30-Day Supertrials

November 15th, 2010 by Steve Pavlina

For years I’ve been recommending the 30-day trial as a way to install a new habit or replace a bad habit. Many people, myself included, have used this practice to successfully make behavioral changes — and have them stick.

Now it’s time for the advanced version: The 30-Day Supertrial.

[cue trumpets]

A Quick Review

When conducting a 30-day trial, you pick one habit or behavior you’d like to change, and you commit yourself to sticking with it for 30 days straight. If you miss even one day, you start back at Day 1.

It can be very difficult to change a habit for life, but if you use the psychological trick of telling yourself that it’s only for 30 days, your odds of success increase substantially. And of course once you reach Day 30, the new habit is already installed, and it’s much easier to continue it on Day 31 and beyond.

Some examples: Get up at 5am every morning. Eat a vegan or vegetarian diet. Avoid watching TV. Say “You are loved” to someone each day.

A 30-day trial is partly an experiment and partly an exercise in self-discipline. It’s an experiment in that you see for yourself how your life would be different if you made a certain change and stuck with it. A good 30-day trial will also push you to build your self-discipline, helping you grow stronger mentally and emotionally. It’s a workout for your willpower.

The more 30-day trials you successfully complete, the stronger your self-discipline muscle becomes. This will benefit you tremendously in all areas of life. On top of that, you get the benefits of the new habits you’ve installed, such as the educational value of reading lots of new books, the metabolic boost that comes from regular exercise, or the financial benefits of working on your Internet business every day.

When most of us reach adulthood, we have lots of crappy habits that don’t serve us, and our self-discipline tends to be very weak. For example, about 50 million Americans smoke, yet most of them would prefer not to. That’s a behavioral conditioning nightmare. What habitual actions are you succumbing to that you’d prefer not to?

Your level of self-discipline will have a strong impact on your self-esteem. The more disciplined you are, the more you can adopt positive habits and shed negative ones. Positive habits yield positive results, and positive results feel good. Feeling good gives you more energy, and that feeds into more positive actions, which in turn become positive habits.

30-day trials can be very challenging, but they’re also very effective. This is my #1 favorite tool for habit change.

Now in the past, I’ve cautioned people not to overdo it. Many people who are new to the concept of 30-day trials go kittywompus and try to install 5-10 new habits simultaneously. And almost without exception, they crash and burn. Usually they don’t even make it past Day 3.

It’s like trying to juggle too many balls at once. You end up dropping all of them. Zero results.

So I’ve advised people to stick with one 30-day trial at a time. One trial will be plenty challenging. And you can do 12 of these per year if you’d like. Even if you only succeed at half of them, that’s still a tremendous amount of improvement within a year.

Now I’m going to explain how to actually do the opposite.

Yes, Dr. Venkman, under certain conditions we can cross the streams. There’s definitely a very slim chance you’ll survive.

I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it! Let’s do it! :)

What Is a 30-Day Supertrial?

A 30-day Supertrial is when you attempt to make several significant behavioral changes in one 30-day period.

For example, you might attempt to install the following habits all at the same time:

  1. Check email only once per day, and completely empty your inbox each time
  2. Exercise every morning for 30 minutes minimum, alternating weight training and yoga workouts
  3. Read positive, inspirational material for an hour before bed
  4. Go to bed by 10pm every night
  5. Spend 10-20 minutes per day visualizing your goals/intentions as already accomplished
  6. Avoid consuming dairy products
  7. Work on your screenplay for 2 hours per day

For 30 days you commit yourself to doing all of these things without exception.

If you’re like most people, then you’re going to fail. You probably won’t even make it through the first day, and the odds of making it through the first week successfully are more than 100-1 against you.

So if you want to have a chance in Sto’Vo’Kor of succeeding at this, you can’t be like most people.

You probably won’t heed my advice, but let me succumb to the delusion anyway and share some practical tips on how to increase your odds of success.

It’s Possible But Almost Not

First of all, it is possible to succeed at a Supertrial. It’s just extremely difficult. But like the Siren’s song, many of us can’t resist the seductive lure of instant behavioral nirvana.

Yes, it’s possible. It’s possible to flop a boat with 7-2 offsuit too, but the odds are against you.

Knowing how difficult this is, however, gives you a slight advantage. If you maintain a healthy respect for the challenge, you’re less likely to underestimate how tough it is, so you’ll be better prepared when you begin.

A Supertrial does make some sense because our behaviors are intricately linked. One behavior triggers another, which links to another, and so on.

