Episode highlights

01:04 – John went from being a civil servant to entrepreneur, business coach and author

06:14 – How he became King of Routine 

08:49 – The Chimp Paradox and the three areas of our brain 

12:38 – Understanding the circadian rhythm and how it affects performance

18:58 – How to start building routines

25:23 – What to do when life gets in the way of your routines

31:00 – The One Percent Club

36:39 – What will make the boat go faster?

40:18 – Five key actions to help you build routines around fitness and nutrition

44:36 – Notice the signposts

47:40 – Sleep underpins everything


Fitness Guide


Welcome to the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast where you can learn how to improve your diet, lose fat and get fitter in a sustainable and fun way, without spending hours in the gym. Here is your host, Darren Kirby. 

Darren: This is Episode 18 of the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast. In today’s show, we are going to be talking about routines and how you’re able to do more by incorporating exercise and healthy eating into your daily lives when you have simple routines. Joining me on the podcast is John Lamerton who is also known as the Routine Machine. John has recently written a book on being a routine machine. Hi, John.  How are you? Thanks for joining me on the show. 

John: Very well, Darren. Thank you for having me. 

Darren: Not a problem at all. I’m excited to get into the topic of routines because to some people it might sound a little bit boring and tedious, but actually I think once you’ve got them set out in your lives, they just become unconscious, and you’re able to do more.

John: Absolutely. I think my task for today is to change the opinion of people who believe that routines are boring and monotonous and “not for me.” I think you mentioned in the intro that I’ve been called a Routine Machine. I’ve also been called the King of Routine and, as my wife calls me, a Routine Freak. So I am very passionate about routines and I’m hoping to prove today they’re not boring and they’re not monotonous.

Darren: No, absolutely not. Before we get into all things routines, can we get a little bit of background on yourself and how you have become the king of routines?

John: Yeah, definitely. I really shouldn’t be sat here today talking to you. I trained as a civil servant. That was going to be my career, I was going to get a nice, safe, secure job, get married, have children, relax–that was my life. And I somehow hated my job. After about six years of being a civil servant, I hated my job with a passion and I needed to escape. So I ended up teaching myself how to run businesses. 

My very first business was an internet marketing company, despite me knowing nothing about marketing, nothing about running a company, and not having access to the internet, so just a few barriers to entry. Anyway, I picked up a copy of Internet Marketing for Dummies, perfect for me, and I worked through the book and I taught myself what I needed to do. Fast forward two decades, and I’ve been running lots and lots of small businesses. 

I’ve been involved in more than 60 small businesses now. In 2017, I wrote my first book, Big Ideas for Small Businesses, which was my blueprint for how to run a successful small business. I went on a podcast tour back in 2017, talking about the book and talking about the success that I’d had. And I was on this one podcast in the US and we were talking about why have you been successful? What exactly have you done that most people don’t do that’s led to the success? And a lot of what we talked about was, “Actually, I do this every single day.” 

First thing in the morning, I do this, and I send this email every Wednesday, and every third Friday, I do this, and this sales letter goes out in March, every single year, and every Christmas I do this…. Everything we were talking about was, “and I do this regularly, and I do this habitually, and I do this every single day without fail.” And the host said to me, “John, I think for you, the routines are key. You’re like the king of routine.” And immediately, I’m “Ah, I’m having that. King of Routine. Yes! That’s me!” 

So I went back to our coaching clients and I said right, you’re to know to refer to me as the King of Routine. You’ll bow at the throne of the King of Routine. And it just snowballed from there. A week later, I received a package in the mail from one of our coaching clients and it was a T shirt. He owns a T shirt printing company and this T shirt was in the style of the front cover of my first book, emblazoned with the words “King of Routine.” A little crown on it. I put this T shirt on and it just snowballed from there. I ended up then thinking, okay, this is probably going to turn into a book. 

So it started off, first of all, I let a few people know. I talked about it on a couple of podcasts. Then it turned into a 60-minute keynote speech that I did and then I thought, “Well, if I’ve written the keynote speech, I’ve written the slides, the slides are kind of chapters, this could be a book.” I went on holiday with the intention of, okay, I’ll take my journal with me. If I can fill four pages of my journal with ideas, I will write the book. One morning, I sat there by the pool with a couple of cappuccinos and I came up with 10 pages of notes so I thought, okay, this has got to be a book. Two years after standing on stage at my first book launch, proudly announcing, “I am never writing another book,” I’m here now pushing my second book.

