How To Build Healthy Habits: This Is Your Strategy Guide

Dave Ramsey runs an empire these days. He is an author, radio host, television personality, and an entrepreneur. He's best known as helping people get out of debt. And today, he runs a 500 person business called Entreleadership.

But it wasn't always this way.

He has built a business that was birthed from doing one-on-one financial consulting with people who were burdened by consumer debt.

He would walk his clients through step-by-step on how to methodically get their way out of the mess they were in. He would give them the playbook per se. Or if you're s sports fan, he equipped them with the X's on O's on how to become debt free.

After a while, he found stumbled upon a realization that changed the trajectory of his career and his ability to impact thousands of people with his work. He started to notice a pattern that even though people had all the tools on how to get out of debt, they still didn't do what he told them to do.

He said this:

Debt is not a math problem. It's a behavior problem.

The first half of my career in fitness was personal training - working with people one on one and in group settings. Admittedly , at times, I felt powerless as a trainer.

I felt like I had sharpened my ax when it came to preparing on how to train people well. I spoke of all the right things to them.

I preached what most trainers teach: Learn how to move well, manage carbs according to your goal, drink water, prioritize strength training. blah, blah and blah.

There was one problem though: Clients weren't getting results.

Typing that gives me a lump in my throat.

That's when I realized, similarly to Dave Ramsey, that poor health due to lifestyle behavior is not a mathematical problem. It's a behavior problem.

Information does not equal transformation.

I would teach until I was blue in the face about sets, reps schemes, periodization of lifts, the impact carnitine has on the mobilization of free fatty acids, and the importance of fruits and veggies.

And it would fall on deaf ears.

But it wasn't their fault.

They don't need lessons on this stuff. They needed methods that would give them results. They needed strategies that would prevent them from giving up. They needed to form habits that made the process simple.

This is real coaching: Mentoring people instead of handing out prescriptions.

The problem was me - I was just a poor trainer with a lot of enthusiasm.

This is primarily why the majority of my work has transitioned over the recent years. Program design and nutrition fundamentals are certainly important. However, behavior design and consistent execution of the the training program and nutrition plan are far more important.

And that's what I focus on in my writing and in my coaching.

I've gone from being a glorified rep counter to someone who focuses on helping people change behaviors and improve processes so that they can establish long-lasting healthy habits.

I don't have it all together. I'm a work in progress still - and I won't ever be complete. But, I have gotten a lot better.

Below are what I've found to be the critical aspects of habit building and behavior change when it comes to body and health transformation.



Set Fast and Slow Goals

Goals aren't difficult to set.

Interpreting and executing them is a different story for one main reason: Goals aren't singular.

Meaning, one goal can be broken down into several aspects. However, most of the time goals that are set in regards to body and health transformation focus on the slow goal.

The slow goal is the outcome - the final product. It's the version 2.0 of you when you've lost 30 pounds, or when you've PR'd on your squat by 15 pounds.

Slow goals, if not managed properly, offer a form of mild escapism because the thought of them trigger a dopamine release in your brain and thus, hinders your ability to relish in the activities you need to do RIGHT NOW to make that goal happen. For more on visualization, read this post.

Some examples of a slow goal might include:

  • "I want to lose 30 pounds in six months."
  • "I want to bench press 275 pounds in three months."
  • "I want to gain 10 pounds of muscle in five months."

These slow goals may be appropriate for the right person, but they are severely incomplete for a few reasons.

One, the outcome of a slow goal is beyond your control. You cannot directly control the accomplishment of the slow goal. Rather, it's the by-product of consistent (or inconsistent) behaviors and daily habits that have manufactured the end result.

Secondly, you want results fast. But when your sole focus is on the slow goal, it sets you up for boredom and frustration.

For example, if you want to lose 30 pounds, that ain't happening overnight, or even in a few weeks. It'll take several months for this to happen.

If the slow goal of losing 30 pounds is your only barometer of success, then anything before that doesn't feel validated. The journey begins to feel arduous and soul-sucking.

This is where fast goals come into play.

Fast goals are the steps you take daily and weekly to accomplish the slow goal. Fast goals carry more weight than slow goals for a few reasons.

One, they provide an environment for immediate feedback. You don't have to sludge through everyday waiting till you get to the end destination to feel successful.

Two, they provide objective instruction on what you should do every day. And, they put you in the drivers seat and give you control over your behavior.

Some examples of a fast goal might include:

  • "I will go to the gym Monday-Thursday at 7:30 P.M., right after work.
  • "I will add in two extra workouts a week that target my lats, triceps and forearms to improve my bench press."
  • "I will do my grocery shopping Sunday and Wednesday evenings so I can pack healthy lunches for work."
  • "I will reduce my total intake by 300 calories for the next six weeks."

