of the way you want to show up for this focus session.
  6. Have only the tools you need open. That means closing all apps. Turning off your phone. You don’t need a million things open to do this task. There’s just you and your yoga mat. Just you and your writing app. Just you and your book.
  7. Notice your urge to put it off. When you choose a task to focus on, you will often have an urge to put off starting. Notice this urge, and pay close attention to how it feels. It’s an urge, a moment of uncertainty and discomfort, and temptation to do something easier or more certain. It’s nothing you can’t handle, and not a reason to run. Stay with your task instead of switching to something else, and stay with how the urge feels in your body.
  8. Stay with it for just 5 minutes. Focus with complete devotion to this task for 5 minutes. You can lengthen to 10 or 15 minutes after mastering the 5-minute session.
  9. Watch your urge to switch. As you do your focus session, at different times you’ll often feel an urge to switch. You don’t need to switch just because you have the urge. Sit with the uge, meditating on how it feels, staying with it as you did with the urge to put off the task (No. 7 above). Let the urge get really strong, and realize that it’s nothing to be afraid of, nothing you need to run away from.
  10. *Take a short break, and then mindfully come back. Try setting a timer for your focus session, then when it goes off, set another 5-minute timer and take a break. Then come back to the task and do another focus session. You don’t have to do this every time, but it is a micro skill to practice.
  11. Mindfully immerse yourself in the task. As you do the task, try to be fully immersed in it, having your mind fully in the task, and/or the physcial sensations you feel as you do the task. This means noticing when your mind is wandering, and coming back. There’s nothing but you, your body, and this task.
  12. Find gratitude when you finish (as well as during). As you’re doing the task, you can feel gratitude that you’re able to do it. Gratitude for being alive, for being able to serve someone you care about by doing this task, for your growth as you practice focus. And as you finish your session, you can feel gratitude that you were able to focus (even if only for a little while), and that you furthered along your task (or finished it). Amazing!

These are some of the micro skills that I’ve found important to practice. After years of working on these skills, I can confidently say that I’m much better at them, though there are times when I need to remind myself to practice, of course.

Is focus and single-tasking something you want to get better at? Is it important to you? Will it serve you and the people you serve? Then set yourself to a training plan today!

Invites to My Habit Zen Web App

I’m opening my Habit Zen web app, designed to help you track and create new habits, to 2,000 new users in the next week or two. It’s free, just fill out this form:

Habit Zen Invite Form

We’ve been working hard to make the app better, and more improvements are coming soon!

10 Reasons Why We Don’t Stick to Things

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By Leo Babauta

We all do it in some form — tell ourselves we’re going to do something, and then we often end up not sticking to that plan.

Maybe one or more of these will resonate with you:

  • You say you’re going to stick to a certain diet, and then you end up breaking it in half a day, and then mostly abandoning it.
  • You say you’re going to work hard on certain projects and not procrastinate anymore, and then you get distracted by something and the plan goes out the door.
  • You say you’re going to meditate (or do yoga, read, write, etc.) every morning, and then one of these mornings you are in a rush or are tired and skip the meditation. Then you do it again the next day.
  • You say you’re going to stay on top of your email, or read more, or finally tackle that clutter … and the plan doesn’t even get off the ground.
  • You say you’re going to work out four times a week, and that works out exactly once, then you just don’t go to the gym.

So what’s going on? Are we just horrible people, with no discipline? Are we liars, never to be believed? Are we hopeless cases, consigned to spending a life on the couch eating donuts and potato chips, watching Netflix and hating ourselves?

I find this a fascinating subject, and I’ve been studying it in myself and in the thousands of people I’ve worked with. Here’s what I’ve been finding.

The Reasons We Don’t Stick With Our Plan

One of the things I’ve found is that there isn’t always just one reason. Sometimes it’s multiple reasons at once, or other times it’s different reasons depending on the situation or the type of person you are.

But here are some of the most common reasons we don’t stick to things:

