The Magic of Small Steps or Five Push-ups a Day


Did you make a new year’s resolution five months ago? I heard a lot of people out there do that. You know what else many people do? Not follow through with them. Depending on who you ask, estimations of the percentage of failure rates for what we promise ourselves at the dawn of a new year are well in the 70s and 80s. It’s a staggering number, isn’t it? And it only reflects that one decision that people make on this one chosen day. It is not taking into account the numerous things in the back of our minds that we know we “should do” and postpone over and over again: “I should get outside more”, “I should be looking for my dreamjob”, “I should lose weight” to name just a few. The funny thing is that most of us are pretty aware of this. So how come it is so hard to do the right thing and step up?

A friend of mine (his name is Ralf but he would like to stay anonymous so let’s call him “Ralph”) is a good example. Like many others in our day and age, Ralph is a deskworker. Eight, ten, twelve hours per day hunched in front of a computer is not uncommon for him. As a consequence, he developed problems with his back. What’s the remedy for that? Right, exercise. Well, Ralph isn’t the biggest fan of that. So, for years his girlfriend nagged him to work-out regularly and take better care of himself. Yet he never did (which is weird since nagging has been proven to be the world’s best motivational tool – Oh no wait, that’s torture).

There are numerous mechanisms that keep us in place. Fear of failure, the comfort zone, you name it. The bottom line is that taking on lifestyle changes seems like a task too daunting to undertake. As it is so often in life, we are pretty good at sabotaging ourselves. Ever found yourself formulating a plan to turn your life around that sounded something like this: “From now on I will work out more and stop eating crap.”? Here’s why this is bound to fail:

1. It’s unspecific. “I want to work out more” is a fuzzy concept at best. It can mean anything from going for a walk once in a while to hitting the gym six times a week.
2. It’s too big. If you have been living in front of your TV for the last three years with frozen pizza and ice-cream as your main food source, how likely is it that you will suddenly be seen chewing salad on your daily 30 mile jogging route? That’s right, not very.
3. It has no time constraint. From now on? Until forever? Are you crazy? What if a Gilmore Girls marathon is on?

Here’s something better: If you want to pick up a behavior make it specific, making it small, make it temporary.

That’s exactly what I told Ralph to do. I told him to do five push-ups. Every morning. For a week. That’s it. It’s very easy to do, there’s very little time to invest (less than 30 seconds) and it is a temporary assignment. Together that translates into little cause for resistance and a bigger likelihood of adherence. You wanna know what happened? A week later Ralph was up to eight push-ups daily, in week two he managed to churn out twelve. Four weeks later I got the following phone call: “Hey, is it cool if I do three sets of ten?”. The other day I caught him jogging home from the supermarket. He is also thinking about a place to put a pull-up bar. Not bad for five push-ups, hu? Ralph has taken a positive step in his life and is doing regular exercise for the first time in years. And, most importantly, his girlfriend now has him come to bed shirtless. You’re welcome.

What is something you would like to integrate in your life and what is the one (small, specific, temporary) step you are going to take? Tell me in the comments.

Image: vorakorn /

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