Habit change is like chess

Changing a habit is like playing a game of chess.

In chess there’s an early game, a middle game, and an endgame. The same is true for habit change.

Many people try to change their habits by skipping straight to the endgame. They dive in and commit themselves to making the change happen right away. This is what people do when they make a New Year’s Resolution. It hardly ever works.

Scholar’s mate

Trying to change a habit overnight is like trying to execute scholar’s mate in chess. Scholar’s mate is a strategy of achieving checkmate in only four moves. It only works against total beginners. Against a chess player with an ounce of experience, scholar’s mate will fail. A botched scholar’s mate puts you in a disadvantaged position, so attempting it is usually a bad idea unless you’re playing against a complete novice.

Are you applying the scholar’s mate strategy when trying to change old habits or adopt new habits? Do you go straight for the kill, only to find your attempt shot down?

When you try to change a habit without devoting sufficient time to the early game and middle game, you’ll almost always fail to make the change stick. Only the very easy habits will succumb to this kind of brute force strategy.

The early game of habit change is education and setup. In the middle game, you execute some changes to support your habit change. Only in the endgame do you go directly for the kill.

Early game

In the early game of chess, your goal is to set up your pieces for success. Move your pieces out. Develop a solid pawn structure. Get control of the center of the board. Put some pressure on your opponent’s pieces. Defend your king. The goal of the early game is to get off to a strong start where you’ll hopefully be able to gain an advantage. The endgame is still a long way off.

In the early game of habit change, you’re also setting

yourself up for future success. Read some books to educate yourself. Talk to people who’ve already made the change you seek. Write up a one-page plan for how you’re going to pull it off. These opening moves needn’t be complicated, but they shouldn’t be ignored.

Middle game

In the middle game of chess, you’ll normally become more aggressive, but you still aren’t going for checkmate yet. You’re mainly looking for opportunities to gain an advantage in material, position, or momentum. Use solid tactics to weaken your opponent until you have a shot at checkmate.

In the middle game of habit change, your goal is to attack the scaffolding around the habit, not to go after the habit directly. What tactics can you use to give you an advantage? For example, if you want to change your diet, purge all the problem foods from your house, pick 5 restaurants where you can order healthy meals, learn 10 new healthy recipes, and recruit a buddy to go through the same change. Tell other people about the change you’re attempting, and request their support. For any habit you want to change, you should be able to come up with at least a dozen tactical moves that will increase your advantage.


In the endgame of chess, your goal is to checkmate your opponent’s king. If you do a good job in the early game and middle game, you’ll be in a strong position to achieve checkmate. If you race through the first two stages, your own king will probably be mated instead. The endgame is often fairly straightforward. Usually it’s clear that you’ve either won or lost by this point.

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Habit change is like chess