by Steve Pavlina, from stevepavlina.com
Many people find it really challenging to finish a 30-day trial when wanting to build a new habit or explore a new lifestyle possibility, such as eating vegan or getting up at 5am. People often give up after a few days, lacking the discipline (or so it seems) to follow through on such commitments. And of course quitting early denies these people the benefits of completing these trials.
Let me share some tips that I use to keep going when a 30-day trial becomes challenging. Most of these involve adopting an empowering mindset before you begin.
Make the Initial Decision Carefully
Committing to a 30-day trial is a decision. The word decide comes from the Latin decidere, which means “to cut off from.” When you make a decision, you’re surgically removing all other branches from your possibility space, leaving only one branch to explore.
When you decide to do a 30-day trial, you’re deciding not to stop before you’ve finished the full 30 days. There is no option to stop in the middle. A 30-day trial is 30 days long. If you’re not ready to go the distance, you’re not doing a 30 day trial. You’re doing something else perhaps, but a 30-day trial requires a minimum commitment of 30 days.
When you decide, make it clear to yourself that you’ve decided. Know with certainty that you’re going to do all 30 days. Use the language of certainty when you frame this decision to yourself and to others. You’re absolutely going to do the whole 30 days.
It’s important to frame the decision correctly from the beginning. Be all-in for the whole 30 days. If you can’t do that, you haven’t made a real decision. You’re just hoping.
Eliminate the possibility of quitting partway through. You’re not going to do that. For you that option doesn’t exist. If you know it’s not possible to quit in the middle, you’ll make the initial decision more carefully. It’s a big commitment, and you must respect it as such. If you can’t go all in, don’t begin.
I’ll soften this a little by sharing that it’s wise to give yourself permission to potentially quit in the middle if you’re doing something that could be risky to your health or which might otherwise lead to serious negative consequences if you push too hard when you shouldn’t. Obviously it wouldn’t be wise to keep pushing if you’d be risking serious complications like potential health damage. In 2008 I stopped an intended 3-month juice feast after 30 days due to unexpected symptoms I experienced along the way, symptoms which ran counter to my purpose for doing the trial and were making my health worse, not better. Even so, I gave careful consideration to the decision to stop and didn’t make it impulsively. On Day 25 I decided to shorten it to a 30-day trial, so I pushed a little more but not into the red range of real danger or stupidity.
If you think there may be valid reasons for quitting, articulate those in advance if possible. Also get clear about which reasons you won’t consider, such as feeling lazy, tired, or unmotivated at some point along the way. Those are just excuses, and quitting for those reasons is beneath you.
Is feeling sleepy when your alarm goes off a valid reason to quit a 30-day trial of getting up at 5am? Of course not. That’s a natural consequence you’d expect as your physiology gradually adapts. If you start having unexpected heart palpitations each day, I’d say that’s a good reason to stop early and reassess what you’re doing.
A common reason for quitting is that you allowed your trial to assume such fuzzy parameters that it’s hard to know if you’re still going or not. Don’t permit a gigantic gray zone between success and failure. Define the border as a thin black line, so you always know which side you’re on.
If you do a 30-day trial of eating vegan, that’s pretty well defined. If you eat anything that comes from an animal, you’ve failed, and you’re back at Day 0. Maybe you’ll want to clarify a few things such as whether you’d consider honey to be fair game, but the gray area here isn’t very big. Either you ate vegan for 30 days straight, or you didn’t.
My 30-day trial of eating vegan started in January 1997 and still continues to this day. That’s the power of successfully completing all 30 days with clear and unambiguous parameters. You could be on your way to a new habit that will serve you well for decades.
Suppose your challenge is to exercise every day, to eat healthier, or to get up early. Don’t bother with such nonsense. These have galaxy-sized gray areas.
Take a fuzzy outcome like getting up early, and give it a clear objective target like getting out of bed every morning at 5:00am. When the alarm goes off, you get up immediately, or you fail. Early risers don’t use snooze buttons. Mentally redefine anything that looks like a snooze button as a lose button, and you’ll know never to go there.
Compile Strong Reasons for Success
When I did my recent 30-day video challenge, there were many reasons for it:
- to practice making videos
- to improve my skills
- to express ideas through a different medium
- to get faster at the video production and publishing process
- to expand my comfort zone
- to gain comfort and not worry about making mistakes
- to do the challenge with friends who were doing it simultaneously
- to inspire and help people by sharing insights and advice
- to connect with my blog readers in a more personal way
- to share value in a different way
- to log my water fasting journey and share some insights on fasting
- to challenge myself to do every video in one take with no editing in the middle
- to further build my self-discipline
- to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment upon completion
- to feel more confident and less resistant to making videos
- and probably a few other reasons
When you have a lot of reasons for doing a trial, it’s harder to quit in the middle. Why are you going to do the trial? What’s the point? What are you trying to accomplish?
You don’t necessarily need a lot of reasons, but your reasons for taking action must be stronger than your potential excuses.
It also helps if there are good reasons not to quit, such as:
- failing to honor your public commitment
- training your brain to quit early when the going gets tough
- hurting your reputation if you don’t follow through
- disappointing people who were expecting you to finish
- missing out on the skill-building aspects
- failing to expand your comfort zone
- feeling like you’re slinking away from a worthy challenge
- having to bear the memory of this failure for the rest of your life
- setting a poor example for others
- weakening your sense of honor and integrity
If there’s no pain for you if you quit early, and especially if you have a hard time following through, then establish a nontrivial quitter’s penalty before you begin. One way is to make a public commitment that includes the penalty of failure, and ask people to hold you accountable. If you don’t have people who will follow your trial, then pledge to someone the consequence of not following through, put it in writing, and sign it. Add some kind of punishment that stings, such as having to give a friend (or enemy) $250.
