20 Key Questions on Motivation and Habits, Answered

“Habits are at first cobwebs, then cables.” – Spanish Proverb

Post written by Leo Babauta.

It’s that time of year — the end part — when people start thinking about their lives, their goals, their habits, and how to change everything for the better.

As always, I’m here to help if I can.

Today I’ve answered 20 questions from your fellow readers, who submitted them via the Zen Habits Twitter stream. I don’t claim to be perfect, but have learned a lot about habits and motivation in the last four or five years of habit changes (see My Story for more). I share some of what I’ve learned with the caveat, of course, that what works for me might not work for you. I hope it helps nevertheless.

1. How do you motivate yourself to get work done after trying many things and failing over and over again? (via @ankit_patel)

Motivation is first just about taking that first step — just getting excited about something enough to get started. Then it’s about focusing on enjoying what you’re doing, right now, instead of worrying about how you’re going to get to a destination.

You also need to forget about your failures, or at least the part of them that gets you discouraged. Take away from your failures a lesson about what obstacles stand in your way, and leave behind any bad feelings. Those are in the past. Focus on right now, and how fun the activity is, right now.

2. What moved you to first start the change into the Leo we know today? What was your very first step? (combined question from @hchybinski & @XIIIzen)

We’re the sum of all we’ve done in the past, from childhood on, so there’s no one thing that led me to the person I am or the life I’m living. However, I can definitely say that quitting smoking was a turning point for me, for a couple of reasons:

* It showed me that I could successfully change a habit, which I had no confidence in before that, after failing a number of times.
* I learned a lot of successful habit change principles from quitting smoking, which I applied to all future habit changes. See my book, The Power of Less, for details.

3. Why do we willfully and consciously engage in self-destructive habits while ignoring our better judgment? (via @ajdigitalfocus)

I don’t think this has been fully answered, but in my view it’s that we don’t rationally weigh the risks vs. costs.

When we smoke, we think it’s too hard to quit, too painful over the few weeks it takes to quit (cost), but it’s not properly weighed against the risks of not quitting (major illnesses, suffering for years, early death, incredible expenses for cigarettes and hospitalization, etc.).

The same is true of unhealthy eating — not eating the junk food is too hard, but the risk of eating it is obesity, health problems, self-esteem issues, high medical bills, gym costs if we want to get back into shape, years of suffering, etc.

The pain of quitting is now, while the pain of continuing is much later, and so it doesn’t seem too bad. So the answer is to replace the bad habit with a good habit that you enjoy immensely, and focus on that enjoyment, right now, rather than the pain.

4. What is your favorite low tech and high tech way to track progress on your habits? (via @jalbright)

I’ve tried lots of high-tech trackers — from Joe’s Goals to The Daily Plate to the Daily Mile to Fit Day — but my current favorite is Daytum. It’s really easy to enter data, and you can display it publicly in many useful ways. People can look at my Daytum and see how I’m doing, and that motivates me to keep going.

As for low-tech solutions, my favorite is a Moleskine notebook. Easy to carry around, nice to use.

5. How can I become a “Morning Person”? I feel it’s a key to success. (via @DonSchenck)

While I intentionally became an early riser, and I love it, it’s not really a key to success. It’s one way to find the time to pursue your dreams, and it’s the way I chose, but I know night owls (famously, Tim Ferriss) who find they’re much more productive in the middle of the night. Find what works best for you.

But to answer your question: do it slowly, five minutes earlier each morning, and do something enjoyable with your extra time. Focus on how wonderful the time of day is, how enjoyable the activity, and not how much you’re suffering because it’s too damn early. You’ll learn to love it, and you’ll adjust over time.

6. If for a moment you start to feel overwhelmed by the complexities of life, how do you simplify to get where you want to be? (via @TroyAustria)

Take a deep breath, and let all the chaos and frustration flow out of you. Focus not all all the things you need to do, or that are coming up, or that have happened, but on what you’re doing right now. And just focus on doing one thing, right now.

I would take a walk, get some fresh air, and get some perspective. Try to think about what’s most important to you, what your perfect life would be like, what your perfect day would look like.

Then, one small step at a time, start making it happen. What’s standing in the way? What can you change right now? What can you change tomorrow? What long-term changes can you start making?

Declutter the area around you, a little at a time (or all at once, if you can find the free time and energy). Cut back on how much you’re doing, which will mean telling people who expect things of you that you just can’t do those things, because you have too much on your plate.

7. What’s the habit requiring the least effort that makes the greatest difference? (via @kofisarfo)

This will sound trite, but I’d say positive thinking. It’s not the easiest habit, as it requires that you start listening to your self-talk, and start telling yourself positive things instead of negative ones.

