Every once in a while I like to challenge myself. Or maybe I just have stupid ideas I decide to act on. More likely, both are accurate.

Either way, when I got several days behind on my goal of doing 100,000 pushups this year (more on that here) I wondered how it would feel, physically and emotionally, to keep grinding out a ton of pushups, hour after hour.

Somehow, idle curiosity turned into deciding that instead of doing the 1,500 pushups I needed to do...my goal should be 5,000.

Yep. That's what I do.

And here's how that little experiment went.

The Rules

Challenges work best when you impose structure. Structure creates a benchmark in case you later decide to repeat an experiment and see whether you've improved.

More importantly, establishing a structure helps you stay on track and reduces the temptation to change your goal midstream. Structure lets you focus on what you have to do right now, not on the overall goal; structure helps you stop thinking about the distance from here, where you're starting, to there, a finish line that seems impossibly far off. When you've only done 500 pushups and you let yourself think about needing to do 4,500 more, it's really hard to stay the course.

The structure I created for this challenge was simple:

  • I would do a set of pushups, basically to failure (meaning I couldn't do another pushup) but rounding off at a zero or a five to make counting easier. So if I got to 28 pushups and didn't feel like I had 35 in me, I would stop at 30.
  • I would then take a 40 second rest, using a stopwatch, and then do another set.
  • I would follow that pattern for 30 minutes, then take a five minute break to stretch and refill my water bottle.
  • And then I would start another 30 minute cycle.

Why breaks of 40 seconds? I figured that would be long enough to catch my breath and let my muscles recover a little, yet short enough to keep things challenging. During the planning stage, 40 seconds seemed like the perfect amount of rest.

Later, I came to regret that assumption.

To make counting easier, I used 10 pennies to serve as markers for 100 pushups completed, and five quarters to denote each set of 1,000 pushups completed. I know from experience that when the going gets tough, it's easy to get distracted and lose count.

So with all that in mind...

The First 1,000

I've been doing a lot of pushups this year, so the first 500 or so went pretty smoothly. I started with sets of 50, dropped to 40s, and settled into 30-pushup sets for a long stretch.

My biggest problem was staying focused on just doing the set I was on and not thinking about the thousands of pushups I had left do. It's a little like meditation--OK, maybe it's not--but it really helps when you can force certain thoughts away and only think about the pattern: Do a set of pushups, stretch a little, take a sip of water, occasionally move a penny into place, check the stopwatch, and then start another set. (I like to call it "finding my Zen place," although I'm one of the least Zen people you'll meet.)

The key is to find a way to focus only on the task at hand and not the bigger picture. That can be hard since we're conditioned to focus on the big picture...but with something like this, the big picture is soooo not your friend.

And that's OK: Occasionally we all have to do things that require us to put our heads down and just do the work. Occasionally we just have to embrace the suffering. So I did.

Then, right around the 800 pushup mark, I started to struggle, mostly because my goal was to do sets of 30 all the way to 1,000. One set I reached 27 pushups and really had to squeeze out the last three. Then that happened at 26, and 25.

Finally I had to accept defeat and do my last 100 pushups in sets of 25. I was disappointed but also happy to clear away the nine pennies and put the first quarter down.

Counting the five minute break, I did the first 1,000 in an hour and five minutes. I held off on my second five minute break since I was close to 1,000. Adjusting your structure is OK when it means your task is harder.

That left me with 4,000 pushups to go. (Oops. Don't think about that. Focus on the task at hand.)

2,000

The problem with a five minute break is that coming out of the break I felt really stiff. The first set seemed much harder than it should have; it was a weird combination of feeling not warmed up yet already fatigued.

I still managed 40 pushups my first set, but then only 30 for my next two sets, and then I settled in at 25s. I found a rhythm and quit thinking about the finish line and just focused on grinding out 25 at a time, and it worked...

...Until I got to around the 1,700 mark. Then I kinda fell apart. I did 20, then could only do 15...and I limped to 2,000 doing sets of 15. Because I averaged fewer pushups per set, this 1,000 took me a lot longer to complete than the first 1,000.

3,000

Three things I realized as I worked my way through the 2,000s:

  • 1,000 pushups, done 15 reps at a time, equals 66-plus sets of pushups.
  • Einstein was right. Time is relative. When you're in pain, 40-second rest periods go by way faster than you think.
  • "All things in moderation" actually makes a lot of sense.

When I hit 3,000 I took solace in the fact I was over halfway done. (Seriously. That felt really good. Getting to halfway always makes a huge mental difference.)

4,000

The less said about this stretch of pushups, the better. All I could think about was getting to 4,000. That was my goal. That's all I cared about. Just get to 4,000.

Everything hurt: my chest, my shoulders, my triceps, my core (by then I had spent a lot of time basically doing a plank), my wrists....

For the last few hundred I was lucky to do sets of 10. Sometimes I would only get eight. Occasionally I could only do six, then somehow I would rebound back to eight or 10. It sucked.

I just kept reminding myself, as the SEALs say, to embrace the suck.

But it felt more like the suck was embracing me.

5,000

I finished a 30-minute period at 4,010 pushups, meaning I got a five minute break. Mentally that was great. Physically it was awful: By then, I was really stiff and really tight and even starting to feel like my chest and arms were cramping.

Or maybe I just felt creaky because I'm old.

So when I did my first set coming out of the break it felt like small bits of metal were grinding away inside my chest. That's when I first thought seriously about quitting. (I had thought about quitting a number of times along the way, but in a more wishful thinking kind of way.)

"Four thousand is a lot," I thought. "That's amazing in itself. Four thousand is way more than you ever imagined you could do."

But I had come too far to quit, so I decided to just do one more set and see how it went. That set sucked. I decided to try another and see what happened. That set sucked too, but not quite as badly.

It really is that simple. Just keep going: to the next turn, up the next step, around the next corner, to whatever is next...grinding and grinding and grinding.

And that's what I did. I'm not particularly proud to admit I could only do six or eight pushups at a time for most of the last 1,000 (and maybe because I was so sick of doing pushups that I cut my rest breaks to 20 to 30 seconds), but that's OK.

I finished, and my only "competition" was myself. The time it took didn't matter. The number of reps per set didn't matter.

All that mattered was that I kept my head down, did the work, and saw it through.

What I Learned

Doing 5,000 pushups in one day was really hard, at least for me, but was also oddly fun, especially when I was finished. It's fun to do something most people would never consider doing.

It's fun to do something you aren't sure you can do. The confidence boost that comes from competing against yourself--and winning--extends into every other part of your life. And it was a great reminder that I can always do more than I think.

We always have more in us. Always.

That's because most "limits" are self-imposed and arbitrary. When we think we're out of strength or energy, when we think we're out of brain power or willpower, we're not--we just think we are.

And that's a great thing to remember, because the distance between any dream and the reality of the present can present a major problem. Setting a huge--even crazy--goal is intended to be hugely motivating, but comparing your current state to your eventual goal turns out to be hugely de-motivating and demoralizing--and is usually the reason we give up.

But if you break any goal down into chunks, and create a routine to knock off those chunks, you can get there. Figure out a plan that works, stick to the plan...and with time and effort, you'll get there.

Pick something huge you want to accomplish. Start a business. Change careers. Go back to school. Set a personal goal. Do 6,000 pushups and beat me.

Whatever you choose, break it down into chunks. Commit to keeping your head down and grinding out those chunks.

Do that consistently and without fail, and one day you'll pick up your head and realize you have accomplished what once seemed impossible.

Especially to you.

Published on: Nov 1, 2016
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