The Trick to Developing a Flexible Mindset

by Gretchen Rubin
Originally Published: 

Leo has a terrific site, Zen Habits. He’s also doing a Kickstarter campaign to do a book, Zen Habits, that people are buzzing about. It’s about to end, so if you’re intrigued, act fast.

Naturally, I was eager to pose some habits questions to Leo—a person who is as interested in the subject as I am.


Gretchen: What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Leo: The most important thing I’ve developed is a flexible mindset: when a habit inevitably goes off track, I consider this a part of the process, and learn from it, and adapt. My old mindset was one of a fixed plan—I had a plan, and if it didn’t work, I felt like a failure. That’s a good recipe for getting derailed at the slightest bump in the road.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Exercise. I used to hate exercise, but now I feel great every time I have a great workout or run. I feel stronger, empowered, vigorous, joyful.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When I was younger, I knew I should form healthy habits, but would always put them off because life seemed to stretch out endlessly ahead of me. I could always eat healthier or exercise or get my finances in order later, because there will be time. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I wasted a lot of time on useless distractions and junk food, and that if I had just done the habits I now love doing, I would be much better off. I wasted years of my life, precious time that I can’t get back. I don’t regret it, but I’m a bit wiser now.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I now know that I can be happy in any moment, if I’m present. So forgetting to be present is the only habit that gets in the way of that happiness. Which, of course, I do all the time!

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Doing my creative work early, focusing on one thing at a time, being mindful, exercise, eating healthy vegan food, being grateful and compassionate. Not in that order.

“Social gatherings throw me off, but I just take them as bumps in the road that aren’t that big of a deal if you take the long view.”

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I’ve changed dozens of habits. I started with quitting smoking, and then started running (eventually running several marathons and an ultramarathon), eating healthier, simplifying my life, waking early, eliminating debt, meditating, learning to focus, learning to trust myself.

I learned that focusing on one habit at a time worked best, and doing small habits was important. I would commit to others and ask them to hold me accountable, focus on mindfully enjoying the habit, anticipate disruptions, adapt when things went awry, progress gradually. And lean on others.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m an Obliger, for sure! I do really well when other people are expecting me to do something, when I have a commitment with someone else…but I tend to let myself off the hook if it’s “only” a commitment to myself.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Yes, I have lots of things that get in the way, but I’ve learned to take them in stride. Travel disrupts my exercise and eating habits, but I minimize the damage by eating vegan food and not overdoing it. Social gatherings also throw me off, but I just take them as bumps in the road that aren’t that big of a deal if you take the long view. In the long run, unanticipated disruptions are a part of the journey, and aren’t a sign that you’re undisciplined or anything. I try to breathe, smile, and enjoy each step.

To read more by Gretchen Rubin, visit her site.

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