If you've ever tried to change a habit, you know how much patience it can require. There's an often-repeated saying that 21 days is enough to stop or start any habit, but that turns out to be false. Depending on the person and the habit, it can take anywhere from a minimum of 21 days up to eight months or more.

But habits are still worth forming or breaking, and you have to start somewhere. With that in mind, and inspired by Matt Cutts's  TED Talk "Try Something New for 30 Days," I started a series of six-week challenges as a way to try to change my own behavior.

The choice of six weeks is deliberate. First, given how long habit formation actually takes, it gives me a bit more time and thus a better chance to make a change that's likely to stick. Second, some of the habits I'm trying to start or stop only pertain to weekdays--and six weeks of Monday-through-Fridays comes out to 30 days. 

Have I always succeeded at completing my challenges? No. In fact, I've never completed a challenge where I didn't screw up at least some of the time. Still, every one of them has helped me change my habits for the better, at least a little. Here's why it will work for you, too:

1. It will keep you from forgetting.

Here's what makes a habit a habit: We do it without thinking about it. We spend the day at our desks without ever thinking to stop and get some exercise, or munch our way through a bag of chips without fully registering what we're eating. Setting a six-week intention can change that if you make sure your challenge is always front and center, by putting a reminder where you can't avoid seeing it (or hearing about it, if you use a voice assistant for your reminders). 

You can put reminders about your challenge into your calendar so you see or hear them every day. In my case, I start every workday by reviewing an Evernote note on which I plan and track my work time and leave myself a to-do list. I keep my six-week challenges front and center in that note. There are many ways to give yourself reminders--pick one that works for you.

This week, for instance, I've just started a six-week challenge to get some exercise every single day. Today is a particularly hectic day that began with an ASJA board meeting, followed by the sale of a house, and will end with a large farewell gathering at a musical venue where my husband has often played guitar, and which is now closing its doors. Between those events, I also have deadlines to meet. 

This is the kind of day when I would normally never find the time to exercise. But because that six-week challenge is right there in my notes for the day, I won't forget that I need to make time for a walk, even if it means getting to the party slightly later.

2. It will make you more mindful.

Taking up a six-week challenge will inevitably get you thinking about the new habit you want to form and how you can make the new habit a regular part of your life. It will keep you thinking about what you're doing way after the challenge is over.

This is embarrassing to admit, but one of my first six-week challenges had to do with what time I start work in the morning. I work at home on my own schedule, and I'm married to a musician who is often out late. I tend to work far into the evening, go to bed late, get up late, start work late, and then work into the evening all over again. 

So here was my challenge: Start work by 10 a.m. and stop work by 9 p.m. I'm sad to say that I failed miserably at both deadlines, particularly the one about stopping work by 9. I don't think I managed to meet both deadlines even once during the six weeks of the challenge. But it served its purpose because it made me pay attention to my work habits. 

That was almost a year ago and I still waste less time in the mornings than I used to. I still make note of what time I start work each day, and I'm at my desk a lot earlier than I used to be. I'm still working on trying to stop at a reasonable hour. But at least, every day, I'm paying attention.

3. It will move the needle.

Habits are difficult, both forming new ones and getting rid of old ones. One reason I know this is that I have never fully succeeded at any of my six-week challenges. Yet every one of them that I've completed has brought some improvement that lasted well past the end of the challenge, and if you stick with it, it will do the same for you.

In 2016, a year after we'd moved to Snohomish, Washington, from Woodstock, New York, I was feeling lonely and isolated, partly because most of my friends were back on the East Coast, partly because my work schedule left me little time for socializing. But mostly it was because of my own reticence. I'm not precisely an introvert, but I can be shy, especially when it comes to taking the initiative to contact others. So that was the challenge I set myself: Reach out to someone socially at least five times every week. 

Like all my other challenges, I failed at this one--I didn't really reach out to someone five times every week. But I did make some changes to my entrenched, solitary habits. I visited our friendly next-door neighbors, an elderly Norwegian couple who appreciated our gifts of homegrown rhubarb and home-baked bread. I made a date with a friend to attend a literary event downtown. I invited some friends from our musical community to come over for dinner, and invited a new acquaintance out for coffee.

A year and a half later, my work schedule still doesn't leave as much time for a social life as I would like. But the social isolation is over. I've put down roots and made better friendships here, and the six-week challenge helped me do it.

4. It will let you test-drive big changes before you commit to them.

Perhaps you've always thought you should be a vegetarian and wondered whether you could manage without eating meat. Deciding you're a vegetarian and then changing your mind later could make you feel like you've failed. So try setting yourself a temporary challenge to be a vegetarian for six weeks (or two days a week for six weeks, or whatever makes sense to you). Or stop eating sugar. Or start biking to work. 

At the end of six weeks, you can stop, review, and reevaluate. If you absolutely hated the experience, you can go back to what you were doing before. If you liked it, you can make the change permanent, and even incorporate additional changes into your life. Either way, you finished the challenge and did your best for six weeks, so you can feel like a success and not a failure.

5. It will help you focus on what's important and not just what's urgent.

Six-week challenges force you to think in terms of the next several weeks and what you want to accomplish during that time. That's highly useful, because most of us have hectic jobs that keep our attention focused on what needs to get done this week, or today, or in the next five minutes. 

The problem with thinking only about these urgent (or seemingly urgent) matters is that it keeps us from pursuing the larger goals we want to reach over time. And, of course, we can't focus only on our important goals, because then today's urgent tasks won't get done. 

A six-week challenge can help you build a bridge between the urgent and the important by giving you a daily (or weekly, or twice-weekly) deadline to take small steps toward your bigger goals while still fulfilling your daily obligations. More important, it can provide a constant reminder of what those big goals are. And you're much likelier to reach those stretch goals if you think about them every day.

Here's the Matt Cutts TED Talk that started it all.

Published on: Feb 22, 2018
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