A Snapshot Into My Life: Self-Management & Fitness

The struggle is always real, it's always daily, and it's fueled by failure and personal growth. 

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

I get some requests now and then to share what I do when it comes to the areas of self-management and fitness.* Here’s some history, some hurdles that I run into, weaknesses of my system, and details of what my current system entails to keep up with my fitness goals.


#Proof #Goliath #RollinTheWindowsDown

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  1. I grew up in a small town where you had to create a lot of your fun. There was no bowling alley, no movies, no mall, no theme parks, no water parks, etc. Half of my high-school (~120 students) was bussed in from 5 smaller towns then where I lived too! So there’s a long history of going outside and doing physical activity.
  2. My father spent his whole life working extremely hard under really hard conditions (e.g., below freezing in the winters or 100+ degree temperatures in the summer, all while doing physical work outside), and encouraged me to go to college and learn skills that could employ me and allow me to use my body physically for the things that I loved most. 
  3. I’m not very good at exercise activities, but I really enjoy the experiences that they lead me to. There’s nothing like summiting that giant mountain or doing something that you didn’t think that you could do like a 70-foot cliff jump.
  4. I spent three years in Florida largely neglecting my health and fitness while I went through my master’s program in behavior analysis and although I learned a lot, it’s not something that I want to neglect again so long as I can control it.
  5. I got my butt whooped on a big mountain climb in June of 2016 and it was the first time I physically could not complete an activity. It’s a large source of my daily motivation. I literally sleep under the summit beer that was meant to be opened on top of that peak so that each morning when I wake up I remember what the goal is for this year.

The Details

  1. Typically on Sunday evenings, I thoroughly plan out what type of workouts and activities I’ll do as well as a backup plan if something comes up (e.g., weather, unexpected work).
  2. Each morning is designed to be as easy as possible to get up and get my butt out the door and to the gym. I prep my clothes on Sundays in stacks that I can just grab, as well as have the coffee ready to go.
  3. I listen to the heaviest tunes I can find typically. Sometimes I listen to things that carry more of a beat, but that’s only when I’m running.
  4. I use my time at the gym wisely. For example, I usually get to the gym around 5 am, which is a great time to touch base with any colleagues, family or friends that are on the east coast of the US or further east (e.g., I have a close colleague I communicate with daily in Brazil and Uganda.) I make sure that I’m doing these things on my scheduled breaks- all of my rests between sets are timed at anywhere between 30 and 60 seconds depending on the exercise. I also make sure to try and knock out other things that can distract me throughout the day during then. So I might send those emails I’ve been thinking about while on the Stairmaster (it actually helps distract from the burn), or I check and reply to social media posts between sets. The key is that you don’t let this multi-tasking limit your progress in the gym (and sometimes it does). 
  5. I refer to a personal trainer and a nutritionist with my personal questions. I also vetted them for their ability to approach behavior change in similar ways as behavior analysts, as well as their approach to relying on empirical research.


  1. Each. Day. Is. A. Struggle. It’s a mini-battle in the morning between myself and myself to get my butt out the door. If I’m not consistent at waking up within the first snooze and then having a big glass of water while the coffee brews then it’s likely I’m going to miss a gym day.
  2. If I don’t have a long-term goal in place related to fitness, then it’s likely I’ll start to slack on both working out and my diet.
  3. Slipping on one thing can mean slipping on a whole lot more. These sorts of behavior-behavior relations are super tricky. I do my best to control them by keeping rules in place for myself that are slightly flexible (e.g., “Two meals per week are cheat meals.”)
  4. Alcohol can be a distractor from my goals. By no means is it something that runs or controls my life at all. But a good summer beer or night out on the town can be enticing from time to time. However, the more that I keep focused on my long-term goals as well as go to the gym in the morning, the easier it is to select alternatives or opt out of events that entice me.
  5. Consistency is key, and consistency isn’t easy. Through careful planning and years of learning I know have a pretty good idea of what I can get done while still keeping exercise as a priority.

Weaknesses of My System

  1. I need to spend some more time researching the last 2 years or so of literature. I’m a bit out of touch with it and that makes me uncomfortable. I have a good reliable source through my trainer, but I also like to keep up on it as well.
  2. I don’t go to the doctor regularly – I do that thing where I go to the emergency room when something semi-serious has happened (e.g., concussion, separated joints). I told myself I would go once I wrapped up my summer hikes, so we’ll count this as a public commitment.

Future Areas

  1. I’m really considering whether I should push myself to do some pretty crazy hikes and climbs the next few years. The way I see it is that now is as good of a time as ever to begin (you’re only getting older right?). I’ll decide after a few climbs I’m going this summer in the Sierra Nevada’s and Cascade range.
  2. I'd really like to start a research line some day in this area. I think there's a lot of potential for behavior analysis and health or fitness, but I just don't have the resources to effectively start a research line at the moment. It's on the backburner, but not forgotten! 

If you want to learn a little more about self-management in my life here's a recent podcast for The Behavioral Observations Podcast. Love to hear what you think through a text: 775.482.4112

What are some areas that you struggle with when it comes to self-management and fitness? What are some areas that you succeed in and maybe want to share with other readers?  Love to hear about them in the comments or connect more via the options below!

*Behavior analysis requires a trained professional and certain ethical and professional guidelines. This is intended to be a document of what I do, not a guideline for what you should be doing. You can use the BACB search engine to find certified professionals in your area.

Ryan O'Donnell - Ruby Mountain Range, Nevada - Photo Credit: Amanda De Caro

Ryan O'Donnell - Ruby Mountain Range, Nevada - Photo Credit: Amanda De Caro