Darren: Fantastic. Yeah, that’s amazing. I think like you were saying earlier there, routines are very difficult, actually, when you first start with them, but once they become habitual, it just becomes second nature and it does make such a massive difference to your life. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m the world’s worst at getting into that habit. But once I’ve done it, it’s fine. And I have a morning routine and these routines actually help me so much to be able to run the businesses that I do and still to be able to train. Do you think that there’s any science behind building routines, John? What would you say? How did you really start with routines? Or was it just habitual? Did you just naturally fall into start building routines? 

John: I think I fell into it because until that podcast host said to me how important routines were to me, I don’t think I was aware of how important routines were to me and how much emphasis and importance I place upon routines. There is definitely science to it and again it took me a while to realise this. It was only when writing the book for Routine Machine that I referred back to… You’re familiar with The Chimp Paradox? Dr Steve Peters? 

Dr Peters says that there’s three parts of the human brain. There’s the chimp part of the brain, which is what makes emotional decisions. There’s a human part of the brain that makes logical decisions… Sorry, my phone’s just ringing. I should have turned that one off. And there’s the computer part of the brain which handles the automatic decisions. 

The human part of the brain makes logical, rational decisions. The human part of the brain knows that eating healthily is a good idea. It knows that getting regular exercise is a good idea and it knows that having a low stress life is a good idea. But the chimp brain knows that milkshakes taste good and burgers taste good and watching Netflix is good. What happens is either the chimpanzee brain or the human brain will programme your computer. And computer is what does things automatically. 

The computer takes care of the routines. It follows scripts, that’s all it does. And you have a choice: either the chimp brain programmes the computer, in which case we automatically go and have a McDonald’s for lunch and we automatically veg out in front of Netflix at night. Or the human manually programmes that computer to say: we go to the gym every morning and I prep every lunch each Sunday, for the entire week. And it’s that science behind it which I didn’t realise how important it was at the beginning and it’s only when I wrote the book that I realised how important that was. And it made that logical case for what I emotionally and automatically now do.

Darren: Yeah. I mean that makes perfect sense. Would you run through again, those three areas of the brain? Because a lot of people listening to this might not… If they’ve not read The Chimp Paradox, they might not quite understand exactly what that is. But when you break it down logically, it makes sense.

John: It does, absolutely. Once again, you’ve got the human part of the brain and this is where you make your rational, logical decisions. Now, the human part of the brain takes a little bit longer to make a decision. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but it’s something like four times as slow as the chimp brain. Which is why, when you get caught up in traffic, the chimp brain, the bit that goes, ah, emotional decision, I’m going to kill that guy because he just pulled in front of me, that’s the chimp. Automatically making that decision and going, ah, I’ve got this. 

Because what the chimp wants to do is keep you safe. And he’s gone: there’s a threat here, this guy tried to kill you by getting in front of you, or this person is ahead of you in the social standings. So the chimp makes that very quick but very emotional decision and that’s where we end up making the decisions that we know are not good. That’s where we end up having that slice of cake or we end up deviating to the fast food restaurant. Or we end up deciding it’s a bit cold outside, so actually, we won’t go to the gym today, or it’s raining, so we won’t go for a run. That’s the chimp going, ah, we’d better not. It’s that very quick emotional decision. 

And I think a lot of what you need to do to become a routine machine is ask the chimp to be quiet and just allow the human to take over. And all that is, is just noticing. So when you get caught up in traffic next, and you go, aargh, I’m going to get that guy, just stop yourself and go: Ha-ha, that’s the chimp driving. And we need to let the human have control of the wheel.

And the third part of the brain then is that computer, which is it runs automatic scripts. So the computer already handles tying your shoelaces, okay? You expend no cognitive effort tying your shoe laces, brushing your teeth, putting your trousers on in the morning. These are complex things when you actually think about it. If you watch a two year old trying to put trousers on or tie shoe laces, they’re hard things to do. But now you do them on autopilot, you do them automatically. 

And everybody already has routines. There are millions and millions of things that you already do every day, every week, every month on autopilot, without any conscious efforts or without thinking about it. And this is the computer, this is the computer part of the brain handling things for you. And this is what routines do. Is they outsource the important stuff to automation–to happen without you needing to consciously think about it.

Darren: Yeah. And I think, like you say, we go through thousands of these routines every day. We don’t think about it, it’s all done unconsciously. And the other point you said there about a two year old, the majority of it is the stuff that we learn as we are growing up as children. And so then when we become adults, to then start to implement new routines, actually feels like it’s really tough but it’s no more tougher, if you like, than when you were two, trying to learn how to walk and all the rest of it. It’s just about getting that so consistent that it does become unconscious.

John: Exactly. Everybody says when you have children, get them into a routine. Routines are really important for children. Oh, kids love routine, kids crave routine. So why then, the minute we’re an adult, do we go, huh, routines aren’t for me. “No, no, no, I hate routines,” yet routines are probably good for you, too. 

