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Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years

People want to lose weight really fast (myself included). We fantasize about having a flat stomach, a leaner body, in just weeks. Two weeks would be ideal.

Search for “weight loss” in Amazon and you’ll find books that will show you how to “lose weight fast” or in a certain number of weeks, like 8 weeks, 4 weeks, even 2 weeks.

Of course, that’s bunk.

Let’s take a closer look at what it would take to lose weight in 4 weeks:

  • About 2/3 of American adults are overweight or obese, and have more than 20 lbs. to lose. If you’re trying to lose 20 lbs. in 4 weeks, that’s 5 lbs. a week. But for most people, it’s much better to lose 1-2 lbs. per week than 3-5 lbs.
  • A big drop in weight (like 10 lbs. in the first two weeks) often happens if you drastically change your diet. Most of this is water weight — only a few of those 10 lbs. will be actual fat. This water weight is deceiving, because 1) it’s unsustainable, because after the first couple weeks you won’t lose much water weight and your rate of weight loss will drop to a more sustainable 1-2 lbs. per week, which will be disappointing if you hoped to keep losing weight that fast, and 2) the water weight comes back on really quickly if you change your diet back later.
  • What you’re really doing is going on a short-term drastic diet (and probably some intense exercise) but in your mind, you’re only doing it for 4 weeks, and you think you just need to get through this short-term suffering in order to achieve the weight loss. This is wrong. You’ll lose weight, then go back to your old habits, and then gain the weight back and more.

So losing a lot of weight in 4 weeks is possible, but it’s more sustainable to lose it slowly, and to build long-term habits, and much of the weight you lose is water weight that will come right back on when you return to old habits.

And so, losing weight fast is a bad idea.

What’s a better way? Changing your actual eating and exercise habits, which is much harder than most people realize. Let’s take a look at me as a case study.

Leo’s 7-Year Weight Loss Story

Calling it my “weight loss story” is deceiving, because this story really isn’t about weight. It’s about changing old habits.

I started off about 60 lbs. heavier than I am now, and I had years of bad eating and exercise habits. I ate lots of meat, junk food, sweets, fast food, party food, and drank soda, beer, fatty coffee drinks and more. And I almost never did active stuff. But that’s just the start of my health habits, as it turns out.

Here’s what happened:

  1. I started by quitting smoking. This taught me a lot about habits, and got the ball rolling down the road to becoming healthier.
  2. I started running to relieve stress. If you relieve stress by smoking, drinking, or eating unhealthy food, you’ll need to find a healthier stress coping habit. Running became that habit for me, though now I have others: meditation, socializing in a healthy way, drinking tea, and various thinking habits.
  3. I could barely run, and so I started small and progressed gradually.
  4. I learned that quitting smoking and running made me feel healthy and great, but eating junk food made me feel worse. So I started trying to eat healthier food, which meant learning to eat vegetables. I didn’t like it much at first, but I learned to like veggies, and now I love them. This taught me that by gradually introducing healthy foods, I could train my tastebuds and learn to like things I didn’t like at first. I’ve now done this with dozens of foods.
  5. I became vegetarian. This cut out a ton of unhealthy fatty meats that I was eating, and I ate more vegetables instead. I missed the meats at first, but soon learned that I didn’t need them anymore. I started losing a good amount of weight at this point — maybe 30 lbs. in my first year.
  6. I ran a marathon. This took a year of building up my mileage. I was still overweight at this point, but definitely lighter.
  7. I started eating fewer sweets. This is a weak point for me, as I love sweets and still indulge now and then. It’s been a long road of learning why I eat sweets, and eating other things instead (fruits, especially berries, and a little dark chocolate are my favorites — also some raisins or dried cranberries).
  8. I learned to eat healthier snacks. Fruits and nuts, veggies and hummus, salads.
  9. I started to learn other ways to be active, like riding bikes, swimming, playing sports, lifting weights. One at a time.
  10. I learned that doing activities with others, like my wife, kids, sister, friends, was more fun and motivating. I learned about using challenges to keep myself motivated and to make active-ness more fun.
  11. I developed social coping skills so I could be a vegetarian in the midst of meat eaters and unhealthy friends/relatives.
  12. I learned to watch myself eating when I was eating socially. This is still something I’m working on, as it’s not a habit you face every day.
  13. I learned to eat healthier at restaurants.
  14. In the 2nd year of fitness, I did a couple of short triathlons (I was just a beginner really). In my 3rd year I did a couple more marathons.
  15. I became vegan, gradually. I’ve only been 100% vegan for about 5 months now, but was 95% vegan for a couple years.
  16. I learned to eat fewer processed grains, fewer convenience foods, less sugar.
  17. Last year I finally dropped sugar from my coffee.
  18. I started building a little muscle, slowly, in the last few years, through weights.
  19. I backtracked a bunch of times, overeating during travel or social occasions, gaining fat. Then I’d set a little challenge for myself and lose fat again.

This is just the broad strokes overview, actually. Learning what habits I’d developed over the years was the big part, and then slowly changing them one by one, has been the main process. Again, I’ve backtracked a number of times, but watching myself do that has been a learning process, and learning to get back on track with healthy habits even after I slipped up has been a great skill to learn.

It hasn’t been a linear progression. I’ve gone up and down, learned a lot along the way, and am still changing my habits. Today I am happy with my body, and fairly lean for my age. I don’t look like an underwear model, but I don’t feel like I need to, and am really happy with my healthy habits. This is where I should be, and if I keep an eye on my habits, I’m likely to stay this way for years.

So You Want to Form Lean Habits

Give up the idea of quick weight loss, and focus on building sustainable habits. Yes, it will take longer, but it will also last longer. Yes, it will take some work, but it’s fun, and you learn a lot about yourself in the process.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Start with a really easy habit. Just a small step, like drinking more water or eating a fruit a day or going for a short walk (or walk/run if that’s too easy) or doing a few pushups. You’ll learn about forming habits as you do so.
  • Stick with easy habits for awhile, and if you’re successful at them, then you can gradually progress. You’ll be amazed at how much you can progress — I couldn’t exercise for 10 minutes when I started, but in 2011 I completed the GoRuck Challenge, which was 13 hours of hard exercise.
  • Watch yourself as you eat. Why are you eating? What need are you fulfilling? Can you find a healthier replacement habit?
  • Change your tastebuds. Most people think things like, “I can’t give up meat” or “I hate vegetables” or “I could never give up ____” (cheese, sweets, chocolate, pizza, etc.). I’m not asking you to give it up, but if you really want to learn the habits of being lean, change your tastebuds to healthier things. Eat a vegetable every day — before long, you’ll like it. Try brown rice instead of white, or whole grains instead of white flour, or fruits instead of sweets, or tempeh instead of meat, or quinoa or kale or dark chocolate or chard. They’re all delicious, if you give them a chance.
  • Make activity a social thing. Do something fun with other people. Join a running club. Walk with your spouse. Get your coworkers to join a challenge. Be accountable to each other.
  • Sign up for a race or other fitness challenge.
  • Learn to socialize without eating unhealthy things.
  • Learn healthy strategies for when you go to a social gathering or restaurant or travel.
  • When you fail, forgive yourself, and learn. Get better. Keep doing it.
  • Be proud of little progress. Enjoy the journey. I mean every single step — don’t keep your eye on the end goal, but on where you are, and how amazing it is.

That should get you started. If you do those things for a few years, you’ll know what else you need to do by then.

Good luck, my friends. This journey might be longer than a sprint, but that’s what makes it worthwhile. If you set yourself down this path, you are one of the courageous, the joyous, the lucky.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Chapters
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC