Notes on Life: Mantras, Small Things, Lists, and Such

By Leo Babauta

As I’m cranking out the chapters this week, my post-writing time has been limited. Still, I’m addicted to writing stuff for you guys, so I thought it would be fun to share some random thoughts I’ve been having that probably don’t merit full-length posts.

Thanks again for your patience as I focus on my book writing — I’ve written nearly six chapters this week! I have all of you to thank for it — your encouragement and understanding has been unlimited and surpassed only by your stunning attractiveness.

On Mantras

As I was running the other day, I was thinking about mantras, and how I’ve used them with some success in different situations. As silly as you may feel by repeating a mantra, I think they have great use — they ingrain an idea in your head and serve as a reminder of something important.

To give you an example: I’m running my second marathon this weekend (as you may recall), and the biggest concern I have is not my physical fitness, but a mental one — I tend to run too fast because I get caught up in the excitement of a race, or get competitive with the other runners around me. If I do that in a 10K, that’s OK, because it helps push me to a personal best. But if I do that in a marathon, I will run out of gas before the end and will have a hard time finishing.

So I’ve created a mantra to tell myself during this marathon, to help me stay away from trying to keep up with other runners: “Forget Them. Run Your Pace.” And I know my pace, if I’m able to block out the other runners, and if I do that, I’ll have a nice, relaxed, fun marathon. So I plan to repeat my mantra every time I feel myself getting caught up in the race.

I’ve used other mantras to great success. Last year, 2007, I had only one goal — to use my blog and freelance writing to liberate myself from my day job. My mantra for the entire year: “Liberate Yourself”. I repeated that every day, and almost every action I did was somehow aligned with that mantra. It worked. I’m now a full-time blogger, thanks to the mantra, and thanks of course to all of you.

Another mantra I’ve been using recently is a quote by Thich Naht Hanh that I’ve used in a recent post: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” This mantra helps me to slow down and relax anytime in my daily life that I begin to feel rushed and begin to lose my focus on the present. It also helps me smile more, which is nicer for the people around me and gives me a good feeling as well.

Do you think mantras could work for you? Or have you used them in the past?

On Small Things

In the shower this morning I was thinking about small things (no naughty jokes please). More specifically, about how one of the secrets to life is learning to appreciate the beauty in small things.

When I was younger, I had lots of ambitions — I wanted to do great things in life. And while I think that striving to do great things is an admirable thing, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found that there’s much more power in going inward rather than outward — there’s much more greatness if you pay attention to small details than in looking at huge vistas.

“What the heck are you talking about, Leo?” you wisely ask. I mean that while it can be very satisfying to achieve great goals and create great things, there is so much more in stopping to smell the flowers, in enjoying giving your three-year-old a bath, in finding heart-rendering beauty in a single falling cherry blossom, in sharing a quiet moment with your wife, in feeling the coolness of a chilled plum in your mouth.

It’s these tiny little things that really matter.

On Lists

I’ve drawn criticism from some readers (and a couple of top bloggers who will remain unnamed) for writing so many list posts on Zen Habits. And I can see validity in that criticism: it can seem overdone if I do too many lists, and seems as if I’m just trying to get popular on social bookmarking sites.

I won’t deny that I get some satisfaction if you guys enjoy one of my posts enough to Digg it or bookmark it on or Stumble it … it’s almost a validation of my writing. But I don’t often write specifically for that purpose — my main purpose is to share things I’ve learned with you guys and to be as useful as humanly possible.

So why do I write so many list posts? Simply put: it’s how I think, and has been since I was a teen-ager. I’ve always made lists, from to-do lists to pro/con lists to lists of favorite songs and movies. When I argue or explain something, I do it in lists. I see bullet points in my head. I number everything.

I can’t change how I think, and I write like I think, so that’s probably going to be the main format of my posts for years to come. I’ve found that many people like lists because it’s easy to scan them for the main points — longer essays are harder to scan, and in these days of information overload, people read blog posts by scanning most of the time. They want information, and fast — and list posts are useful in that regard, for good or bad.