Define Your Habits by Playing the Long Game

Make small changes that over time will add up to something big.

At the beginning of each year, you begin to think about what you want to change. You know fitness is important. You read all of the information about how to improve happiness, longevity, and overall health through lifestyle choices, so you comprise a list that looks something like this:

  1. Lean out
  2. Increase 1RM deadlift
  3. Improve recovery by establishing a sleep routine
  4. Run a 5K with my daughter

At the beginning of each year, you begin to think about what you want to change. You know fitness is important. You read all of the information about how to improve happiness, longevity, and overall health through lifestyle choices, so you comprise a list that looks something like this:

  1. Lean out
  2. Increase 1RM deadlift
  3. Improve recovery by establishing a sleep routine
  4. Run a 5K with my daughter

You set to work establishing a plan. You map out what your new days are going to look like, complete with meal prep, more time in the gym, and a meditation routine 30 minutes before turning your lights out for bed. You figure out which days you are going to run on your lunch break, and you glance at your closet, looking forward to throwing out some of the bigger sizes that have crept in at the insistence of your significant other, who says they “hang better.” You feel confident 2018 is the year of the new you.

January starts off with a bang. Despite feeling a little tired (or hungover?) on Monday, January 1, you rally for a healthy lunch and dinner. You manage to go for a two mile run, and you even remember to set the alarm on your phone to remind you to meditate.

As January wears on, you notice it’s getting harder and harder to do all of the things. Sometimes, you forget to meditate before bed. The carefully devised program you had for your deadlift was thrown off during week two, when the dude with the baseball cap monopolized your favorite spot in the gym for over thirty minutes. (Yes, you could have deadlifted in the other corner, but you don’t like it as much). Once in a while, you let your run slip. And the food, oh the food. It went so well the first week, until you realized you don’t really want to eat nothing but hard boiled eggs and salads in the dead of winter for lunch. And chicken only goes so far before it becomes uninteresting.

By the time March rolls around, you reluctantly accept your bigger pants are going to remain on hold in your closet for a little while longer. You promise your daughter the 5K will happen in the fall instead of the spring, and you wonder if maybe all the hype behind how good sleep is is actually a ploy to make the average American feel bad about not sleeping because really, you feel fine and your recovery seems good (though, in all honesty, you don’t have much to recover from).

What happened? How did such a well intentioned plan fall apart?

You Have to Get Uncomfortable

Human beings like efficiency. One of the paths to efficiency is through repetition so, in an effort to simplify our lives, we repeat actions until they become unconscious.

Think of it like this: when was the last time you drove a different route to your favorite grocery store? Are you one hundred percent sure the route you take to the grocery store is the fastest route, or is it simply the easiest way to go because you don’t have to think about it?

Now, imagine you have to choose an alternative way to get the grocery store the next time you go. What steps do you have to take to figure out an alternative route?

You have to think about it for a second, right? Which way you would turn at the first stop sign, which roads you would have to take if the main one wasn’t available. It’s not an automatic act of simply getting in the car and driving. Thinking takes time. And then you have to execute. You can’t be on autopilot like you normally are while driving because you are going a different way.

Thinking, executing, and focusing take effort, and effort is not efficient. Change requires effort, which means it isn’t efficient. And, if you are trying to change five things at once, chances are high you are going to fail.

The exception to this rule is if you remove yourself from your everyday environment and go somewhere else for a little while. There is a reason people go away for things (like rehab). A change of scenery makes it easier to adopt behaviors that are different from your “normal” way of being.

People completing treatment for addiction are likely to relapse once they return to their everyday lives unless they significantly change their patterns.1 It’s easier (i.e., more efficient), to fall into the same routines with the same people when the stint in a monitored facility is over. The same is true when you return from vacation or an extended stay at your aunt’s house; you, too, will likely return to your old habits of eating and exercising unless you make a major life change, like changing a job, social group, or neighborhood.

