The Power of Habits to Transform Your Life

One of my favorite gurus is a fairly recent one: Leo Babauta, the young founder of the Zen Habits website and the author of numerous books on simple living, getting things done and living a mindful life. I discovered Leo about a year after he launched his website in 2007, and I was hooked. He is an odd combination of classical western wisdom (Aristotle for Pete’s sake!) and contemporary, web-savvy modern living. The father of six kids and a born again vegan from the U.S. protectorate of Guan, in the South Pacific, Leo is a former journalist who embraced the web early on and is now a full-time blogger and lifestyle coach. He moved his large family from Guan to San Francisco in 2010 so they would be closer to better educational and work opportunities and so he would be closer to the tech companies that make the web hum.

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Leo’s basic premise is one he learned from Aristotle and which I had drilled into me in Catholic schools all my life: “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle said in the Nichomachian Ethics. “Therefore, excellence is not an act, but a habit.” In a Catholic context, good habits are known as virtues; bad habits as vices. Happiness is achieved by the pursuit of good habits, or virtue, and you are made miserable by the gradual accumulation of vices or bad habits. (By the way, most of what I learned about habits over the years I learned from the small “pocket Summa” I have by my bed and still read regularly. Written in 1952 by two priests, Walter Farrell and Martin Healy, it’s entitled My Way of Life: Pocket Edition of St. Thomas Aquinas and is available for a few bucks from the Confraternity of the Precious Blood or on Ebay. )

Leo had something of an enlightenment experience. When he looked at his life as a struggling father in his early thirties, he found he was broke… overweight… out of shape… his house full of clutter… and unhappy. Through his reading and quiet thinking, Leo woke up one day with the realization that he could change everything he didn’t like in his life – everything – if he just took one small step every single day. In other words: if he changed his habits, he would change his life. He started slowly, but he began to apply this simple but powerful philosophy to many different areas of his life. Within a two year period, Leo had managed to…

  • Quit smoking
  • Triple his income
  • Completely eliminate his debts
  • Write a novel
  • Run marathons
  • Lose 65 pounds
  • Create a blog with 250,000 subscribers
  • Saved a sizable emergency fund
  • Simplified and de-cluttered his life

An amazing story, truly. “I am not an expert, or a doctor, or a coach,” Leo says. “All I am is a regular guy, a father of six kids, a husband, a writer. But I have accomplished a lot over the last couple of years (and failed a lot) and along the way, I have learned a lot.”

What Leo learned is the amazing power of good habits.

I couldn’t agree more. Virtually everything I have accomplished in my life has been largely through force of habit, not through hard work necessarily or through inspiration. What I have failed to accomplish, moreover, is due largely to my not adopting the habits – the routines of behavior that I perform subconsciously and without thinking about them – that would make those things happen. Here is a list of good habits that I believe are important and a few that I am only now, late in life, embracing. You should take from these what you will and add your own.

Buying and reading books. This is one of my biggest habits. Whether it’s a virtue or a vice is a matter of opinion. One of the first things I did when we bought our current house was to create a massive home library. We had a bonus room over the garage and I paid a carpenter to install professional, floor-to-ceiling book cases along three walls. We also have a smaller, secondary library downstairs where we store “kid books.” The net result is that, in many ways, our library is better stocked than those in many schools. Part of this comes from homeschooling… because homeschoolers tend to be compulsive book buyers. With the advent of Amzon.com and ABE.com, buying books has become so easy and so affordable, relatively speaking, that this life habit is now engrained.

Talking to strangers. This is a habit both my wife and I have and which we practice on a daily basis. My wife chats with anyone easily – checkers at the grocery store, people waiting in line. I am not as friendly as she is but more than willing to talk to anyone about anything. It’s something we would like to pass on to our children — with the proviso, of course, about safety when it comes to young girls and strangers.

Exercising daily. As a family, we’re fairly active – not as much as some but more than many. I run on the treadmill regularly for an hour and go to my Aikido classes twice a week. I also try to lift weights when I can. My sons all lift weights and run. My daughters swim an hour and a half every single day and are champion swimmers. My wife walks along our beach trail every day. Exercise is an essential life habit. It’s easy to miss. It’s the first thing that gets push aside when the demands of work raise their ugly heads. In addition to Aikido, I would like to add a regular yoga class into the mix for flexibility as I get older.

Going to church and grace before meals. These are simple habits that are falling out of favor, but I think they are essential for a happy life. Neither of these habits have to be a big deal. But they are small but very influential behaviors that set a “tone,” an orientation, to your life. Because we’re Catholics, we mostly just go through the motions: grace is a standard prayer, said by rote, but it is rarely overlooked in our house. We give thanks. Daily. It’s the same thing with Sunday Mass. We go to Mass out of habit. It’s what we do on Sunday mornings. But once a week, we get dressed up in our semi-best clothes, put on nice shoes, and scurrying over to our parish church overlooking the ocean. We join with hundreds of other bleary-eyed parishioners in a simple but very ancient ritual by which we give thanks to our Creator for the gift of Jesus Christ in our world. Like the Jewish Sabbath, going to church is a habit that orients our life in a specific direction – away from ourselves and towards God.

