Make a Game of It, Then Play to Win

The July Project: Day 3

The first time I got serious about exercise, I became a member of the YMCA in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. The Y offered an incentive program for runners. They gave out 6 x 9 index cards on which you could record your miles by inking in a grid of 500 tiny boxes. When you filled the card, you turned it in with $5 and got a downtown ymca 500‑mile club T‑shirt.

I filled up two cards, so I also got a 1,000‑mile club T‑shirt before I left Knoxville. I worked hard for those cheap T‑shirts. Even though the card program relied on the honor system, I scrupulously discounted fractional miles and pushed myself harder every time I neared the end of another row of boxes.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2004. I was walking semi-regularly at Memorial Park in Houston with my friend Scott. One day Scott said, “We should set a regular walking routine.” Up to that point in my life, I’d always considered myself allergic to routine—it seemed to me that putting anything enjoyable on a timetable was the surest way to drain the fun out of it. But I liked walking with Scott, so I agreed to a schedule. We would walk every weekday morning at 7:00, every weekend morning at 8:00.

We built a fail-safe into the system by agreeing to wait only briefly for the other person to arrive. After 10 minutes, we were to assume he wasn’t coming and commence the walk. And we added another rule to keep the game uncomplicated: if one of us didn’t show up, there was no need to explain, to apologize, or to call to find out if we were still on for tomorrow. We were always still on for tomorrow.

These few rules made the game surprisingly effective. By the end of 2004, I was routinely walking five or six days a week. Scott had other commitments that eventually broke up our walking partnership, but I kept going, at one point racking up 13 months without a day off.

I’d been telling myself for a long time that I had the kind of body that needs to exercise every day, but I’d never managed to find the commitment to do so until it became a challenging—but winnable—game. So here’s my message for today:

Whatever you’d like to improve about your life, try making it into a game. Challenge yourself to exercise every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then write down what you did on a calendar, or enter it into an online journal, or an Excel spreadsheet, or on a homemade scorecard stuck to the refrigerator door. It’s your game. Make up your own rules. Then play it to win.

Remember, though, that the game must be challenging, or you’ll get bored. But as one of my favorite coaches, Mattison Grey, explains, it also has to be a game you can win, or you’ll get discouraged. Later, you can change the rules when you’re ready for a bigger challenge.

My own game is always evolving to include higher stakes, extra challenges, and new twists to keep it fun, but two basic rules have remained constant for the last five years or so. I’ll tell you more about these in some upcoming posts:

Rule #1: Do something every day.
Rule #2: Everything counts.

2 comments to Make a Game of It, Then Play to Win

  • Nice. I like how you make it achievable, interesting and challenging all at the same time.

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