Looking Back on a Year of 30 Day Challenges

Hard to imagine that I began my 30 day challenge experiment a full year ago–though, not really. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that time barrels along regardless of how aware you are of its pace. It’s our choice to either mark the passing of time and consider those dearly departed moments or stumble forward into the next moments like zombies.

So… 2011. The experiment was simple: 12 distinct challenges, one each month—short enough to keep a goal realistic and achievable, yet long enough to give good habits a fighting chance of sticking around.

Overall, it was a highly successful experiment. I can’t say enough good about this approach. I’ve seen substantial change in my life, and not just for the first few weeks of January as with many years past.

One of the things I noticed was that I was far more successful at the challenges which required giving up something than I was the challenges which required adding something. For instance, giving up television was relatively easy, but trying do something new each month was surprisingly difficult. It really is the difference between catching myself about to do something I’m supposed to be giving up (and stopping) and remembering at the end of a day that I’ve forgotten to do something (and … ?).

With this in mind, I’m going to modify my challenges slightly this year. Instead of a single challenge each month, I’m going to attempt a binary challenge—giving up a habit or behavior I consider harmful in excess and replacing it with a relevant behavior that I consider beneficial. For example, this January I’m giving up Facebook and Twitter like I did last year; but I’m also going to send one handwritten note to someone I care about every day this month. Put off, put on. Sounds familiar…

Interestingly enough, my wife asked to join me in the challenges this year. I think that’s a testament to both the effectiveness of this approach as well as their overall impact on my family. Many of the challenges (like giving up television) involved my family whether or not they were willing, so my wife and I decided to share many of the same challenges and to set some that relate to our children.

A brief overview of 2011:

January: 30 days with no Twitter or Facebook — An excellent challenge, one that I’m repeating again this year. Instead of posting stream-of-consciousness style to social networks, I abstained and instead kept a running list of what I wanted to post throughout the month. At the end of the month, I vetted the potential data and posted a much more substantial (and I’d even argue much more meaningful) digest of information.

February: Take one picture a day for 30 days — The easiest of the challenges, especially since my daughter was born in February. I’m probably not going to repeat this one as a challenge because a photo a day is practically a habit of mine now anyway.

March: 30 days with no computer after 9 p.m. — Surprisingly difficult and fraught with complexities, especially since the term computer has gotten so blurry. What about my iPhone or my iPad? Which tasks were okay? Answer the phone, but don’t check email? Watch a movie, but don’t check Facebook? I’ll need better definition if I’m going to attempt this again.

April: Try one new thing a day for 30 days — More difficult than you might think, but also incredibly rewarding. Will definitely be repeating this one.

May: 30 days to get my finances in order — Dismal failure. I chalk this up to not having a specific goal in mind. Look for this one again in 2012, with a much more specific task.

June: 30 days with no caffeine — Another really great challenge. This one inspired me to make more of my 2012 challenges about my body and my health.

July: Draw something everyday for 30 days — Surprisingly, I failed this one miserably. There are several reasons I failed this challenge, but ultimately I didn’t really care about drawing as much as I thought I would at the beginning of the year. I may revisit this one some month…

August: 30 days with no TV — I thought it would be one of the most difficult, but it was surprisingly easy. I also found myself accomplish so much more with all of the extra time I had. I also discovered that this one had a profound impact on my family, both in the shared challenge it was to give up television as well as the increased interaction we had as a family. Will definitely be repeating this one.

September: Write down one thing I’m thankful for each day for 30 days — This is where I began to drop off. Things started to get extremely busy at work and church and my challenges began to suffer because of that.

October: Read the New Testament in 30 days — Another victim of neglect, I only made it through the gospels.

November: Write a novel/book in 30 days — My wife will probably post “I told you so” in the comments, but I never wrote a single word. Good intentions and all…

December: Learn one new word a day for 30 days — This was one of the challenges I was most looking forward to, but it too withered in the end-of-the year neglect. I’d really like to include this in 2012 as one of the put-on parts of my binary challenges.

I’m still working on the list of new challenges for 2012, but I’ll be sure to post it to my journal when it’s complete.

Have you set any 30 day challenges for 2012? I’d love to hear about them, if only to get some good ideas for my own life.