Fast goals will provide feedback immediately.

You either complete them or you don't. They also provide an opportunity for consistent small victories. Fast goals are done daily and weekly, so when you complete them, recognizing them as small victories strengthens your resolve to keep going.

By setting fast goals with clear instruction, it takes away the guesswork of what you should be doing, thus lowering the amount of willpower it takes to actually execute the behavior.

Having slow goals are still important. But they aren't as valuable as we think they are.

Once you've determined where you want to go (slow goal), be relentless in executing and focusing on the daily behaviors (fast goals) that will eventually provide the end result you want.



Stop Trying To Be Good, Instead Focus On Getting Better.

People with jaw-dropping transformations - the ones who we recognize as healthy, fit and glowing with wellness - often judge themselves and their performance fundamentally different than others do.

On the other side of the coin, those who grow up as gifted athletes or of preferred body composition (lean, attractive) grow up to be more vulnerable and less confident - even though history states it should be otherwise.

Understanding why this happens may provide a key breakthrough in establishing healthy habits and lasting behavior change. Before we look at why you should stop trying to be good and focus on getting better, lets look at a study done by Carol Dweck.

Carol Dweck and her colleagues conducted a study looking at the effects of different kinds of praise on fifth graders. They were interested in how praise can influence your beliefs about what you can and cannot do, and how you deal with difficulties and setbacks that happen down the road.

All of the students began with an easy task to accomplish and then were praised for their performance.

Half of them were praised for their natural ability. The other half were praised for their strong effort.

Then, all of the students were given a very difficult task to accomplish. All of them did poorly and they were told so.

The last part of the study ended with an easy task to accomplish in order to witness how failure would affect their performance.

Dweck and her team found that the kids who were praised for natural ability did 25% worse on the final task compared to how they did on the first easy task. This group blamed their sub-par performance on the lack of natural aptitude, had less resilience and gave up working on the task sooner.

The kids praised for effort did 25% better on the final task compared with the first easy task. They blamed the difficulty on not having put forth enough effort and therefore had better endurance on the difficult task - thus, increasing their performance.

It's vital to highlight that the study was done with kids who had no obvious differences in ability. Everyone did well on the first easy task. Everyone did poorly on the second hard task. The only variable was how the two groups interpreted the difficulty they experienced.

The kids who were praised for being smart doubted themselves much quicker and gave up sooner. They internalized that they had a fixed ability - that their behavior wasn't a factor in increasing performance.

The kids who were praised for effort had the resolve to keep pushing - to work harder to get better results. They internalized that their ability was malleable - that their behavior was the critical factor in increasing performance.

The kids praised for natural ability adopted a "Be Good" mindset. The kids praised for effort adopted a "Get Better" mindset. These two mindset are how we all approach goals according to Heidi Grant Halvorson.

With the "Be Good" mindset your disposition is to prove that you already have what it takes to succeed - you're born with the goods.

The "Be Good" mindset is an insidious drip of comparison. Since you believe that you are born with natural aptitude and your talents are innate, then you constantly graze the environment to see how you measure up. And when you aren't excelling and others are, it causes anxiety and influences you to shy away from challenges (a.k.a growth opportunities).

With the "Get Better" mindset you work on yourself to develop your ability and learning capacity.

The "Get Better" mindset is driven by progress, not comparison. Since you believe that your skills and abilities are malleable, you seek out ways to challenge yourself. Failure provides feedback as a means to fuel progress.

When it comes to body and health transformation, those with a "Get Better" mindset are the ones who work through the difficulties with greater resolve and focus on personal progress. The dynamic rhythm at which they walk their journey steps to the beat of learning, improving, and interpreting feedback productively.

The "Be Good" crowd has a hard time accepting the fact that body and health transformation is rooted in behavior change. They might have grown up athletes and received praised for natural ability. They might have grown up attractive and praised for their beauty. The mindset adopted from this type of praise has left them crippled in the face of challenges.

Under the assumption that skill is unchanging and fixed, the lens they look through is clouded. They have a hard time believing that they can change with effort. Comparison has taken a foothold in their lives and surges of anxiety constantly crash in their minds.

Changing your body and health is a learned skill. It requires that you forge different habits and behaviors to alter the trajectory of the outcome. Being healthy and fit requires effort - especially since temptation is hitting us from different angles each day.

The "Be Good" mindset works against this exact protocol. It influences you to believe that your health and wellness is innate - and that your behavior has little to do with the outcome. It lures you into a viscous cycle of comparison. Thus, leaving you powerless and pumped with anxiety.

Adopting a "Get Better" mindset shifts the power into your hands by funneling your gaze onto expanding your capacity through learning, and equips  you to handle inevitable setbacks in a productive manner. The focus becomes progression, not perfection.