Eating healthfully. This is a life habit I get more from my wife than from myself. I only really notice it when I visit other people and see what they eat – the candy wrappers, boxes of sugar cereals, instant dinners. I call my wifea “virtual vegan” because she eats mostly salads, quinoa, nuts and fish. A dedicated advocate of the “paleo” diet, I insist on lean protein. As a result, our compromise is mostly home-cooked, old-fashioned meals with almost no processed foods whatsoever. The older we get, the more organic we become. I realize that this is largely a yuppie indulgence, eating whole food and avoiding junk, but it makes an amazing difference in how you feel. A good friend of mine, who lives in Hollywood, tells the story of how he visited relatives in Iowa. He never realized how his eating habits had changed, he said, until he found himself unable to eat the massive amounts of grease in a typical Midwest breakfast and kept asking the waitresses in diners if they had any fruit.

Fish on Fridays. This is a corollary of the eating healthfully habit. Young people won’t remember this, but in the old days, back when I was young, Catholics didn’t eat meat on Friday – in commemoration of Good Friday. It was a worldwide Catholic habit, so prevalent and unquestioned that most restaurants had fish specials to accommodate all their Catholic diners. Then, in the changes that happened after Vatican II, this long-standing custom was simply… dropped. The bishops declared that it was no longer mandatory to “abstain” on Fridays but only on the Fridays during Lent. Instead, you were asked to do some good deed, an act of charity. Of course, all that happened was that this wonderful badge of honor among Catholics – this identifying habit – was dropped and nothing was put in its place. But like many of the salutary practices that were abandoned after Vatican II, abstaining from meat on Fridays is coming back – if only for health reasons. In our family, we’ve quietly reestablished the tradition as a way of making sure we eat more fish and also because it’s a great tradition.

Saving money. This is a habit that everyone knows they should adopt but few do. It’s also the only sure and certain path to economic sustainability and financial independence. I’ll talk a lot more about my misguided and tortured relationship with money in another chapter, but for now I’d just like to say something about the habit of saving money. It’s essential. Like many habits, saving money is something I’ve done on and off over the years and I would be much better off financially if it was more “on” than “off.” As with most habits, the trick with saving money is to take baby steps that are so painless you are able to perform them without complaint. For example, when we hired our children for small jobs with our business, we would pay them a paycheck but then automatically deduct a big chunk and send it one of three places: First to the Roth-IRA, second to their Education-IRA and third and lastly to their own brokerage accounts. As a result, our kids have a jump-start on their retirement savings and a place where they can put their own savings. For ourselves, my wife and I have a Defined Benefit Pension Plan with a dragon lady administrator who forces us to put money into it. But lately, I’ve gone back to deducting 10% from every check or wire transfer I receive for our business and place that money into a segregated savings account. At the end of the year, when the time comes for a contribution to our pension plan, we have the cash set aside.

Confession. This is a uniquely Catholic habit, what has been called “Catholic yoga,” but I would like to recommend it to everyone, certainly all Christians but also everyone else as well. I am also being hypocritical because I don’t go to Confession nearly as often as I should. The only reason why I go at all is because of Opus Dei. I am not a member of Opus Dei but admire some aspects of their movement, and I have friends who are active members. They organize a regular monthly Mass, Benediction and “pep talk” over at a local Catholic high school. One of the “charisms” or missions of Opus Dei is the reestablishment of the traditional Catholic habit of regular sacramental Confession. Like Fish on Friday, Confession is another traditional Catholic habit that was summarily dropped after Vatican II. Before the council, virtually all Catholics went to confession. There were literally lines outside of churches. Now few people go. Yet it’s one of the most amazing, life-affirming experiences. Like climbing a mountain or running, it’s hard to do at first but you feel great afterwards. It’s a little known fact that you don’t have to be Catholic to go to Confession: there isn’t a blood test or anything. No matter what horrible sin or crime you have committed, a Catholic priest will lay his lands upon you and, by the authority granted to him by Jesus Christ (see John 6), your sins will be forgiven you. I will spare you right now the theological and apologetic defense of Confession and just recommend it as a life habit.

Meditation. I like to use the term “meditation” because so many people are turned off by a better word, which is prayer. Many people are attracted to meditation but turned off by the idea of praying. But it’s really the same thing. The more you study other religions, the more you realize that. Buddhists, who allegedly don’t believe in God, pray all the time. Yes, there are differences between meditation and prayer – certainly between what Buddhists mean by meditation and what Christians and Jews mean by prayer – but from a practical standpoint, and the standpoint of life habits, these differences don’t matter. The point is to acquire the habit of sitting quietly every day

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).