When It’s OK to Abandon 30-Day Challenges
A different perspective for those who may feel like failures, and a fresh, scientific stance to approaching self-improvement
Picture this. You’re scrolling through your Facebook feed in the last week of March. A friend in your spoken word poetry group has just shared a post about an upcoming national poetry challenge they were planning to take part in.
You see this, and with eagerness in your heart, you decide to respond to the post and have now committed yourself to the 30-day NaPoWriMo challenge; writing (and in some cases also publishing) a poem per day throughout the month of April.
Your mind ponders all the potential lessons you’ll learn about yourself throughout the challenge…
The idea forming and writing skills you would improve.
The amount of self-exploration you would undertake when conveying your innermost thoughts and feelings through your flowing words.
The powerfully positive impact this month is bound to have on your general self-esteem, and ability to develop new habits.
Then April arrives and lo and behold, you have broken your daily streak after a mere 2 days in.
A mixture of emotions is stirring behind one question: "What the hell went wrong here!?"
Surprise! This happened to me. And I want to make sure that if this is also where you currently find yourself, that you know the best course of action to take next.
Why 30-Day Challenges Are Taken Up
It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out why we humans decide to test ourselves with interesting and attainable time-based challenges. By dedicating ourselves to a consistent routine over a controlled period of time, we are certainly able to work toward long-term positive changes alongside trying to achieve the short-term accomplishments that come with completing challenges.
Benjamin Gardner et al., 2012 states that advice for forming new habits is ultimately simple — repeat an action consistently in the same context. The only study to date to have tracked the formation of healthy habits in a naturalistic setting is that by Lally et al., 2010. Findings suggest that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic.
Why then with only tenuous links to such findings have 30-day challenges become increasingly popular in Google searches? A simple answer: because the given time frame is able to host the first 4 stages of the Stages of Change model.
The model was originally developed in the late 1970s as part of a study to help people quit smoking, and is characterised by the following stages:
This model has been found to be an effective aid in understanding how people go through a change in behaviour and demonstrates that change is rarely easy. It often requires a gradual progression of small steps toward a goal, rather than encouraging people to run before they can walk in order to achieve goals within a certain timeframe.
Upon observation, I find that integrating the thought processes involved with the first 4 stages to the 30 days limited to the challenges can help participants realise that habit-building works better as an unrestrictive process. By planning, preparing and taking initial action toward forming new habits during 30-day challenges can be a more relaxed way to set a strong foundation for long-term consistency.
It is also important to notice that this model allows for relapses. This stage is welcomed within the process as a means to identify triggers, recognise barriers to success and reaffirm your goals and commitments to change. And although feelings of failure may be present, they are merely part of the learning experience and are used to define lasting personal identities.
Why I Decided to Abandon Mine After 2 Days
I’m a person who likes to analyse the reasons why I chose to do something. This often takes the form of sitting at my desk and scribbling madly at my morning pages about the previous day’s happenings or things that I’m going to have to do that day.
When it came to figuring out the reasons why I quit this particular challenge, I was reminded of a quote from The Willpower Instinct, by research psychologist and award-winning science writer, Kelly McGonigal.
"The best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control." — Kelly McGonigal, PhD
I decided that the most effective — and simple — way of doing this was to do as I always do; open my hefty A4 lined journal on a fresh page, with scribbling sword unsheathed and at the ready, and let the battle of my inner thoughts commence.
I left the following bloody mass upon my thinking battlefield and it felt like a little victory.
1. My Priorities Quickly Changed
On the third day of NaPoWriMo, I had to leave my family cottage and head back to my home in Eastbourne after living away for over a month. Not only that but I was due to meet someone that same day who I had been speaking to online solidly for the past few weeks. Needless to say, my immediate priorities were to get home, unpack, clean myself into something marginally presentable and go on a very promising beach date.
