30-Day Challenges: Do they work?

I do not identify as a productivity blogger, especially since reading “Working Hard, Hardly Working” by Grace Beverley, which takes down the toxic hustle culture permeating in the background (or forefront) of all social media and blog posts. However, I do advocate taking purposeful steps towards the life you want to live, rather than a life any other person thinks you should live. And I recognise that life often, no – normally, is difficult to live in any certain direction. It’s a daily fight, to work out, to eat healthily, to do well at things and sometimes just to function at a regular pace. It doesn’t just happen that we succeed. It’s hundreds of choices, made constantly against the default current of an old, easy routine. That’s where tools like 30-day challenges can come in and help us.

I have played with these challenges for a good while now, in a number of areas including fitness, spirituality and writing. There are times when I haven’t been able to get off the ground (badly timed challenge), times where I have started ok but fallen short of the end goal (unrealistic challenge), times where I have nailed the specific goal but not had anything to show for it (meaningless challenge) and, very occasionally, times where I have set a challenge, fulfilled it, and made a serious progression in something that is important to me (appropriate challenge). Given this inventory of mistakes that I have learned from, I thought I would do a little piece on how to make a 30-day challenge actually work for you.

Timing your challenge

With all the good will in the world, starting a challenge at the wrong time is a recipe for failure and self-loathing. That’s why most new years’ resolutions are basically futile, especially fitness ones. Only a superhuman can get to the gym at 6am with a whopping new years’ eve hangover. Day one sets the benchmark for failure, which creates self-doubt, which means it’s week two of the year and we’ve barely worked out once. Plus, there’s the fact that January is a fairly awful month as months go. We’re in hibernation mode, Christmas has tired us out and the weather is pretty chronic for going out for joint shattering runs in sub-zero temperatures.

This is a prime example of a poorly timed challenge, especially as a year is an unrealistically long time to sustain a radical habit change. A month is more effective, as it takes about thirty days to actually build a habit but it’s not so long that it seems insurmountable in our self-doubting brains. Most importantly, it allows us to choose a suitable time of year to dedicate to a goal. I’ve found that summer is a good time to set challenges, especially fitness ones, as I have more energy and am more likely to be working less, especially as a student. For writing challenges, I often choose times of year when there are competitions like Nanowrimo going on, so I can be inspired by the writing community when I face the blank page each day.

Everyone’s life is different. Maybe you feel more inspired in the winter, or when you’re working a lot and crave a personal distraction. The point is that if you take the time to think about it, it’s quite obvious when it might and might not be the right time for you, as you are at this point in your life, to start a 30-day challenge.

Choosing your challenge

There are two main things to consider when planning a 30-day challenge. Firstly, the nature of the challenge; whether it’s meditating, drawing, running or studying. It sounds obvious, but if you don’t choose an activity or practice that you intrinsically enjoy, then you aren’t going to get very far. In most cases, we don’t get to do the things that we intend to do not because we don’t care about that thing, but because we lose time to other more urgent demands. I love writing, but it’s hard to prioritise in times where work, life admin or other commitments are screaming in my face. And that’s the beauty of the 30-day challenge. It helps you carve out non-negotiable time for the activities you love.

Secondly, the difficulty of the challenge is an important thing to balance. Too easy and it feels meaningless at the point of achievement, too difficult and we lose heart and give up. Before starting a challenge, I spend some time noting what I can do already, both in terms of how long and how much. For example, in June this year, I knew that without pushing myself I would do a relatively short and easy yoga practice a couple of times a week. So, I asked myself what I could push myself to do and decided to do only slightly longer but much more intensive practices five times a week over one month. I knew that if the practices were too long, I wouldn’t find the motivation to fit them in, but I could exert myself more physically if it was within a limited time frame. In July, I asked myself how much of my novel I had written in June, without any particular goal, which was around 3000 words over a few two-hour sessions a week. Since I felt that I had a bit more gas in my tank after a quiet month doing lots of nourishing yoga, I decided to try and write 30,000 words in July – just under 7000 words a week.

Completing your challenge

I am proud to say that I succeeded at doing yoga five times a week in June and writing 30,000 words over the whole of July. This is the first time I have ever completely, rather than partially succeeded at a 30-day challenge. I attribute this to some degree to the factors listed above: The timing was perfect as I was fortunate to have a couple months off work before starting my doctorate this September and the choice of the challenge fitted with my current interests, long-term goals and existing competence in these areas. But even with the stars aligning in my planning, it still took a lot of work to actually complete the challenges, which I is why I mostly attribute my success to prioritisation and the day-to-day grind.

It’s vital to make your challenge a priority if you’re going to succeed at it, and a large part of this is ignoring the inner voice that tells you what you’re doing is ridiculous/pointless/selfish, especially if it’s something creative. It takes a lot of confidence to say: “this is the most important thing to me right now, and I’m going to dedicate this time to it”. Less so with yoga and more so with writing I’ve had to be insistent with myself and others about the time I give to it. At the end of June, I roughly outlined the two-to-three hour stretches I could dedicate to writing over various points in the month. I knew I would be away from home a lot visiting friends and family, so I had to be quite strategic. I pushed all other personal projects except exercise and socialising into August, to give myself some space to write whenever and wherever inspiration struck. I put notebooks and pens around the house and in my bags, and took my laptop pretty much everywhere so that I could always sneak in writing time; on trains, in cafes, on holiday, at my friend’s and family’s houses or when other people I was hanging out with were asleep/watching tv/having downtime. Setting myself and my environment up for success in this way really helped me get words down when it came to it. It just goes to show that being intentional about challenges makes a lot of difference to whether we complete them.

The other half of the battle is hard work. I talk about this a lot, but I stand by it: motivation is fickle but commitment is stable. Sometimes, I was energised, inspired and quite happy to trot off to my local café to blast out some words. Sometimes, I was sleep-deprived, down or creatively dull and barely made it to my desk to drag a coherent narrative out of myself. Either way, I wrote the words. And when I look back that will be what I have to show for my challenge; not what mood I was in on each day of it. I believe that sometimes we observe ourselves too much. We want to do things perfectly, while looking perfect. And the truth is that most things worth doing are not very glamourous and a bit of a slog, at least some of the time.

Another important thing that I noticed about this summer’s challenges is that I employed the mantra: 30 days is not every day. This gave me a bit of room to rest my muscles and creative brain in between pushing myself, which meant I didn’t find myself physically or mentally burning out halfway through the month. I also found I didn’t beat myself up so hard for missing a day, because I had set the expectation that it would happen and that it was normal. I think I will take this approach to 30-day challenges going forward, especially when I think about the difference in my day-to-day routines over a whole month. Some days, particularly towards the end of a week, will easily be dominated by socialising, travelling, work or plain exhaustion, and rather than denying these barriers it’s important to make space for them. I got used to snatching time when I could get it. On a family holiday I used the time in the mornings before everyone woke up to do some writing (but not every morning because sometimes I needed to sleep in too). I was very flexible with myself and others, which meant I wouldn’t get angry and resentful when planned writing time got interrupted.

Aftermath

You can probably tell that I’m very much in the camp of 30-day challenges being a thing that work, so long as the conditions I’ve talked about are met. But I want to say more than that in this conclusion, because I think we sometimes are so caught up with the grind that we forget about the after-effects of a 30-day challenge, which are arguably more important than the challenge itself.

A 30-day challenge should, hopefully, offer some long-term benefits. For me, habit is often the main one. Proving to myself that I can commit myself almost daily to an important practice like yoga or writing builds my confidence to continue growing in those areas with more ease than before I started the challenge. It also creates a baseline behaviour that I can slot around any new commitments as they come up. For example, once I completed the yoga challenge in June, I continued to have the instinct to do yoga a lot of mornings in July without too much of an inner battle.  And now I have written so much in July, I know I can maintain at least some of my writing routine while doing a doctorate. If I wrote 30,000 words in a month, and I can even manage a tenth of that per month for the next year, I should finish my book.

There are also accelerated effects with a 30-day challenge, because of dedicating a concentrated period of time to a specific skill. I am definitely writing with more confidence, stamina and speed now, and I am physically stronger and more flexible than I would have been if I had continued to just do sporadic yoga. Most unexpectedly, I have noticed that my general concentration is better, and I am calmer. Perhaps there is something to be said for choosing sequential challenges that complement each other. Yoga has definitely nurtured my creativity and focus.

Finally, it is important to note that when we exert ourselves; physically or mentally, for a sustained period, there will always be a point where we crash. Last week I would have cried if I had to write anything, and I took a much-needed break from my book. Rest is so important, and another reason to consider a time-limited challenge. I’m glad to have rested and be getting back to writing today, through this piece. Thank you for reading and good luck with all your future challenges, whatever they may be.

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