It’s All About Habits

Developing habits is a better approach because, once established, habits require none of your willpower stores to run. This is because for something to be considered a habit, it needs to be able to run on autopilot. Habits, unlike willpower, trade-off our brains’ built-in tendency to repeat the stuff they’ve done before.

From this I’m positive that you understand that you should be building a fat loss and/or muscle gain approach based upon the idea of installing new habits into your daily routine – and I’m also positive that right now you’re thinking ‘well how in the heck do I do that?’.

And that’s a completely reasonable question, which I’ll address in short time. But before I get to that, there are two concepts that you need to understand when it comes to taking the habitual approach to your goals.

The first concept is how long the process can take when you do it right.

It’s widely perpetuated that it takes around 21 days to ingrain a new routine as habit. My opinion on that is that the actual time it takes probably varies anywhere from 21 days to six months, depending on the habit, the individual, and how well the habit is integrated into your lifestyle.


From my perspective, that just makes sense – if you wanted to instil the habit of learning Spanish for an hour every day, it might take a little longer to make it stick than if you wanted to start drinking 500ml of water every morning when you wake up. Which is why selecting the right habits for you to stick to becomes so important.

The second important concept when it comes to successfully creating habitual change is that you should only ever be trying to implement a single new habit at a time.

Years ago I remember reading an article from Dr John Berardi (one of the most influential people in the nutrition realm), in which he cited research that discussed the varying degrees of success people found with implementing new habits. In his article, he stated that –

  • Those who attempt to adopt one new habit at a time have a 95% chance of success
  • Those who attempt to adopt two new habits at a time have a 40% chance of success
  • Those who attempt to adopt three or more habits at a time have a 5% chance of success

Circling back to what most people do in the gym, which is jump into a completely new routine – diet and all – and, having changed every single aspect of their lifestyle all at once, they start this journey where they struggle through each day for the next 3-8 weeks, before it all gets too much, they give up, and end up back where they started.

This scenario happens all the time, and is why I encourage everyone who I work with to focus on one, large ROI (return on investment) habit each week or fortnight, which is a much more sustainable approach, rather than jumping in the deep end of the pool, and struggling to keep their head above water.

The Tortoise & The Hare

tortoise-hare-1Whenever I outline this approach to someone, I inevitably get the objection that it seems like a really slow approach – that focusing on one habit at a time will take too long to work, and therefore is an inferior option.

Before we get back to that point, let me share a story with you.

I have a friend, who shall remain nameless (no, it’s not Voldemort*), with whom I’ve had discussion around this topic often. He, like many of my past clients, struggles to accept the idea of a slower uptake of habits, and potentially a slower (but more sustainable) rate of fat loss because in the past he’s managed to drop fat at a faster rate doing something else.

He’ll make comments such as ‘But in March I went crazy with my diet and training and lost 8kgs in three weeks’.

My response is simple, ‘Look, your 3-week fat loss rate is great, but tell me this, what’s your yearly fat loss rate?’

He responds, ‘What do you mean?’

‘How much fat did you lose if we measured it on two separate dates – the first being January 1st 2015, and the second being December 31st 2015?’

‘Well, I stayed the same, because I put the fat back on by the end of the year, but I still got better results doing it my way.’

What’s Einstein’s definition of insanity?

If you continue to repeat the same, broken cycle over and over again, with no modification to the process, and think that you’re going to get a different result, then it might be time to shake things up. Or you’re insane (for your sake, I hope not).

If my friend accepted a slower rate of fat loss, let’s say half a kilo per week, because he was spending his time focusing on making lifestyle changes using the habitual process rather than going all out for three, crazy weeks, he would have actually ended the year 26kgs lighter than when he began.

Now he’s a big guy with a lot of weight to lose, so his potential to lose fat is far greater than most, but it’s a great example of accepting slower short-term gains in favour of actual long-term gains. Because whilst he could lose fat at a faster rate over a short period, the reality was that he wasn’t losing anything year on year, and that’s what really matters.

The famous fable, the Tortoise & The Hare, is an appropriate parallel to this point. Most people begin their journey like the hare – the race starts and he sprints straight out of the gates, as fast as he can. Eventually the pace catches up to him, he gets burnt out, needs a break, and eventually stops completely to sleep.

The tortoise, on the other hand, doesn’t sprint straight out of the gate. He starts slow, plods along at a slower, but sustainable pace, and stays consistent with it. He understands that whilst he’s moving slower, eventually the hare will need a break, at which point he will overtake him, and win the race.

So whilst focusing on a habit per week, fortnight, or even month, may seem like you’re moving slower, the compound results of making those lifestyle changes stick will result in a better long-term result – and if you’re sick of trying to change your body or health, and failing over and again, the long-term result is all you should care about.

And in reality, even if you adopt a single new habit per month, that’s still 12, big ROI lifestyle changes over a year – which is going to be a dramatic change, for the better.

Implementing New Habits

Implementing new habits is as simple as following a three-step process –

Step 1 – Choose Your New Habit

Step 2 – Schedule It Into Your Lifestyle

Step 3 – Reward Yourself For Achieving It

We’ll go through each step now.

