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The #1 Reason People Fail at 30-Day Challenges

Many people fail with 30-day challenges, usually not making it past the first week. And the #1 reason for failure is that they didn’t make a crystal clear commitment to do a specific activity for all 30 days.

Giving your mind a clear enough commitment is a key to success with 30-day challenges. Committing to 5 minutes per day of a specific activity in a specific location at a specific time of day is usually a lot more effective than a vague commitment to “do some exercise” each day.

A clear commitment is binary. Either you did it or you didn’t. There’s little or no wiggle room to give yourself credit for non-compliance.

If you say you’re going to “exercise for 30 days in a row” then does walking count? What about cleaning? Decluttering? Grocery shopping? If you racked up some credits on your Apple Watch for moving a bit, will you count that as your exercise for the day? If you were to ask 10 different people if you’ve successfully completed your challenge for the day, would they always agree? If it’s not certain that every reasonable person would agree, your challenge definition is probably unclear.

If your definition of success is vague, it’s almost a given that you’ll see your standards slip as you go, and within a week or two, your 30-day challenge will have faded completely. Then you’ll beat yourself up for not being disciplined enough.

Lots of people have never completed even one 30-day challenge. And they think it’s due to a lack of discipline. It often is, but not in the way you might think.

When I do a 30-day challenge, most of the discipline happens before Day 1. It’s the mental discipline to clearly decide on the parameters and make a real decision to do the challenge. I get myself to the point of being all-in before I start. The discipline happens in the pre-challenge setup work. This may also include enlisting social support and clearing out any naysaying influences. If I’ve decided to do the challenge, I’ll do it, but my brain needs to understand the nature of the commitment before I feel like I’m all-in. I need to set myself up to succeed in advance. If I don’t frame the challenge properly, I’ll fail at it just like everyone else.

I also understand the long-term importance of nailing these challenges. If I get good at them, I can leverage these challenges to kick off many new explorations, build new skills, create new habits, and more. The long-term payoffs for success are huge. For instance, I’ve been vegan for 22+ years because I started with a challenge to go vegan for just 30 days. Similarly, if you keep stringing yourself along with one failed challenge after another, you’re setting yourself up for decades of disappointment. So if you’re going to do these, stop kicking your ass on Day 10 when you realize you’ve already quit. And pre-kick your ass 10X harder before you even begin Day 1.

When you’re doing a 30-day challenge, honoring your commitment has to be one of the most important parts of your life. If you keep stringing yourself along with failure after failure, you’re hurting your future self.

When people succeed with a 30-day challenge, the success happened mentally and emotionally before Day 1 even started. There’s usually clear evidence that a real commitment has been made. It’s the difference between telling a friend “let’s get together sometime” versus agreeing to meet at a specific time and place and being absolutely certain that you’re going to show up.

Think of it like a legal contract. You want the details of the agreement with yourself to match the overall intention. A contract that merely says “let’s agree to do some stuff this month” is likely to go nowhere. Same goes for a B.S. declaration like “work on my social skills” or “improve my productivity.” If your intention is so vague that I can’t accurately predict what you’ll be doing each day, you probably won’t make it past the first week.

Write down your 30-day commitment before you begin. Then rate it on a 1-10 scale, where a 1 is super vague like “improve my finances,” and a 10 is clear language suitable for a legal contract. In my experience most people won’t score higher than a 3 with this rating. They’ve set themselves up to flake in advance, just the way any flake would: Let’s get together sometime. Sure, let’s do that.

At least 80% of success with a 30-day challenge happens before Day 1. Did you fully commit to a clear and specific activity? Was it defined well enough that a lawyer would approve of the clarity and specificity?

Sometimes I need to play it safe when a challenge can be risky, and I give myself an out if I think I need it. I did that with the water fasting challenge. It didn’t feel safe to 100% commit to many days with no food, so I made a list of potential problems to familiarize myself with the danger signs, and I gave myself room to quit if I perceived that my health was at risk. I had no significant problems though and ended up going for 40 days. A legal contract can have these kinds of exemptions too. So it’s fine to practice risk management when there are practical risks to consider.

When you gain enough experience with these challenges, and you can trust that your internal standards will be high enough, you can sometimes use a more vague definition and get away with it. But even so, it’s still usually better to be specific.

Think of your contract with yourself as the floor (not the ceiling) of what you’re going to do. You can always outperform the specs of a contract. But when you have a rough day, you may sometimes do only the minimum, so make sure that minimum is good enough to satisfy you and get some decent results. You can do more when you’re feeling up to it.

Whenever you attempt to make a change in your life patterns, some part of your brain is going to resist. It expects the old patterns to continue, and it freaks out a bit when the input changes. That’s normal. But you’d better be aware of the existence of this part of yourself, and you need to intelligently compensate for it. A good way to do that is with a clear commitment that’s fully understood. This helps your brain get into sync with the new expectations before you begin. If those expectations are fuzzy, your brain won’t successfully get past this freakout period, and it will use whatever wiggle room you permit it to pull back to your old reality, even if that reality wasn’t serving you well.

When you fail at a 30-day challenge, there’s a reason for it. For most people that reason for failure could have been spotted at the start of Day 1: the lack of a clear and committed decision. They flaked on the challenge before it even started, and there’s little chance of making it past the first week. They didn’t do what it took to succeed in advance.

Actually doing a 30-day challenge tends to be very rewarding, motivating, and fun – if you’ve set it up correctly. The discipline required to complete such a challenge isn’t as much as it seems – again, if you’ve set it up correctly.

My favorite 30-day challenges have been those that introduced me to new modes of living. They expanded my possibility space. They permanently shifted my relationship with reality. Some are still paying dividends years or even decades after I did them.

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