The founder of PayPal uses data to optimise every aspect of his life — and he says being healthier comes down to a single habit
Max Levchin says he made healthy eating and exercise a habit by doing it every day without fail
By Alyson Shontell and Shana Lebowitz
“Be on the bike.” That might as well be Max Levchin’s fitness mantra.
Levchin is a co-founder of PayPal and the CEO of online lending service Affirm. On an episode of Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It,” Levchin told US editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell about the philosophy behind his health and fitness regimen.
That philosophy boils down to one word: consistency.
“I basically find a routine that I like, and I just stick to it obsessively,” Levchin told Shontell. “If I skip a day, it’s extremely uncomfortable. The number one power in any behaviour is in turning it into a default. So long as you make those defaults healthy, it’s very easy. You can just exist in a fairly healthy universe.”
For Levchin, that means exercising every single morning, within reason. He said: “So long as your daily default is ‘Be on the bike,’ some days you’ll miss because you’re travelling or you’re sick. But most of the time, you’ll just get up, and get on a bike first thing in the morning, which is what I do.”
For years, Levchin was fanatical about his health and fitness data, Men’s Fitness reported, going on “obsessive quests” to optimise his performance. Growing up in Ukraine, he had chronic bronchitis and asthma; doctors told his mother he wouldn’t live past age seven, according to Men’s Fitness.
Levchin told Shontell that today, between his responsibilities as a startup CEO and a father to two young children, he does “less experimenting,” but he still makes it a priority to try to ride his bike every day.
When a habit becomes routine, you don’t have to use any willpower — so it’s easier
Levchin isn’t the first person to recognise the power of routine in getting healthy habits to stick. Gretchen Rubin, a bestselling author who researched the topic of habits extensively for her 2015 book “Better Than Before,” wrote in a LinkedIn blog post:
“If I try to do something four days a week, I spend a lot of time arguing with myself about whether today is the day, or tomorrow, or the next day; did the week start on Sunday or Monday; does today ‘count,’ etc. And that’s exhausting.
“If I do something every day, I fall into a habit.”
And writing in The Washington Post, University of Southern California psychologist Wendy Wood says establishing a routine is an important component of developing a healthy habit. “Doing something at the same location or time of day (like putting on sunscreen before you leave the house every morning) can help outsource control of the action,” she writes.
In other words, you’re not using an ounce of willpower on getting yourself to apply sunscreen — it’s just a thing you do without thinking.
One strategy for developing a solid routine is to create an “if/when-then” plan. You pick a cue — like a specific time or place — and a desirable action you can link to that cue.
Research suggests that people who use if/when-then planning are between two and three times more likely to achieve their goals — whether they’re related to weight loss, fitness, or work and productivity — than those who don’t.
To use Levchin’s example, you might say, “When I wake up at 6:30 a.m., then I will hop on the bike.”
Again, it’s about eliminating that internal debate. And it’s a win-win situation: You get healthier and save yourself some mental exhaustion.
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