Oversleeping in the morning leads to skipping exercise, which leads to a crappy breakfast and a late start on your day, which leads to feeling unproductive and lazy, which leads to low performance at work and a feeling of being drained at the end of the day.

On the flip side, getting up early gives you extra time to exercise, which boosts your metabolism and energizes you. You’ll also be more attracted to healthier foods after exercise, and this positive start can kick you into a productive workday, which leaves you with a delicious feeling of accomplishment in the evening, where you’ll still have plenty of energy to work on your personal goals.

Habits reinforce each other. They overlap. So the main idea behind a Supertrial is to collapse a whole chain of negative habits and replace them with a new chain of positive ones. In some ways this can actually be easier than trying to change habits one at a time since a Supertrial gives you the opportunity to cut out an entire chain of unhelpful behaviors.

Prepare Well

Read the article Habit Change Is Like Chess to understand the 3 phases of habit change. A 30-day trial occurs in the third and last phase. Make sure you devote sufficient effort to putting the right scaffolding in place and preparing for the trial as best you can.

For example, if you’re doing a dietary change, stock your kitchen with healthy foods and make sure the off-limit foods are out of the house before you even begin your trial.

Whatever you can set up, take down, or prepare in advance to make your life easier during the Supertrial, do that first. Give yourself a few days to get everything in place before you begin. You may be itching to start Day 1 as soon as you can, but that inspiration is only going to fizzle into disappointment if you don’t take enough prep time.

The more prepared you are when you kick off your Supertrial, the better your odds of success.

Train Up First

Supertrials are like triathlons. You don’t just show up for one with no advance training. You won’t even make it through the swimming portion if you do that.

This is a level you must build up to. Once you have at least 5-10 successful 30-day trials under your belt, then you might consider a Supertrial. Otherwise you’re wasting your time.

Supertrials are the advanced version of 30-day trials. Even a regular 30-day trial is well beyond the beginner level. The beginner version is a 5-day or 10-day trial.

You must learn to walk before you can run. Training up your self-discipline is a lifelong process. Start with what you can achieve, and keep upping the challenge level as you grow stronger. But don’t keep attempting to lift weights that you’re always dropping. Go lighter until you see what your capabilities are.

There’s no shame in being a beginner who accepts that s/he is a beginner. For the unwilling and impatient, there are humility lessons.

Eliminate Social Drag

If there are people in your life who will resist the changes you’re making, distance yourself from them as much as possible. Otherwise the social drag they create can decrease your motivation and hold you back.

For example, if part of your Supertrial includes working on your new Internet business for 2 hours per day, and you have a friend who thinks that the only people who make money online are scammers, that isn’t a good person to be connecting with during your trial.

Make yourself scarce to anyone who would drag you down. You’re going to have enough of a challenge without the unnecessary social resistance.

Don’t Announce It

With a normal 30-day trial, telling people about your commitment in advance can increase your chance of success because they’ll help hold you accountable.

But with a Supertrial, I’d advise you to do the opposite and keep it to yourself.

One reason is that you’re going to be attempting so much change at once, that most people won’t believe you can do it. So when you tell others about it, you’ll probably add more negative social drag. People will be watching for you to fail. That isn’t going to help you succeed.

The exception is that it’s okay to share this with people you genuinely expect will be encouraging and supportive. If you can secure more social support, then go for it. It can definitely help.

By the time you’ve built your self-discipline to the level where a Supertrial becomes potentially achievable, you’ll be so far beyond the average level of performance in society that most people will be turned off if you talk about it. You’ll just upset them, and they may secretly wish to see you fail. So my feeling is that you’re better off keeping them in the dark.

Many years ago I set a goal of going through a 4-year university in only 3 semesters by taking about triple the normal course load (as explained in Do It Now). I shared this goal with several people in advance. Most of them laughed or said I was deluded. Not a single person was encouraging. So I learned to keep a low profile, and I kept other people out of the loop. Further into this experience, one of my professors became curious about what I was doing, so I shared the details with him. He was able to relate because he had a very high-performance daughter. It was nice to gain that little bit of social support.

It takes more than discipline to get through a Supertrial. There may be unforeseen interactions between your habits that you didn’t account for. You may realize you didn’t set it up right after the first day or two, and you need to go back and revise your plan. So much can go wrong. With a Supertrial you really don’t need the added social pressure of accountability to others.

