Alex and his wife had their first baby girl seven weeks ago. He’s thrilled, but he hasn’t worked out in months and he’s gaining weight.

He’d like to start training again, but he’s working full-time, exhausted, and he feels guilty spending the little time he does have at the gym instead of giving his wife a break with the kid.

A real plan

Alex needs a plan that works in real life, and that’s more involved than buying a workout DVD or getting a plan out of a men’s magazine.

It’s going to take some effort on the front end.

Before going any further though, he needs to accept something:

Alex has time to workout

Yes, he does have time. So do I, and so do you. No matter how busy we are or how many kids are running around, we have enough time to workout.

Don’t mistake my tone for being among the self-righteous “just make time” crowd, pitilessly invoking “being a good dad means making time for you, too” guilt trips.

These guys aren’t entirely wrong, but their message, stripped of subtlety and sympathy, couldn’t be less effective.

We all have 20 minutes to workout, but that doesn’t mean that those of us who aren’t doing it are worthless.

Still with me? Good. Let’s rebuild a workout habit.

1. Pick/design the training program

Alex needs a smart, 15-30 minute workout that can be done at home. He could train at a gym if there’s one at, or very near, his work

The workout itself is of secondary importance. It’s fine as long as it’s safe. Alex won’t be setting world records or competing in professional sports; he can afford to be modest.

There are good bodyweight, suspension trainer, and resistance band workouts that fit the bill. Kettlebell lifts are an option if he’s had some professional instruction (please don’t learn how to lift KBs on YouTube, like this).

This is horrific.

When he gets a few minutes to workout, he doesn’t want to think about, and then decide, what to do. That deliberation might be just enough friction to prevent him from working out altogether.

2. Figure out how to do it

Life with kids isn’t easy. They don’t care about your schedule. Babies, especially, are up when they’re up and they need you when they need you.

Alex can establish routines with the baby, but they won’t always go as planned.

He might be tempted to think that he can workout whenever a chance comes up during the day. But it won’t just come up, and if it does, he won’t remember.

3. Make it a habit

He has to plan ahead of time when he’ll train. That way when the appropriate time comes, he’s not deciding whether to workout or what to do (we took care of what in step 1). He’s just executing.

Notice that all we’ve done so far is encourage Alex to make decisions about this behavior upfront. This is because we want his workouts to be a habit, not a daily act of willpower.

If he has to summon his will before every workout, the workouts won’t happen. And deciding when he’ll workout and what he’ll do both take will.

To help Alex find the best time to workout, we’ll consult best-selling author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, who is much smarter than I am.

In Atomic Habits Clear defines the habit cycle as a process that begins with a cue, that sparks a craving, which causes us to perform a specific response, that leads to a reward.

The cue is the all-important trigger that sets the cycle in motion. If we want to build a new habit then, we need to. establish a cue to kick the habit off.

Clear’s First Law of Behavior Change is to make the cue obvious. We can do this in a few different ways.

If Alex and his wife are on a solid schedule with little variation, he might try to start with an implementation intention.

An implementation intention works like this: for any new habit or behavior you’d like to start, simply fill in the blanks.

“I will (HABIT) on (DAY) at (TIME) in (PLACE).”

There is no such thing as too specific. The behavior should be crystal clear. If we write. . .

“I will workout, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 am in the garage.”

. . .we still don’t know exactly what we are doing. Define it. Make sure it’s completely unambiguous.

Here are some better examples:

  • “I will perform 3 set of 12, 50 yard hill sprints. . .”
  • “I will do 30 minutes of cardio with a heart rate between 130-150 bpm. . .”
  • “I will do Resistance Workout A in plan (which refers to a specific series of exercises). . .”

Whatever it is, make sure that you don’t have to do any thinking or deciding when the appointed day and time roll around.

The second method, which Clear credits Stanford Professor BJ Fogg with, is similar to an implementation intention, but not tied to any specific time.

Instead, we attach the new habit onto an existing one; in doing so, the old habit becomes a cue for the new one.

Clear suggests making a complete list of all the things you do, in order, on a typical day. A typical morning list for a new dad might look like:

  • Wake up
  • Use bathroom
  • Brush teeth
  • Take shower
  • Get baby up
  • Change diaper
  • Make coffee
  • Etc.

Armed with his list, Alex just needs to find a likely place to insert his new habit and make minor adjustments.

Alex might decide to wake up 30 minutes earlier and slide his workout in between brushing teeth and taking a shower (he should adjust his evenings to go to bed 30 minutes earlier if he does so).

Now every morning Alex knows that as soon as he rinses his mouth out, he’ll go straight to the garage and bang out his workout.

4. Get buy-in

Alex isn’t done yet. There’s another stakeholder who should have input: his wife.

A marriage, especially one with kids, is a collaboration and a change in routine warrants discussion. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be a big deal.

If his new workout habit shifts more childcare responsibility to his wife, he should reciprocate. Allow her time to workout or, if that’s not her thing, something else she enjoys.

If Alex respectfully broaches the topic by explaining what he wants and why it’s important to him and then solicits her opinions on how to make it convenient for her, there shouldn’t be much drama.

What next?

Those are the basic steps to building a workout habit as a new dad. But exercise alone isn’t a panacea.

Dropping the new-dad weight is going to take more that 20 minute workouts. It’s common for new dads to develop or exaggerate an eating out/fast food, sugar, and/or alcohol habit in the months after their baby arrives.

If that’s the case, here’s a two step plan:

1.) Make two lists

  • One of habits you know would be good (eating veggies, getting more protein, etc.)
  • The other of habits you’re doing that know aren’t helping (eating out, three beers a night, etc.)

2.) Pick up a copy of Atomic Habits and get after it