The Anatomy of a Zen Habit

There is a blog out there called Zen Habits. You may have heard of it. You probably read it regularly. If not, I highly recommend it.

This post, The Anatomy of a Zen Habit will explain why we have made Zen Habits, (the website) part of our lives and the whys and hows of habit breaking and making.

Through his website and books, Leo Babauta has shown us that a regular person can do extraordinary things. As a husband and father of 6, Babauta quit smoking, lost weight, ran a marathon, adopted a vegetarian diet, turned his blog into a successful business, tripled his income and quit his job, and through all of that taught us how to do it too.

Zen Habits has more than 210,000 subscribers and even more readers. There is no doubt that Leo worked hard, especially at first to grow his blog. He worked a full time job, while writing morning, noon and night and then some. Even so, there is more to the success of Zen Habits than luck and hard work.

Top 5 Reasons (in my opinion) for Leo Babauta’s Success

  1. Leo is relatable.
  2. He writes good stuff.
  3. He keeps learning and sharing his secrets.
  4. The information he provides is helpful & honest.
  5. He’s a good guy.

In order to really break down the anatomy of a Zen habit, I went straight to the source. Leo was kind enough to answer a few questions to help break down the importance of Zen, habits and procrastination.

What does Zen even mean?
Leo: It means different things to every person. For me it is simply a way to learn to be present, to live in the moment. That’s a very simple thing, but it turns out it changes everything.

Why are we so attracted to developing better habits?
Leo: There is an optimist in most of us, who despite evidence of failed attempts throughout our lives, believes we can become better. This optimist wants us to be the best version of ourselves that we can possibly become. Developing better habits is one way to become that person.

If we so desire good habits, why do we practice bad habits?
Leo: Habits, once ingrained, go on autopilot. They become a part of who we are, and unless we consciously and very powerfully concentrate on changing those habits, we’ll keep doing them. Bad habits start very small — just a puff of a cigarette (I won’t get addicted, I can quit later), just a small indulgence in dessert (I won’t get fat, I’ll eat healthy tomorrow), just a moment of laziness (it won’t hurt to lay on the couch and watch TV, I can exercise later). They have positive reinforcement built in. And then we repeat them for the same reason, and repeat again. Then they’re habits. The good news is positive habits can be formed using the same method.

Is it better to break a bad habit or acquire a new good habit?
Leo: Acquire a new good habit to replace the old bad habit after the bad habit’s trigger. Just quitting a bad habit can be miserable. Starting a new good habit can be enjoyable if you make it so. So: if you smoke after eating (your trigger), replace it with stretching and taking a walk in fresh air. That’s enjoyable, and it makes changing the habit enjoyable (a positive reinforcement).

Procrastinating is considered a bad habit, but is there some good in putting things off?
Leo: Of course! We are not machines, and productivity for the sake of cranking out endless widgets is useless. We need breaks, we need our minds to be refreshed, we need idleness because that’s where we get creative. Life should be enjoyed, slowly, like a full-bodied wine or a rich dessert.

Do you think we procrastinate out of habit, fear or something else?
Leo: Fear is the biggest reason, but because of fear it can become a habit — it’s easier to shirk from something we’re afraid of and do something that has positive reinforcement instead. Once it’s a habit, it’s hard (but not impossible) to change. Lack of motivation is another huge reason we procrastinate — we just don’t want to do the hard things bad enough.

What do you procrastinate?
Leo: Oh, everything. I am no robot. I get passionate about exercise, for example, so I’ll read the workout routines of amazingly fit people instead of doing work, and get lost in my reading. The good news is that I can later turn that into “research” and do a blog post about it!


Thanks Leo!



  1. says

    Terrific, sensible advice.

    I’ve also found that the reason my own bad habits were to break is that I thought of them as rewards. “I’ve been good this week so I can indulge in that [extra glass of wine, rich meal, fattening dessert]. I deserve it.” It’s only when I decided that rewards are things boost my energy rather than deplete it — a long walk, cup of green tea, an extra hour of sleep — that I was able to move away from the habits that had negative effects on my health.

  2. says

    Leo is a humble human face of Zen – a modern day master of simple teaching through the 21st Century medium of the Internet. Thus, ancient wisdom blends with contemporary need which is why he has found his voice to a wide audience. And he talks an awful lot of sense too. You’re a pretty good interviewer Courtney to go with your excellent blogging I must say – congrats on a majestic piece.

