The power of one.

In Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, habit number two goes like this: Begin with the end in mind.

For someone like me, that idea is terrifying. I’ve never been great at goal-setting or planning ahead. So if I have a big task ahead of me, I often find myself paralyzed by the weight of everything that has to happen for it to be accomplished. Obviously, that’s not good.

Now, I understand what Covey is getting at (full disclosure: I’ve read the book). But on it’s face, that idea doesn’t work for me. Instead, my friend Chris had an experience trying something different. It’s not a novel concept, per se, but it is inherently powerful. He calls it “the power of one”.


Chris is a military guy. Navy, to be precise, and he’s always been health-minded. A few years ago he had been doing the Insanity workouts, but decided to shut down all physical activity for a few months so he could recover from double plantar fasciitis, sore knees, and a sore back. His workout was tearing him up.

When he felt ready to start working out again, Chris wanted to create his own routine. He wanted to come up with a well-balanced, head-to-toe workout. His only other requirement was that he wanted to incorporate pull ups. But he was awful at pull ups, always had been. However, he knew he could do at least one. An idea was born. He didn’t necessarily know where he was going to end, but he knew where he wanted to start.

Very intentionally, Chris went to the gym on the first day and did one pull up, one push up, one crunch, and one weighted squat thrust. And then he walked out.

I have to think he felt a little silly that first day. Even though he hadn’t exercised in a few months, the guy at least had somewhat of a base to work with. But, he told himself, he had checked all the boxes and accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. He’d done a well-balanced, head-to-toe workout. And he’d done a pull up. And best of all, he believed he could do it. Since he was able to do one pull up, now he believed he could do two.

The next day, he hit the gym for two reps of each of the four exercises. Again, he walked out. The next day he did three. He did the same thing the following day, only with four reps. Around day five, he started journaling and keeping time. He reflected on what he was doing. What did he want to get out of this? Eventually he settled on something crazy. He wanted to be able to do one hundred pull ups.

I don’t know if you’ve done a pull up recently, but I have. You know what, do yourself a favor before you continue reading this. Get off the couch (or toilet, because I know my audience) and go find a spot to do a pull up. Try one, and pay attention to what happens to your body when you do that. Then, imagine what you would feel like after doing that 99 more times. It’s probably not pretty.

Now consider this: could you do that? An average person would at least have some doubts. My answer, personally, is a big “hell no”. But if I started with one and worked up to 100, could I do it? You know, there’s a small part of me that believes I could. And for the record, that’s all I really need – the belief that I could do it. I have no problem with not proving that to people.

How did he do it? Well, as cliche as it sounds, he took it one day at a time. There was a reason he started with one and walked out of the gym. He needed that motivation. On day 4, don’t you think he probably thought to himself dude, just skip to 15 or 20. What’s the point of dragging this out? But he needed to antagonize himself a little to build that fire. As much as this goal was about the physical, it was also such a mental workout.

He had to keep it fresh or else he would have gotten bored and scrapped the whole thing. He kept his progress recorded in a journal. He allowed himself to use some variation on the ab exercises. He allowed variation in his grip for the pull ups. If it was a strange number that particular day – like 37, for instance – he’d think about how he wanted to break up the reps. It was all to help him stay focused and interested in what he was trying to accomplish.

Chris wonders what other sorts of applications this idea could have in life. The power of one, as he calls it. Obviously this could work in a physical way, but what about emotionally or spiritually? What about at work – hitting a sales goal, accomplishing a certain metric, increasing efficiency or profitability? Could that work? Could this sort of concept work in the muck of political discord we face in our country? How about in our relationships? Here’s where I’m going to fly off on a quick tangent regarding our relationships. Hang with me.

Earlier this week, I met with a group of guys for our weekly Bible study. We’ve been crawling through the book of Samuel (I know, right?!?), but this week my friend Chad took us in a different direction. He shared that lately he’s been struggling in some of his relationships. I won’t go into all of it because it’s not my place to talk about it, but the guy has been through a lot in the past year, so it’s understandable why he’d be struggling.

The point he was making was this: sometimes we find ourselves in relationships with others where it feels like there’s this overwhelming chasm between us and that other person, and we just don’t know how to repair the relationship. It seems too big, or too hard. I’ll never be able to do his spiel proper justice, but he walked through how taking the smallest steps, every day, can start to mend those sorts of relationships.

He used a popular illustration to drive home his point. You have two options: I’ll give you one million dollars today, or I’ll give you a penny today and double what I give you every day for the next 30 days. Which option would you take?

On first impulse, the million bucks looks pretty awesome. Even a quick minute of mental math will tells you that after seven days of the other option, you’d only have 64 cents to your name. Halfway through the 30 days, you’d still only be sitting at $163.84. Not exactly encouraging when you consider the first option.

I think you’re smart enough to know where this is going. If you were patient enough to wait 30 days for your payout, you’d end up with over $5.3 million. And that was Chad’s point. Taking a small step every day might not seem to be making any real difference at first, but if we are disciplined to stick with our relationships and put in the work, it can have an incredible payout. When something feels impossible to overcome, we won’t know whether or not it’s truly impossible until we take the first step.

Back to Chris. One incredible part of this whole experience – to me, anyway – is that Chris casually mentioned that he never got sore. Again, I’ve done pull ups recently and anything more than 10 in one day will make me feel muscles I didn’t know I had. But because he started with one, then two, and three, etc., he was able to build a foundation that was growing as he went.

I mentioned earlier how hard this was mentally for Chris. There was power in knowing that if he was needing to do 78 pull ups one day, he could rely on the fact that he’d just finished doing 77. The mental hurdle of convincing yourself that you can do that many pull ups is so much easier to get over if you already know you can do 77. What’s one more?

So that’s it. The power of one. It’s not a novel concept, but it is an important one. It’s a concept that can be used in so many facets of our lives. In a time when the term “instant gratification” is commonplace – as is its popularity as a way of life for many – it’s important for us to understand that the easiest way is not always the best way. And when the hard way seems impossible, we must remember how much power there is in that very first step.