But it’s the one thing that will make the greatest difference, because it will enable all other habit changes. It has really made a huge difference in my life, and I think it’s a vital component to any plan to change your life.

8. What would be the 10 most motivating words I could say to myself every morning to get myself to exercise? (via @AmidPrivilege)

I would say these 10 words:

“Just lace up and get out the door. And smile.”

Once you get started, take that first step, the rest is easy. And smiling makes it enjoyable.

9. My hubby lacks interest in anything except boating. How can I motivate him to get off the sofa? (via @organizedsandra)

I don’t think you can motivate others — if they want to do something, they’ll do it. If they don’t, then don’t make them.

However, you can influence others in positive ways. I’d recommend setting an example by doing, and sharing how great it is, without judgment for what he’s doing. If he’s happy doing what he’s doing, then that’s great. If he’d like to do more, then be there for support — but don’t push.

You can ask for his help, as well, in your efforts. Sometimes spouses love to help, and that can rub off on them and get them thinking about trying it themselves. Or maybe not.

In the end, worry more about what you’re doing and less about what he’s doing — he’s living his life and you’re living yours. People don’t like to be pushed or judged or badgered, but like to be loved and accepted.

10. How to minimize tension/frustration with others who are less organized than you are! (via @originalmuggle)

It’s a matter of only worrying about what you can control, and accepting that which you can’t. You can’t control others or their organization level, so don’t even try to.

This is actually a deeper issue of control for many organized people — they want to control everything in the world around them (and for a long time I was one of them), but it’s impossible, and it only leads to stress and frustration and conflicts. Instead, learn to embrace a degree of chaos, accept that the world is out of your control, and love it. The world is a wonderfully unpredictable, wild, and beautiful place.

To learn to let go, every time you find yourself frustrated, stop, and breathe. Let the frustration flow out of you, and let peace come in. Remind yourself that you don’t have to control, and love others for their humanness. It takes time, but you can learn.

11. What is your best advice on keeping focused on the important when the distractions in our lives are constant? (via @gamesizing)

Figure out what’s distracting you, and how to minimize them, or at least put them in a certain place. Engineer your environment so the distractions are minimal. For example, shut off the Internet except for times when you really need it (predetermined times). At the very least, shut off email notifications and anything else that pops up and tells you there’s a new message or tweet or whatever. Close those programs and only have what you need for the task in front of you.

Learn to focus for short amounts of time — say 10 or 15 minutes. Then lengthen that time gradually, by 5 minutes, until you can focus for 45-60 minutes at a time — or more. And enjoy that time of focus — it’s fantastic.

12. How do you stay motivated in business when you have never done something before & the results won’t show up until down the road? (via @darinpersinger)

Learn to love the process, and don’t let your happiness be so dependent on the outcome. Be passionate about the actual things you do, do them because you love it, and you’ll stick with it. The great things that result will be a natural by-product.

13. Thoughts on getting unstuck? (via @coulter520)

If you’re stuck on a project or task, give your brain a breather or a jolt. A breather could be going outside to take a walk, doing a little bit of easy meditation (focus on your breath as it comes in, then goes out, for a minute or two), or doing something fun like a game for a few minutes (like 5-20 minutes). A jolt could be some kind of inspiration — read blogs or books you find inspiring, look for something others are doing that inspire you to do something creative.

If you’re stuck in life, that requires a bit more work, but think of it as an opportunity to re-invent yourself and your life. Take a break from work if possible — even if it’s just for an hour or two, but a day or two is even better. Think of it as a necessary work session, because it will help you get unstuck. Take this break as a breather from your normal routine, but use it not just to veg out but to think, to get some perspective, to take a wider look at your life. What are you doing that you love doing? What can you eliminate that’s both unnecessary and unexciting? If you hate what you’re doing, can you change it to something you love, or can you change jobs? Can you automate or outsource things that you don’t enjoy, or eliminate them, so you can focus on creating, on things you do enjoy? Make a list of things you’d like to do, in the short-term and long-term, and then start implementing them, one little thing at a time.

14. How do you stay away from distractions? Do you do just one thing at a time or multitask in a planned way? (via @manshu)

I’m a big proponent of single-tasking. Multi-tasking can work in some cases but most of the time it gets in the way of focusing on what’s really important. Multi-tasking can work for little tasks, like checking email and your bank account and Facebook and things like that. But you should set aside time for the important tasks — earlier rather than later, when things might get too busy.

When you’re going to work on an important task, clear away all distractions and focus just on that one task. Close programs you don’t need, clear away clutter on your desk, turn off any notifications, turn off your mobile devices, and preferably shut off the Internet and close your browser.

