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Happiness Exercise: How to Take Incremental Steps


Happiness Exercise: How to Take Incremental Steps

November 23, 2021

Have you been to hundredpushups.com?  The site trains you to do 100 push-ups at one time, and it trains you to do so in six weeks.

Why does a site like this work?  I’m on week two of the six-week program, and I love the non-thinking nature of it.  I know which day I need to do how many sets of how many push-ups.  It’s all written there for me, and it grows incrementally more challenging each week.

Similarly, other people are doing things incrementally:

  • A close friend is a competitive track cyclist, and she trains on a daily increasing workout between now and the racing season next Spring.
  • Another close friend has lost ten pounds in the past two weeks, just making incremental changes – dropping sweets out of her diet, then bread, then refined carbs.
  • A former coaching client of mine started with five minutes of push-ups and sit-ups a day right next to his bed, and this increased to a half hour per morning at the gym working out – which ultimately makes his mornings at work more productive.

Why is incremental an effective way to increase difficulty?  The alternative to incremental is “cold turkey.”  Examples such as going on a juice fast for a month or working out two hours per week starting the first of the month.  Sometimes those can take, but more often we stick with the incremental changes.

There are many reasons we love incremental changes.  Think of me coming across the push-ups site.  I don’t have huge arm muscles, but as you already could probably tell from my flow post here, I love to rock climb, and a strong upper body can be helpful to rock climbing.  So the site intrigued me, and it was so incredibly easy to start!

Here are several components of incremental steps that make them succeed:

  1. Easy to start.  Look at the first thing the push-ups site recommends: doing an initial test.  I did my initial test, and in good form could do 14 push-ups.
  2. Motivating to start somewhere.  I can see that I didn’t do the worst possible, which would be zero push-ups, so I’m already partway started on the workouts.
  3. Not too much work.  The site actually recommends a break before you start your first day of push-ups, and that makes me comfortable that I’m not rushing into something.
  4. Still challenging.  The site’s workouts are seriously challenging.  Because they are incrementally and increasingly challenging, I develop what is called in psychology self-efficacy – my own belief that I can meet these challenges.
  5. Limited time.  Each workout is less than ten minutes and there are only three per week.  We know from research that sometimes developing competence can be hard, but we’re willing to work for that because we know in the end, it’ll make us happier.
  6. Practice in routine action.  Without a six-week system, I might do some push-ups one day and some more a few days later.  But with the consistency of a schedule, I’m developing my three-days-a-week routine.  Research in self-control shows that the more we use self-control, the easier it becomes.
  7. Exciting goal.  Often it feels motivating to be working towards a goal, and this makes us work even harder.

What’s an incremental step you could take with exercise or healthy eating?  What’s an initial incremental step you could take with organizing and prioritizing?  And what’s the second step you could take after that?  Let me know how these incremental steps are working for you.

Senia Maymin’s blog highlights exercises and research from the field of positive psychology to increase happiness, resilience, and productivity.

Senia Maymin, MAPP Bio

Senia Maymin researches change and runs a Web site of daily research tips for happiness and success.

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