30 Days Will Not Change Your Life

I think I can be unnecessarily hard on myself sometimes (I did just draft an article tentatively titled "I Do Dumb Things"). I get disappointed with myself when I don't follow through with habit changes as completely as I imagined I would. I've started and failed a myriad of activities, hobbies, and new habits. Just a couple of highlights from my own personal Wall of Shame include; meditating every day for over two months, going to a meditation retreat, and then not meditating for 5 months after that; still biting my nails; wasting huge swaths of time doing stupid things on my computer; eating like an idiot more than I should (donutsssssssssssss) and I'm sure many others that I'm conveniently forgetting. I started thinking about why I seem to have had trouble with certain habit changes but have done fine with others. What's the difference? And then, a stroke of insight slapped me on the back of the head -- maybe I've been miscalculating the size of these habit changes.

The Marathon Metaphor

When training for a marathon you don't strap on your shoes and go out for a 15 mile run as your first training session. That's stupid because a marathon is a huge thing that needs to be broken into smaller steps as you train for it. First you run a mile, then you bump it up to two, then five and eventually, after many months, you're running 26.2 miles. Nobody looks at you funny if you tell them you're training for a marathon and going out for a three mile run, especially when you've just started. Why, then, do we think changing some other behaviors or reaching other goals is something that can be done over the course of 30 days? Stopping biting fingernails can be like running a marathon for some people. They are completely different domains but I think it might be a bad idea to think of this habit change differently from training to run a marathon. It must be broken into steps and you must not beat yourself up if you still haven't run a marathon (or stopped biting your nails) after one or two or even three months. 

The nice thing about training for a marathon is that it's easy to break it up into smaller chunks. Miles are nice and convenient units of measurement that help you see you're making progress over time. Habit changes like not wasting time on the computer or stopping biting your nails are not as easily broken into smaller segments. What if you were able to, though? What if instead of shooting for complete mastery over the way you work at your computer you just aimed for an incremental improvement over the next 30 days? I worry that perhaps we are shooting for unrealistic goals. If you told someone you were going to run a marathon in 30 days (especially with no physical activity background) they'd tell you to hold your horses, cool your jets, perhaps to even take a chill pill. So why don't we respond similarly when someone says, "I'm going to start a 30 minute daily meditation practice in 30 days!" or, "I'm going to completely stop biting my fingernails in one month!" or, "I'm going to work completely distraction free from here on out!" All of these are admirable goals but not particularly realistic. It's romantic and exhilarating to think you can become a completely different person in 30 days. Undoing 20 or 30 or 50 or 60 years of NOT being that person, however, is not something that will be easily vanquished. You can make incremental changes over the course of one month and when you add that on top of another month where you made an incremental change and another and another and another, you suddenly have the makings of a new habit or begin closing in on a new goal (your behavioral marathon, if you will).

For the next habit change you have in mind, try to break it into smaller chunks and focus on only one of those chunks for the next 30 days. If you can resist the feeling of impatience I think you'll set yourself up for a much more sustainable change. Almost anyone can do anything for 30 days. It's incredibly hard to make those 30 days stick forever, though. Take your time, make small changes, and enjoy your new behavior. Below is an example of how you could break up the goal of "stop biting my fingernails":

  • Spend a month thinking about and writing about why you want to stop biting your fingernails. Get every single reason, thought, and impulse down on paper.
  • Write down what you were doing and/or thinking about immediately before each time you started to bite your fingernails.
  • Keep a running tally of every time you notice yourself biting your fingernails.
  • Pick a hand. Focus on only using the nail clipper on that one hand for an entire month. Notice the difference between your hands. Which one feels better?
  • Switch hands. Focus on only using the nail clipper on that one hand for an entire month. Notice the difference between your hands. Which one feels better?
  • Spend a month not biting your fingernails. If you do, notice what you were thinking/doing when you did. 
  • Look at your notes and figure out how you can address those specific thoughts/activities (I've noticed I bite my fingernails when I'm reading so I gave myself something to chew on while I read, like a toothpick).

And so on. If it feels absurdly slow -- it should. Let's think about this for a second. If you're trying to make a habit change that has thus far eluded you I think we should probably treat it with a little more gravitas than, "Just put your head down and focus for 30 days. Then you'll have it licked!" If you've had success with that, good for you. Some habit changes may be susceptible to that approach. The ones that seem more like a marathon or have been especially stubborn require a more systematic approach.

It takes awhile but if you break it into smaller steps, like training for a marathon, I think you're much more likely to be successful in the long-term. What would you rather have, a month (maybe two) of not biting your nails before you revert or many months of working toward not biting your nails, a couple months of "kind of" biting your nails, and eventually not biting your nails at all -- forever? You could go out and walk/run 26.2 miles right now but you'll probably end up in the hospital and hate running. Or, you could build it up over time and become healthier and potentially gain a new passion.