I’m not one for making New Year’s resolutions these days. Although I admire the spirit of it — taking the initiative to start anew and change your life for the better — I always found my resolutions too difficult to keep. Whether it was something I wanted to do each day and forgot about or a goal that became far too unrealistic, it only took a couple of years of failing miserably at them for me to decide the game wasn’t worth playing. By February, 80% of New Year’s resolutions in America will have failed, and it was always around that time that I’d find myself frustrated and disappointed after slipping up or caving in, until eventually I’d throw in the towel altogether.
But a few weeks later, I’d find much more success in the practice of Lent. For 40 days, starting on Ash Wednesday, I would give up a certain vice — junk food, soda, social media, etc. — until Easter Sunday, when I could finally indulge, often feeling myself at a breaking point. I don’t know if it was religious conviction or the fact that giving up a bad habit is usually easier than starting a good one, but I never faltered in the resolutions I made for Lent.
So last year, after my wife and I developed a particularly bad habit of watching TV every night and far too often on the weekends, I had the idea to institute a “fall Lent” (this was in September). Of course, this had to be the secular version since there weren’t any days like Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday to mark the beginning and end of our television fast, so we just used the month itself. In all of September, we didn’t watch a single minute of TV.
Then, on October 1st, we promptly started the second season of Mindhunter (which our friends were quick to tell us we’d missed out on). Although we returned to watching television, we didn’t fall back into our old habit. Because we’d become accustomed to eating dinner at the table instead of in the living room and using our weekend time to launch two side hustles, we trained ourselves not to depend on TV and to use it sparingly instead of regularly.
If our New Year’s resolutions would fail within a month, I thought we should see just how much we could do in that amount of time.
Later, it occurred to me that the reason I could keep a resolution for a month more easily than for New Year’s is that it had a specific end date. Inevitably, there were days I felt exhausted and was dying to grab the remote, but unlike with New Year’s resolutions, I could remind myself that I only had to make it to the end of the month, and then it would all be over.
And that worked for us. My wife and I are the kind of people who perform well under pressure. We hold ourselves to high standards, and we don’t like to disappoint. But my wife, too, finds the idea of a New Year’s resolution to be too open-ended and abstract. One year, we resolved to “work out more” — I think it lasted a couple weeks. But as a monthly challenge last October, we succeeded. Building on that momentum, we came up with even more challenges. If our New Year’s resolutions would fail within a month, I thought we should see just how much we could do in that amount of time.
In November, I wrote every day. In December, we used as few natural resources as possible (electricity, gas, water, etc.). And this month, we’re only spending money on the essentials, which means no going out to eat — another bad habit.
To some extent, these challenges may sound ridiculous or extreme. You should have seen me wandering around our house in December (when it got dark at four in the afternoon) using my phone’s flashlight to see because I refused to turn on the lights. But the point isn’t to live in austerity with all work and no play. It’s to push yourself to your limits for an amount of time that’s short enough to bear but long enough to matter, so that when the challenge ends, your habit naturally resettles on a healthy middle ground.
Sure, I’ve stopped stumbling around my house in the dark, but now I think twice each time I flip a light switch.
Admittedly, this isn’t a particularly novel idea. It’s widely accepted that it takes 30 days to break a habit (though research doesn’t necessarily support that). As a result, you can find 30-day challenges for everything from yoga routines to de-cluttering. And while I can definitely attest to the effectiveness of challenging yourself for a 30-day period, there are still a few other qualities a monthly challenge needs in order to have the best chance of success:
- Fixed Beginning and End Dates
- SMART Goals
- Replacing an Old Habit with a New One
Part of what worked so well about Lent were the fixed beginning and end dates (and by “fixed,” I mean outside of my control — I don’t get to set the dates for Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday). A 30-day challenge is a great length of time, but if you arbitrarily start it on July 18th, it’ll end on August 17th, and I doubt either of those dates are significant to you. In fact, you may even forget them! But by using the established calendar month, I know exactly when I have to begin (and end), and I know exactly how far along I am in the challenge, which can be a source of comfort and inspiration come the last week of the month.
I also highly recommend using SMART goals, which is a mnemonic device that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. By staying within a given month, your challenge will already be time-bound. But you should also ensure that, unlike the most common New Year’s resolutions, your challenge is specific and measurable and can be achieved each day (admittedly, challenges like “use fewer natural resources” and “spend less money” aren’t specific, but at the end of the month, there is a noticeably measurable result — and at the very least, they’re both tied to specific actions you can mitigate each day like flipping a switch or swiping a credit card).
Lastly, when trying to develop a new habit (such as “write each day”), I advise giving up a bad habit and using the time you would have spent on the old habit to cultivate the new one. Otherwise, you may find it extremely difficult to carve out time for yet another addition to what I’m sure is already a busy life. In November, I spent far less time on social media and used that time to write a little each day. Every time I picked up my phone and felt the urge to open Twitter or Facebook, I opened Google Keep instead and wrote something (the challenge didn’t specify that the writing had to be good!).
So if you really want to change your life this year, try monthly challenges instead of resolutions. You won’t have to quit something cold turkey or become a better person overnight. All you’ll have to do is make it 30 days, and more likely than not, you’ll find that your bad habits aren’t actually habits anymore (so you’ll still be able to enjoy them occasionally!). But even if you do fall back into them, a full month away can really make a difference — and you’ll have learned something about yourself in the process.
Plus, if your bad habits are anything like mine, these monthly challenges may even save you a bit of money! And who doesn’t want that this year?