Darren: Yeah, exactly. The other thing that you talk about is this thing called a circadian rhythm. What exactly is that?

John: When we were all cavemen and cave women, we had jobs to do and majority of the job was to protect the camp and to hunt for food. To hunt and gather. And if everybody woke up at the same time and went to sleep at the same time, then the camp would be unguarded for about eight hours a day. What the circadian rhythm enabled people to do is to overlap. So you would have your early birds who would rise with the sun at 4 or 5 a.m., depending on, obviously, sunrise times. 

They would be up very, very early, foraging. They would be looking for food very early in the morning. They would then go to bed well before sunset or around sunset, leaving the camp completely unguarded from sunset to sunrise. So thankfully, we have night owls as well, who tend to wake sort of late morning, sometimes even early afternoon, but they will go right through until 2 or 3 a.m. And then we’ve got early birds who handle the crossover between the two. So what this enabled the primitive caveman to do is to have the camp guarded for the majority of the day. The only time it wasn’t was from sort of 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. And even then, people were kind of aware and awake. 

And we’ve still got these natural circadian rhythms and it is roughly a third of the population in each. So a third of the population, roughly, will be early birds. They will naturally rise early. These are people who join the 5 a.m. Club. These are the people who post on Instagram and say I’m up at 4 a.m. building my dreams or doing a kettlebell workout, why aren’t you?

You’ve then got the night owls who…  I’ve got several of these working in our business. They tend to be designers, coders, creatives, and they tend to work very, very well if you let them get up at midday and work till two in the morning. They do their best work at 10 o’clock at night. Our designer, I know he does not start working till 3 p.m. and if I want to get the best work out of him, I need to talk to him at seven or eight o’clock in the evening. Asking him to do a nine to five job and to fit in with everyone else, just does not work. 

Myself, I’m more of an inbetweener. I’ve been moved. I used to be more of a night owl, but I’ve been moved. My circadian rhythm has been shifted by children. It’s lovely to say, yeah, I would naturally get up at 10 in the morning. Not since I’ve had children have I slept in till 10 o’clock in the morning. That’s a distant memory now. The problem I find is I am just about an hour later now than the norm. So I’m definitely not an early bird, I’m not a morning person, you will not find me in the 5 a.m. Club, but I will rise naturally 8–8:30 in the morning, which is quite difficult when normally I’ve got to do the school run and the kids have to be at school for 8:45 in the morning. I can’t roll out of bed 15 minutes before they have to be at school. 

So that’s my biggest struggle with circadian rhythms. Is that the world at large works for early birds and it works for inbetweeners. If you’re a night owl, you will probably resonate with this and say, oh my god, why do I have to get up at 9 a.m.? You know, wait for the offices to open. If you’re an early bird, you’re sat at the gym at 6 a.m., waiting for them to open. But it’s identifying. For me, the key thing is identifying which of those circadian rhythms you naturally fall into and the easiest way to find that out is to not set an alarm. Don’t set your alarm at the weekend. What time do you wake up?

If you’re awake at seven without an alarm, you’re probably an early bird. If you sleep till nine or half nine, you’re probably an inbetweener and if you’d sleep till 10 or 11, you’re probably a night owl. 

Darren: It’s hard to do that when you’re in the midst of craziness and business of life, but actually try and do it when you’re away on holiday. And just try and wake up and then over a period of a few days, you’ll find out where your circadian rhythm is. Obviously, you make a very good point: when you have children in the house, your circadian rhythm gets thrown out the window and you’re working to a new circadian rhythm. But I think it’s an important point to make because what people will then tend to find is that they’ll be able to perform better throughout the day. So if you are listening to this and you don’t yet have kids, take advantage of the circadian rhythm. Obviously, you’ve got work and all the rest of it.

John: Enjoy the sleep while you can. 

Darren: Thankfully, I’m through that space now, so I don’t have that problem. So when we’re talking about fitness and nutrition, a lot of the guys listening to us, a lot of our community are extremely busy with, as we’ve already discussed, with family with careers and the rest of it. For them to be able to fit in, either starting training or starting looking at their nutrition and building routines… As we’ve already discussed, this is going to be a little bit tough whilst you work all of this stuff out but what would be your kind of recommendations?

If someone’s listening to this saying that there’s just no way. I’ve got work, I’ve got family, school run. For me to then fit in exercise and then worry about my diet, I just don’t have enough hours in the day. You know, that’s a common kind of thread. But we all have the same 24 hours in a day and some do more than others. But I think it’s exactly what you said and it’s about getting those routines. So how would you suggest that listeners start to build these routines?

