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How to Make Awesome New Habits (Without Driving Yourself Nuts)

OK, if you read the article about the habit loop (check it out here), you'll know that making awesome new habits really isn't so hard.

After all, we're only talking about three words and three arrows, right?

Sure, that sounds almost too simple but here's what it boils down to.

So, first off there's some kind of cue, for example:

• A Facebook notification

That leads to a routine action:

• Open Facebook app, check newsfeed

And, like magic, there's the reward:

• An instant hit of excitement/outrage/happiness or whatever

And the arrow going from reward back to cue? That's the habit loop being reinforced.

The stronger the reward, the more hardwired the cue becomes.

But here's what really drives the habit loop:

When you start anticipating the reward the moment you experience the cue...

That's why you're already imagining how good these cookies will smell and how awesome they'll taste.

Even though they could be old and stale or made out of Play-Doh.

Habits are that conditioned into us.

But the good news is they can always be changed.

How to Change a Habit

The first part of changing any habit is to recognize that the habit exists in the first place.

Now, sometimes that's easier said than done - after all, over 40% of the stuff we do on a daily basis happens on autopilot.

But let's say you've identified a habit you want to change, the "I'm home!" routine where you grab a cold beer from the fridge and crash out in front of the TV when you get back from work.

Once you've recognized the habit, you then need to believe deep down that:

1) The habit must change,

2) You're the one to change it, and

3) You can change it

The reality is nobody else can do this for us - sure, other folks can give us encouragement and support but they can't control our perception of things.

Only we can do that.

Then what? We break the habit down into bite-size chunks.

The Cue

You've had a long, hard day at work and you're emotionally and physically spent.

Walking through the front door feels more like crossing the finish line at the Honolulu Marathon.

You've made it!

Finally, it's time to unwind and relax.

And that's the cue: arriving home.

The Routine

OK, at this point you're already on autopilot and here's how your routine might play out:

1) Grab a cold beer from the fridge, collapse into an armchair, find the remote control

2) Zone out to whatever's on TV

3) Snack on some nuts, chips or a few pretzels

4) Grab another beer (hey, you earned it, right?)

And finally, here comes the thing you're really after...

The Reward

OK, this may sound a little weird but the reward isn't about drinking beer, eating snacks and watching TV.

No, it's about the feelings we associate to doing those things.

And this is where we really begin to enter The Matrix.

Why? Because those associations aren't real - they're just things we've linked up in our head and accept as true.

I know it sounds crazy but here's a real-world example.

I eat a few squares of dark chocolate every day between eating dinner and jumping into the shower just before hitting the futon.

Saturdays Chocolate Sapporo

(Yeah, I know - I'm a real party animal)

So in my head, chocolate equals things like winding down and relaxation.

But my brother-in-law's take is completely different.

As a kid, he once ate chocolate until he threw up so, even 30 years later, just the smell of chocolate makes him nauseous.

The exact same chocolate, yet he and I have radically different associations that we both believe to be "true".

The bottom line is what we're ultimately after is feelings, and the routine is just a convenient vehicle to obtain them.

Now, here are some of the feelings we might get from the "I'm home!" routine.

1) Comfort - consuming food and drink you enjoy makes you feel good

2) Relaxation - finally, you can kick back without being chewed out by the boss

3) Variety - who knows what show you'll find on TV?

4) Connection - maybe you empathize with one of the characters in a movie or it reminds you of an awesome experience you had way back when life was less complicated

(The 70's classic "Big Wednesday" does it for me every time)

Fundamentally, those feelings (comfort, relaxation, variety, connection) are what you're really after.

And that's precisely what the "I'm home!" cue-routine-reward loop provides.

But the great news is we can always develop a more positive habit that will deliver all the feelings we want.

So it's a win-win situation.

Changing the Habit

At first glance, it may seem like we just change the routine.

Cue: See fresh cookies (and anticipate how awesome they'll taste and smell)

Routine: Instead of tucking in, you deny yourself the pleasure using iron-jawed determination

Now, for most folks, that's never going to work.

So here's something way more effective...

Changing the Cue

Now, changing the cue isn't realistic with the "I'm home!" habit loop.

After all, the cue is arriving home.

But for other habits, changing the cue can work really well.

So, if the cue was seeing a certain convenience store or drive thru on your way home, you could take a different route.

Or if, like me, you have a real weakness for Quest's Cookies & Cream protein bars, don't order the damn things.

Problem solved or, more accurately, problem avoided.


Or if the cue was seeing the office candy dish, you'd move it to a place that's out of sight.

Yeah, I know - that sounds completely lame, right?

But research by food behavior and psychology expert Brian Wansink found that people ate more candy when it was visible than when it wasn't.

This wasn't about self-discipline or anything like that - simply removing the cue was enough to change the routine.

So, removing the cue (opting out of Facebook notifications, not keeping your mail client open) can be a quick and easy way to change a habit.

But if you can't change the cue ("arriving home"), you've got to play with the routine.

And I really do mean play because if we make something fun, it tends to be effortless.

Changing the Routine (But Getting the Same Reward)

Now, the reward is what we're ultimately after, and we'll get that one way or another.

So all we need to do is get the desired feelings (relaxation, variety, connection) with a more positive vehicle than by drinking beer and watching TV.

And the awesome news is there are endless ways to get those feelings.

Like how about going on a bike ride around the block with your kids when you get home?

