I’ve spent lots of time in my life trying to make new habits- and I’ll tell you from experience, I’ve failed more often than not. Willpower runs out. It’s easy to start something, in fact, I’ve probably started more times than I can count. However, for a long time, starting was all I managed to do. Maybe you know the feeling?
After years of trying and failing, I finally managed to get something done- a little more than a year and a half ago, I did a 40 day water fast. Crazy as that may sound, it was a big moment for me, because I realized that I could do whatever I put my mind to.
Or not. After that fast, I tried a number of times to do another one and failed, over and over again. Why? I couldn’t figure it out.
I wanted to do another fast, but wanting wasn’t enough. I had the right mindset, and I occasionally could muster up the willpower to do it, but that didn’t cut it. On top of all that, it was something I already did once, so what changed that made me unable to repeat it? I spent a lot of time trying to remember what I did before the fast that made it different from all my other attempts to start- and then I remembered. (Get ready for story-time.)
That summer, I had just left college, and when I was in school, let’s just say I drank my fair share. After I got out, though, I thought to myself, “I don’t know the last time I was sober for any length of time.” With that, I decided I was going to take a break from drinking. At the same time, I was working at a kiosk in the mall, and I had a lot of time on my hands during the day. For whatever reason, I ended up looking into fasting and discovered a great website on the subject. It explained the history, the benefits, and the research behind it. I was interested.
I figured, though, that it wouldn’t be something I could just jump into. However, being incredibly broke, I knew I wasn’t going to have much money for anything beyond my bills, specifically food. Realizing this, I figured it would be as good a time as ever to do a fast.
I’ve never been one to pack a lunch, and I couldn’t afford to eat in the mall each day, so I figured I would start out by doing an intermittent fast from the time I left the house at 10 AM until I returned at 9 PM. By this point, I figured if I was going to do a long fast, I’d like to do a 40 day one for poetic reasons. As a result, I figured I’d start with four 10-day challenges, and each 10 days I would ramp the difficulty up.
After the first 10 days of IF, I chose to increase the difficulty to fasting every other day. By the end of the second 10 days, though, I was too eager to start the long fast, so I jumped right in, and that was all it took.
When I realized that the 10 day interval challenges were the key, I knew I had figured it out. 10 days is short enough to see if you’re interested in really committing to something, and it’s also exactly long enough to get you excited about increasing the challenge. Thinking about starting a new workout? Just commit to doing it for only 10 days, and the pressure is off. Considering a diet? Try it out for 10 days- anyone can manage that length of time. If you get to the end of the 10 days and you don’t like it, just stop there.
Defeating the Three Demons of Failure
The secret as to why this works comes back to something I’ve touched on in the article linked above- willpower works like a muscle. Far too often, we try to jump right in to something without taking the time to build up to it, and because our will-muscle isn’t trained, we do fine at first and then we’re exhausted afterwards. I used to run quite a bit, but if I went out today and tried to do sprints, I’d be demolished tomorrow- and it’s the same thing with your willpower.
One of the other benefits to this system is momentum. Once you get started, you’ll start picking up speed because you’re training your will the right way. As you continue to make progress and ramp up your challenges, you’ll gain momentum that will carry over into other areas of your life. Remember, willpower is the muscle that moves all other muscles.
According to a study published in European Journal of Social Psychology, the average number of days it takes to start a new habit is 66, or just over two months. We can break that down into seven (for good measure) sets of ten days. Hopefully you’ve already determined what it is that you want to do- now let’s break it down into 10 day intervals.
The first 10 day challenge should be something you ABSOLUTELY know you can do every day for 10 days. The reasoning behind this is because after the first 10 days, you’ll have built up some easy willpower, and you’ll have started telling you mind, “Hey, we have something to do and we’re going to do it every day.” This is the crucial part. Ultimately, you’re not building whatever habit you’re aiming to build- you’re actually building the habit of continuous self-improvement.
If you didn’t make it through your first 10 days, that’s okay- it just means you picked something too hard. Some easier ideas might be making your bed (or keeping your room clean,) doing the dishes (my personal favorite morning routine for some strange reason,) or getting up 15 minutes earlier than you usually do. Remember, the key to the 10 day challenge is building your willpower. Don’t expect yourself to have much at the beginning- because you won’t. On top of that, don’t beat yourself up about it.
If you fail to complete any of the 10 days, take the next 10 days off and start over, either from the beginning or from the last 10 days you managed to complete. Up to you. Once you get started, though, it actually gets easier- because you’re training your will the right way.
If you made it through the first 10 days, good work! You’re well on your way. For the second 10 days, pick something that will be just a little bit challenging or inconvenient. If your ultimate goal is to start going to the gym, maybe try doing some bodyweight exercises like pushups and sit ups in the morning. Again, the emphasis here is on building- you can’t put on more than your foundation is ready to hold. Focus on the foundation- your willpower and repetition. If the most you can do is one pushup a day, then just do that, because it’s the repetition of the habit that matters. Eventually, you’ll be able to do two a day, and after that four, and eight, and so on.
This is the most important part of the 10 day challenge, building. One of the mistakes we make is desiring instant results. This often causes us to self-sabotage and try something that’s too hard, then when we fail, we end up feeling worse than we started. It’s a vicious cycle- and if you only know how to do it that way, then you’ll never get out. However, if you really want to change something and haven’t been able to, instead of thinking “I can’t,” think “I haven’t figured out how to do it the right way yet.” This distinction is important: what you tell yourself matters.
For the third 10 days and onward, you want to continue to focus on incremental improvements. At this point, you have (at least) 20 days of willpower and habit built up, and that’s almost a month. That’s a lot- and probably a lot more than you might have been able to do before. Take some pride in your achievement, but don’t let it go to your head. Continue to build, and choose something just a little bit harder for the next 10 days.
One thing I like to do is to pick the next challenge 10 days in advance. Then, when you reach the end of the current one, you can see where you’re at versus where you thought you’d be. If you’re currently doing 5 pushups a day for your current challenge and you planned on doing 10 for the next one, but you think you can do 12, then try that. On the other hand, if you planned on 10, but you think you can only do 7, then don’t be afraid to reduce the number- you’re trying to build, not hit a target. Better to have 10 days that aren’t super hard than 10 days that are impossible. Trust your gut.
I hope this idea helps you to start a 10 day challenge of your own- and hopefully you can get all the way to 7 in a row! Who knows, once you get there, you might not want to stop…
Let us know what your 10 day challenge is, we’re rooting for you!