John: One of the things that I talk about in the book is about finding the time. Because it’s one of the key questions I always get asked–How do you find the time to get all this done? And the answer is I don’t find the time because I haven’t lost the time. It’s not done there in the back of the sofa, I haven’t left it in the car somewhere, it’s not underneath the kids’ toys or in the Lego box. It’s not lost and I can’t find it. 

What I do is I make the time. And what that means is I am absolutely rigid about my routine and my calendar. I protect my time with my life and I plan what my weeks, my months and my days look like. For example, we’re recording this on a Friday. This afternoon, I will plan everything for next week. I will plan what I’m doing every single day. I’ve got literally an A4 sheet and it’s got Monday to Friday listed on there and I will block out. So the first thing I will do is I will open up my calendar for next week and I will look at the immovable objects as I call it. And I think I reference in the book Hulk Hogan versus André the Giant from WrestleMania III, I think it was, where I think they called it “the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.” 

I like to think of my commitments–and when I say my commitments, I don’t just mean things I’ve agreed to for other people, but my commitments to myself–as immovable objects. Once something goes into my little A4 sheet, it gets done. It happens. There are no excuses. It gets done. I will start off and I will look at the calendar and I’ll say, right, I’ve got… So next week, for example, I’ve got my wife’s birthday. That’s blocked. I dare not enter anything on that day. That’s a bit of a special day. I’ve got, I believe, an all-day meeting, a mastermind meeting on the Thursday; that’s a whole day blocked out. 

Those two are immovable objects. I can do nothing about them. What I will then do is I will consult my goals, my plan–what do I want to achieve? Well, actually, at the moment, I’m doing some blog posts. I need to get some content writing done. Okay, when can I block that in? I can’t do it Tuesday; I’ve got an immovable object in place on Tuesday. I can’t do it Thursday; I’ve got an immovable object in place on Thursday. What I can do, I can fill in, let’s say, 11 a.m. on Monday morning. I can do two hours of focused content writing. Guess what? That is now an immovable object. 

What I will do, I will fill in my work commitments, I’ll fill in what I want to achieve and then I can visually see the week and see, okay, where are the gaps? And again, another thing I will put in there is fitness and nutrition. I’m currently doing white collar boxing training so I am, in literally two weeks’ time, I’m stepping into the ring for my first ever and last ever boxing match. And so I have, at the moment, quite a strict diet and exercise regime. So that’s going into my planner. Every Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. is boxing training. Every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. is boxing training. 

Notice I’ve got boxing training on the wife’s birthday. Thankfully it’s in the evening and we’re going out for lunch first, so I have I have managed to amend that somewhat that I’m not going to cause any ructions.  I would be going into the fight with a black eye, wouldn’t I? 

So I can plan out now and I will, literally, if I look at my planner for this week, I’ve got my meals written down here, I’ve got what I’m eating every day is on my plan. And that’s planned a week in advance. So last Friday, I wrote down what I’m going to eat today, I wrote down what I’m going to eat yesterday. All my exercises blocked in, my meal plans are in here, and once it’s on here, it’s an immovable object. And this is where I find the time. I don’t find the time; I make the time. 

And what I don’t then find the time for is vegging out and doing a box set on Netflix and surfing all the news sites or catching up on the latest Brexit shenanigans. That’s the stuff that I don’t have time for. That’s the stuff that doesn’t make it into my consciousness because I am focused on my immovable objects and I fill my gaps with the stuff I want to do. I consciously think first, “Okay, next week, I’m doing two boxing sessions. I also want to fit in another two sessions of cardio, and I need to make sure my diet is absolutely on point. So let’s plan what next week’s going to look like.” And then all I’ve got to do is follow the plan. 

Make a plan, stick to it. That’s easy once you’ve done it, and that is a routine. And this is a routine I’ve been following now for about five years and it happens automatically. I immediately know it’s Friday afternoon, I’ve got a stack of orange A4 sheets pre-printed next to my desk here, ready for me to grab this afternoon, and it’s just my Friday afternoon routine to plan next week. It’s just a rule. This week ain’t over till next week is planned.

Darren: That sounds amazing and it’s fantastic, and obviously you are the king of routine. But you’ve got to be very disciplined, you’ve been doing it for a long time and obviously you’re a very determined guy to kind of stick to it. But there’s obviously going to be times in life, because it’s just life, where you do get bumps in the road. You might have this fantastically drawn out plan and this is what’s going to happen and this is irremovable. But if you get a phone from the school or if your car breaks down or the train is late or whatever, all of a sudden that can be thrown out the window. What do you do when life does get in the way and your routines are broken? What do you do then? 