Lower Activation Energy To Start. Heighten Activation Energy To Quit.

Technology has made things a lot easier. You can automate and schedule the majority of your emails, social media postings and online-bill paying.

However, the advancements has brought with it a sneaky side-effect. The ease of distraction is now just one simple click away. This has become the path of least resistance - being distracted.

How does this play into body and health transformation?

Since it's so easy to be distracted, it makes it very difficult to concentrate on substantive goals - like your health and fitness. This is especially true for people new to eating well and exercising.

The act of healthy eating or going to the gym requires a ton of activation energy. Meaning, since it's a new activity you're undertaking it demands a significant amount of decision making and willpower to follow through on healthy habits.

So, when you're constantly being distracted by all the pings, emails, retweets, likes, loves, and Amazon notifications you have to subconsciously decide which of these are important and which are not.

This drains your willpower, leaving you less capable to make good decisions. Therefore, when it comes time to make a decision that matters (like eating a kale and quinoa salad with grilled salmon instead of a cheeseburger with curly fries) you succumb to the latter because your brain is tired of making decisions.

This is why lowering the activation energy to start healthy habits is crucial. Activation energy is the amount of physical, mental and emotional energy it requires to start something.

Distractions aren't going anywhere anytime soon, so you have to design your behavior in a way where it's easy to start healthy habits.

Here are a few examples:

  • Driving 20 minutes to the gym and 25 minutes back home is inconvenient. If you struggle to make it to the gym consistently, lower the activation energy by investing in a set of dumbbells, and a TRX system. By having a gym 30 feet away from your kitchen table, it makes it easier to workout consistently.
  • Doing your grocery shopping is admittedly time consuming. Lower the activation energy by investing into a food delivery service. Thrive Market is a wholesale healthy online supermarket service that is 25-50% off retail prices. Instead of driving to the grocery store a few times a week, you can have the grocery store show up at your front door weekly.
  • You set a goal to run a few miles every morning. But you've noticed that you're inconsistent. It takes you 30 minutes just to get dressed, find socks and plan your route. By this time, you've ran out of time. Therefore, the habit hasn't stuck. Lower the activation energy by sleeping in your running clothes, have your shoes, your pre-run energy drink by your bedside and plan your route the night before. Instead of 30 minutes, you can be out the door in 5 minutes.
  • You know you don't drink enough water during the day at work. There is a water cooler that is on the other side of the break-room. It's a short walk for you. But for whatever reason, making that walk is like trying to get a kid to go to the dentist. Lower the activation energy to drink more water by placing a mini-cooler at your own desk. This way, water is within an arms reach instead of a 200 ft walk.

Conversely, the opposite strategy may be helpful when you're trying to quit something. The ease of distraction still comes into play, however, instead of it hindering your ability to make a good decision, it helps you stay away from behaviors you want to avoid.

Here's an example:

The other day I had just finished up my deep work, and needed to transition into some less intensive tasks. Instead of picking up a book I knew I should read for my research for an upcoming blog post, I plopped down onto the couch and reached for the remote control to turn on Netflix.

But the other night Charlie (my wife) and I had plugged in our Apple TV adapter to watch a movie (We watched the new Peter Pan movie. She loved it. I would give it a C+). We went to sleep without plugging in the original HDMI cable to enable Netflix on our screen.

So when I went to turn on Netflix, I couldn't, because the cable wasn't hooked up. What happened next was value of heightening activation energy.

It was a simple fix to satiate my desire to be distracted, but the small detour of having to get up and go plug in the cable stopped me from engaging in a behavior I wanted to avoid.

When you heighten the activation energy of something, it makes it more difficult to engage in that behavior. 

This is apparent in healthy eating habits too.

Researchers found that they cut cafeteria ice cream consumption in half simply by closing the lid of the ice cream cooler.

When you want to start a new healthy habit, make it as easy as possible to do so. When you want to quit an unhealthy habit, make it as hard as possible to succumb to the temptation. This is harnessing the power of activation energy.


Establish The Meaning Behind Exercise.

When you work as a fitness professional - trainer, coach, teacher, writer, mentor - it's easy to forget that you're the outlier.

People who don't do fitness for a living have a different perspective of fitness. Exercise may mean something completely different to them. For trainers, coaches and folks who are in the industry, we eat, sleep and breathe fitness.

Weights, plates and protein shakes....bro.

But to really help people and provide value to them, a trainer should find out what exercise means to them and empathize with their reasons.


Have you ever been wrestled into doing something you don't want to do? Or have you been assigned a task that you're completely uninspired to carry out and doesn't line up with your strengths?