  1. We don’t take it seriously. This is my No. 1 problem in this area — I tell myself I’m going to stick to a new plan, but I think that’s enough to make it happen. I somehow assume it’s going to be easy, despite all the past evidence that the only time I stick to things is when I take them seriously and put in a serious effort. Most of the time, we just half commit to something, kind of like only being half in a relationship — with that kind of commitment, eventually you’ll be out of it.
  2. We just forget. We tell ourselves we’re going to meditate every day, with complete resolve. Then the morning comes and we just plain forget. We remember later, but we’re busy then. The next morning, we forget again. By the time we remember, we feel disappointed with ourselves and give up.
  3. We run from discomfort or uncertainty. When the exercise habit (or meditation) gets uncomfortable, we stop enjoying it, and make up excuses to put it off (see No. 5 below). When we face a difficult habit like writing or big tasks at work, there is a lot of uncertainty in those tasks, so we start finding reasons to put it off. We don’t like uncertainty or discomfort, so we try to get out of it.
  4. We give in to temptation, out of habit. Temptation is all around us: the temptation of chocolate cake when we said we’re going to stick to a diet, the temptation of TV when we said we’re going to go to bed earlier, the temptation of the phone or Internet when we said we’re going to meditate. Actually, temptation is just a bit of discomfort, but our habitual response is to just give in. Rationalize, and let the temptation rule our response.
  5. We rationalize. When something gets difficult, or we have a temptation in front of us, our minds start to rationalize why it’s OK to do what we said we weren’t going to do. Our brains can be very very good at rationalizing: “Just one more won’t hurt,” or “You worked hard, you deserve it,” or “This time doesn’t count, you’ll start tomorrow,” or “It’s a special occasion, this is a good exception.” Those all sound reasonable, except that they sabotage our plans. Once we start to believe these rationalizations, sticking to anything goes out the door.
  6. We renegotiate. We say we’re going to do something, then when the moment comes to do it, we’re feeling temptation, discomfort, uncertainty … and so we start to say, “Well, I’m still going to do it, but in 5 minutes, after I check my messages.” Or, “I’m tired right now, I’ll just take a day off and do it tomorrow.” This is another form of rationalization — basically, just a habitual response to not wanting to do something, a way to get out of it. My friend Tynan says one of the most harmful things to the habit of self-discipline and building trust in ourselves is the habit of renegotiating with ourselves.
  7. We dislike the experience and avoid things we dislike. This seems natural — if I don’t like to eat vegetables, I probably will avoid them. If I don’t like to face an uncomfortable writing task, I’ll put it off. But the problem is that with every habit, with every difficult project … we’re going to find multiple moments of discomfort, of disliking the experience. We’ll never stick to anything if we bail as soon as we dislike something. Instead, we have to see that this habit of disliking, judging, resenting, mentally complaining, and avoiding … it’s hurting us. We don’t need to like everything about an experience to put ourselves fully into it. We are stronger than that.
  8. We forget why it’s important. Maybe you started out taking something seriously, but then a week into it, you’ve forgotten. Now you’re just thinking about how uncomfortable it is. If we forget the importance of something — and if something doesn’t really matter to us, we shouldn’t commit to it — if we forget, we won’t have a good reason to push into discomfort.
  9. We get down on ourselves or give up in disappointment. When we falter, when we don’t meet our ideals or expectations, when we mess up in some way … it’s actually not a big deal. Just learn from it and start again. But instead, we often beat ourselves up, feel super disappointed in ourselves. This isn’t helpful, and can actually sabotage our efforts.
  10. There are too many barriers. This is the simplest one, but we often forget. Let’s say I want to start eating healthier, and even have a plan for how I want to eat. But then morning comes, I’m hungry and in a hurry, and I’m supposed to make a tofu scramble, which requires a lot of chopping of vegetables, cooking, cleaning … too many things to do right now when I’m hungry, so I’ll just eat the bagel that will take 2 minutes to make. This is a big problem with most things we want to stick to — there are barriers that are too high for when we’re tired, rushed, or not feeling like it. Driving 20 minutes to the gym, having to declutter the living room before you meditate, having a lot of distractions when you write, anything that requires more than 5 minutes of prep time before we can get started … it’s too high of a barrier.

OK, so those are the reasons we don’t stick to things. Many of you are pretty familiar with these, but it’s good to be reminded, and it’s a smart idea to give them some consideration. Why do we let these obstacles continue to trip us up? Aren’t there good solutions?

Yes, there are — and they’re not all that difficult to implement, if we just consciously decide to do them and then take action to remember them and make them happen. Let’s take a look.