You'll get:

1) Relaxation - get your body moving and you'll start to feel more relaxed pretty much immediately

2) Variety - kids have an ability to find variety in pretty much any environment

3) Connection - talk to them, breathe and be aware of "now"

Naturally, that may not always be realistic or possible, especially if you're on a business trip, on deployment or your kids have grown up and left home.

But there are always a ton of different vehicles available.

And instead of coming up with every possible one for every possible scenario, let's go one step deeper and take a quick look at what really drives our behavior.

Keep in mind that this applies to everything we do, whether it's habitual or not.

So, here it is:

We all have just six emotional needs.

And every habit we have or action we take (good or bad) really comes down to meeting one or more of those needs.

So once we know what those needs are, finding healthy and positive ways to fulfil them is a cinch.

The Six Human Needs

The idea of the six human needs appeared in the 1950's book, How To Live 365 Days A Year.

And more recently, they've been a mainstay of Tony Robbins' work.

So here they are:

(Notice how we can use positive or negative vehicles to get the same feelings)


1. Certainty/comfort

Being sure you can help someone or solve a problem

Watching a movie you've seen a dozen times before

Being certain how drinking a six-pack will make you feel


2. Uncertainty/variety

Taking up a new sport, activity or class

Having a stimulating conversation

Channel hopping or spending hours on social media


3. Significance/uniqueness

Helping someone with your expert knowledge or experience

Getting a promotion, becoming a black belt in kung fu 

Imposing your will on others or tearing people down (the lifeblood of celebrity magazines)


4. Connection/love

Spending time with people you care about

Being in nature

Punishing people you feel "wronged" or "hard done" by


And the last two needs? Well, they're both inherently positive.


5. Contribution

You give more than you expect to receive


6. Growth

Improvement is continuous and never ending - you're always learning


The bottom line is everything we do will meet at least some of the first four needs.

But here's something super-important:

If those needs are met through negative vehicles, we'll feel no real sense of happiness or fulfilment.

But meet the first four through positive vehicles, and you'll not only feel a whole lot better, so will the people around you.

That's an upward spiral.

And if you're also contributing and growing, you'll be happier and more fulfilled than most of the billionaires in the world.


Ultimately, we all have the same needs and we can all choose the vehicles we use to meet them.

If you're creative enough, you can satisfy all those needs by anything from mowing the lawn or helping your kids with their homework to winning a Nobel Prize or flying Air Force One.

Really, it's true!

OK, let's take going for a walk or run when you get home as an example.

1. Certainty: At the very least, you're certain that you'll be able to make it home OK

2. Uncertainty: Who knows who you'll meet, what you'll see or what you'll experience?

3. Uniqueness: Other folks go home and grab a beer - you're part of a more select group

4. Connection: You get to breathe deeply, get connected to your body and sense what's going on around you

5. Contribution: Decompressing this way helps to make you both a better father and husband

6. Growth: You're getting physically and mentally stronger, and you can use this time to focus on positive goals you're committed to achieving

All from an easy 20-minute walk or run!

Now, if there's one thing we really get excited about at Super Fit Dads, it's movement.

After all, it's one of the easiest ways to feel great and change your mindset almost instantly.

But it's so much more than that.

Like The Power of Habit author, Charles Duhigg says:

Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change

So, if you can meet your needs through exercise and movement, you're going to develop some awesome new habits that will open the door to a whole new life.

And get this:

Good habits quickly become as hard to break as bad habits, and they tend to spill over into other areas of your life.

It's like a snowball effect.

Look, I know it sounds almost too simple, but changing the cue and/or the routine can yield massive dividends for minimal effort.

Stuff like this can be a real game changer:

• Removing the cue to buy the six-pack in the first place, and

• Associating more pleasure to going for a walk when you get home than you do to pounding beer from the comfort of your armchair

It can really be that simple.

How Long Does it Take?

Now, when it comes to the time taken to change a habit, the number thrown around on the Internet is almost always "21 days".

But I disagree.

To me, it's a bit like asking someone how long it will take to stand up on a surfboard or play "Stairway to Heaven".

It all depends, right?

And the thing it depends on is the degree of pleasure we've associated the new habit with.

When I lost 61 lbs in 27 weeks, it felt easy because I'd associated so much pleasure to achieving the end result.

Of course, somebody else might associate even more pleasure to weight loss and lose even more weight, even quicker.

But hey, this isn't a competition.

The key thing is the more passion and desire we're able to drum up, the easier it will be to change any habit we want.

So the habit change that "should" take 3 weeks could end up taking just 2-3 days or maybe only a few hours.

The bottom line is nothing turbocharges your progress like desire. 

Habits: Either You Use Them or They Use You

The reality is that habits are really just vehicles to give us the feelings we want.

Fortunately, there are a ton of different ways we can get the exact feelings we want, anytime we want, in ways that work for us.

We just have to keep an open mind and ask a few simple questions:

  • What's the cue that triggers the behavior I want to change?
  • What's the reward I'm really after?
  • Is it possible to remove the cue?
  • How can I get the same reward through a more positive vehicle?

(Keeping in mind that the basic feelings we're after are: certainty, uncertainty, significance and connection)

Answer these questions honestly, get things rolling with enough desire and the change will be fast and pretty much effortless.

Almost before you know it, those bad habits you've been frustrated by for years will be a thing of the past.

And you'll have developed a bunch of awesome new habits that will be just as hard to break.

Even better, you won't have to drive yourself nuts in the process.

– Tim

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