John: I throw my toys out of the pram and I metaphorically kick the dog and then I make a new plan and then I stick to that plan. If suddenly the kids are home sick… When I was writing the book, I planned I was going to write for three days every month. Month one, I got 31,000 words down, absolutely brilliant, the house to myself, nice and peace and quiet. And then month two, I had the wife and I think one child home ill. They stayed out of my way but ultimately, they were in the house, they were watching TV, and I got something like 14,000 words down. So I was less than half as productive just because they were there. 

But ultimately, I need to make a new plan and I need to stick with it. Sometimes stuff happens. Last week is a good example. I was travelling up to Leicester. I’m from Plymouth and I had to travel to Leicester to record the audio book Routine Machine for two days in the studio. Pretty much half a day on the road driving there, two days in the studio, we then had a third day where we disappear to Alton Towers for the day for a client day out, and then half a day driving back. So I pretty much spent the whole week either on the motorways of England, at a theme park, or sat on my ass in a studio. 

So, keeping on point with diet and exercise was a bit fun last week. What do I do? Well, I’m a routine machine, so I took my routine rucksack with me. The Blender came with me and my MCT Oil came with me. I had like mixed nuts, I took some cheese, I took some butter, took some collagen powder, I took some protein shakes, and I did workouts in my room. I researched the hotel’s restaurant menu before I left home and decided what I was going to eat each night before I got there. 

I planned out what I was going to eat in the studio, I planned when I was going to eat… My entire week was planned out still but a lot of people would go, well, I’m a week on the road so I’ll just grab a subway at the service station and a cup of coffee. And the hotel gym’s not very well equipped so I can’t really go to the gym. No, I took three sets of gym clothes with me. Literally, I had a rucksack which was just full of food and equipment to help me stick to my routines as closely as I possibly can. I took my own pillow with me because I prioritise my sleep over everything else. 

Where most people fail at any success is normally in the final six inches, and those final six inches are the ones between your ears. It’s that mindset. And for me, I pack my routine rucksack and I tell myself, yeah, I’m a routine machine. I do what I say I’m going to do. And when I tell myself that and I honestly believe that, I have to act accordingly. I can’t go around saying to everyone, I’m a routine machine and then the minute I have to spend a few days in a hotel, I’m picking out on burger and chips and milkshakes and not doing any exercise, because, no, that’s not right.

Darren: I think that’s a fantastic process and a mindset to get in, I think. One thing that I do talk about in our community is adapting. It’s, yes, you can throw your toys in the air and metaphorically kick the dog, but it’s about, okay, so that’s not worked and so I need to change it. It doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It either means that I need to do it at a different time or it means I need to do it in a different way. I had a situation a couple of weeks ago where, driving the kids to school–and we have to drive about 25 minutes to the kids’ school–we get five minutes away from school and the oldest says, “I forgot my sports kit.” 

What happens in my day is I train after I drop them off from school. So straight away my 3K swim goes out the window. Okay, so what do I do now? Right, I have to bring my run forward, and I’ll switch my swim to the following day. It’s about adapting. The things that you were saying there about pre-planning as well, that’s really detailed and I take my hat off to you for doing that. Even to the point of reading the hotel menu. 

But the other thing I say to people is that if that does happen and you do get to a hotel and it’s not the diet that you want to follow, by already understanding nutrition, you can make proper informed decisions and undoubtedly, there will be something on the menu that you can choose, which will still fulfil where you need to be within your diet or nutrition plan at that point. Knowledge is key and planning, I think, is key as well, so I think your routine is fantastic, and I love the routine machine rucksack. Definitely.

You’ve obviously got a lot of experience in running and advising small businesses and I guess in doing that, that’s obviously helped you hone your own routines and build more routines. You’ve established a One Percent Club. Is that something that we can apply to fitness and nutrition? It’s the 1% that makes the difference, do you think? 

John: Absolutely. Sport is actually where the idea of the One Percent Club came from because the One Percent Club is about marginal gains. It’s about breaking everything down that you need to be successful into its individual, tiny elements, improving each of those elements by 1%, and then stitching it back together again. So for the business, it’s getting 1% better at selling, 1% better at networking, 1% better at marketing, 1% better at writing copy, 1% better at managing your staff, 1% better at developing your own self, 1% better pricing, 1% better at conversion rates. All those individual elements, and we’ve stacked up more than 250 of them for our business owners to say that if you improve each of these 250 items by 1% and then add them all together, you actually end up with something like a 400% gain. 

But this comes from sport. The most famous example that I use Sir Dave Brailsford, who absolutely transformed British cycling. We Brits used to be an absolute joke when it came to cycling, we were that far in the distance. Dave Brailsford came along, I want to say 1997, and became performance director of the British Cycling Team, Team GB. And he literally came up with this idea of marginal gains. That actually if we break every element of what is required to win a bike race, down into each individual component that contributes to the success. Everyone else just went, well, we need bigger muscles, we need more aerodynamics, and we just need bigger engines i.e., more lung capacity to be able to cope with that. 

