How Imaginary Rivals Can Deliver Real Results When Changing Habits

A short, simple, and effective way to make a rival your fuel for change.

Photo by Harry Gillen on Unsplash

I have always been a competitive person. It generally works in my favour and drives me to achieve more. But when struggling to change some lifestyle habits, I realised I wasn’t using this to its full effect. I would focus on the new habit for a while, get discouraged, and fall back to my old ways.

I got frustrated and self-critical. I could see that other people were able to make lasting changes but not me. Eventually, it clicked. I was much more effective when I felt I was actually competing against someone. It just wasn’t the same when I was only challenging myself.

I needed a rival!

Find Your Foe

As part of a 2019 advertising campaign, NFL superstar J.J. Watt offered a simple piece of advice to aspiring athletes: “Find a rival.” He explained that having a rival can not only help you stay motivated but it can drive you to perform at a higher level:

That rival, that wants to take you down, is gonna make you raise your game even higher.

This advice is supported by scientific studies into the effect of competition on motivation and performance. I was used to thinking of rivals in terms of exam results or career prospects. My mistake was that for a long time I didn’t see how they could help with changing lifestyle habits. But it made sense the more I thought about it.

I was also used to thinking of rivals as being real people. But the obvious problem was that I didn’t have real rivals for the changes I was trying to make. I didn’t want to “buddy-up” with someone for the gym and I certainly didn’t want to share my financial plan with anyone. But I could create virtual competitors for the changes I was trying to make. They would take on the same role and I came to see them as my rivals. Once I thought someone was actively competing against me it gave me the motivation boost I needed.

It was me versus them and it turned out to be surprisingly effective.

Habit Hit List

There was nothing radical about the habits I was trying to change. They probably feature on New Year’s Resolution lists every January:

  • Stick with my spending plan and increase my savings each month
  • Exercise and go to the gym more often
  • Eat healthy foods on a more regular basis

But there is a reason they appear on lists each year, they are more easily said than done.

Let’s take the first one. I was trying to motivate myself to save but was finding it hard to rein in my shopping habit. Impulse purchases were my big weakness. I had a spending plan for each month with a strict limit that would see me save each month. That’s if I could stick to it.

Building my savings was a great incentive but this was a future benefit, delayed gratification. In reality, I faced months of limiting retail therapy and staying away from an immediate dopamine hit. It required self-discipline day in and day out. Not so easy.

There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support the fact that we can all find ourselves distracted from meeting long-term goals by more enjoyable short-term activities. I was going to need to keep myself motivated for the long term and I needed to stay out of the shops.

I needed to utilise my competitive streak, establish a rival, and hold myself accountable if I was to have a fighting chance of creating new habits that would stick.

Facedown Your Foe

To hit my saving target I started to think of every department and online store and their marketing teams as my rivals. I was trying to save but they were working to convince me to spend my money on clothes, bags, and other impulse purchases.

Whenever I was tempted to spend anything, not in the plan I thought of this rival team, working against me. Of course, there were times when I almost caved to the temptation to buy something that wasn’t in the plan. I would have a tough week and tell myself I deserved it. But the win/lose mentality really started to work for me.

If I bought anything outside the spending plan, they won. If I made it to the end of the month in line with the plan, I won.

I had to hold myself accountable and a habit tracker proved to be the best thing for me. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as you have to write down the results. That’s the critical step because there are only two options, either they win or you win. For a competitive person, writing “They win” two weeks in a row hurts and you won’t want to do it a third time.

It’s simple but it’s also surprisingly effective. The main reason I wasn't exercising as much as I should’ve been was due to work pressure. To motivate me I selected a work colleague as my rival for this piece. She was on my work team and constantly tried to get away with doing as little as possible and was happy to let others pick up the slack. If I couldn’t get to the gym in the past it was most likely because I was finishing her work. No more. Under the new system, she was my rival, trying to keep me away from the gym. If I didn’t go and stayed to finish her work, she won. Powerful motivation.


Making any lifestyle change is really hard for us. Recent studies have valued the self-improvement industry in the US alone at $11B in 2018! If it was easy this industry wouldn’t exist.

Anything that can help us change our habits is worth trying. It sounds simple but going up against even an imaginary rival brings out your competitive nature and drives you on. It’s also easy to select rivals for the various changes you want to make. It just needs a little practice.

It provided me with extra motivation and spurred me on when I might otherwise have given up.

Six months into the plan I’m still winning more than I’m losing. Even J.J.Watt might be proud!

CFO & Learner. Writing about personal growth, finance, & books. Sometimes all in one story. Mostly writing about what I know, what I’m learning & what I love.

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