Robert Moor writes in his book On Trails: An Exploration: “We are comfortable with the familiar, and we are comfortable with the wholly unfamiliar (which we perceive as exotic), but when the two are combined, we begin to feel unstable.” Altering your life without changing locations is like turning yourself into something unfamiliar while you try and lead your unchanged, familiar life. It’s difficult to pull off and even more difficult to maintain because, let’s face it, when you change your physical self, you change your entire self which will affect the people around you.

Make Changes One at a Time

So what if you aren’t ready to give up all of your friends and move 300 miles away? How can you create enough momentum to improve your health and well being in a way that is meaningful?

Start at such a small level it’s almost imperceptible.

Think about the goals outlined in the beginning. The first goal was to lean out. This involves diet and possibly changing up your current exercise regimen. Instead of trying to massively overhaul both diet and exercise, what if our hypothetical person (let’s call him John) looked at his current schedule and realized he always eats at the burger joint next to the office on Wednesdays. He goes by himself, orders a hamburger and fries, and enjoys the quiet away from the office. It’s built into his routine, he only skips it if he has a meeting, and it’s become such a part of his week that he doesn’t even consider other options for Wednesdays.

For one month, John could set a goal of finding an alternative lunch solution for Wednesdays. Notice I didn’t suggest he go into the burger place and order a salad. He would benefit from changing his location completely. Otherwise, the day will come when the burger and fries calling is louder than the salad’s. If he goes to a completely different lunch spot, it will be easier to order something different, and since his goal is to improve his nutrition, he will be more likely to order a meal that fits the image of himself that he wants to become.

John already goes to the gym twice a week. He has a pretty good routine that he has used for the last 16 months. He likes knowing what he needs to do, not wasting time thinking about it, and being able to go in, work hard for 60 minutes, and leave. He focuses on lifting, and does about a ten minute warm up on the bike or treadmill.

For one month, John could make it his goal to do one set of 6-8 repetitions of a new exercise each week. It doesn’t matter if he does it perfectly, and it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t master it because the next week he will do a different exercise. This requires a little bit of prep work because he needs to pick out something and watch a tutorial on it, or maybe he just watches what the person that he finds interesting in the gym is doing and mimics one of his exercises. The point isn’t to use a ton of weight, it’s just to try something new. And if he finds he really likes one of the exercises he tries, maybe it shows up once in a while in his program, or replaces one of his existing exercises eventually. Or maybe not, but at least once a week, he will have the opportunity to try something new and it won’t take a ton of time.

At first glance, neither of these changes look like they add up to much. They are barely anything, which is why John is likely to be able to stick with them for a month. Then at the end of the month, he can assess if they made any difference in how he feels; if he decided the two changes are worthwhile, he can continue doing them and maybe add one more small change, like not drinking an afternoon latte on Mondays, or waking up 30 minutes early on Saturdays and going for a walk or jog.

Play the Long Game

I do a lot of work with people that originally come to see me with a laundry list of injuries and/or pain issues. Often, during the first two or three sessions we do one or two traditional exercises and several unconventional movements that challenge their typical movement habits. I send these individuals home with two or three exercises, to be done daily, of one set, 4-6 repetitions. This sounds like nothing, and the skepticism is high, but since it’s not overly complicated and does not take much time, people actually do it. And because it’s more than they were doing before (even though it seems really simple), and I progress their exercise every time I see them, they get stronger. Their coordination improves, their mobility improves, and they feel better. I have a couple of clients who are extremely active now, regularly participating in activities they would have been scared doing before because the risk of injury would have felt high. They didn’t become extremely active overnight. It happened gradually, by doing just a little bit at a time.

When it comes to health and fitness goals, play the long game. Make small changes that over time will add up to something big. If you have specific goals you want to meet, don’t look for hacks or shortcuts, because they don’t have staying power. Consistency and small changes over time equal the biggest results.


1. Moos, R.H., & Moos, B.S., (2006). “Rates and predictors of relapse after natural and treated remission from alcohol use disorders”. Addiction, 10(2), 212-222.