As a psychotherapist, I spend a fair amount of time completing paperwork that convinces insurance companies to pay for someone's mental health treatment.

To help people get their services covered, I have to help patients answer questions like, "How do you hope your life will be different in 90 days?"

Asking people with a mental health problem to look that far ahead can feel like torture. People struggling with depression often can't see 10 minutes into the future, let alone three months down the road.

And individuals experiencing anxiety are often consumed with the future--and they're usually making catastrophic predictions. They might imagine themselves losing their jobs, becoming homeless, or contracting a rare disease all within the next three months.

But even if you aren't experiencing a mental health issue, pinpointing how your life will be different 90 days in advance is tough.

Establishing a 30-day challenge can be a more effective way to create positive change. In fact, 30-day challenges (or sometimes 30-day experiments) are how I stay motivated to reach my goals--especially my fitness goals.

Most recently, I set out to see if I could get six-pack abs in 30 days. I hired Robert Brace, a fitness trainer who is known for getting people in shape fast, to help me reach my goal.

And just as he promised, over the course of one month, I saw my formerly flabby stomach morph into a muscular set of abdominal muscles. Almost every day, I could see progress, and it helped me stay on track to reach my goal.

Had I set out to do the same challenge in 90 days, I'm certain it wouldn't have worked. Having more time would have led to fewer results. Not only do I know this from personal experience and anecdotal evidence from my therapy clients, but science also backs up this notion.

Your Brain Is Designed for 30-Day Challenges

Studies show our brains view time according to either "now deadlines" or "someday deadlines." And "now deadlines" often fall within this calendar month.

For example, if you have a project due at the end of the month, studies show that you're likely to start working on it earlier in the month, because your brain tells you that your deadline is looming. You'll prioritize the project as something that is due "now."

If, however, that same project is due at the beginning of the next month, your brain will categorize it as a "later project"--even if the calendar is set to roll over to the next month within a few days.

You're more likely to procrastinate when it comes to working on the goals you categorize as "later."

So whether you're trying to quit smoking or you want to lose weight, your brain will categorize a 90-day goal as something you can work on later. And if you don't start out filled with motivation and momentum right from the beginning, you aren't likely to pick up steam as time passes.

Why 30-Day Challenges Work So Well

Whether your goal is to pay down debt or you want to start going to the gym, design your own 30-day challenge. In addition to your brain viewing it as a "now" goal, you're more likely to succeed because:

  • You won't have time for excuses. When you have a short-term goal, there isn't time to take days off because you feel tired. And you don't have time to make up missed work later. You have be all in if you want to reach your goals.
  • Fast progress builds momentum. Your hard work will begin to pay off fast. And when you begin to see results, it's easier to stay motivated. Building momentum early can help you stay on course and finish your monthlong challenge strong.
  • Short-term pain feels tolerable. Working hard to reach a new goal means you'll have to give something up. It's easier to give up time with your family or your daily latte when you know there's an end in sight.

Create Your Own 30-Day Challenge

There are many 30-day challenges that can improve your physical health, mental health, social life, or spiritual life.

And as we approach the beginning of a new year--when many people will be setting gigantic annual goals that they never reach--it's a great time to launch a 30-day challenge. You might find that a short-term objective is a much more effective way to create big changes in your life.

Published on: Oct 1, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.