Making Change Playful

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It takes a lot of effort to replace an old habit (Donuts!) with a new one (No Donuts!). The process of making such change is often uncomfortable, exhausting, and a bit scary.

One strategy for making the process a bit easier that I’ve embraced over the years is to bring a playful mindset to my attempts at change. Here’s a recent example:

About six months ago, I decided life would be more enjoyable if I spent less time looking at my phone.

Mind Games With Myself

I knew turning off the distracting notifications on my phone would be the easy part. The hard part would be training myself not to habitually glance at the screen 50,000 time an hour (a slight exaggeration).

To make the transition easier, I pushed “this is going to be hard” out of my head (as much as possible) and replaced that negative mindset with something more playful. I made learning not to look at my phone so much into a series of games.

One of Peter Gray’s conditions of play states “Play is guided by mental rules.” My games had very simple rules: “If you look at the phone while you’re walking the dogs, you lose.”, “If you look at the phone as soon as you pull into the driveway, you lose.”, “If you can go another 20 minutes without looking at the phone, you win.” Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost.

Another of Gray’s conditions of play explains, “Play is self-chosen and self-directed.” One of the reasons this playful mindset worked for me is that I picked it, it wasn’t forced on me. I was directing my own actions.

While, I did place some value on the final outcome of all this play–less screen time–I was more focused on the mental games I was playing. This is another of Gray’s conditions of play–“Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.” I think the change became easier precisely because I wasn’t focusing on the ends–I was enjoying the playful challenges I set for myself.

I might as well touch on Gray’s final two conditions of play in relation to my efforts to change. All of this play took place in my head–it was “non-literal, imaginative, and marked off in some way from reality.” It also involved, “an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.”


In the end, I am less distracted by my phone than I was when I started playing these mind games. This strategy might not work for everyone, or in all situations, but I’ve found it helpful and keep using it. I’m currently playing a “You have to go into the home gym every day and lift something” game with myself.

Do you have any playful strategies for making change easier? If so, share them in the comments.

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I'm an early learning speaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ and Explorations Early Learning.