The 20 Mile March: How To Sustain Habits In The Long-Term


When John Brown became CEO of Stryker in 1977, he stood before a board room of anxious executives and announced his long-term goal for the company: to achieve 20 percent net income growth every year. [1]

This was more than a Commander’s Intent, it was, to use Brown’s own words, “the law.”

He ingrained “the law” into the company’s culture and made it a way of life.

The law paid off: In 2002, sales reached $3.0 billion and the Michigan-based medical technology firm was listed on the Fortune 500 for the first time.

In fact, every $1 invested in Stryker at the end of 1979 (the year of its initial public offering) and held through 2002, multiplied more than 350 times.

Stryker had a secret to their success: Brown deliberately set a performance benchmark to drive consistent progress.

The Fortune 500 Company sustained their growth for decades because of a self-imposed lower and upper bound limit.

While their competitors were afraid to leave money on the table, Stryker repeatedly turned away business – and, as the figures reveal, were better off having done so. 

The 20 Mile March:

Imagine you’re stood in New York, New York. You decide to embark on a journey from New York to Los Angeles, California. Approximately, 2,792 miles between them.

You decide to commit to 20 miles a day come rain or shine.

On Day 01, you march 20 miles and make it out of the city.

On Day 02, you walk another 20 miles. And again, on Day 03, but on Day 04, it rains and becomes increasingly wet and windy. The temperature drops and conditions aren’t optimal for your journey. You’re tired and want to rest. But you don’t. You continue to walk your 20 miles a day as planned.

You maintain the pace of 20 miles a day, regardless of how you feel.

Then, the weather improves; the temperature increases to a tolerable 23 degrees Celsius and the sun returns. You’re comfortable and are more than happy to surpass your 20 miles. But you don’t. You choose to resist the temptation to exceed your pace of 20 miles a day.

And, eventually, your discipline is rewarded and you arrive in Los Angeles in good health.

Now, imagine you’re in competition with another person who starts out with you on the same day in New York. He gets overly-excited by the journey and decides, on Day 01, to walk 40 miles.

On Day 02, he wakes up, exhausted from the events of Day 01, to 37 degree Celsius temperature. Thinking he’ll make up for lost time when the conditions improve, he decides to wait for the weather to cool.

By the time he enters Los Angeles, you, with your consistent 20 Mile March, have already arrived. You win, by a huge advantage.

The lesson here, is while Stryker’s competitors were jumping at the chance to grow, Stryker opted to for a slow and steady approach.

The results speak for themselves.

From the time John Brown became CEO in 1977 through 1998 and excluding a 1990 extraordinary gain, Stryker hit their 20 Mile March goal more than 90 percent of the time.

Yet, for all this self-enforced pressure, Stryker had an equally important self-imposed constraint: to never go too far and to never grow too much in a single year.

Become a 20 Mile March Person:

In his best-selling book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, Jim Collins writes:

John Brown understood that if you want to achieve consistent performance, you need both parts of a 20 Mile March: a lower bound and an upper bound, a hurdle that you jump over and a ceiling that you will not rise above, the ambition to achieve and the self-control to hold back.

By having both a lower and an upper bound limit to their growth, Stryker became the success it did.

Stryker, in essence, became a 20 Mile March Company.

In goal setting, it’s common to have a lower bound metric to track your progress; a quota to meet on a daily basis.

If you’re a writer, it may be to write a minimum of 1,000 words. If you’re an entrepreneur, it may be cold calling no less than 10 new business prospects. If you’re a basketball player, it may be to score at least 10 free throws before hitting the shower. 

However, it’s also common to see immediate results, misperceive the ease of their attainment and advance at a pace that’s unsustainable. An example would include a person forming a new strength-training habit, overestimating their strength, increasing their weight too soon and injuring themselves.

If, however, that person also used an upper bound limit, for example, not to exceed more than 2.5 kilogrammes per session, per week, they’d greatly reduce their chance of injury. In other words, a slow and steady gain. 

The benefits of an upper bound limit is it becomes easier to sustain growth in the long-term. You practice the discipline not to exceed it, reduce burnout from exceeded effort and minimise resistance when the lower bound limit inevitably rises with it.

As a rule of thumb: use low lower bound limits to start and low upper bound limits to maintain consistency. This is especially useful in the beginning of habit formation. For example, for daily habits, it may look like this:

“I’m going to write a minimum of 100 words, but not more than 500 words”.

“I’m going to cold call a minimum or 5 prospects, but not more than 10 prospects”.

“I’m going to score a minimum of 10 free throws, but not more than 20”.

Become a 20 Mile March person, set upper bound limits and sustain habits in the long-term. And remember: slow and steady wins the race.


[1] Collins, J. (2011) Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, New York: Harper Collins.


James Clear for introducing me to Great by Choice and upper bound limits.