The Value of 30-Day Challenges

Spending the winter getting in one’s exercise on a treadmill is deadly dull.  I plumbed the depths of the possibilities that is The Good Place. I found no other commercially produced television catching my fancy. In despair, I turned to productivity and self-improvement videos on YouTube.

These attractive young men with their nice, trim beards pontificating on how they had Solved Life’s Problems both amused and instructed me as I got in the tedium that is the 10,000 step habit.

The power of habit

Oh yeah, habit.

Is me getting in those 10,000 steps every day a habit?  Darn right, it is!  I do make a specific effort to get in a specified amount of walking every day.  That’s very true.

In fact, in 2020, I averaged 10,000 steps a day every month for the entire year.

2020-2021 Step Goals

Garmin won’t let me specify only the year 2020 in displaying the chart. Still, hey… I’ve been doing it for over twelve months anyway, so this is illustrative enough.  I hit my step counts as averaged over a month for the year.

Do 30 Day Challenges help develop habits?

I did I start this with a 30-day challenge?  Well… sorta.  I tried to get in over 10,000 steps a day for an entire month.

A 30-day challenge is an excellent way to explore a habit. 

Reinhard Engels of Everyday Systems talks about this when he talks about Monthly Resolutions.  He thinks, correctly, that too large a scale is a bad idea when developing a habit.  A large scale can be daunting.  A large scale can be so daunting it sets you up for failure because it’s overwhelming.

Reinhard suggests the Monthly Resolution as a low-investment way to try out a habit. It is easy to see if the habit works for you or if it’s really not addressing the issues you’re working on.

This is where the 30-day challenge comes in.  No sugar for a month.  No alcohol for a month! No Internet for a month!  10,000 steps a day for a month.  Go vegan for a month.

These things can be worth a try. 

But there is a dark side.

The Dark Side of the 30-day Challenge

A 30-day challenge, when misapplied, can harm your attempts at goal setting and habit formation.

For most everyday habit formation, any adult can tell themselves that they can tough something out for a month.  You can white-knuckle it and get through to the finish line precisely because you see that finish line.

For a habit you would like to keep lifelong, a month of extraordinary effort is pointless.  Been sedentary for three or four years?  Getting more fit is a project best measured over decades.  This means that doing something easy consistently is better than doing something difficult you’ll quit. The extremes you can tolerate for a month are unsustainable in the long term. For physical fitness, that two-mile walk you will take beats that 5K run you worked up to and then quit because it was unpleasant every time.

There is also the problem of “breaking the chain” for many habits. 

No, not that breaking a chain is difficult. It’s distressingly easy.  But quitting because you broke the chain?  Yeah, I know you’ve done it.  Don’t lie. Lyin’s a sin.

But a 30-Day Challenge does have you in that “don’t break the chain” mindset.  That’s less than useful for a habit you want to be lifelong.

Is habit tracking useful?

Which does bring up another point.  Is habit tracking useful?

No.  Habit tracking is not useful.

Anyone who has seen my stuff on Bullet Journals or even gives a second’s thought to the 10,000 steps I talk about earlier in this piece is about to accuse me of being a liar.  Bear with me.

You know what I don’t track?  Whether or not I made my bed this morning.  Know why?

I did.  I do every morning.  I don’t need to track that any more than I need to track whether or not I’m wearing underwear.  I do that every day.

Habit-tracking is a misleading name for what you’re doing.  You’re tracking the development of a habit.  Once it’s a habit, you offload that mentally.  You just.. do it.

I made my bed from the time I was out of a crib until I was in my thirties and living in a household that didn’t really value bed-making. When that household broke up, I was right back to it.

What you want to do is get something useful to yourself so ingrained that you don’t give it a lot of thought.  Maybe you want to eat vegetables.  Maybe you want to make your bed.  Maybe you want to avoid too much time on the internet.

I’ve talked before about Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg.  He talks about starting very small and engineering the environment. Flossing one tooth levels of small.

I admit there was a time when I simply would not have believed his assertions.  If you don’t work out hard or clean perfectly, you won’t get to your goal.

Well, if your goal is to do 100 pushups and get a sixpack by the end of the year, and the first quarter is already over, and you haven’t lifted anything heavier than a soda can in years?  Probably not.

If your goal is to develop a lifelong habit that will show progress over decades?  Those little habits are amazing.

So when you see the 30-day challenges, think of them as trying on an outfit in the dressing room.  It’s a good way to experiment, but past that, you need something else.

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