Whereas Sir Dave went, well, okay, that’s great, but what about the fatigue? What about the recovery? What about the wicking away of the sweat in the outfits? What about helmets? Can we redesign those? What about the fact that the support staff get ill and therefore the athletes don’t have access to the best support staff? What about the fact that we’re picking up silly little corns and niggles? What about the fact that there’s dust accumulating on the floor of the truck? What about the fact that actually when our athletes are travelling, they’re not getting the optimal sleep?

And he broke down each of these individual elements, and said, all right, we’re just going to try and get a little bit better at each of these. So he had a surgeon come into the team and show the team how to wash their hands in such a way to prevent infections. Now, this wasn’t just to the athletes to keep them healthy. It was to keep the hundreds and hundreds of support staff healthy because if everybody’s attendance jumps up from 95% to 96%, well actually, when you need that guy to improve your mindset or to work on this particular element, he’s available and he’s fit and healthy and firing on all cylinders. 

They painted the floors of the trucks white so that they would notice when the dust was accumulating. Later on, he worked with the Tour de France team, Team Sky now team Ineos, and he identified that actually these guys are spending something like five weeks on the road, travelling around France. They’re obviously doing 800 miles a day or whatever, and then trying to sleep in a hotel room on a strange mattress, different mattress every night, different pillow every night. So what they now have is a separate tour bus that follows the entire team around with their own mattress and their own pillow–which is why I took my own pillow to Leicester with me last week–to ensure that actually they get a good night’s sleep. 

No one else had thought how important it was the athletes get a good night’s sleep before asking them to perform at their capacity. And the results from this were phenomenal. British cycling was a complete joke. We were nowhere near winning anything. And since Sir Dave Brailsford came in, Team GB have won 42 Olympic medals in the last four games, including 24 golds. And Team Sky now Team Ineos have won seven, I believe, seven of the last eight Tour de Frances, having never won a Tour de France by a Brit before. That all comes from marginal gains. 

And Team GB have now encompassed this across the entire platform. I was reading the other day about the Team GB women’s hockey team and they did exactly this. They employed the marginal gains and they just said, what matters? Well, what matters is do I do training on a Tuesday morning in February when it’s really cold outside and I’m still 18 months away from the Olympics? Yes, because that’s going to make a 1% difference. I had the honour of meeting one of the men’s rowers from the 2000 Olympics.

Ben Hunt-Davis. That was it, Ben Hunt-Davis, and he talks about what will make the boat go faster? That’s his mantra. And so they identified everything, absolutely every little thing that would make the boat go faster. They made it to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Do we go to the opening ceremony? Well, that’s going to mean 45 minutes on a bus to get there. We’re going to be stood on our feet for about two hours, another 45 minutes on a bus back and that means we’re going to be three hours late to bed. That is going to make the boat go faster.

So, no, they missed. They have one shot at going to the Olympics, they made it to the Olympics and they watched the opening ceremony on the telly when they had the chance to go there because that was a 1% gain. That was a marginal gain that would make their boat go faster. And absolutely every decision. Do I have that difficult conversation with a colleague who isn’t pulling his weight or whose mindset isn’t in the right place? The easy option is no, we will let that slide. Will it make the boat go faster? Okay, I think I’m going to have that difficult conversation. 

I’m only having this conversation with you because it will make the boat go faster. Do I go out for a few beers with my mates, again, nine months before competition? Will it make the boat go faster? No. Okay, that’s an easy decision, then. This is about the human making a logical decision and programming the computer to say, that isn’t going to make boat go faster. We do stuff that makes our boat go faster. These are the 1% gains. That everyone else goes, well, it’s only a beer and you’re nine months away from practice. Or, well, it’s only an opening ceremony; you’re still four days away from competing. These are the small sacrifices that everyone else makes, that if you actually focus on–we always say “the small things are the big things.” 

Darren: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely, I agree wholeheartedly with that. I think when I’m talking to people and particularly around fitness and nutrition, it’s, like you said there, it’s only one beer or it’s only one piece of chocolate or it’s only one slice of cake, how many times do you say “it’s only.” How many times do you say oh, I only missed one session. One of the things that I have is I hate doing a cool down in the pool when I’m swimming and it’s only 200 metres when I’ve probably swam 3K. But if I do that every time I swim, you add that up over a course of a year, I’ll probably miss out on 10Ks of swimming. 

