I was born in 1971, so I hit my impressionable years in the 1980s. A staple of my adolescence was a TV show called Magnum PI, which ran from 1980 – 1988. This is the show that made Tom Selleck a star.

Selleck played Thomas Magnum, a devil-may-care private investigator living in Hawaii who had all sorts of adventures while officially being the coolest guy in all of TV (until Miami Vice showed up about five years later, but that’s a whole ‘nother story…)

One of my favorite scenes in Magnum PI occurs in the first few minutes of the very first episode. Magnum is trying to pick the lock of his employer’s Ferrari, while some guard dogs are running him down.

I found the scene. Watch this for 12 seconds.

In this scene, Magnum has a big problem and a small problem. The small problem is the lock he’s trying to pick. The big problem is the two Dobermans running towards him. He’s trying to ignore the big problem to concentrate on the small problem. If he solves the small problem and gets in the car, the big problem goes away.

Weirdly, these 12-seconds from a 1980s action-drama have resonated with me for 35 years now. There are times when the world is pressing in on me but I need to concentrate on the specific thing I’m doing at the moment. When everything in the office is on fire but I have to get a proposal written, I’ll sometimes gather myself up, take a deep breath, and think.

“Don’t look at the dogs, just work the lock.”

(Yes, I really do this. I’m not even kidding.)

I find there’s a parallel between Magnum’s situation, life in general, and especially fitness. When you’re trying to improve your physical condition, you have two problems, a big one and a smaller one:

  1. The big problem is deciding to take the step of working out regularly
  2. The smaller problem is pushing yourself to work hard through each and every workout, WOD, set, and rep

Effective fitness is a process of switching between these big and small contexts. The tricky thing is that you have to solve these problems from the smallest problem outwards, which is backwards to what we often think.

Remember, if Magnum picks the lock, the dog problem fixes itself. And in the real world, solving small problems “rolls up” to solve larger problems.

If you look at it from the other direction, you come to understand that large problems are just made up of smaller problems. Your aggregate physical condition is made up of a series of small challenges that you fight through every day and every workout.

  1. Getting the car and going to the gym, even on days when you feel like crap and you’d rather stay in bed
  2. Working hard through the WOD, even ones that you hate
  3. Pushing yourself through every rep, even this one right now when every cell in your body is telling you to quit
  4. Eating the right things when you’re staring down a menu at your favorite restaurant
  5. Not eating too much, even at a palatial buffet

I could go on and on, but the basic point is simple: your physical condition is a large-scale problem is which entirely made up of small-scale problems. If you solve the small problems over and over again, the large problem takes care of itself.

But we try to do this backward. Human nature tells us that’s more efficient to solve the larger problem, which we hope will solve the smaller problem in the process. Like…a master switch — if we flip that, everything works out. We often spend our lives looking for this master switch. We’re convinced there’s some magic key — some master switch — that will change everything for us. We just need to find it.

Every morning, my daughters go into the basement as part of their morning routine (I’ve given up trying to figure out exactly why). In the process, they turn on every freaking light, then leave them on when they come back upstairs. I invariably find myself at the top of stairs, looking down on every light that needs to be individually shut off, and thinking, “I need a master switch that I can just flip and solve all those problems at once.”

Sadly, life has no master switch.

You can have every good intention, belong to the best gym, and even show up five days every week. But if you don’t work hard through every rep, it’s not going to mean much. You can’t magically solve the big problem by itself. You can only solve that by solving the smaller problem 100 different times during the course of a workout.

This all comes to a head when you’re standing in front of a bar, halfway through a WOD. Your legs feel like jello and your heart is about to jump out of your throat. In these moments, you glance at the clock, or the whiteboard, or you think about why the hell you even came to workout this morning, and is any of this really making a difference?

You look at the dogs.

You let yourself drift into the larger problem, when you should be concentrating on the smaller problem — the bar sitting on the floor in front of you, and the next rep it’s waiting for. You start to fall into the “Rep After Next Syndrome.” Instead of thinking about the next rep, you start to think about the rep afterthat one. And the one after that. And so on.

The Rep After Next isn’t your problem. The next rep is your problem.

Don’t look at the dogs, work the lock.

You cannot solve the larger problem without solving the smaller problems. To be successful at fitness, you have to make this shift. You have to understand and exist in two contexts at once.

It’s the smaller context that we have trouble with, because these problems have to be solved under acute physical discomfort, and they need to be solved right now. Having some high-minded, abstract commitment to your health doesn’t actually take any effort.

But you’re neck deep in a WOD, remember, and that bar ain’t gonna lift itself. It represents a small problem that takes physical effort right now. It’s not an abstract problem. It’s a small, concrete, immediate problem that is staring you in the face.

The New York Times just reported on a Dutch study which proposed that mindfulness — the art of staying in the moment — can increase satisfaction with exercise. Athletes who reported that they enjoyed the process of exercise from minute-to-minute were more likely to stick with it.

But, that’s a double-edged sword, of course:

[…] being aware and in the moment during exercise also means experiencing, fully, your twinging muscles, declining pace, hunger, and unbecoming spite when a grandmother passes you on the trail. But even these aspects of exercise should be more tolerable with mindfulness, [because it] “facilitates the acceptance of things as they occur,” enabling us to “accept negative experiences and view them as less threatening.”

The small problems are solved on the ground, in the moment, and it takes mental will to expose yourself to acute discomfort for the couple of seconds to takes to pound out one rep, not the mention the possibility of failure.

But if you make that decision, the small problem is solved. Then you solve it again. And again. Every time you to do this, you chip away at the larger problem of your overall health.

I’m going to repeat myself from last year, and again quote Will Smith during an interview with Charlie Rose:

You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. And you do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.

You can’t solve problems from the top down. There is no master switch that makes everything better.

You only improve from the bottom up. You stare down that bar, block everything else out, and kill that rep. And then you do it again. And again. You build success one rep at a time.

Which brings us back to Magnum PI. I think about Magnum, the lock, and the dogs often when I find myself in one of those moments — when I’m deep into a nasty WOD and there clearly isn’t an easy way out. My mind starts to wander, and I start to doubt that this next rep means anything in the bigger picture.

If I catch myself in these moments, and I can get into the right frame of mind, I’ll gather myself up, block everything out, take a deep breath, and think:

“Don’t look at the dogs. Just work the lock.”

And then I’ll pick the bar up off the floor, one more time.