A Supertrial is more of an inner journey anyway. It’s about digging deep within yourself and giving birth to a whole new you. You need the space to focus on doing what needs to be done without worrying about other people’s reactions.

By the time you’re ready to attempt a Supertrial, you’ll have already trained your self-discipline to a high degree. And you’ll have a clearer understanding of what kinds of weights you can lift and which are too heavy for you. At this point you’re going to rely more on your inner resolve; social accountability won’t be as important. If you can’t hold yourself accountable, you aren’t ready to attempt a Supertrial anyway.

Don’t Wear Yourself Out

One of the most common mistakes people make when stacking multiple 30-day trials is that they include something in there that’s going to wear them out during the first week.

The craziest example is when people attempt polyphasic sleep, which is insanely difficult by itself, and then they stack a bunch of other trials on top of that. I’ve never seen anyone succeed this way. It’s like going to the gym for the first time ever and trying to bench press 300 pounds. Nice try, grasshopper… but no.

Only slightly less deluded is including something in your trial that’s going to make your energy levels wonky during the first several days. For example, if you currently drag yourself out of bed at 8am each morning, and getting up at 5am is part of your Supertrial, you can expect to be a bit sleep deprived during that first week until your body adapts to the new rhythm. Being tired will make it VERY difficult to succeed at the other parts of your trial.

Another example would be trying to switch from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to an all raw vegan diet. You’re probably going to deal with some intense detox (cold-like symptoms) during that first week or two. To stack even more on top of this is going to be too tough.

Any yet another example would be diving into a new weight training regimen, one that leaves you very sore during that first week.

If you’re going to attempt a Supertrial, do your best to avoid including a new habit that may wear you out during that first week. Do a separate 30-day trial for that item first, get it locked in, and then conduct a Supertrial afterwards. So go raw first, or become an early riser first, or start weight training first. Get the sleepiness, detox, and soreness out of the way. Then you can stack more on top with a Supertrial later. This will make your Supertrial much less stressful and a lot more achievable.

Guard your sleep during your Supertrial. Don’t push yourself to stay up later and later trying to squeeze everything in. If you can’t complete all your actions by your desired bedtime, then cut out some actions. Don’t deprive yourself of sleep. Sleep deprivation will increase your stress levels and your risk of illness. You don’t want to be fighting your own fatigue while you’re trying to complete a Supertrial. Supertrials are tough even when you maintain stellar energy levels.

Stagger Your Starting Days

Instead of launching every new habit on Day 1, you can stagger your starting days a bit. This gives you the opportunity to focus on adding one new habit every day or two, so Day 1 isn’t so overwhelming.

It’s a judgment call if you want to do this. It isn’t necessary, but it may help if your intended Day 1 looks a bit daunting.

Count Day 1 of your 30 days as the day you add on the final habit, so you’re still doing the full 30 days with every habit.

Have a Fallback Position

Prioritize the habits in your Supertrial, so if the going gets too tough, you can drop one or more of them and fall back to a smaller number that you’re committed to installing.

I suggest splitting your Supertrial habits into 3 lists:

  1. A-list = definitely want these installed, would make a huge difference if I succeed
  2. B-list = great to have, would certainly enhance my life, but not worth sacrificing my A-list items for them
  3. C-list = nice to have but it’s the icing on the cake, but not worth sacrificing A-list or B-list items for them

If you feel too overwhelmed or stressed, and you’re at serious risk of failing your Supertrial, first cut out the C-list items. If you’re still overwhelmed, then cut out the B-list too. And worst case, fall back to your single most important A-list item.

Knowing in advance which items to cut in an emergency will at least allow you to fall back to a regular 30-day trial and still get something installed. That’s a lot better than dropping every single ball and achieving nothing.

Do the best you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get everything installed at once.

Design for Balance

Perhaps the best use of a Supertrial is to conduct a holistic rebalancing of your life across all key areas.

A well-balanced Supertrial will increase your chances of success. An imbalanced trial will generate inner resistance and make you want to quit.

Pay particular attention to the following:

Body – Include something to boost your energy and sense of well-being. Exercising in the morning is great because it will boost your metabolism, making you feel more alert and energetic during the day. It’s much easier to conduct a Supertrial when your energy is high.

Mind – Develop your mind during your Supertrial. Daily nonfiction reading is a nice practice. Then you’ll gain some educational value during your trial. Reading in the area of your career can be especially beneficial.

Career – Add a habit to benefit your career or your general work productivity, such as checking email only once a day, or saying something encouraging to each of your coworkers each day.