15. How do you determine when you’ve reached a minimalist lifestyle? (via @clabbur)

It’s not a destination, it’s a mindset. You’re a minimalist once you decide to have less and do less, when you decided to stick with enough and not go for more. I consider myself a minimalist, but I know there’s much more I could do if I wanted to. I could go live in a cabin in the woods, in Alaska, and be off the grid. I could use or eat nothing I didn’t make myself. But that’s not realistic, for my life, so I just reduce what I own and use and do, and slowly change over time.

Any lasting change should be done slowly and gradually anyway. So think of it not so much as a destination but a long-term process, and you’ll improve over time. You’re never there, at that “minimalist lifestyle” exactly, but at the same time you’re always there, if your mind is in the right place.

16. If you could offer only one piece of advice about beginning … changing habits, starting fresh … what would it be? (via @andsarah2)

Start with one little step at a time. That’s obvious, but you might be surprised at how many people try to change 5-10 habits at once, to start afresh. It’s too hard to make drastic changes like that.

Changes made gradually don’t seem hard at all. For example, instead of giving up meat altogether to become vegetarian, you could just eat some vegetarian dishes on different nights of the week. That will soon become normal, as you learn new recipes and adjust your taste buds. Then add more meatless meals, and so on, and each step along the way, you’ll adjust and that will become the new “normal” for you. Over time, you’ll have made great changes, but each step along the way is a small one and not difficult at all.

17. How do you sustain self-motivation when you suffer a setback toward your goals? (via @liveaudaciously)

I always try to enjoy what I’m doing. If there’s a setback, that’s not a problem, because the progress I’m making isn’t as important as doing the activity (running, reading, writing, cycling, whatever). And because I enjoy the activity, I’ll keep doing it, even if there’s a setback.

Just realize that setbacks are not the ending points, unless you let them become so. They’re just a little stone on the road — kick it aside, go over it, walk around it, but just keep walking. And enjoy the journey.

18. Besides your own book, what one book would you recommend to help someone find their motivation? (via @tomfromhr)

I’ve never found a single book that will motivate someone. Books can help inspire, but there’s too many to choose from — I’d probably recommend The Art of Happiness by The Dalai Lama or any book by Thich Naht Hanh (Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, and True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart). But one of the books I recommend most, that really reflects how I try to approach things, is Slowing Down to the Speed of Life, by Richard Carlson and Joseph Bailey. It’s not motivational but if you try the techniques in the book you’ll find that you’ll easily create the habits you want with a minimum of stress.

19. What do you do when you used to love your work, but passion has been killed by work/life balance issues? (via @RobinLP)

There are two approaches I’ve tried and recommend. The first is to try to reinvigorate your work, to find new appreciation and passion for your work. This is the easiest method, from one point of view, but at the same time isn’t always possible if you truly hate your job. To do it, you have to look at the things you enjoy about your job, to appreciate things about your job that you take for granted, and to try to change your job so that it’s something you love doing. You can do that by creating projects and work for yourself, with buy-in from your boss or team, that you’re excited about.

The second approach is more drastic but for me has been so much more rewarding — changing jobs to something you really love doing. This takes a little more time, and more courage. I suggest you start doing the job you want to do on the side — even for free at first, until you get good at it or spread your reputation enough that you can charge. Eventually, as you gain confidence and skills, you’ll want to take the plunge and quit your regular job.

Either way, you’ll need to address the root problem: you need to find balance in your life and time for things other than work. Workaholism is a problem when work becomes a problem — meaning if it’s sapping you of passion, you need to make a change. Set limits — stop working after a certain time, and schedule some non-work things that you enjoy. Exercise, hobbies, doing things with friends or family, creating in some way, reading, anything other than work. Find the balance that works for you — it takes time and experimenting, but most of all it takes a consciousness that you want to change your life.

20. How have the types of habits you have cultivated evolved over time? (via @rosshill)

Great question. As with anyone, my habits have changed since I started Zen Habits — I didn’t just cultivate some fundamental habits and then stop, living a static life. I’m always trying new things out, and my philosophy is always evolving as I learn. So some of the things you might’ve read when I started Zen Habits back in early 2007 don’t quite apply to what I’m doing today.

A good example is back in those days I was all about productivity in the traditional sense — knocking out tasks as quickly as possible, Getting Things Done, cranking widgets, making the most of every minute. But as I’ve evolved, that has become less important to me. I’ve simplified, and now I focus on what’s important, on enjoying what I do, on creating, rather than on getting so much done. It’s a more human approach to work, rather than an industrial drone type of approach.

In fact, I think I’ve become simpler over time. I don’t stress out about my running as much, and instead just go out to enjoy the run. I don’t worry about waking early so much, although I definitely enjoy the early morning and try to wake early so I can read and work in the quiet before dawn. I don’t keep track of all my tasks as much as I used to, so that at any given moment I might not have an up-to-date task list but I know what I want to focus on right now.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle