Ask any expert, and they’ll tell you that building even one new habit is extremely difficult.
Yet every January 1st, millions of us make whole lists of things we want to change about ourselves. We try to:
- Read a different book every week
- Get on top of our finances
- Spend less time on social media
- Start a gratitude journal
- Call our mom more
- Take up rock climbing
- Learn to paint
- Go to the gym 5 times a week
- …and spend quality downtime decompressing with morning (and evening) meditation
It’s like we expect ourselves to be a completely different person by the time February rolls around.
But habit building doesn’t work that way.
It takes weeks, months, or even years to form new habits. And it’s even more difficult to replace bad habits with good ones.
There are legitimate reasons why your habits haven’t been sticking. But, that also means there are ways to improve your chances of success. Here’s how habit building works, and why going all-in on 30-day challenges might be one of the best ways to change your behavior.
Why (good) habits don’t stick
The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg, suggests that most people fail to stick to their habits because they don’t understand how habit formation works.
If you don’t truly understand a system, process, or job, you will never be able to accomplish it successfully and nowhere is this truer than in the realm of productivity, habits, and performance.”– Charles Duhigg
When you don’t know what you’re getting into, you have to rely solely on willpower. And that’s always an uphill battle. Because building habits isn’t about willpower.
It’s about your environment.
Duhigg lays out some other common reasons why your habits don’t stick:
- You don’t enjoy the habit you want to build
- You try to build more than one habit at a time
- You miss a day or two and lose momentum
- You try to go from 0 – 100 too quickly
- You don’t have a strong motivation for the habit you’re trying to build
Habit building requires gradual lifestyle changes. And it takes longer than you think to see results.
According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit to form. But even that’s a rough estimate.
He’s likely citing a 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, that found habit forming took anywhere from 18 – 254 days.
Quite a range.
It’s cliché, but everyone is different. Set your expectations according to what works for you — not what you see on Instagram. When you decide to form a new habit, understand that it will take time and practice. But it also requires self-reflection.
The good news is, once you know what you’re trying to achieve, there is a way to fast-track habit change. And that’s where 30-day challenges can come in.
A quick history of 30-day challenges
If you’ve been on YouTube in the past decade, you’re familiar with 30-day challenges.
These all-or-nothing habit pressure cookers have become the go-to way for self development influences to change their habits.
Some examples of 30-day challenges from just Slow Growth founder, Matt D’Avella’s channel include:
…and the ever popular, 30 days of cold showers.
30-day challenges don’t guarantee lasting results. But they do provide three essential elements for building a new habit:
Plus, they’re kind of fun.
Why 30-day challenges work
To understand exactly why 30-day challenges works, let’s look at a simple example.
You want to become a professional blogger. So you set a 30-day challenge of writing a blog post every day.
Writing for 30 days straight won’t guarantee that you’ll launch a popular blog or make any money. That’s not nearly enough time to turn on ad revenue, build an audience, or secure sponsors.
But that’s not the point right now. Because this 30-day habit does something else that’s absolutely essential if you want to become a professional blogger.
It builds a daily writing habit.
And that habit will not only improve your writing over the long run, it will also help remove one of the biggest obstacles to habit change — friction.
Once writing becomes part of your routine, you’ll enjoy it more. And we all have an easier time doing things we enjoy. We’re funny like that.
30-day challenges won’t accomplish any goal on their own. But they can help you build the habits you need for long-term success.
How habits work
James Clear’s based his popular habit-building framework on something he calls “The Four Laws of Behavior Change.”
Also known as “The Habit Loop,” this rule says that we reinforce good or bad habit whenever we go through four steps.
“The four stages of habit are best described as a feedback loop. They form an endless cycle that is running every moment. This “habit loop” is continually scanning the environment, predicting what will happen next, trying out different responses, and learning from the results.”James Clear
Looking at your phone in the morning is the initial cue that sets off a familiar chain of habitual (bad) behaviors.
After this cue, a new message or notifications sparks your curiosity. This creates the second step — a craving to check your phone.
Your brain wants to satisfy this curiosity, so you respond by checking your phone (that’s step #3). This leads to the final stage of the habit building process — the reward. You get a tiny hit of dopamine when you check your messages.
And a habit has started to form.
Every time you open up Instagram to check your DMs, you’re taking part in a complex chain of cause and effect that reinforces a habit.
And it’s not just your phone.
Our brains are constantly looking for ways to get rewarded. It happens so often, most of us are barely conscious of it.
The bad news is that it’s much easier to develop bad habits — like checking your phone every 15 minutes — than it is to create healthy habits like working on a video or drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning.
Worse, it’s even harder to replace these deeply ingrained bad habits with good ones. But there is hope. If you have the right systems.
How to make your habits stick
30-day challenges help speed up the feedback process of the Habit Loop. And that’s because there are four things you need to make a habit stick.
New habits have to be:
If that sounds too simple, you’re right. And that’s because our minds don’t want to put in extra effort if we don’t have to. Which is great news.
Because if you can “trick” yourself into doing the right thing, you’re a lot less likely to resist your new habit.
Step #1: Leave obvious cues
To build a daily yoga habit, you can put a bright red yoga mat in the middle of the living room before you go to bed. When you wake up, you’ll see the yoga mat, because it’s impossible to miss.
Step #2: Cultivate attractive cravings
Yoga is relaxing, so hopefully, you’ll begin to crave that feeling of relaxation in the morning. But you can add a nice chill playlist to make it even more enticing, or set your mat up in a sunny spot to make it even more appealing to get started.
Step #3: Create easy responses
You want to reduce friction whenever you’re trying to build a new habit. So make your yoga practice even easier by leaving your laptop or phone nearby with your favorite yoga flow open in a browser tab. That way, you can dive right in without getting distracted by Instagram or your emails.
Step #4: Add a satisfying reward
The feeling of starting your day loose and relaxed might be enough on its own. But you can build a stronger sense of reward by enjoying a nice cup of coffee or tea after your morning yoga session. Reward yourself for building a new habit with time or a treat to reinforce your behavior.
After 30 days of obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying triggers, morning yoga will become automatic. And if you make it easy, attractive, and rewarding, it might become your favorite part of the day.
Why are 30-day challenges so effective for habit building?
Doing a 30-day challenge doesn’t guarantee positive results. But they’re usually effective for a few reasons.
1. Small actions lead to long-term consistency
You don’t have to go from 0 to 100 when building a new habit. You don’t have to chug 8 cups of water every day.
Putting a glass of water next to your bed at night means you’re far more likely to drink a glass of water in the morning. And that’s a big improvement on its own.
2. (Good) 30-day challenges are small and specific
Let’s say you want to build that writing habit we mentioned earlier, and you make a goal to post one blog post a week. Seems doable, right? But life can quickly get in the way of even reasonable goals like this one.
Maybe you miss a week, or you can’t think of what to write about. So you start writing subpar posts to keep up with your goal. Before you know it, writing one post a week has you stressed out and overwhelmed.
But what if you kept your goals small, simple, and specific?
Instead of trying to publish a new post every week, what if you wrote for 5 minutes a day every morning, right after your first cup of coffee.
Five minutes is way more doable, so you stick with it. And that’s the point. Because everyone can work for 5 minutes.
3. 30-day challenges harness your laziness
Our brains are inherently efficient (or lazy if we’re being honest).
That’s why it’s so hard to accomplish long-term goals. We don’t want to put in the time today for a reward tomorrow. But when we lean into our efficiency *cough* laziness *cough*, we can weaponize it.
Promise your brain that you won’t ask it to do anything difficult (writing for 5 minutes is “easy”). But over time the results of this “easy” work will add up.
If you wrote for 5 minutes a day, five days a week (call it 200 words a day) you’d write 1,000 words a week. That’s 1 blog post every week without breaking a sweat.
After 12 months, you’d have written over 50,000 words, which is 10,000 more words than the average novel.
Not bad for 5 minutes a day.
4. Success builds motivation
The structure of a 30-day challenge is actually designed to build motivation.
When you do the same thing over and over, it gets easier. And that sense of progress makes us happy. Because we all like making progress.
It’s part of what makes video games so addicted. We love “leveling up” and completing quests.
If you can stick with your 30-day habit, you’ll get a rush of accomplishment every day. And if you’re lucky, it will stop feeling like a “challenge,” and more like a habit.
5. 30-day challenges build confidence
How many times have you tried to build a habit and failed?
It’s easy to blame your lack of motivation, when in reality, you lacked the skills or the right environment to build that habit.
That feeling of failure can take a toll on your self-esteem. Worse, you might believe that you’re not cut out for your goal, or that you’re not the kind of person that’s ever going to be successful.
30-day challenges dismantle these self-limiting beliefs.
You trust that you can show up for yourself. You also learn to build confidence for other challenges in your life.
Want to apply for a new job? I’ve done a 30-day challenge before, and that was hard. I can do this again.
Want to launch a side hustle? I know how to show up every day and do small things. I’m sure I can do that with my business.
Finishing a 30-day challenge builds the kind of muscle memory that sets you up to overcome obstacles in other areas of your life.
And that’s the best habit you can build.
How to build better habits
Building a new habit is hard. Doing it alone is even tougher.
That’s why we created the Simple Habits course. In the course, you’ll learn the foundations of habit building, and get the accountability you need from a group of like-minded individuals who are on the same journey as you.
Sign up here and take the first (tiny) step toward building the habits you’ve always wanted.