The One Push-up Challenge (Round 2)

Back on December 28, 2012, I tried doing one push-up and it turned into a full workout. On the very next day, I wrote and published a post called “The One Push-up Challenge.”

I challenged people to do one push-up per day, every day, and see what happens. I did the challenge myself, and it ultimately led me to develop a full-sized gym habit and additional life-changing “mini habits” (the title of my worldwide bestselling book about the strategy).

Everything was great. I had a strong gym habit… but then I lost it.

I stopped exercising. I admit it. As the creator of an extremely popular strategy meant to make behaviors reliable and habitual, I was failing.

Don’t get me wrong, mini habits worked for me. My gym lasted for more than two years straight! What happened?

I injured my upper back and neck. Ouch.

After trying “active recovery,” I realized that activity of any kind only made it worse. I had to rest, and rest I did! Sitting became my main “activity.” In time, my back healed significantly. It’s still not 100% today, but it’s functional.

When I was able to exercise again, I assumed I’d exercise as frequently as before. My brain had other plans. Excuses popped up out of nowhere. Suddenly, I had to be in a certain mood to go. It was as if I was back to the beginning, and all of my progress was lost. The other thing resting did (besides heal my back) was kill my habit.

I was foolish. Not to be back at the beginning—I had no control over that—but to think my subconscious would “pick up where it left off” after months of doing nothing!

When I finally accepted reality, I reinstated the mini habit that started it all. One push-up per day.

Round Two of One Push-up Per Day

Let me tell you–it has been an absolute PLEASURE to go through this journey again! I’ve noticed some interesting things.

  1. I was NOT at the beginning. I’ve done many more push-ups this time than last time.
  2. I’m rising to even higher levels than before. Just yesterday, I did a full workout in addition to 120+ push-ups.
  3. My brain is learning to embrace exercise faster than it did the first time.

I get it now. Once you plant a habitual seed and grow it for a while (say, a year or more), it becomes a permanently more doable behavior. If you stop doing it for a time like I did, however, it will weaken considerably and become dormant as if it never existed. Once you begin it again, those sleepy neural pathways will come to life! This matches what we know about the brain—neural pathways don’t just disappear; when neglected, they lie dormant. 

This is great news for good habits and terrible news for bad habits.

What to Do About Dormant Neural Pathways

To overcome bad habits, cunning strategy and discipline are paramount to avoid reawakening dormant neural pathways. Bad habits are so tricky because they will never fully disappear from your brain. You can weaken them to the point they have no power over you, but if you awaken them, they can come back with a vengeance. This is why small concessions are the greatest danger for your bad habits. “Just one” can and will hurt!

I prefer to focus on good habits in my life because:

  1. They can fulfill our needs
  2. They can replace our need for bad habits or “crowd them out”
  3. They are easier to form than bad habits are to break

I was about to feel depressed when I thought I had lost my exercise habit, because it meant so much to my well being. When I started doing one push-up again, my brain woke up. It remembered who it was before my injury. Mini habits are like saying “just one,” but for good habits. They make you dangerous in a good way!

This “round two” experience has been really exciting for me. It showed me that even though you can temporarily forget a good habit through a prolonged lack of practice (whether it’s by force or neglect), you can reignite it with a dependable strategy like mini habits.

Nothing to Fear

As long as I am able, I know exercise will be a part of my life forever. I don’t need to fear slipping out of the habit or not feeling motivated enough. I know in the worst case scenario, I can always go back to my one push-up mini habit (or another mini-sized exercise task) to spark or respark significant changes in my brain and body.

Before mini habits, I used to wonder if “this time would be different” when trying to exercise consistently. I’d always quit, and I hated failing every time. With the mini habits strategy and especially with my “round two” experience, I don’t worry about it, because I can exercise on the worst day of my life. I don’t need any motivation. I don’t need much willpower. All I need is that small goal to get me started, and I will win every time, which is exactly what my favorite quote says.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war and then seek to win.”

~ Sun Tzu

If life has interrupted your mini habit for some reason, remember that it’s easy to restart it today. The ease of restarting is a key advantage of this strategy over most others that require you to be motivated just to start. If you’re in a place that you need to restart, it’s probably because you haven’t been motivated!

Once you restart a mini habit, it won’t be like the very beginning. Those previously built neural pathways in your brain will awaken and make round two that much easier.

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