Overcome These Barriers, Get Better at Sticking to Things

  1. Take it super seriously. Is this important enough to commit to? Do you really want it, enough to push into discomfort when things get difficult? Consider this for a moment or two before deciding to try to stick to something. Then give it the effort that something important deserves — write it down. Make a plan, even if it’s just a short one. Commit to someone else. Set up reminders. Have a time when you’re going to do it every day. Clear a space to do that, set things up. Don’t take it lightly.
  2. Make sure you don’t forget. How will you remember when the time comes to do it? Where will you be, what will you be doing, when it’s time to meditate, or write, or exercise, or eat your healthy lunch? Put a reminder note or other visual reminder there. This is really important, because as we start to do something new, it’s too easy to forget. Put up multiple reminders, including one on your phone and one on your computer. If it’s important enough to commit to, it’s important enough to create these reminders.
  3. Relish the pushing into discomfort & uncertainty. We have to retrain ourselves to see discomfort and uncertainty as a signal to practice and get better at being in discomfort, instead of a signal to run away. Our minds habitually want to get away from discomfort and uncertainty, but there’s no good reason to do that. We won’t die or be hurt because we’re eating broccoli or doing a few pushups (unless you have a serious medical condition, of course — always check with a doctor if you do). There’s no need to panic and run when we’re uncomfortable. Instead, we can even start to relish this practice opportunity, to see it as a delicious experience of getting better at something, of learning and finding a way to open up to discomfort.
  4. See temptation as a signal to practice. In the same way, each time we have temptation, we can train ourselves to see it as a signal to practice staying in discomfort without needing to relieve it by giving in to the temptation. At a party where there’s chocolate cake (and you’re committed to a healthy eating plan)? Say no to the cake but hell yes to the opportunity to stay in the discomfort of not giving in to temptation. Say hell yes to the chance to explore what that’s like, to find joy and gratitude in the middle of it.
  5. Set boundaries to recognize your rationalizations. We can train ourselves, too, to become aware of when we’re rationalizing. It’s hard to see sometimes, because we’re so used to just rationalizing in the background, and allowing ourselves to believe it without any conscious thought. So to make it obvious that we’re rationalizing, it’s helpful to have firm boundaries, because then we see when the rationalizations are trying to convince us to cross the boundaries. For example, if you say, “I’m only going to eat between 11am and 6pm,” then it’s obvious when you’re trying to convince yourself to eat at 9pm. Other examples of boundaries: “I’m only going to watch two TV shows, and only after 8pm,” “I only eat hearty salads for lunch,” “I go for a walk or run every day when I get off work,” or “I meditate when I wake up, before I open my computer or phone.” When you set these hard boundaries, you see yourself trying to rationalize. When you realize this, just don’t let yourself believe the rationalization. They sound convincing, but they’re sabotaging you.
  6. Don’t renegotiate in the moment. Just don’t let yourself. Make the plan the day before (or at the beginning of the month, or the week, etc.) but don’t let yourself decide in the moment. You’re too prone to put it off or try to get out of discomfort. Instead, tell yourself that you can’t renegotiate for a week (or a month). Only after that period can you sit down and give it some thought, and decide whether you want to recommit.
  7. Relish the opening up to things you dislike. When you find yourself committed to doing something you dislike, it’s easy to try to get out of it, or resent having to do it. Instead, we can train ourselves to shift our mental attitude, and see it as an opportunity to practice open our minds up to this experience. What can we be grateful for right now, in the middle of this experience? How can we see this experience that we don’t like as a gift? How can we learn to see the deliciousness in this experience, instead of focusing on what we don’t like? Relish this opportunity!
  8. Reconnect to why it’s important. Every day, as you’re about to do this thing you’ve committed to, ask yourself why. Why is this important to you? Why have you devoted yourself to it, and is it worth devoting yourself fully to it? Can you commit wholeheartedly to it? Does this matter to you for a reason that’s bigger than your discomfort? Reconnect your actions to your devotion.
  9. Practice self compassion. When you mess up, when you are less than ideal, see when this causes you pain and difficulty. Give yourself some self compassion — actually give yourself a loving wish for an end to your struggle, a loving wish for peace, a loving wish for happiness. Instead of seeing this as a reason you suck, see it as a reason to love yourself. Then find something to learn from the experience, and start again. It’s no big deal.
  10. Remove as many barriers as you can. You’re fully committed, you’ve set up reminders, you know why this is important to you, you’ve set hard boundaries, and you’re ready to practice with your discomfort and temptations and rationalizing … now remove as many barriers as you can, to make it easier on yourself. Can you prepare everything ahead of time, so that when it comes time to do it, you just start? Can you make your meals on Sunday, so weekday lunches are just heating up a bowl of your veggie chili? Can you get your yoga mat and clothes ready, along with music or a yoga video, so that when you’re done with work, you can just change and press play? Can you remove distractions the night before, so that when you wake up to write, there’s just you and your writing program, and nothing else? Find your barriers, and remove them all. Eliminate all excuses to start.

I believe that if you implemented these steps, you’d be much better at sticking to something. What do you want to stick to for the rest of this month? For each month next year? Consider them now, figure out why they’re important to you and whether that’s an important enough reason to push into the discomfort of being consistent. Then commit yourself fully, wholeheartedly, with all of your being. You are worth it.