The same concept can be applied to exercise and program design. People don't like being strong-armed to do something they either don't believe in or have a hard time understanding how it will help them achieve their goals.

When people find the right meaning behind exercise, the behavior shifts from something they should be doing to an autonomous decision that they make on their own.

Author Michelle Seger, who penned the book No Sweat, conducted a study to showcase this in real time.

The study found that 75% of people interviewed exercised to lose weight or be healthy. The remaining 25% exercised to feel good. The study then revealed that the first group, the ones who felt like they had to exercise actually exercised 32% less than other groups.

The takeaway is this: When you identify the meaning behind your exercise, it increases your pull-through rate on actually exercising. When the meaning is rooted in an autonomous decision, it feels like a luxury to workout.

On the other hand, when your meaning of exercising is rooted in obligation (I have to exercise to lose weight), studies show you're far less likely to actually exercise.

A few questions to think about to arrive at the meaning of exercise for yourself:

  • What kind of exercise do you enjoy?
  • Do you like to exercise alone or in a group?
  • Who will benefit because of your commitment to exercising?
  • How will your work improve if you stick to a regular exercising routine?
  • How will your relationships be impacted if you were healthy and fit?
  • How will your self-esteem and confidence be impacted if you exercised regularly?



Always Have a Contingency Plan

The grandiose goal of shedding the pounds, flowing with self-confidence and glowing with wellness is a common pursuit.

Some experience that, while many don't.

For those who come up short, troubleshooting why results haven't transpired is the key to course correcting the journey.

I've come to learn that it's not the lack of desire that holds people back from jaw-dropping transformations. Instead, it's the lack of contingency planning that cripples them when life throws a right hook.

Wanting to be healthy and fit isn't enough to to make you healthy and fit. In fact, having the ideal game plan and assuming that everything will go smoothly is believing in a false reality.

Almost in every case, people draw up training plans and nutrition programs based on ideals.

Sure, it's wise to have your first plan in place. This approach assumes that there is no traffic on the way home, that your babysitter shows up and work doesn't keep you late.

When the stars line up like this, relish in the moment and carry out the ideal plan.

But how often do the stars line up?

For example, if you pencil in six training sessions a week at a gym that is 25 minutes away from home in a season when you're swamped at work and you have a 10 month old baby at home, how many times do you think the stars will line up?


I've noticed this is where people get stuck. They assume that if the ideal plan cannot be executed, then it means letting the wheels fall off is permitted.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Instead of relying on the perfect conditions to fuel your healthy habits, learning how to effectively deal with interruptions, long days, and detours is your ticket to sustained success.

It's called contingency planning.

Contingency planning has a template you can follow that looks like this:

If X happens, then I will do Y.

In terms of healthy habits, here are a few examples:

  • If I get off work late and can't make it to the gym for my 60 minute session, I will do a 12 minute circuit style workout in my living room.
  • If I can't cook a healthy meal for dinner, I will go to one of three pre-determined healthy restaurants to have my meal.
  • If I can't take my mid-day 20 minute walk around the office building, then I will step outside for five minutes instead.

Having a contingency plan bulletproof's you from crumbling beneath the inevitable distractions life throws at you. It equips you to have a plan either way - if the stars line up or if things fall apart - you've got a plan that helps you sustain your healthy habits.

The key to contingency planning is planning. You've got to look ahead and devise strategies before you have to actually deal with the firestorm.

This way, when the time comes, you don't have to think about what you need to do. It just happens, because you've pre-programmed the behavior.

Take some time and write your contingency plans. It'll save you a boatload of frustration (and it'll help you maintain momentum).


Wrapping Up

It's counter-intuitive, but it's my belief that you need to start here with your body and health transformation.

Mainstream fitness media will encourage the exact opposite. Dive deep into the X's and O's, the sets, the reps, the calories.

While those are important, they are additive to a strong foundation of healthy habits.

These behavioral commitments should be built into your approach, not tacked on as a side dish. It makes everything easier down the road if you put a little effort into forging these habits upfront.


Question (s): What are some common roadblocks that have held you back from forming healthy habits? And which one of the strategies above do you plan on using to bulletproof yourself from making the same mistakes over and over again? Share your answer on FacebookInstagram or Twitter.

End Notes:

Thanks to all of you who I've gotten to work with over the years in the fitness industry. From clients, to instructors, to authors, I've learned so much from all of you. I also have to thank Carol Dweck and Heidi Halvorson for their incredible work on mindset, Michelle Seger on her book No Sweat, and lastly, Shawn Achor on his research of happiness.

Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success

9 Things Successful People Do Differently

No Sweat: How Simple The Simple Science Of Motivation Can Bring You A Lifetime Of Fitness

Happiness Advantage: The 7 Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work