1 thing to change everything for the better

One day in 2006, I don’t recall an exact month, but surely before May, I stepped on a scale and thought that it would be nice to lose some weight. I decided to do this by burning calories. I came back to my old habit that I had developed 12 years before and was doing it on and off for years: a consecutive series of pushups to failure.

I remember that I did 40 pushups on the first day.

I had this habit already developed. I knew the drill. It wasn’t easy though, and at the beginning, I often forgot to do my series of pushups. There was no structure to it. I did it in the morning or after getting back from work. I had no reliable trigger.

OK. That changed my life for the better. What? Do you want the rest of the story? You want not only ‘what,’ but also ‘how?’ Let’s dive into it.

A Keystone Habit

Little did I know in 2006 that I started a keystone habit. Brian Tracy explained it best:

“Keystone habits are habits that have a multiplier or a domino effect in your life.”

The second piece of domino in my life was a morning prayer. A few months after I came back to pushups, we bought an apartment in a town 25 miles from the capitol. I traveled for about an hour to and from work. Some time had passed, so I knew that my pushups work best on an empty stomach. I moved my daily workout to mornings.

I had the same trouble with the consistency of my prayer that I had with the consistency of my training. I decided to couple them. While starting my pushups series, I was also saying the first verses of Psalm 63 (“God, you are my God, I pine for you…”).

Suddenly, my stick ratio for both activities skyrocketed. I could forget about my pushups or I could forget about my morning prayer, but forgetting them both was close to impossible. Soon (read: in a few weeks) my consistency was almost 100%.

Status Quo

I had been continuing my pushups for the next few years. Life ran its course. We bought an apartment and made it ready just before my daughter was born. We bought our first car. The financial crisis came. I was laid off. I found another job. My wife found her first job.

Apart from life events, not much seemed to be changing. Surely, not me.

But I upped my pushups to over 100 repetitions.

Success Takes Time

I will tell more about The Slight Edge further on. For now, it’s enough to say that the core of this concept is that success is a few simple disciplines made consistently over time.

We just don’t really comprehend how much time it takes. Here is the ‘success’ part of The Slight Edge part:

Do you notice how long it seems there are no results? Only about in one-third of the picture can you observe an upward movement without a microscope. I still don’t think this picture gives justice to reality. I think it should look like that:

The difference between 2006 and 2012 in my life was almost invisible. The progress was so slow that I didn’t realize it was happening.

Third Domino Block

In April 2012, I faced the reality: my pushups weren’t getting me anywhere (I had thought). I had been steadily gaining weight since 2006 despite my morning pushups. I needed to change my diet to lose weight.

So I changed it.

You see, keystone habits work like that. They spawn more good habits. When you cultivate a good habit for a long time, the most sensible thing is to follow this habit with another one that will prevent you from losing your time investment.

I had been doing pushups for years. Quitting this habit didn’t even cross my mind. I wanted something new that would supplement this habit and help me reach my goal.

I put in effect some size-portion control, restricted sweets and white carbs intake, and introduced more vegetables and fruits into my diet. I lost about 8 pounds in 4 months.

The Beginning of Real Change

On the 10th of August, 2012 I read a book “The Slight Edge” by American millionaire, Jeff Olson.

The book’s message immediately spoke to me at a gut level. I had a totally different view on success before reading the book. I thought it was something grand, like winning the Olympics or a Nobel Prize. The Slight Edge said success is a few simple disciplines repeated over time. I recollected all my past successes and found some small disciplines behind them.

For example, I got a scholarship at the university because I attended all lectures. My brighter colleagues didn’t, so I overran them.

But the most prominent example was my pushups. Jeff Olson argued that you simply cannot do something regularly and fail. You cannot practice and not get better, and this rule stands firmly behind all successes.

I grasped it immediately. I didn’t lose weight through my pushups, but I increased my strength and endurance. I progressed from 40 repetitions to over 100 reps. My muscles grew. Six years of daily training were not in vain.

Because I connected with The Slight Edge message on such a deep level, I couldn’t get rid of it from the back of my mind. For one month, I pondered the thought: “Can success be so simple? So easy? Is it possible at all?”

The Change Accelerated

If not for my experience of doing pushups persistently and getting measurable results from that, I would have probably dismissed “The Slight Edge” as yet another dumb self-help book that sells hope to the hopeless.

However, I couldn’t contradict my own life experience that was fully congruent with the book.

Doing pushups was simple. Was easy. It brought me success.

One day in September 2012 I sat down and brainstormed some goals and daily disciplines that led to achieving them. It took me no longer than 15 minutes.

And then I started to execute my disciplines every single day. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure it led me anywhere, but I felt good doing something about my life.

Quickly, I noticed that this small disciplines method does indeed provide results. In a month of practicing speed reading, I improved my speed almost two times. When I discovered that, I resolved to keep my disciplines, even in areas that were hardly measurable (like spirituality) or in areas where I didn’t believe at all that I could improve.

Achieving the Impossible

The most prominent about them was my finances. I was completely sure that I was doing my best with them and could not improve even an ounce more. I didn’t believe I could start my own venture. It was strictly outside of my worldview. Yet, I knew that if I want to get out of debt and earn more, I needed to own my business. Working for somebody else was a dead end.

I also started dozens of new habits. I incorporated into my daily routine whatever I deemed doable and profitable. Among other things, I created a morning routine and my pushups series was a great fundament of it. New habits work best and are developed faster when they are based on already-established habits.

Everything for the Better

I was wrong about the nature of success. I was wrong about my finances. I was lucky I practiced my morning workout for years before I read The Slight Edge. I already internalized its message, and I needed only a gentle prodding.

Here are some measurable outputs illustrating how my life got better in the last few years. It’s just the tip of an iceberg:

I’m healthy. I was sick only two times since July 2013.
I beat over 180 personal fitness records.
I got a salary raise. I obtained a few professional certificates. I changed my job for one that pays 30% better.
I became a writer and published 15 books.
I became a personal coach. I coached a few dozen people so far.
I bought the first house for our family.

My wife quit her day job, which she passionately hated. Our savings ratio increased from 2–3% to about 20%. I overcame my shyness and got new friends all over the world.

If you are curious, a detailed 5,300-word progress report from the last year, enumerating how my life changed is on my blog:
The Slight Edge Report Year Five


The fact is that it’s not just fitness or health that significantly improved as a result of my morning pushups series. A human being is a whole as a mind, body and soul. Everything affects each other. Make one better and another two will follow.

Can you connect the dots between doing pushups and buying a house? Or between doing pushups and starting a successful writing career from scratch? Or between doing pushups and increasing your savings ratio? Our normal thinking is overly linear for that.

I assure you, start a keystone habit and it will provide a domino effect in your life. It may be as well doing a consecutive series of pushups.

This article first appeared on Medium