Why You Need Shark Habits in Your Life

Shark fin above ocean water

In 1977, at our first team meeting with the Utah State University track and field team, Coach Ralph Maughan outlined a few things that continue to shape my life.  At the time, he was addressing state and national champions and one Olympian.

Three statements stood out:

“Make yourself a slave to good habits.”
“Little and often over the long haul.”
“Lift weights three days a week, throw (or hurdle or jump or . . . ) four days a week, for eight years.”

Each of these is true. They are right.

For now, let’s look at the first one: “Make yourself a slave to good habits.”

Most people are blind to their habits. I was talking with my friend, Cameron, and she noted on a recent international trip she was surprised how often she had music on at home. She woke up to music, dressed to music, drove to music and worked to music.

On this trip, she had no music. In the hotel, she couldn’t just flip the switch or tune to her favorite stations. The lack of noise is what caught her attention. She was so used to having the background noise, she never noticed until there was quiet!

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Most people have habits. Lots of them. The television is on during meals, the radio is playing in the car and the route to most places is so ingrained we don’t even notice these as habits. Add a construction reroute and the whole day might take on a new meaning.

  • Reaching for a snack: habit.
  • Mindlessly staying up for another lousy comedy: habit.
  • Surfing the web endlessly: habit.
  • Checking social media at a restaurant: habit.

The bulk of your life is made up of habits. If you’ve been driving for years, you might not even remember the checklist of starting a car and maneuvering out of the garage and down the street. If you actually THINK about driving, you might recall how many steps there are to the process. It will grind your gears if you are using a manual transmission, when you actually stop to think about the left foot, right foot, hand shift and one hand driving required to accelerate.

Coach Maughan said good habits.

I don’t necessarily wish to correct him. Coach Maughan played professional football for the Detroit Lions, made the Olympic team as a hammer thrower, won the national championship as a javelin thrower and won two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star at the Battle of the Bulge.

Again, I’m not correcting Coach, but adding to his legacy.

When I look at the vast expanse of time-wasting stuff in life, I think this: get rid of it.

The term we use is “shark habits.” One bite . . . and it is gone.

Fill out the form. Check the box. Don’t let the bride wonder whether or not you’re going to the wedding, RSVP!

Low on gas? Fill it up!

I first heard the concept of shark habits — one bite! — from Robb Wolf. He was speaking to a military group and told them to take a roll of duct tape into their bedrooms and cover up all the little dots of light that infiltrate the rooms. These little warning lights for fire alarms, CO2 alarms, alarm clocks and all kinds of power outlets are causing some sleep distress.

The upside is this: you only have to do it once.

Once. One bite. That is a shark habit.

Daily Shark Habits

I use shark habits in much of my professional and personal life. When I open an email, I answer it. Always. If I don’t have time to deal with the messages, I don’t open the email program.

I believe in only touching postal mail once. I go through the mail and discard the junk in the garbage (sadly, most of the mail is junk). If it requires attention, I deal with it immediately.

I fail on this sometimes. Oddly, when I do forget to do something like, renew my annual business application, I lose the form and it costs me hours of backtracking, waiting on hold, and dealing with unhelpful people at the state office.

During my hour on hold, I recommit to shark habits.

Shark habits are the ultimate in “Do This.” For anything that can be done swiftly, DO IT NOW.

One bite.

There is a shark habit that has worked well for years with my medical team: when the nurse asks, “Do you want to set up the next appointment?” I always say, “Yes.”

I usually don’t have my calendar with me. No . . . I don’t know what I’m doing six months from now on a Tuesday at 1:30. But, yes, I take that appointment!

My doctors now text, email and call to remind me about the appointment, so I let them use their time and energy to get me there.

If you’re an athlete, shark habits are pretty simple and obvious to the experienced participant.

  • Buy the shoes.
  • Buy the equipment.
  • Renew the membership.
  • Send the check for the event.
  • Get the flight, the rental car and the hotel.
  • Show up!

For someone new to a sport, this list can be a bit of a burden as they try to sort through all the options, especially equipment. If you don’t believe me, talk to a cycling enthusiast if you doubt how many options there are.

But as the years go on, the membership renewal automatically shows up and you simply have to click “Renew.”

As the years go on, you will have friends to share rides and meals. It gets easier and easier to show up as the shark habits begin to take over so much of the early effort to get things done.

Shark habits eliminate clutter.

I read an article years ago that stated something that shocked me: the average person only eats fourteen foods a week. Think about that: only fourteen foods. At a workshop, I was told one of the keys to better nutrition was to list the foods you eat each week — not the portions nor do you seek the carbohydrate load, the micronutrients or the quality of the food. Simply, we were asked to list the foods.

Armed with this information, I decided on two things to make my family’s health better: a shopping list and a weekly menu.

I still have the shopping list on my fridge — here you go:

Meat
Poultry
Sausage
Bacon
Fish
Shellfish (if you can eat it)
Canned tuna
Salmon
Eggs (buy them in the five-dozen containers)
Heavy cream, for coffee
Real butter
Cheese
Salad greens and everything you can eat raw!
Lemons and limes to sweeten drinks and squeeze on fish and salads
Herbs and spices
Olive oil
The best in-season fruit

There’s also a little box for basic toiletries and household supplies.

When I shop, I load up on what we need for the menu for the week. There is never the question, “What should I eat?” The answer is already in the pot!

