The One Pushup Workout?

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How could one pushup per day make a difference?

It should be clear that the physical benefit of one pushup per day is negligible. Daily, every active person does more that contributes to strength and fitness more than one measly pushup. However, what do people say about exercise regimes? Most often they seem to claim not that their biggest problem is a particular exercise or physical limit of repetitions, rather, there’s a chorus of reports about the incredible difficulty of establishing healthy habits and kicking bad ones.

“Know thyself.”

– Socrates

People seem to know what their limitations are, but not necessarily how to overcome them. When it comes to choices about their behaviour, people declare with confident authority things like “that wouldn’t work for me” or “I need more structure”, or even “I need someone to yell at me”. Many people claim to need a deadline to get something done. It’s empowering to know oneself. In fact what if we were to take this much further? If needing more structure is so frequently the limiting factor to successful behaviour design, perhaps we should tackle this more seriously.

Talking to people about habituated practice and behavioural regimes, it seems for many people, it’s not the doing of the intended thing that is difficult, it’s sticking to a practice. Consistency brings compound results, so what would happen if we turned the knobs to eleven on habit formation, even to the near exclusion of everything else? What if we tackled head-on the habit-formation part of the problem and removed all other confounding elements from the plan? What would that look like?

I once started an exercise regime where I forced myself to do only 1 push up per day for a month.

Only 1? Yes. Not because I couldn’t do more, but because previously, doing more would always escalate my practice too quickly and I would be sore and ultimately reluctant. This chain of events broke the habit before it had solidified. They say it takes about a month to establish a habit, after this time in my new regime, I permitted myself to cautiously escalate the effort expended.

Doing only 1 pushup per day kept the habit as easy as possible and made it virtually impossible for me to skip; it was so easy I could do it anywhere, any time, I couldn’t come up with a lame excuse. If I ended up in bed having forgotten, I could handle getting up to do one measly push up whereas a full workout would be sweaty etc.

It was annoying to do only one, but I told myself I was learning to make my practice both daily and solid. In fact doing only one pushup per day was more difficult than doing more. That second pushup was so tempting. But I considered it a failure of discipline to give in to temptation and do more than one.

The lesson was about self-imposed structure, focus on habituation, acknowledging the greatest threat for my habit formation was over-committing because the escalating burden of commitment lead in the past to broken commitments and failure. Not everyone has this as their limiting factor, but for me, as someone who often pushes too hard and is impatient for progress, reducing the commitment was the path to developing that solid structure.

It was also an interesting thought experiment. Why is it so much more difficult to do one pushup per day than, say, a dozen? I think because of a deeply-held mistaken belief about myself and what caused my behaviours. The key insight was to identify, confront and ultimately transcend this mistaken certainty about myself. What if the intense frustration of doing only one pushup was precisely as strong a force as my own self-limiting ignorance and the corresponding disruptive likelihood that I would give up as soon as my ego had snowballed the commitment beyond my resolve, fluctuating as it does over days and weeks. It struck me that perhaps these two forces were one and the same: the frustration of doing only one pushup and the tendency of destructive escalation of commitment. Two sides to the same behavioural coin. There’s a tempting symmetry there. Either way, the key was clearly a new model of deep self-knowledge.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. “

– Mark Twain

What lasting changes have I observed from this process?

One side-effect of this practice is that I have greater confidence that there is a path forward that can be found by isolating the key problem and putting laser focus on it. Sometimes an insight is required to identify this key problem but I usually find it hiding in what I “know for sure that just ain’t so”. Habit formation was not an obvious key piece of the puzzle at first.

Secondly, I have a clearer sense of what my commitments are. I do not make commitments blithely. It’s corrodes my resolve to be entangled in mind-games about what constitutes adherence to a commitment. I don’t want to embark on a commitment that could become a broken promise to myself or others. Without that sense of myself (as aspirational or realised as it may be) I know I am less likely to take each step on my path. It’s important to my identity.

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