The Power of 60 Day Personal Challenges

How long does it take to make a new habit?

Conventional wisdom says thirty days is all that it takes to ingrain the habit.

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Wrong! I wish it was that easy.

It seems like the media is always encouraging us to undertake thirty day challenges based on that belief. Thirty days to thirty pushups. Thirty days to drink more water. Thirty days to become a morning person. Thirty days to quit a bad habit. And so on.

Most of us can get through the thirty days, but is the behavior habituated enough so that you can maintain it with minimal effort after the challenge is over?

No. Apparently not for the majority of us.

A 2009 report in the European Journal of Social Psychology provided empirical evidence that it takes more than two months to form a habit.  

Two months! 

And I suspect it takes a hell of a lot longer than that to change problematic habits such as sub-optimal eating (that’s code for eating crap at least once a day). I can attest to that. I’m much better at creating new habits than changing decades-old bad ones.

One obvious problem is that thirty days is so short that you inevitably are going to have bad days where you don’t meet the daily target. A few of those, particularly if they are in a row, and you become discouraged and just give up. It makes you tired just to think about restarting. So you don’t.

Classic New Year’s resolution syndrome: Start - Have a failure day or two - Get discouraged - Quit.

My personal solution has been to accept, and work with, the science from the 2009 study. Now I use sixty days for my challenge targets. If I'm not willing to seriously work with something for 60 days; it's not worth the effort anyway.

Once I've set my goals, I track them daily, but I give myself space, and more importantly acceptance, if I miss a daily target. I remind myself that I'm working on a long term goal and focus on the next day. And I’ll schedule days off so that I don’t get burned out. Insisting on meeting the target every single day is a set up for failure.

So that I don't obsess over a difficult challenge, I also work on more than one habit so I know that I’ll usually achieve a few every day. Missing one or two targets doesn’t discourage me as long as I'm making progress on something.

Where have I found success using this method?

The two biggies are:

1.      Writing for at least 30 minutes in my Writer’s Journal first thing every morning.

2.      Spending at least four hours a day of writing related activities on my current work in progress in my thriller series.

I’ve now been tracking these every day for the last 267 consecutive days and have about a 95% success rate.  These were huge intimidating goals, but I undertook the long term challenge one day at a time. I know these are finally habituated because I feel like the day is incomplete if I don’t do them.

I’m currently logging twelve different habits, and making good progress in most of them. A good example of an unusual habit target is that I originally set the goal of walking up 15 flights of stairs a day. In less than 60 days, I’m now averaging 30 flights a day, and I can feel it becoming habituated. I hit 50 flights yesterday. Now when I take a writing break I do pushups, abs, and five flights of stairs. All of these are on my challenge lists.

Isn’t this onerous? No.

Just the act of opening my Excel challenge log first thing in the morning to enter the previous day’s data tees me up for the day. It’s actually fun to see major success in a number of previously difficult areas. Not all are success stories yet, but they still get logged and I try to figure out how to tweak my lifestyle to make them happen.

Bottom line: Work with a habit for 60 days and see what happens. I think you’ll like the results. I have.