After then, my immediate priorities of getting my bearings with a change in living conditions, a blossoming new romantic relationship and checking off some boxes that were left empty before visiting family came before something that I deemed to be an optional activity.
2. The Process Became Too Regimented
As much as I would like to establish myself as a poet, I couldn’t in all good conscience do so by churning out poetry in this fashion. Doing so to me made the practice feel like a job, even worse, a chore.
I know I didn’t have to write every daily poem based on the prompts provided by the NaPoWriMo website, but that was what I had decided was going to form the basis of my own personal challenge. However, the prompts weren’t necessarily aligned to my own interests when writing poetry and it made me feel uncomfortable even writing the first two poems in the challenge: You Can Take Me Anywhere and Without Footsteps to Follow.
I was reminded of something the publication's Editor, Thomas Gaudex , shared with me on the act of writing good poetry, which has really stuck.
"I think that as in music, breathing times and silence are important, and that creation cannot be good if it is forced and so abundant."
3. I Wanted to Focus on a Different Type of Writing
Since childhood, writing poetry has been a creative and cathartic practice and I never thought of it as a way of earning a living. I still don’t.
The amount of time I would have spent on writing, editing, publishing and marketing these daily poems would have ultimately detracted from my career.
So it made logical sense for me to redirect this time into writing experiential stories and well-researched articles to ultimately help my readers to help themselves.
Your decision not to return to your particular time-restricted challenge is 100% validated. And I hope to instil this same reassurance in you that I have done within myself to avoid unnecessary self-directed negativity.
If doing this exercise yourself, you may be tempted to look at your own list of reasons and see them as excuses as to why you have ‘failed’. Here’s why you really don’t need to be thinking this way.
1. There Is Strength in Adaptability
The Harvard Business Review put this best in its study, Adaptability: The New Competitive Advantage:
In order to adapt, a company must have its antennae tuned to signals of change from the external environment, decode them, and quickly act to refine or reinvent its business model and even reshape the information landscape of its industry.
Just as companies adapt to gain the leading edge within their respective industries, so too can individuals adapt to find their own happy medium when improving themselves. Giving rigid time restrictions to personal goals can overwhelm what should really be a gradual learning process.
We spend so much of our life forming attachments to things that we want to identify ourselves with, that we oftentimes become overburdened with unnecessary self-directed pressures. Whether it’s 22 days or even 2 days into a 30-day challenge, and it’s apparent that the motives and results are no longer serving you, then there is strength in letting them go.
2. Challenges Are Really Just Science Experiments
I am a firm advocate of 30-day challenges — like all other challenges — being personal experiments. No one is ever 100% certain as to how they will work out until they put in the time to carry them out.
With this in mind, it becomes far easier to accept that experiments can be subject to change depending on ongoing observations and the way we as individuals choose to respond to them. And if approaching them like scientists, we are bound to achieve both positive and negative results.
James Clear’s discussion with his friend, Beck Tench, offers a neutral perspective by approaching failures like a scientist, which helps us to compartmentalize our negative feelings with our efforts:
But for the scientist, a negative result is not an indication that they are a bad scientist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Proving a hypothesis wrong is often just as useful as proving it right because you learned something along the way.
Your failures are simply data points that can help lead you to the right answer.
3. There Is No Single Solution for Everyone
For some, 30-day challenges form regular ways of helping reach potential and are easy to accomplish. For others, they present as learning curves that might not fully work for them.
The crucial thing to remember about this is that it doesn’t mean you have failed. Even if — like me — you may have hyped up this challenge to your friends, family and on social media to provide accountability, things change. Ultimately, you don’t owe anyone but yourself an explanation as to why you decided to cease particular challenges.
Remember why you decided to take up a particular challenge in the first place, accept it for what it is (a personal experiment) and allow yourself to notice and let go of it if it no longer serves its purpose.
Thanks for reading, and for supporting my writing dream. If you enjoyed this, feel free to connect.
Originally adapted from my Medium article.
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