Step 1 – Choose Your New Habit

As I alluded to earlier, how you select which habits you follow is an important process. If the habit you choose is too hard to follow, then you’re never going to actually progress. If it’s easy to follow, but not aligned with your goals, then that’s not going to take you where you want to go, either.

Good habit choices come down to the ease of implementation, the ROI for your goals, and focus on the process rather than the outcome.

When I refer to ease of implementation all we’re really looking for is an answer to the following question –

Given everything else that’s going on in your life right now, how confident, out of ten, are you in being able to stick to this new habit?

If the answer isn’t a truthful nine or ten out of ten, then you need to look for an easier habit.

If we remember that we only have so much willpower to use on lifestyle changes, it makes sense that setting less intrusive, easily achievable goals will help turn them into habits at a faster rate.

The other benefit of setting achievable habits is building momentum. Success breeds more success, and when we set ourselves up for a few small wins in the beginning we start to feel good about ourselves, and making more positive decisions is easy.

Outcome vs. Process Goals

Another crucial concept within the choosing habits banner is choosing habits that are processes, being things within our control, as opposed to outcomes, which are the result of the processes.

Just to clarify, outcome goals are the desired result that we want. For example, losing 10kgs, sleeping for eight hours, squatting 200kgs.

Process goals are the behaviours we need to follow in order to set ourselves up to achieve the outcome. Examples related to the goals above might be to prepare all of my meals to include high-quality foods including a healthy portion of protein (lose 10kgs), creating a wind down process each night before bed (sleep eight hours), or making sure that I make two sessions per week in which I focus on the squat (squatting 200kgs).

Focusing on outcome goals only is tough because the result can vary based upon any number of reasons, and isn’t always directly proportional to our efforts. We don’t have direct control over whether we hit it or not, and therefore we can’t control our small wins each week.

When choosing habits, I want you to focus on process goals rather than outcome goals. We will get into some more examples in the next section.

Step 2 – Schedule It Into Your Lifestyle

Now that we’ve got our habit that’s at least a nine out of ten on the confidence scale, as well as being a process goal that’s in line with our outcome goal, next it’s time to schedule it into our pre-existing lifestyle.

We remember from our Fat Loss Hacks article how important it is to schedule habits into your week for compliance.

The problem with creating a habit without following up on how that fits into your week is that, because it’s something that’s new to you, it’s easy to forget about it. So creating systems to remind you what needs to happen, then you’ll be far more likely to successfully make it happen.

If your goal is to get 30-minutes of activity in three times per week, then you should be schedule 30-minute sessions into your calendar. Be specific in describing the time, place, and type of activity that you’re going to partake in because it will make it more real. For example, on Wednesday at 5:30pm I am going to walk at a brisk pace from Manly to Shelley Beach, and back, and in order to make that happen I will need to pack a bag with a change of clothes the night before, and take it to work with me.

Step 3 – Reward

Creating a reward system for achieving your goals is the final piece of the puzzle.

The reward system is acknowledging that if you’ve put in the effort to make a positive change in your lifestyle, and been successful with it, then you should feel proud about that, and as such be rewarded.

Even the newest of dog trainers understand that the positive feedback loop works best for making good behaviours permanent, and it’s the same for humans.

Setting up a weekly reward for achieving your habitual goal will help sweeten the deal, and make you more likely to stick it through when Friday comes along, and staying disciplined seems infinitely harder.

You can reward yourself in any number of ways, just don’t contradict your weekly habits i.e. don’t reward yourself for eating within your structured meals for the week by demolishing two pizzas on a Saturday night. That’s a false economy, and will not serve you well.

Examples Of Habits

Not to leave you high and dry, I thought I’d leave you with some examples of potential habits you can follow for the two main goals we serve – fat loss and muscle-building.

Fat Loss

  • Track all of your meals in a food diary
  • Start to get more activity in, even if only 10-minutes per day
  • Join a social group that partakes in group activity
  • Drink 500ml of water upon waking each morning
  • Swap one sugary treat with a piece of fruit
  • Swap full-sugar soft drink for a calorie-free option
  • Add 1 additional serve of vegetables per day
  • Plan a pre-bed routine for better sleep
  • Eat until you’re only 80% full and then stop
  • Drink a glass of water 1-hour before each meal
  • Swap vegetable cooking oil for ghee

Muscle Building

  • Drink a higher-calorie shake once per day – include protein, cottage cheese, a piece of fruit, and some nuts
  • Drink 500ml of water upon waking each morning
  • Add an extra protein shake each day
  • Add one set to each of your exercises in your training sessions
  • Plan a pre-bed routine for better sleep
  • Fill your office drawer with healthy, higher calorie snacks, such as nuts or beef jerky
  • Track your training sessions in a training log
  • Add a teaspoon of olive oil to your protein shakes
  • Add 1 additional serve of vegetables per day
  • Find a friend to train with at the gym

Understanding all of this, it should be obvious that a better strategy to use when working towards your goals is to adopt the habitual process. That is, bringing in one lifestyle change at a time, and ingraining said change as a habit before bringing in the next one will lead you to large, long-term results, which are the only results that matter.

Your focus at any one time will be singular, and as a result, you will succeed.

*Sorry, not sorry for the shameless Harry Potter reference