Rain pelted the roof of my car. It was 5:55 a.m. on a Monday in 2021, and my workout group was meeting in five minutes under a park pavilion 0.35 miles away. I didn’t want to get soaked before the sun came up, so I waited with the hope that the rain would abate.
It didn’t. If anything, it rained harder. I climbed out and ran to the pavilion. Did I mention the temperature hovered in the mid 30s? Icy drops stung my face. My sneakers splashed through frigid puddles. When I arrived at the pavilion, rain thumped the metal roof, predawn white noise possible only in a suburban park. I had to step closer to the man leading the workout, a friend named Corey Rudd, so I could hear him.
It’s fitting that Rudd was leading the workout that day. He’s the most intentional guy I know, and I was up at this early hour to work on my own intentionality. He talks so much about habits that I’m starting to wonder if talking about habits is one of his habits. Rudd doesn’t just say, “I want to get better,” and then wonder why he doesn’t. He says, “I want to get better,” and then abides by good habits in such a way that getting better is inevitable.
As Rudd prepared his timer, he called out six exercises. We would do a minute of the first exercise, and when the buzzer rang, we would do four burpees, move on to the next exercise for a minute, do four burpees, etc. On the seventh minute, we would rest. With other burpees before and after that every-minute-on-the-minute sufferfest, the 12 of us at the workout, ranging in age from 7 to 49, did 150 burpees apiece, all before 6:15 a.m.
It was not my idea of an ideal morning. But I was developing—or trying to learn, at least—daily discipline, one burpee at a time.
Developing resilience through discipline
Our workout group, part of an international network called F3 Nation, meets three times a week under normal circumstances. But January was special, so we’ve gotten together even more. We dreamed up a challenge we called “Make America Burpee Again” (MABA): 3,100 burpees in the 31 days of January 2021. More than 400 F3 men across the country signed up for the challenge with us.
I initially saw MABA as a way to learn resilience, an always-important trait that became essential in 2020. A burpee is resilience in shorts and a wicking shirt. To do a burpee, you put your hands on the ground, kick your legs out so you’re face down in a plank position, lower and raise your body, kick your legs back in, jump up and clap your hands over your head.
Setting goals and developing discipline
When you watch someone do a burpee, it looks like they are falling down and getting back up. The point of MABA was to fall down and get back up, together. We all needed to learn or relearn that after the nightmare that was 2020. But as MABA progressed, I saw in it the chance to develop a practical skill I have coveted for all of my adult life: daily discipline.
Goaded by Rudd, I issued the MABA challenge in mid-December 2020. I intentionally worded it as 3,100 burpees in 31 days, not 100 per day. If a participant wanted to do 100 every day for all 31 days, that was fine. But if he wanted to take days off and do extra burpees to make up for it, that was fine, too.
I set it up that way because I thought it would attract more men than a strict adherence to a daily total. More importantly, it appealed more to me. I knew I could do 3,100 burpees in a month. But I’ve never mastered the skill of daily discipline. I did not think I could do burpees every day. I would get bored, or busy, or lazy, or tired or just not want to. And I wanted an out.
A few days into the challenge, Rudd and another MABA friend told me they were enjoying the challenge of trying to do 100 burpees every single day. That stung me. It made me realize I had repeated a mistake I have made over and over: I set a goal I knew I could reach and chickened out in setting a goal I might not reach.
So I changed my goal. Instead of 3,100 in a month, it became 100 a day.
Why I lack daily discipline
On any given day, I am endlessly distracted, chasing after this or that, falling into internet rabbit holes. I’m too often like a little kid, traipsing along a trail through the woods, headed toward a destination in no particular hurry, humming to myself, not paying attention to anything and veering off the path to chase every woodland creature who breaks a twig. It’s hard to be productive when I’m—look, a squirrel!
The reasons for this are myriad. Part of it is a character trait. A big reason I love being a journalist is because I get to bounce from topic to topic. I deep dive on a subject, write about it and move on.
I worked at newspapers for the first six years of my career. It was not uncommon for a boss to say, “Stop what you’re doing and do this,” or for me to make that decision on my own. Back then, time was never my own; I was always subject to the news of the day. That has been less true since I moved into magazine writing, but a) it’s still partially true and b) old habits die hard.
I’ve made incremental improvements in developing discipline. I quit Twitter, block distracting websites and (occasionally) use the Pomodoro technique when I’m writing (at 50 minutes instead of 25). While I never miss deadlines, I know I could have more deadlines if I was more disciplined. I resolve to change, draw up a plan and then don’t follow it.
Developing discipline is easier with accountability
That stands in stark contrast to my burpee routine. To my surprise, the burpees became a habit. As of writing this, I have completed 100 burpees every day for 26 days. Not only that, I look forward to doing them. My day doesn’t feel right until I am done with them.
In addition to enjoying doing the burpees, I’m motivated by the consequences of not doing them. I started a MABA newsletter to encourage the men doing it with me. In every issue, I add a link to a public scoresheet with our names and burpee totals. I sure as heck am not going to propose such a challenge, invite all those men, encourage them and then skip burpees for any reason other than being injured or sick.
Fear of being embarrassed is the negative reason to do the burpees. The positive reason is that we are all encouraging each other, congratulating each other, making each other proud. I can see physical improvements in the bodies of the five men who concocted MABA with me. I’m getting better, too. One hundred burpees became easy, so I started doing more. I’m not alone in that. The daily per person average jumped from 118 to 128 in less than three weeks.
The importance of accountability partners
Why can I get better at burpees but not at sticking to my to-do list? It’s because I lack discipline, and I lack discipline (in part) because I’m not accountable to anybody to have it. I work alone. I have no fear of embarrassment and no positive reinforcement for being disciplined.
Nobody knows my struggles and failures. There’s no public scoresheet. All I have to keep me on track is my own willingness and ability to be consistent, and both are too often lacking. The freedom of being a solopreneur is only great if you manage it well. Too often, I don’t.
I’ve known for a long time the importance of having accountability partners when developing discipline. A handful of times I’ve started such relationships but I never followed through. Until MABA, I doubted it would be worth it. Now I know it will be. I’ve invited friends to be for me in my daily discipline what MABA has been for my burpees. I’ll do the same for them. Will it work? Only if we make a habit of it.
This article was updated May 2023. Photo by PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock