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An Inside Look At Why We Love Short-Term Habit Change

What’s the mass appeal with challenges that only last a week or a month? We asked a few project gurus what makes them fun–and if they work.

An Inside Look At Why We Love Short-Term Habit Change
[Photo: Flickr user Lars P.]

One of the best-selling cookbooks on the market right now extols people to eat more vegetables and less junk food. But not for the rest of your life. No, Lisa Leake’s 100 Days of Real Food challenges people to change their habits for a bit over three months, which turns out to be a much more marketable angle.

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Why is that?

There’s no doubt that we love our “X-day” challenges. Whole30–a program that encourages people to give up carbs and dairy for 30 days–claims thousands of participants. Gretchen Rubin, whose Happiness Project book chronicled her year of trying to be happier, recently began selling “21 Day Happiness Projects” on her website for people seeking to declutter their lives or quit yelling at their kids. “I’ve been absolutely astonished at how popular they are,” she says. “People really seem to love this kind of structure.” And our own New Habit Challenge has captured your weekly attention.

The Appeal Of Short-Term Change

The appeal stems from a few things. First, change is hard. Short-term change seems less hard. “It sounds doable,” says Katherine Edwards, a licensed professional counselor who’s blogged about a series of 30-day projects at Ye Old College Try.

“It feels like anyone can cut something out for 30 days, including me.” Over the past two years, she’s spent a month tossing out five things a day, done a Whole30, tried to limit screen time, and is currently only buying produce and dairy at the grocery store for 30 days while she tries to eat through her pantry.

We Secretly Love Rules

Second, challenges tend to come with specific rules. While many of us know we’d like to change, life is messy. Rules aren’t. People find it helpful to do exercises “that help them to focus on a specific area from many angles as they’re trying to make changes. You never know exactly what will work,” says Rubin.

Laura Dickson is using the last 100 days of 2014 to blog about her “Anti-procrastination challenge.” She’s following a number of specific rules–cutting out social media, going to Weight Watchers, and following a strict sleep schedule–that she hopes will work together to “sort myself out,” as she puts it.

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“I genuinely believe that everything I feel bad about is linked. Changing my sleeping habits should enable me to make the most of my waking hours.” Social media has been keeping her up late, so “I always feel tired, making it more difficult to make the right choices, whether that’s about food, exercise, or the housework.” For 100 days, she’d like to nix the excuses.

What Happens After?

Of course, there are potential problems with short-term challenges. For starters, what happens afterwards? “The key is to think about what you’re going to do on day 22, or day 31,” says Rubin. “It’s easy and even fun to give up sugar for a month–but then what happens? Do you go right back to your old habits? It’s great to declutter your life for 21 days, but without changing your habits, all that clutter will just come flooding back.

It’s great to use a project to jump-start your actions, and to focus your attention, but it’s very important to think about how you’re changing habits for the long-term, not just making some temporary effort.” As she learned from researching her forthcoming book on habits, Better Than Before, “Sometimes a time-limited effort can make things harder! Once you’ve ‘finished,’ you have to start again, and weirdly starting again is often harder than starting the first time. So once you’ve got something good going, try not to let yourself stop, even after you reach the end of the designated time.”

Of course, it’s possible that long-term change isn’t actually the goal. Edwards has undertaken her challenges simply because “I like learning about myself,” she says. Knowing what it felt like to be off Facebook for a month helped her decide how much time she wanted to spend on social media afterwards. “It’s more of a reference point,” she says. Her challenges have led her to make some changes, “but there’s not one thing I’ve continued to do after 30 days” in as strict a fashion. In particular, she learned from doing the Whole30 program that her body functioned much better when she did eat healthy carbs. That’s good to know.

Likewise, Dickson says that “I plan for the challenge to be a period of experimenting and reflection. The habits that work for me will stay. If, after 100 days, I feel like I’m struggling to keep something up, I’ll have to assess whether the result is worth the effort.” The good thing about a time-limited challenge, though, is it’s not too much effort. That low barrier can help make change possible.

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About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at www.lauravanderkam.com.

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