I tend to be more motivated by positive incentives, but many people are more motivated by potential loss. In fact, the latter is more common. So if you’re a loss averse person, make sure you’re on the hook for some meaningful and painful loss if you don’t follow through. Sometimes that’s all you’ll need to get through the difficult days of your trial.
Prepare for Dips in Motivation
Motivation is often highest at the beginning of a 30-day trial. It’s common for your motivation to dip, especially in the dreaded 5-15 day range when you still have many days to go.
Expect that your motivation will dip, and mentally prepare yourself for this eventuality. Don’t expect to ride the whole trial to completion on an emotional high. It will almost certainly get tough at some point along the way.
This is your chance to build your toughness, your mental endurance, and your inner strength. See this as part of the benefit of doing the trial. You’re doing this partly to build your strength. It’s not supposed to be easy. This is resistance training, so there has to be some resistance along the way. This is how you grow.
Do you think I was motivated to record, edit, and publish a video every day for 30 days in a row, as I did during my recent trial? Heck no! Since I was water fasting at the same time, I sometimes felt very tired. I didn’t always feel creative. Sometimes I didn’t like the lighting or the noise level. I wasn’t always happy with how each recording came out. On those days I treated the challenge as a form of inner strength training. There was a weight to lift, and I had to go lift it. I never gave serious consideration to skipping a video because I had already decided in advance to do the whole 30 days.
For me one of the biggest motivating factors was to gain the memory of succeeding for the full 30 days. It’s another mental trophy of accomplishment. That’s better than carrying around the memory of a failed trial for the rest of my life.
Can you count on yourself to follow through even when you don’t feel like it? This is one of the advantages of doing lots of 30-day trials. You cultivate your ability to follow through with action and to trust that you’ll push through adversity. If you don’t develop this ability, you’ll waste a lot of time starting projects and not finishing them.
Public or Private Victory?
Do you need to document your 30-day trial experience in public like I often do?
It’s not essential. In terms of maintaining discipline, I tend to do equally well with private and public trials. When I was younger, I felt more committed to the public ones, but now I can normally count on myself to follow through either way.
The main reason I might blog about a trial publicly is when I think it will interest and benefit some of my readers. Visitors to my website often peruse the Archives and read through the logs of past trials I’ve done, especially if they’re considering a similar trial. I understand the value of this because I sometimes do the same. When I’m considering a challenging new trial, I might Google to find someone who’s done something similar, and I’ll read their logs or watch their videos as part of my preparation process.
While your commitment may feel stronger if you publicly log your trial, it can be a lot more work to do this, which adds another layer to the discipline-building aspect. Sometimes I don’t mind that extra workload, but other times it makes me feel overcommitted, especially when the logging process generates a surge in feedback and questions. When I did the 30 days of Disneyland trial last year, that involved long days at the park without much time on my computer. I didn’t want my blogging efforts to get in the way of the experience, so I didn’t blog about it every day.
Another downside to publicly logging your trial is that if you keep those logs online for many years, you may continue getting feedback and questions about that trial for the rest of your life. People still email me questions about my polyphasic sleep experiment from 2005 as if I just finished the trial yesterday. I also continue to receive some bewildering emails from people wanting to be my slaves because they read my 2011 April Fools Day post about recruiting slaves.
I don’t think that publicly logging your trial is the best choice for accountability. If you want extra accountability, get an accountability buddy to help you stay on track. A more compelling reason for public logging is that you’re interested in creating something of enduring value for others. If you don’t think your trial would qualify as a source of enduring value, you don’t need to create public logs of the experience.
If you’re having trouble consistently making it through all 30 days, ease off and start with shorter trials like 5, 7, or 10 days. Make the weight lighter. Then if you’ve hit your initial goal, you can extend the goal by a few days and keep going. This is a great way to condition your mind for a series of successes, no matter how far you go.
Once you achieve consistency with shorter trials and don’t quit in the middle, you can build up to 30 days and beyond.
If you aren’t finishing the majority of the 30-day trials you commit to, then you have a problem. You’re training your brain to get weaker in this area, and you need to nip that in the bud. Drop down to shorter trials, and make sure you’re nailing them. When you’re achieving strong consistency with shorter trials (like an 80% finishing rate or better), then consider extending to longer trials.
I’ve done some 365-day challenges in previous years but only after getting good results with shorter challenges. It’s important to build trust with yourself first. Then when you commit to a 365-day challenge, you’ll have built enough discipline to know that you’ll complete it, and you won’t make the decision lightly. Interestingly, a 365-day challenge can be easier than a 30-day one due to increased feelings of commitment.
It’s really powerful to build up your inner strength to keep taking action in spite of obstacles and to turn your back on weak excuses. Then when you commit to a trial, you’ll know with a high degree of certainty that you’ll cross the finish line if you possibly can. You may not succeed 100% of the time, but you won’t have serious regrets when you can look back and say, “I did my best.”
If your trial fails, let it be because the weight was too heavy for you to lift. You tried your best to lift it, and you just couldn’t lift it. Don’t let yourself succumb to failure and regret because you failed to make the attempt. The first outcome can still make you stronger. The second one will weaken you.
If you feel your current best efforts are still pretty weak, that’s okay. Just scale back to lighter challenges, and keep raising the challenge level as you grow progressively stronger. Eventually you’ll hit your stride, and you won’t be so limited by your ability to finish each challenge. Instead you’ll have to expand your imagination to dream up new trials to undertake, knowing that if you commit to them, you can trust yourself to complete them.