Finances – Add habits to improve your finances, such as updating your accounting records each day or working on a new Internet business for 2 hours per day.

Relationships – Add a habit to improve your social courage or relationship skills. Attempt to initiate a conversation with one new person per day. Or share lunchtime with a different coworker each day to improve your networking.

Emotions – Include habits that help you maintain a positive, action-oriented attitude. I listened to inspirational and educational audio programs for about 2 hours per day in college, mostly while walking to and from classes, and it kept my motivation levels very high.

Order – Add a habit to reduce chaos and increase the order and organization of your life, such as devoting 30 minutes per day to sorting and purging clutter in your home or office.

Spiritual Development – Include a habit like daily meditation or journaling, so you can enrich your inner life to keep pace with your outer enrichment.

Fun – Including at least one fun daily activity in your trial, such as playing a game with your family. This gives you a daily reward and something to look forward to. It also helps condition your mind to believe that self-discipline is fun. The more disciplined you are, the more time you’ll have to enjoy your life, and the less stressful your life will be.

This may sound like a tall order, but such a blend of habits will help to mutually reinforce each other, thereby increasing your chances of success. For example, improving your finances means you can afford to buy healthier foods, pay for yoga classes, etc. A holistic approach will help you make advances across the board, so no area of your life drags down the other areas.

Use Crisp Parameters

Define your habits crisply by spelling them out with nouns, verbs, and prepositions. Avoid the use of adjectives like more and better, since that’s a sign of wishful thinking (and it’s also dumb).

These are delusional goals: Exercise more. Eat healthier. Read faster. Complain less. Be nicer. Work harder.

You can’t succeed if you set delusional goals. Plus your cheek will be hurting after I smack you upside the head.

This is a crisp goal: Exercise on the treadmill at 60-80% max heart rate for 30 minutes per day.

With crisp goals you can’t delude yourself. It’s obvious if you’ve done it or not. An objective observer would give you the same thumbs up or thumbs down that you give yourself. There’s no room for debate.

To the maximum extent possible, define each habit in binary terms. Either you did it or you didn’t. Eliminate the middle gray area, unless you just want to do a make-believe trial with make-believe results.

Focus on Actions

The point of doing a Supertrial is to lock in some serious gains that will put you on a path for a major long-term boost in your results. However, during the Supertrial itself, it’s usually counter-productive to be too outcome-focused. Keep the end results in mind, but put your attention on the daily actions you need to take, and do them one at a time as they come up.

For example, “Write for 2 hours per day” is a better choice for a habit goal than “Write every day so as to complete the first draft of a book in 30 days.” The first one is more directly under your control, and it’s clear whether you’ve done it or not.

Supertrials are all about action. What are the daily actions you want to condition into habits, such that if you passively maintain beyond the initial trial, they’re likely to serve you well for many years to come?

How would your life be different if every day you… Did yoga for 45 minutes? Limited web surfing to 30 minutes max? Initiated a conversation with someone new? Read nonfiction for 30 minutes? Worked on an Internet business for 1-2 hours? Cuddled and caressed your significant other for 20 minutes? Took a shower? Organized your home for 20 minutes? Planned your next day for 10 minutes? Made travel plans for 30 minutes?

Schedule It

If you’re going to perform some action each day, decide in advance what time you’re going to do it.

If you have a lot of items to schedule, write out a schedule for a typical day, so you can see how everything fits together.

Give yourself some breathing room between activities. Don’t assume you can stop exercising and start showering in the very same minute, for instance.

If you don’t set aside a time for it, you haven’t yet committed to doing it.

Compensate for What’s Missing

Bad habits are sticky for a reason. They provide you with some benefits.

Before you drop a bad habit, consider what the benefit is. Then be sure to add something to your Supertrial to compensate for the benefits you may be losing when you cut out those bad habits.

Suppose you’re spending way too much time checking Facebook and other online forums during your workday. This kills your productivity, which in turn drags down your self-esteem and energy levels, preventing you from feeling the motivational boost that only a truly productive day can provide. Deep down you know this bad habit has to go.

But each time you attempt to drop it, you feel isolated and disconnected. You miss those frequent social connections, and pretty soon you’re back at it again.

Recognize that even though this habit is destroying your productivity, it’s actually helping you in a different way. It helps you periodically renew the feeling of being connected to others. That isn’t a bad thing at all.

What else can give you this feeling of connection without destroying your workday? There are many possible solutions.

