The Power of A 30-Day Challenge
One of the more powerful personal growth tools I’ve discovered is the 30-day challenge. While the concept is nothing new, I have found it to be useful during times when I’m feeling stuck or unmotivated.
“In order to grow, you must repeatedly tackle fresh challenges and consider new ideas to give your mind fresh input.”
— Steve Pavlina
Since discovering the idea, I have tried the 30-day challenge multiple times. I have used it for experimenting with a ketogenic diet, for building a daily writing practice, and, most recently, for learning how to draw a realistic self-portrait.
What makes the 30-day challenge so powerful is its ability to spur positive change in your life when making meaningful change is inherently difficult. Establishing good habits or breaking bad ones is hard because you must overcome the inertia to start when making a permanent change can feel so overwhelming.
Why Perform A 30-Day Challenge?
Performing a 30-day challenge is effective because it overcomes this built-up inertia by addressing your fear of failure and fear of change that keeps you from growing. It works because its both simple to do and it’s only temporary.
What do I mean by simple? Well, something that is simple doesn’t necessarily equate it to being easy. Running a marathon is simple — you run 26.2 miles — but it isn’t easy. For something to be simple, it has to have easy-to-follow instructions and a clear objective.
A 30-day challenge is simple because you devote your time and energy towards one goal. And after each day, you either make progress towards your goal or you don’t. There is no uncertainty.
So by definition, a 30-day challenge is designed for establishing daily habits. Attempting a challenge for building a habit you only do once per week would not have the same effect.
It’s overwhelming to think about making a significant change and sticking with it for the rest of your life. Even more so when you’re accustomed to doing the opposite. It’s the equivalent of shifting your diet from eating whatever you want to adopt a keto, paleo, or vegetarian diet for the rest of your life. Good luck with that.
The idea of making a permanent change makes us hesitate from ever trying in the first place. But the 30-day challenge takes this fear away by allowing you to commit to temporary change. You fully commit yourself for 30 days, and then you’re free to go back to your old ways if you wish.
I like to treat 30-day challenges as little experiments to “try out” new habits or systems and observe if they are worth sticking to in the long-run. The short time commitment allows you to test many different habits to determine which, if any, are worth adding to your life.
How to Start Your Own 30-Day Challenge
The purpose of the 30-day challenge is to focus on improving one area of your life. You want to try something that is going to push you out of your comfort zone but not so difficult that it leads to panic and stress. The end result should leave you a bit scared but not to the point of overwhelming you toward inaction.
But picking a challenge just for the sake of difficulty is not the point. Your challenge also needs to be aligned with your goals and motivations to help you stay committed for the month. Paired with some proper planning, and you can achieve a lot more than expected in such a short time.
Here is how to plan for a challenge:
What often makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful challenge is your level of preparation. If you have never experimented with a challenge before, then I recommend you give yourself at least a few days in advance to prepare.
For example, if your challenge is to try a new diet, then you may need to use a day or two to clean out your fridge, prepare some recipes, and create a shopping list for the upcoming weeks. Use those days before you start, when your most energized about the challenge, to plan for those moments when you will be stressed, tired, and susceptible to failure.
For those days when you know your time and energy will be limited, try blocking out some time first thing in the morning to work towards your goal. This will help you focus before the day’s responsibilities and distractions start piling on. There is also the added benefit of starting your day off with a win to help maintain momentum.
If your schedule offers more flexibility, I still recommend scheduling the same block of time each day for working on your challenge. You’re less likely to disappoint yourself and others when you make it known in advance when you will be unavailable.
Sharing your challenge with one or two people you trust can also increase your chance of success. Having an accountability partner adds an extra layer of incentive to make you stick to your word. You may not care so much if you fail, but your ego will be crushed if you have to admit failure to someone you respect.
“An accountability partner can create an immediate cost to inaction. We care deeply about what others think of us, and we do not want others to have a lesser opinion of us.”
— James Clear
Scheduling a 15–20 minute call each week to report your progress, struggles, and plan going forward should be enough to keep you on track. If your challenge is more difficult or you think you may need more accountability, then try experimenting with a daily call or text with someone willing to help.
If you want to raise the stakes of the challenge, then ask your accountability partner to try the challenge along with you. Creating a little competition to see who can make the most progress will make your challenge more exciting and keep you focused. Competing for bragging rights over a family member or friend may be the only incentive you need.
Track Your Progress
Keep a physical record to track your daily progress. It can be a spreadsheet, journal, or daily calendar entry. The purpose is twofold: to have a tool for reviewing what you did each day and for serving as a visual aid to maintain consistency. When you can visualize your progress, you’re less likely to “break the chain.”
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
— Jerry Seinfield
To be successful with this method, you need to place your daily tracker somewhere where you will see it every day. During my self-portrait challenge, I kept a Google Sheet open in my first browser tab for the duration of the challenge. Every evening when I opened my laptop, I would see my progress and update it with what I did that day.
Define Your Parameters
Perhaps the most critical point, but you need to define what success looks like before beginning your challenge. Write down specific and measurable goals that must get done each day. If you don’t make your goals clear before you start, then you run the risk of falling into complacency by allowing yourself to play in the gray area of what does and doesn’t count.
For example, if your 30-day challenge is to write every day, then you need to decide what constitutes a successful day. Is it writing a minimum of 200 words, or is it spending at least 60 minutes engaged in the writing process? Does writing an email or sending a tweet count towards your goal? Make it so clear that each day you can quickly grade yourself on a pass/fail basis.
And finally, remember to set reasonable goals for yourself. It’s easy to become awe-struck from visualizing your potential success that you end up setting goals that are too audacious for you to hit every day. It’s much better to set smaller goals and repeatedly outperform them. In the end, it’s the consistency of daily progress that will lead to monumental change.
30-Day Challenge Examples
So, are you interested in tackling a new challenge but aren’t quite sure where to start? Here are some ideas you can try for yourself:
- Read 30 pages every day.
- Give up TV for the month.
- Wake up earlier or go to bed earlier.
- Try a new diet to see how your body responds.
- Give up caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine. Maybe even all three.
- Meditate for 15 minutes every day.
- Write every day. Keep a journal, write blog posts, or start a daily email chain with friends.
Again, the challenge is temporary, so pick something that is going to push you out of your comfort zone. If, after 30 days, you decide you don’t want to continue with the challenge, then that’s okay. At least you learned something valuable about yourself by completing the challenge. But if your challenge does lead to a positive change that you wish to continue, well, you just laid the groundwork for a successful habit.