It’s little things. I think the message really is basically just sitting down and reflecting on what you do in your daily lives and where you can make these little tiny changes to enable you to be able to maybe be a little bit more focused on your training, i.e., being able to do the training in the first place. Or on your diet because you want to drop the fat or you want to get your body composition a little bit better. Where can you maybe cut out a Kit Kat or maybe where can you introduce something just small, which gives you that 1% gain? So I think that’s a very valuable mantra to take away. Where is that 1% that you can pick up on? 

John, what would you say are the five key actions that listeners could take away today to building a routine to help them on their fitness and nutrition?

John: Arguably the most important is to change one thing. Let’s aim for those marginal gains, yes. But what I don’t want you to do–if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking I want to change my health and fitness–is to say, right, okay, as of tomorrow, I’m up at 4 a.m., I’m doing kettlebells, I’m having a green smoothie. I’m going to have salad for lunch and then I’m going to do a 5K in the afternoon and then I’m going to…. No, no, no. Let’s do one thing. 

Because ultimately, you can have the Instagram routines or the Mark Wahlberg routine. Have you ever seen that list of everything he does in a day? You can have that but you can’t go from, let’s say, Peter Griffin to Mark Wahlberg. Or Homer Simpson to Mark Wahlberg. You can’t just flip the switch and go from one to the other. What you need to do is if you are currently Homer Simpson, you need to change one thing. You need to say, okay, maybe I’ll have one less doughnut tomorrow or maybe I will walk to work. I’m going to change one thing. And once that one habit is embedded, then we can add another, then we can look at the next marginal gain. 

The second hing I would say is, let’s make it easy. Again, let’s not make it too hard and say, right, okay, I want to lose weight so I’m going to run a 5K every day from a standing start. Okay, yeah, that’s great. Let’s build up to that, let’s make it nice and easy. If you want to run a 5K, that’s great. Get the app, Couch to 5K. The way that will start is by having a visual clue. And this is a really, really good hack for getting a routine in place. Is having a visual clue that reminds you to take the action that is new and, at the moment, foreign to you. 

So I want to run every day before work. Good. Before you go to bed the night before, get your running kit out, put your trainers by the front door. Because the hardest bit about going for a run in the morning is lacing your trainers and walking out the front door, so let’s make sure that happens. Because once your kit is on, your trainers are on, and you’re out the front door, guess what? You’re doing it. You’ve got the momentum but it’s that inertia that stops most people. 

The third thing I learnt from my dog training–you probably heard my dog barking at that Amazon delivery earlier in this podcast. We took Chewy, our little cockapoo, to puppy classes when we first had him and very quickly the trainer there taught me that “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” So when I want Chewy to sit on his bed and he does that, I reward him with a click and a little bit of sausage. Guess what? He will now do that all the time because he knows that when I sit on my bed, I get a sausage.

What gets rewarded gets repeated and it’s the same for you, for humans, it works for kids. You give a kid a star chart and say if you go to bed on time, every night for a week, you get a little sticker on your star chart. And when you’ve got seven stickers or 10 stickers, you get a Frozen DVD and when you get 20 stickers, it’s a night out at the cinema and when you get 100 stickers, it’s a new Xbox game, that works. And it works for humans, for adults, too. When you get that little streak… 

We had one of our One Percent Club coaching clients who needed to do income-generating stuff for his business. And we said to him, right, get some little green sticky dots, stick them on your wall planner. Every day you do some income-generating tasks, stick a green dot on your wall planner. When you’ve got five of them, go and have a Starbucks. When you’ve got 10 of them, go and have lunch at your favourite restaurant. When you’ve got 25 of them, have a meal out with your wife. When you’ve got 100 of them, have a weekend break somewhere, just reward yourself. Say, right, when I do the work, I get a sticker. When I get X number of stickers, I get a reward. Because what gets rewarded gets repeated.

Number four. Notice the signposts is my fourth bit of advice here because when you are on the path of changing your routines, you don’t get immediate feedback. When you suddenly start eating healthily… Actually, a good example I had this for the boxing training. Three weeks, I believe it was, into the boxing training, I’d done three weeks of intense cardio. I thought I was fit but honestly, boxing training has been just the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve done this, I’ve kept my diet absolutely on point. 

And I stood on the scales and I saw a one pound loss after three weeks of hard work, and I thought, why the hell am I doing this? And then I remembered that there is always a delay between getting the feedback and getting the results. So three weeks of hard work, I’ve had the pain already, I’ve put in the hard work and I’ve had the pain of doing the work. What I haven’t got is the results. But I know that if I stay on the path, I am seeing… That one pound loss is a signpost. It’s not the final result. It’s a signpost that actually, yes, your body fat is dropping. Yes, your waist circumference is dropping. Yes, you are getting more powerful. 