One solution would be to timebox your online socializing by assigning it a time slot in the evening, so it doesn’t interfere with your workday. You can give yourself a liberal amount of time to socialize all you want, but not when you’re supposed to be working. If you want more frequent socializing, you can chop it up and schedule it during the natural breaks in your day, such as during lunchtime or with your afternoon snack.

Another solution is to reduce or eliminate the online socializing, and add a stronger habit that gives you even more of these benefits. Spend 30-60 minutes talking with friends on the phone each day. Arrange a social event at your house every day for 30 days, like a 2-3 hour game night. Or invite a different friend or coworker over for dinner each night. Communicating online can be fun, but nothing beats face-to-face connecting, especially when it comes to sharing laughs.

Still another option, which may be outside the scope of a Supertrial, would be to switch to a career that has you interacting with people a lot more, so you don’t feel disconnected during your workday.

Replace smoking with meditation and massage. Replace junk food with cuddle time. Replace masturbation with sex (or vice versa, depending on your priorities).

Notice the hidden benefit behind your bad habits. Instead of dropping those habits completely, look to replace them with new habits that provide even stronger benefits but without the drawbacks. This may take some trial and error experimenting to discover what works best for you, but it can certainly be done.

Include Downtime

Supertrials can be energizing, but they can also be physically and emotionally taxing, especially in the beginning when it takes a lot of conscious thought.

I recommend that you include at least 2 hours per day of downtime for rest and relaxation. Give your body and mind a complete break from the potential stress of your Supertrial.

You can use this time to lie down, take a nap, connect with friends and family, enjoy a relaxing bath, play video games, cuddle a loved one, or anything else that helps refresh you. Unplug and relax.

Putting this near the end of the day, such as right after dinner time, gives you something to look forward to. You may not always need it, but some days you’ll be glad to know it’s there.

Stick With Daily Habits

For a Supertrial it’s best to stick with habits you’ll do every day, including weekends. Maintaining a consistent daily rhythm with no days off is important for creating a sense of flow.

So if you’re going to get up at 5am or write for 2 hours per day, then do that 7 days a week.

It may seem harder and less flexible this way (that’s what she said), but it’s actually easier. A major point of failure is when people slack off on the weekends and then try to get everything working again on Monday. It’s almost like starting the Supertrial all over again each week.

A habit is a memorized solution. This memorization will occur faster if you maintain daily consistency with no breaks. Once your brain has the solution memorized (your 30 days are up, and the habit is installed), then you can cut back on the frequency, such as by skipping weekends, with less risk of complete slippage. But it’s better to stick with daily actions while you’re getting these habits installed. Remember — it’s only 30 days!

If you still wish to include non-daily habits in your Supertrial, read How to Maintain Not-Quite-Daily Habits to educate yourself on how to do it.

Define Your Baseline Performance

To reduce the difficultly level, define each habit in baseline terms. What’s the minimum level of performance that will still give you some worthwhile positive results?

For example, instead of reading for an hour per day, you might set a baseline goal of reading for 15 minutes per day. If you’re running late and can’t squeeze in your hour of reading without losing sleep, you can just do it for 15 minutes those days. Some days you may go longer, but 15 minutes is your minimum.

Once you complete a trial at your baseline level, now you have some success under your belt. You also have a basic version of the habit installed. Now you can push beyond the baseline level to a more optimal level for the long term, such as by doing another 30-day trial focused on improving or expanding that one habit.

It’s better to install a baseline level of performance in each area of your Supertrial than to try to go for the full monty and fail to make any habits stick. The results may not be as good as you’d hoped, but at least there will be some results to speak of.

It’s much less difficult to exercise for 45 minutes per day when you’ve already conditioned the habit of exercising for 20 minutes per day… as opposed to installing the 45-minute habit from a cold start.

Adding 5-10 new baseline habits (15-20 minutes per day here and there) can be a terrific use of a Supertrial. Afterwards you can maintain these new baselines and then try to increase them, either with a new Supertrial or with individual 30-day trials that focus on one habit at a time.

***

If you do attempt a Supertrial, I wish you the best of luck. You must be really disciplined, really crazy, or really naive — or some combination of those.

Today is actually my Day 1 of a new Supertrial that involves a major rebalancing of how I invest my time each day. I’m not going to share the details or blog about it along the way (as explained in the “Don’t Announce It” section above), but if you follow this blog for the next 30 days, you may be able to guess at one or two of them…

… unless every molecule in my body explodes at the speed of light, that is. ;)



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