The Zen rule for becoming happier: Change one thing

One tiny step at a time.
One tiny step at a time.
Image: Reuters/Olivia Harris
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The end of one year, and the beginning of a new one, is a good time to take stock, but not an easy time to do so. Diaries get packed with social engagements, deadlines, and travel. In the northern hemisphere, cold, short days can seem to conspire against a sense of newness or possibility.

Any decision to change one’s life, in such a complex context, needs to be extremely simple and easy to follow.

Luckily, Zen Buddhism is predicated on principles of simplicity. Leo Babauta, founder of Zen Habits and author of several courses and e-books on habit-changing, explains it with characteristic minimalism in this blogpost.

In order to make any change in one’s life—whether it’s to get out of debt, become fit enough to run a marathon, or get on better with your family—he says, start with a single change. It should be small; not a goal, but a tiny first step. It could be to run for ten minutes; to spend two minutes drawing; to prepare a healthy work lunch for one day a week. It could be to stay in hard conversations for a moment after you want to leave, and spend that moment trying to listen.

Babauta advises that to turn changes into habits, it’s important to make the change tiny, and let it embed: he suggests making one change every four to six weeks. Having experimented on himself, he also advises addressing one thing at a time, rather than trying to solve work, love, health, or family problems simultaneously. He’s boiled down all his teachings into what he calls one “algorithm…a series of steps that you can apply to make any change, no matter what your situation”:

1. Start very small.
2. Do only one change at a time.
3. Be present and enjoy the activity (don’t focus on results).
4. Be grateful for every step you take.

The beauty of the method is that its smallness removes the problems that result from many self-help recommendations and resolutions: too often they leave people quickly overwhelmed by the task in hand, or swamped by a sense of failure. The change should be so small it’s not hard to do. What takes rigor, for people drenched in stimuli and commitments, is identifying something that is truly small enough.