Rain pelted the roof of my car. It was 5:55 a.m. Monday and my training group met under a park pavilion 0.35 miles away in five minutes. I didn’t want to get soaked before the sun came up, so I waited hoping the rain would ease.
It was not like that. If anything, it rained heavier. I got out and ran to the pavilion. Did I mention the temperature fluctuated in the mid-30s? Icy drops stabbed my face. My sneakers splashed through cold puddles. When I got to the pavilion, rain hit the metal roof, white noise before daybreak only possible in a suburban park. I had to get closer to the man who was running the training, a friend named Corey Rudd, so I could hear him.
It is fitting that Rudd led the training that day. He’s the most intentional guy I know, and I was up at this early hour working on my own intentionality. He talks about habits so much that I wonder if talking about habits is one of his habits. He 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 sticks to good habits so that getting better is inevitable.
When Rudd set up his timer, he called out six exercises. We’d do the first exercise for a minute; When the buzzer rang we did four burpees, then went on to the next exercise for a minute, then did four burpees, and so on. We rested for the seventh minute. With different burpees before and after every minute at the festival of suffering, the 12 of us did 150 burpees each while training between the ages of 7 and 49, all before 6:15 a.m.
It wasn’t my idea of an ideal morning. But I learned, or at least tried to discipline, one burpee at a time.
Our training group, part of a nationwide network called F3 Nation, meets three times a week under normal circumstances. But January was special, so we met more. We came up with a challenge we called Make America Burpee Again (MABA): 3,100 burpees in the 31 days of January. Over 400 F3 men across the country signed up with us for the challenge.
I initially saw MABA as a way to learn resilience, an increasingly important trait that has become indispensable over the past year. A burpee is resilience in shorts and a moisture-wicking shirt. To do a burpee, place your hands on the floor, kick your legs out so that you are face down in a plank position, kick your legs back in, then jump up and clap your hands over your head.
When you watch someone burpee, it looks like they are going to fall down and get up again. The point of MABA was to collapse and get up again. We all had to learn or relearn this after the nightmare of 2020. But as MABA progressed, I saw it as an opportunity to learn a practical skill that I have coveted throughout my adult life: daily discipline.
Driven by Rudd, I published the MABA Challenge in mid-December. I purposely phrased it as 3,100 burpees in 31 days, not 100 a day. If a participant wanted to do 100 every day every 31 days, that was fine. But if he wanted to take days off and do extra burpees to make up for that, that was fine, too.
I set it up this way because I thought it would attract more men than strictly adhering to a daily amount. More importantly, it appealed to me more. I knew I could do 3,100 burpees in a month. But I have never mastered the ability of daily discipline. I didn’t think I could do burpees every day. I would be bored or busy or lazy or tired or just not wanting to. I wanted one out.
A few days after the challenge started, Rudd and another MABA friend told me they enjoyed the challenge of doing 100 burpees every day. That stung me. I realized that I had repeated a mistake that I had made over and over again: I set myself a goal I knew I could achieve and made a goal I might not be able to achieve.
So I changed my goal. Instead of 3,100 per month, it was 100 per day.
Every day I am endlessly distracted, chasing this or that and falling into Internet rabbit holes. Too often I am like a small child, I run on a path through the forest, go to a destination without any particular hurry, hum to myself, pay attention to nothing and deviate from the path and chase every forest creature that breaks a branch. It’s hard to be productive when I – look, a squirrel!
The reasons for this are diverse. Part of it is a trait. A big reason I love being a journalist is that I can jump from topic to topic. I dive deep into a topic, write about it, and move on.
For the first six years of my career, I worked for a daily newspaper. It wasn’t uncommon for a boss to say, stop what you do and do so, or for me to make that decision myself. Back then, time was never my own; I was always subject to the news of the day. This has been less true since I switched to magazine writing, but a) it’s still partially true and b) old habits die hard.
I’ve made incremental improvements. I shut down Twitter, block distracting websites, and (occasionally) use the Pomodoro technique when writing (at 50 minutes instead of 25). I never miss deadlines, but I know I could have more deadlines if I were more disciplined. I decide to change, make a plan, and then not follow it.
This is in stark contrast to my burpee routine. To my surprise, the burpees have become a habit. At the time of writing, I’ve been doing 100 burpees every day for 26 days. I am also looking forward to it. My day doesn’t feel right until I’m done with them.
Not only do I enjoy doing burpees, but I am motivated by the consequences of not doing them. I started a MABA newsletter to encourage the men to do this with me. In every issue I link to a public results sheet with our names and burpee sums. I’m sure I’m not going to propose such a challenge, invite all these men, encourage them, and then skip burpees for reasons other than my injury or illness.
Fear of being embarrassed is the negative reason to do burpees. The positive reason is that we all encourage one another, congratulate one another, and make one another proud. I can see physical improvements in the bodies of the five men who invented MABA with me. I feel better too. One hundred burpees got easy so I started doing more. I’m not alone in this. The daily average per person rose from 118 to 128 in less than three weeks.
Why can I get better at burpees but not stick to my to-do list? This is because I lack discipline, and I lack discipline (partly) because I’m not responsible to anyone for it. I work alone. I am not afraid of embarrassment or positive reinforcement for discipline.
Nobody knows my struggles and failures. There is no public results sheet. All I have to do to keep myself updated is my own willingness / ability to be consistent and it is lacking too often. The freedom to be a solo preneur is only great if you can do it well. I don’t do that too often.
I have known for a long time how important it is to have responsible partners. I’ve started relationships like this a few times, but I never got through. Until MABA, I doubted it would be worth it. Now I know it will be. I’ve invited friends to be to me in my daily discipline what MABA was to my burpees. I will do the same for you. Will it work? Only if we make it a habit.
Read part 1 of this series!
Photo by Syda Productions / Shutterstock.com
Matt Crossman is a writer and lives in St. Louis. He writes about sports, travel, adventure, and professional development. Email to email@example.com.