I do this with weekly chores, monthly chores, and yearly chores, too.

I take this seriously. I found a black polo shirt that travels well, doesn’t wrinkle and looks good.

I bought 16 of those shirts.

Why 16? That’s all the site had in my size. They are all the exact same look and design.

I own two pairs of expensive jeans that guarantee I can squat in them. I own four pairs of shoes with the term “Free” in the name and I can honestly tell you that the price is far from free.

Why? Why wear the same thing on every road trip, talk, and gathering?

Among the reasons, I find “no one really cares what I wear” to “it takes me about a minute to pack for a ten-day trip.” It comes down to this: I pull them out of my closet, pop them in my lightweight, compact carry-on, and I am ready to go.

Shark habits save time. Shark habits save mental overload.

An important point: Shark habits don’t judge whether or not something is important, unimportant, trivial, or the key to life, living and the universe.

I think weddings are VERY important, for example.

As the father of the bride, I had to make a phone call to a family member a few weeks ahead of my daughter’s wedding.

“Are you guys coming to Kelly and Andrew’s wedding?”
“Well, yes, you must know we’ll be coming.”
“Why didn’t you RSVP?”
“Well, you know we’ll be coming!”
“Okay…how many?”
“Oh, I don’t know who will show up…maybe the kids, maybe their kids, sometimes they bring friends.”

The reception was a sit-down meal and every guest cost enough money to feed a family of four at a chain restaurant. The difference between two guests and twenty from one family was information I could have used to plan better.

Letting the bride know whether or not you’re coming is important.

Lots of things we do each and every day are important. Many of these you probably never even think about.

Tim Carr, one of the smartest men in education, teaches Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with a fun story.

Imagine you are going scuba diving. You go because it allows you to be one with nature, enjoy the beauty and frolic on a beach holiday after months of hard work saving money to fly to this paradise. During the dive, a very hungry shark or sea monster shows up and you hide behind a rock, keeping the rock between you and this denizen of the deep. You suddenly notice that you are running out of air and need to get back to the surface. The pang of lack of air trumps the danger, the danger trumps the beauty and…

You just learned the basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Everything here was important:

Hard Work
Vacation
Beauty and Bliss
Protection
Air

The shark in this story teaches us about shark habits and importance: most of the things you do are important. Perhaps filling out a form is not important to you, but it’s important to the poor person who has to figure out how much food to buy or how many chairs to set up.

Fill it out. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

Shark Habits and Health

I have talked in depth about how shark habits can make a huge difference on your physical health. See the doctor, go to the dentist, floss your teeth and you know the rest. Shark habits will do wonders for health, longevity, fitness and performance.

Equally important, shark habits will do wonders for your mental health.

Shark Habits and Longevity

One day at the Pacifica Barbell Club, Dick Notmeyer asked me a question. Now, to understand Dick, a man who changed my life by teaching me the Olympic lifts and the lessons of hard work and perseverance, you first have to realize that often when he asked a question, he wasn’t expecting an answer.

He had the answer.

“By percentage, what do think the keys to a long life are?”

He went on to explain that probably 50% of surviving into the triple digits, or close to that, would be genetics. Everybody seems to know a guy who lived to 105 smoking cigarettes and drinking moonshine. There are families that just live a long time.

Forty percent seems to be lifestyle and that’s something we can improve upon or ruin.

And, sadly, 10% is luck. If you had left a minute later, you could have been in that accident or would have been the one-millionth customer and won the prize. It happens. There’s no training for improving your luck.

The secret to living a long life might simply be “Don’t die.” Good advice, but hard to quantify. There seems to be three things . . . and maybe a fourth . . . that lead to longevity:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Wear your seat belt or helmet.
  • Learn to fall and recover from a fall.
  • The fourth? Never say, “Hold my beer and watch this.”

I often tell people that since I don’t commute, the most dangerous part of my day, statistically, is showering. After 55, nutritional decisions don’t matter nearly as much as safety precautions against falling or collisions.

Certainly, your teenage child’s eating and drinking habits and decisions in the early 20s concerning beer and pizza will have an impact on that 50-something body, but after 55, NOT getting broken trumps any magic food or supplement. Safety in the shower, walking on ice, and double checking for traffic are far more important than getting the right vitamins.

Bill Gifford’s book, Spring Chicken, and website offers some simple advice to increase longevity:

Caloric restriction leads to a longer life. Intermittent fasting does the same thing . . . easier.

Exercising 100 minutes a WEEK adds seven years to life.

So…
Start fasting.
Start walking.

To improve your time here on this marvelous planet, there are some simple steps of both prevention and promotion that can keep you living longer.

The corollary to Coach Maughan’s famous insight would be this:

Make yourself a slave to shark habits.

Practice taking things off the table, clearing the clutter, checking the box. Become more proactive. To summarize shark habits, learn to take things off the table, then put them away.

The longer I coach, the more I realize performance is the easiest of the four basic things we work with in fitness — Health, Longevity, Fitness and Performance. Performance comes down to assessing adherence to principles, trying one’s best to shark habit the bulk of life and flitting through some programs now and again to address specific issues.

Sure, there’s a lot there. There is a need for mastery of a lot of areas, but, overall, it comes down to:

Did you do the job?

If not, why not?

If you got cluttered with stuff that could have been handled with shark habits, shame on you.

If we didn’t practice the right things, shame on me.

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