    • Courtney Carver says

      Thanks John! Interviews are usually not my thing. Leo’s lifestyle and message really does resonate with so many.

  3. says

    Leo and his blog have long been an inspiration to me. Earlier this year I had the fortunate opportunity to meet with Leo and also go for a run with him in San Francisco. In the short time we spent getting to know one another I discovered that he is a truly genuine person. He practices what he preaches.

    I have been procrastinating and have not yet purchased his new book. I think it’s time to buy it. Thanks for the reminder with this great post.

    • Courtney Carver says

      Jason, Leo wrote the book in 3 days. – A perfect example of un-procrastination! It’s time to check it out.

        • Courtney Carver says

          Oops – typo! Thanks for answering my questions Leo. I know there is much more behind the scenes work that goes on contributing to your success, but the things I mentioned really stand out.

  4. says

    Great interview! I would write more but I need to stop myself from procrastinating from writing my blog post hehe.

  5. says

    Appreciated this quote: “…because of fear [procrastination] can become a habit — it’s easier to shirk from something we’re afraid of and do something that has positive reinforcement instead.”
    I’ll keep that in mind the next time I’m tempted to “shrink from something”. Instead of falling back on ‘safe’ behaviors that may not contribute to a goal, I can give myself a different form of positive reinforcement for having completed a task that feels scary.
    Thanks for the interview, Courtney and Leo!

    • Courtney Carver says

      Great insight Caroline. I think once we become of our actions and get off “auto-pilot”, we can start making real change.

  6. Emily says


    Thanks so much for showcasing Leo’s work! I have recently read a blog post or two that seems to be moving in a Leo-bashing direction, and was frankly saddened by what seems like a possibly developing trend. I know that Leo was my entrance into the concept of minimalism. I was drowning in a sea of “stuff” and he gave me a word to describe what my heart desired…a way to think about the concept of “less” in a positive, practical,and personal way. His blog was the doorway into an interesting new world. Frankly, I applaud Leo for his willingness to grow, change, explore new ideas, and take new journeys.

    Thanks again!

    • Courtney Carver says

      Emily, It seems the bigger and better you get, the more bashing there seems to be. I think it’s just relative to the size of Leo’s blog and overall web presence. As near as I can tell, he hasn’t done anything offensive, but some can find the negative in anything!

      • says

        I think that challenging points of view and differing opinions are a good thing and generate productive conversation. I’m sure Leo would agree. That said, bashing has no value and I’m sorry to hear that people are encouraging that kind of negativity. Thankfully the cream usually rises to the top and the bashers will inevitably do themselves a disservice and raise awareness for those with something worth saying and being heard, like Leo.

  7. says

    Courtney, good article, and I’m flattered by the mention. :)

    I think what Leo, you and so many others do now is lead by example. You’re not armchair experts, you’re actually writing about your own struggles and how you’re overcoming them, day to day, not preaching to people about all the things they should do, but not doing any of them yourself.

    I shared a quote on Twitter by Patrick Rhone just the other day that sums this up I think:

    “We often learn most from those that are not trying to teach but, instead, simply living. Live a life worth learning from.”

    Ev Bogue says similar things about the success and growth of his blog(s) – Live a life people want to live, then show them how to do it.

    The internet gives us access like never people to the people we look to to guide us, and we in turn can strive to be the same kind of leaders and inspiration to others, by being the best we can be ourselves.

    • Courtney Carver says

      Dan, Thanks for commenting. I didn’t include you to flatter you, I included you because you really help me. Your writing and inspiration always has bells going off in my brain!

      I am happy you’re flattered, but truly the mention is well deserved.

    • Courtney Carver says

      Bernice, That is a great point. Leo often admits that he doesn’t know it all, is still learning and isn’t perfect. It is so much easier to learn from someone like that than someone who thinks they have it all figured out.

  8. osiris says

    our ideas of good and bad are just as twisted as our understanding of more and less. I think when we use the word “good” we need to “dirty” it up.

  9. says

    Try searching Google for critique on Zen Habits, discussion of the posts, anything that might resemble a critique. Oh, that’s right, impossible to find. I guess that’s one way to ‘handle criticism gracefully’.