Using the Zen Habits approach with my morning routine

A couple of years ago, there was a Kickstarter launched by the awesome Leo Babauta of the blog Zen Habits (which I HIGHLY recommend you start reading regularly if you don’t already) to fund a book entitled Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change. I funded it to receive a copy, along with 8,210 other backers. I received both a digital and hard copy of the book and it was great. I read through it the first time to get a feel for the book rather than working on the exercises, however, because I was going through a rough breakup and wasn’t ready to pump up my self-improvement just yet. I’ve read it a few times and have slapped on sticky flags (which I love) at the parts that spoke the most to me, some of which I quote to my sobriety clients to help them with their struggles (there are some wonderful analogies in this book).

Zen Habits book
My slightly beat-up copy of the book

This time, however, I’m ready to make a change (well, many changes, but I’ll just start with one for now). There aren’t many positive routines in my life right now and I’ve always had trouble establishing good habits (thankfully breaking a bad one, though difficult, was doable for me). What I’m hoping to accomplish through the Zen Habits method is to create a morning routine that gets me out of bed by 5am and out of the door by 7am so I can be on time for work, which starts at 8am. There are a lot of elements to my morning routine and I’ve written out the very bare minimum on an index card, laminated it, and used a dry erase marker to check things off as I do them, but it doesn’t matter if I do everything in my routine if I don’t start it on time.

As frustrating as it may sound, the Zen Habits approach to change is very slow. You take the teeny, tiniest steps possible to build up to where you want to be. This is, of course, great for building a solid foundation, but is ironically difficult for most impatient human beings (*raises hand*).

It’s funny how making something super easy can seem so hard. As Leo eloquently points out, this is something that we can thank our idealist-seeking minds for.

There’s a projector in our minds, and it’s constantly playing a movie about how we’d like things to be, our ideals about the world, our expectations of how things will turn out, how others should be, how we should be. These images aren’t based on reality, but are just a fantasy this film projector created from nothing. The mind, as talented and well-intentioned and clever as it is, is at the root of the One Problem.

This One Problem is created by a series of “Mind Movies” (idealistic thoughts of the way things should be), governed by our “Childish Mind,” which seeks to get us out of discomfort and into a position that’s more familiar (so, away from the new changes we’re making and back to our old ways), which I totally agree with:

This Childish Mind will do everything it can to get out of discomfort. It will make you run from exercise, from doing difficult tasks, from new and confusing things. The Childish Mind will make excuses, rationalizations, beg to quit. It’s very, very good at what it does, and it’s constantly working against our best intentions.

I forget if Leo gets into the psychological terminology for this later on, but really what he’s describing is cognitive dissonance:

A drive or feeling of discomfort, originally defined as being caused y holding two or more inconsistent cognitions and subsequently defined as being caused by performing an action that is discrepant from one’s customary, typically positive self-conception – Akert, Aronson, Wilson (2010)

Look at me, quoting my Social Psychology textbook six years after taking the class instead of using Wikipedia’s definition. Allow me to bask in my resourcefulness for a moment.


Basking over.

Basically, when you do something that doesn’t align with your beliefs or the way you’ve been doing things for a long time, dissonance revs itself up in your brain, making it uncomfortable and start to panic, flipping all the switches it can to try to steer you back to the comfortable place it once was. This can be both good and bad. It can be good when you’re about to make a bad decision, it can be bad when you’re trying to break free of bad decisions or routines and verge into the realm of self-improvement. Thus an uphill battle begins, a clash between your rational and Childish minds.

I bit the bullet and have so far re-read Zen Habits up until chapter 13, doing each exercise of the end of each chapter. Today was my sixth day doing my smallest possible step that’s part of a bigger end-habit-goal (chapter 7’s exercise is to do this smallest step for the first time).

Leo has you establish a plan of action through the exercises at each chapter, most of the time adding these steps to what he calls a Habit Plan. Since I already have an idea of the bare essentials of what I need to do in the morning and want to focus more so on the habit of starting my day at the same time everyday, I scaled back to having the smallest step be to stand up with both feet on the floor at 5am every single morning.

