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Is Your Self-Defense Training A Habit?

“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.”~ John Dryden

habit-signWhether your interest in self-defense training is for fitness, personal safety or both, your success or failure lies in your habits.

Do you ever have trouble staying on track with your training? Are you inconsistent with your workout efforts?  Do you get on a steady streak only to “fall off the wagon,” when other priorities pop up or you just get lazy?” (Or am I the only one?)

The difference between someone who’s interested in self-defense training and someone who is oblivious about their health and personal safety is that the self-defense enthusiast wants to adopt consistent, automatic behaviors to ensure a healthier and safer lifestyle.

“Successful people are simply those with successful habits.” ~ Brian Tracy

Our habits can save us and keep us pointed in the right direction or they can destroy us and ensure that we fail.

I can’t think of a meaningful, LASTING accomplishment that can be achieved without adopting habits to achieve and sustain it.

If you manage to accomplish something through sheer power of will, without forming a habit around it, it’s not going to be permanent.

Over the years, I’ve seen countless people turn their lives around by undertaking the study of martial arts or self-defense training. The process of training, or “walking the path” as many call it, strengthens their motivation, willpower and self-discipline… first in relation to their training… and then in many other aspects of life.

Keystone Habits

My point in this post is to introduce you to the concept of “keystone habits.”

Keystone Habit: A keystone habit is a single, strategically selected change in behavior that will move you in the direction of your goals AND “spill over” into other aspects of your life… A keystone habit will increase your willpower, self-discipline and your knowledge of exactly which “change tactics” work best for you.

Selecting “the right” keystone habit can totally change your life and put you in control.

You Can’t Change Everything

There’s an old adage that goes something like, “You can have anything you want in life.  You just can’t have every thing you want in life.”  There’s a lot of truth and science behind that statement.

You couldn’t possibly work on changing ALL of your bad habits and implementing a bunch of good ones.  In fact, if you try to change multiple habits or behaviors at the same time, the odds are overwhelming that you will fail.

The good news is, that you don’t have to. What you have to do is select “the right” behavior as your keystone habit.

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going”. ~ Jim Rohn

The status of your health, personal safety and life in general will be determined by your habits; both good and bad.  Don’t worry so much about your bad habits (for now anyway), but rather about your single, most important keystone habit.

You Can’t Erase A Bad Habit

From a neuroscience perspective, habits can’t be “erased,” they can only be “over-written.”

When an old habit is displaced by a new one, it gets over written. New patterns are created between the cells in your brain by the new habit but the old habit is still lurking in the shadows.

That’s why its so easy to fall back into an old habit. The longer and more consistently a habit is repeated the stronger and more permanent it becomes.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle

Keystone habits are based on the following premises:

Willpower is the strength of will to carry out one’s decisions, wishes, or plans.

Willpower Is Like A Gas Tank – the amount of willpower you have at your disposal is finite… you only have so much of it. Scientists have discovered that the “fuel” of willpower is glucose (blood sugar). The application of willpower burns glucose in your brain like your car burns gasoline.

Your willpower reserve is depleted by either by exerting willpower or through decision-making. (The scientific term for this is “Ego Depletion.”)

This also explains:  why trying to take on multiple changes is unlikely to be successful, why you’re more susceptible to temptation when you’re hungry or hung over… (alcohol also lowers blood glucose), why willpower tends to be weaker later the day, and why lack of sleep and fatigue decrease willpower.

Willpower Is Like A Muscle – willpower has been associated to a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Using willpower strengthens it.

Exercising willpower on a regular basis, providing you give yourself time to recover and adapt (just like exercise), will make it stronger.

Interestingly, meditation has been found to strengthen and develop the prefrontal cortex and boost self-regulation (a.k.a. willpower).  Is it any wonder that so many martial arts systems incorporate the practice of meditation into the mix?

An Established Habit Is Easier To Maintain – When a habit becomes ingrained, it requires much less willpower and decision-making, therefore it draws upon our willpower reserve less and less as it becomes more automatic and permanent.

Let’s say that you establish the keystone habit of training at a specific time every day… You don’t deliberate or decide, you just do it as an automatic part of your lifestyle.

In time, that habit will be maintained with far less willpower. It becomes part of who you are and what you do. With that habit on “autopilot”, you can then apply your “left over willpower,” to your next keystone habit.

Discover YOUR OWN “Change Tactics.” – Different things motivate different people. What motivates me, might do nothing for you and vice versa. It’s important to experiment and test various change tactics to narrow down which ones have the most influence over your behavior.

“Once we understand the forces that are acting on us, we no longer have to fall victim to them.  We can knowingly design effective change plans.  Our efforts won’t have to feel so random and serendipitous. We can profoundly improve our ability to make changes is all areas of our life.” ~ Book: Change Anything

Subsequent Changes And Habits Will Be Easier – Based on the reasons above, you can move on to other habits and behavior changes… and now that you know how to do it and have increased your capacity to exert willpower, your probability of success is much greater.

The “Spill Over Effect” – this is the term I use to describe something that I’ve seen countless times over the years. People who are successful at implementing a keystone habit will often find that the effects of their efforts will “spill over” into other aspects of your life.

Lets take your training for example… there’s a good chance if you focus your energy on your training, other habits often fall into place… you quit smoking, eat better, get more rest, limit your drinking, watch less TV etc. often without deliberate effort.

The additional willpower reserves and strength can now be applied to new habits or other aspects of your life.

It’s not completely clear why.  But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher.  “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.” ~ Book: The Power of Habit


If you are serious about your heath and safety, and want to make the biggest, long-term improvement possible, then make your self-defense training a keystone habit.

Is your self-defense training a habit?  If it isn’t, what specific plan of action can you take to make it one?

Further Reading:  If you’re interested in delving deeper into willpower, habit formation and behavior change, here are my top book recommendations:

Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg


About Randy LaHaie

I’m the founder of “Protective Strategies,” a training and consulting company providing self-defense and combative fitness solutions to law enforcement, high-risk professionals and private citizens since 1994. I am a retired police officer, court-declared expert in use-of-force and critical incident performance, and a life-long student of self-defense and combative fitness. “My Thing” is to help people incorporate functional and minimalist workout strategies to improve their health, fitness and personal safety.

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  • Bill Rush

    Hi Randy, more great ‘food for thought’ here-literally and physically. I’m going to share some of this with the difficult teenagers that I teach. The biology about blood glucose levels and decision making is both fascinating and shocking, when I consider what a lot of the young people I teach eat on a daily basis. At the very least it vindicates my lifetime obsession with breakfast!
    Thanks for this.

    • I’m glad you liked the post Bill… Good for you for incorporating the material beyond the context of training… Another thing that popped out at me while doing the research (which continues), is what I took away from Dr. McGonigal’s book “The Willpower Intinct” is the four pillars of willpower being: exercise, nutrition, sleep and meditation. That info really made an impact on me. Also, I recently read a book that blew my socks off that you might find very pertinent to teaching… “Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain.” by John Ratey… He opens the books citing reseach into how incorporating exercise into the school system dramatically increased learning and grades. He then expands his findings to address emotion, hormones and aging… Pretty fascinating stuff. I plan on writing posts in relation to both of these topics.

  • Bill Rush

    I’ll track down John Ratey’s book. Thanks for that.

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