And now here I am six weeks in and I can look in the mirror and I can see results. I can stand on the scales and I can see results. But I also know, I’m still two weeks away from Fight Night and that’s when I get my final results. That’s when I get my final scorecard. But ultimately, it’s noticing that signpost because otherwise it’s very easy to give up and say I’ve got the pain of doing the hard work, but I haven’t got the results yet. 

And the fifth and final one is staying on that path. It is just putting one foot in front of the other. When you notice the signposts, you know, you’re on the right path. And when you’re on that path, all you need to do is stay on it and say, I’m going to be the person who does what they say they’re going to do, I’m going to stick to the plan, and I’m just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Darren: Yeah, I think that final point is very, very key and it’s consistency. Like you say, things are not going to happen overnight. Unfortunately, we live in what I call an Amazon economy where we want everything now; you click buy and it comes to you in under 24 hours. And particularly around fitness and nutrition, yes, you can make big gains early on but for you to make real gains and real progress, you have to be consistent and you have to keep at it. And like you say, look at the signposts for the little marginal gains that you’re making and the little bit of progress you’re making. 

And I think if you really want to dial it in, looking at the 1% is really, really key. Before we wrap up the call, John, is there anything that I didn’t ask you which you feel I should have asked you that would benefit the listeners? 

John: Possibly, what the best routine is in terms of the best bang for your buck, the best return on investment. We have touched on it a couple of times throughout the call and I’ll give the listeners just a few seconds to see if they can work out what it is. What we have talked about a couple of times that I’ve done, that the British cycling team have done, that the Team GB women’s hockey team have done, that many of our One Percent Club members have done. And that is to optimise your sleep. And for me, this is the key routine that underpins everything you do. 

If you want to perform better at anything, if you want to make more money in your business, if you want to do better at the next 5K, if you want to swim faster, if you want to be able to make better decisions–and that can be any type of decision, whether that’s learning a new skill, whether that’s being a better leader or whether that’s deciding whether you’re going to eat carbs or not today–sleep will make that difference. Last year, I read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I loved the book. 

Ironically, I run a business coaching club and this was my book of the year. So in an entire year that I read a load of business books, my book of the year was a book that isn’t about business at all, that is a 13-and-a-half hour long audio book that you could sum up in three words. Get more sleep. But ultimately, there is nothing that isn’t benefited from getting more sleep. If there’s one routine you hack, honestly, going to bed at a reasonable hour, at the same time every night, and waking up at the same time every (day). 

Obviously, I’m a routine machine, I’ve taken it to the nth degree. I now wear two sleep-tracking devices. I’ve got a pillow that’s customised for me, I’ve got a mattress that’s customised for me. I track everything so I know when I train late at night, how does that affect my sleep? When I eat X, does this affect my REM sleep? I’ve taken it to the nth degree. But ultimately, if you want to know where to start with all the routines you could hack, the one that is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck, that will influence absolutely everything, is getting more sleep.

Darren: Yeah, absoutely. And it’s funny, I recorded a video this morning and I posted it up on our social channels around sleep. Because sleep is when the body shuts down, it rests and recovers. And also, when you’re sleep deprived, that affects your diet because your body naturally will be fatigued and you will naturally crave these pickups. It will be sugar, things like that, that your body will crave and that’s because you’re sleep deprived.

And I think it’s something like if you are 10% sleep deprived, you’re 50% less productive, some statistic like that. It’s quite alarming, actually. So, yeah, I hundred percent agree with that. And then the other thing you said obviously in there around sleep and going to bed at the same time, getting up at the same time, that’s consistency, comes back to consistently again. So yeah, I think that’s fantastic, John, and thank you very, very much for coming on today. I expect all of our listeners to take this and become their own routine machines and maximise the 24 hours in the day that we all have. Thanks very much, John, for being on the podcast today and I look forward to catching up with you again soon. But before we go, how can people connect with you? 

John: Routine Machine is available on all good web stores as long as they’re called Amazon. It’s available to buy now. You can also get a free chapter of the book at our website which is RoutineMachine.co.uk. Contact details are also on there. There’s a blog, some weekly emails, and obviously there’s also our own podcast as well. Routine.Machine.co.uk. The podcast is called Ambitious Lifestyle Business. As the name suggests, it’s for business owners who want to do a lifestyle business, so they want to work to live, not live to work, but who do have some ambitions to actually grow and work in a more “1% gains” way. Fantastic. Thanks for having me, Darren. 

Darren: That’s great, John. Thanks very much for your time, and we’ll speak again soon.

Thanks for listening to the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please hit subscribe and I would really appreciate it if you could leave a review on iTunes. All the links mentioned in the episode will be in the show notes and a full transcription is over at FitterHealthierDad.com


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