The introduction and chapters 0 through 5 are all about setting up yourself for the success of kickstarting your habit. This involves:

  • Committing to doing the challenges/exercises at the end of each chapter of the book
  • Establishing why you’re committed to making the change you’re setting out to implement
  • Scaling back that change (which is most likely initially pretty broad, such as “have a morning routine that starts at 5am and gets me out the door by 7am”) to a more specific change (such as “be out of bed at 5am”)
  • Coming up with a super easy step to help you to turn into a habit (such as “stand up with both feet on the floor at 5am every morning”)
  • Picking a specific timeframe to do this small step and write out a vow about why this change is important to you
  • Identifying a trigger that is already in your daily routine that you can use to trigger this small step (in my case, it’s my alarm clocks)
  • Creating reminders – including physical ones – to get you to do that small step.

For my physical reminders, I put two Post-it notes up; one on a wall on either side of my bed. I went this route because a month ago I started to do some dumbbell curls in the morning to try to feel a little more energized and motivated. I use the full length mirror hanging up in my hallway to check my form and make sure I’m doing them right, so to help myself actually do the dumbbell curls, I left a 7lb dumbbell in the hallway and taped a few Post-its to the mirror saying cheery things like “Looking great!” “You can do this!” “3 sets of 10? Pssh, that’s easy!”. I’m not that cheery of a person, but it helped that my mirror could be excited.

Here are my Post-its for my morning habit of standing on the floor at 5am:

Post-it saying "Start the day right, stand up!"
This one is on the wall behind one of my alarm clocks that wakes me up with light, so I’m able to read it without turning a light on.
Post-it saying "It's 5 A.M., get on your feet!"
This one is on the opposite side of my bed and is also illuminated by the aforementioned alarm clock. This is the side of the bed I get out on.

The exercise at the end of chapter 6 is about accountability; what commitment will you make to others and what consequences will you face if you fail to meet that commitment? I picked a friend who’s in a time zone two hours behind me and keeps his phone on silent while he’s asleep so I can’t wake him up. I was going to just text him when I woke up but figured it’d be too easy to cheat that way and say “Yup, I’m standing up.” I then decided I’d send him a selfie of me standing up at 5am every morning to prove I was actually doing my commitment. But then I thought about how right now the sun isn’t up at 5am anymore and I could easily take a picture of myself standing up the night before and just send it at 5am the next morning.

That’s when I decided I’d take a selfie of me standing in front of a clock to prove that 1) I’m standing and 2) it’s no later than 5am. Of course only then I realized the only clock that can actually work with this plan is downstairs in my living room since it’s a medium-sized analog wall clock and is much easier for my front facing camera to focus on than a nightstand-level digital clock. Standing up at 5am is hard enough but going downstairs to take a selfie? For me, that’s pretty hard.

Here’s where the consequence comes in: I told my friend that if I miss even one day of the week, I’d owe him $80. I don’t have that kind of money laying around so trust me when I say that I have been rushing downstairs to take that darn selfie in front of my wall clock for the past six days.

Keep in mind that since I have a poor concept of time, every clock in my home (with the exception of my phone, iPod touch, and Fitbit) is set ahead a random amount of minutes because I am bad at math and am usually too tired to even try to figure out the actual time, so I take these clocks at face value. This particular clock is 8 minutes fast, so as long as it isn’t later than 5:08 on the clock in these photos, I’m good.

So far, so good. I’m hoping for a full seven day streak tomorrow. The book, of course, lasts much longer, but right now this is the small step I’m focusing on for the week. I’ll keep you updated with how this goes :). Next up is doing a Habit Sprint, but more on that later…I’ve already crammed enough into one post.


Because Leo Babauta is awesome, he has an “Uncopyright” paragraph at the very beginning of the book stating:

All ideas in this book are stolen, and therefore don’t belong to me. This entire work is therefore uncopyrighted and in the public domain. No permission is required to copy, reprint, or otherwise gleefully rip off anything I’ve written.

No one has the right to deny the freedom of basic ideas.

With that said, I am happy to share with you the digital copy of Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change since you cannot buy a printed copy of this exact book (Leo did, however, release a more concise version that is available on Amazon entitled: Essential Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change, BrieflyYou can also read the book online for free right here).

For the digital version of the original Zen Habits book I’ll be updating you on my progress with, visit and use the password “boundlesslove” (without quotations) to access the content. For those of you who prefer the PDF version, you may access that here (opens in browser, not an automatic download).


3 thoughts on “Using the Zen Habits approach with my morning routine

    1. Thanks!! It’s a lovely book, to get my full routine going I’m going to have to repeat it several times but it really is helping build the momentum I was lacking.

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