Saturday, February 11, 2017

One Pushup Per Day: The Power of Embarrassingly Small Goals

Four Minute Read

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.

Want to work out in the morning? Make your goal to do ONE pushup upon getting out of bed. Looking to lose weight and to revamp your diet? How about eating ONE cup of spinach every week? What say you, loser (referring to me)? You say you want to be a writer? Make a point to write three crappy sentences immediately after breakfast.

Are these even goals? A first grader can pull this off, no problem. Here's the psychology behind it: By setting benchmarks that are ridiculously easy to reach, you're rigging the game so you can win. According to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, here is how habits work (good and bad):

The human brain is designed to create habits. Without them, even the most mundane of tasks would require concentration and a bewildering amount of decision making. Duhigg writes, "An efficient brain allows us to stop thinking about basic behaviors--choosing what to eat--so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, airplanes, etc."

In other words, you do some of your best thinking in the shower because it's so routine that your mind is able to wander off instead of trying to decide which armpit to scrub first. You don't decide to shower. It's automatic.

Habits are triggered by cues (pungent armpits), followed by routines (showering), and capped off by rewards (feeling Zestfully clean).

Playing the Long Game

There's that saying - Life is short - well, I disagree. Life is long. And our habits, which develop over extended periods of time, can make life pretty miserable if we passively allow bad ones to develop. No one starts off by saying, "you know what? I'm gonna make a point to slam KFC twice per week, and be sure to wash it down with a jumbo Mountain Dew." No, your KFC/Do the Dew habit is the negative version of the habit loop.

There's the cue (driving past KFC or seeing that guy at work who looks like Colonel Sanders), the routine (hitting the drive thru), and the reward (that sweet taste bud sensation of fried-chickeny-fructose corn syrup on your tongue). It's cheap, it's easy, and the next thing you know, your Pavlovian brain has you craving fake mashed potatoes every time you see Phil Jackson on TV.

You're craving a famous bowl right now, aren't you?

Here's How to Establish a Good Habit

1. Decide on a routine - workouts, running, reading, flossing...whatever.
2. Identify a reward - there are options here, but for now let's go with the feeling of accomplishment that increases as we put together a winning streak (think marking days off on a calendar - Jerry Seinfeld's Chain Theory). 
3. Set yourself a cue - this can be a sticky note on the bathroom mirror, running shoes/clothes laid out before bed, dental floss on the counter, or books on the coffee table.

"Wow,  I've gone running 12 days in a row," you might say. It doesn't matter if 11 of those days you never made it past your mailbox. The important thing is: you're establishing a habit. And here's the beauty of it: If your goal is to do a single pushup upon waking, chances are that when you're already down in the pushup position, you'll go ahead and rep out a second, a third, and eventually a 12th and a 25th. 

Getting over the "getting started" hump is the key. If goals are set too high (200 pushups every morning), the chain is inevitably broken, the "reward" feeling of accomplishment is lost, and the habit never forms.

The rules of the game are up to you. Set them so you can win consistently.


  1. Great book by Duhigg! For all of you new habit creators- it takes 30-60 days of daily routine to start to form a habit. Sean-have you read Drive by Daniel Pink?? I would love your feedback on that gem.

    1. Shout out to JamesOn Russell for the Duhigg recommendation. Yeah Daniel Pink was a big part of my dissertation. Great video synopsis here: