A Deeper Look at 30-Day and 90-Day Challenges

One of my favorite self-improvement tools, whether it’s for financial improvement or fitness or diet or moral improvement or whatever, is the 30-day challenge. It’s a tool I’ve used for years to nudge myself in a better direction and establish better habits in my life.

For those unaware, a 30-day challenge is simply a challenge to oneself to adopt some sort of lifestyle change for 30 days. It might be something very discrete, like “meditate for 15 minutes each day for 30 days.” It might be something like “eat only 1,800 calories a day for 30 days.” It could be something like “don’t speak negatively about coworkers for 30 days.” I wrote about financial applications for 30-day challenges in the past, and suggested 10 such challenges:

  • Challenge #1: For 30 days, make all of your meals at home.
  • Challenge #2: For 30 days, buy no name-brand items.
  • Challenge #3: For 30 days, don’t use a credit card for any purchases.
  • Challenge #4: For 30 days, don’t turn on the television.
  • Challenge #5: For 30 days, sell or get rid of one item from your closet each day.
  • Challenge #6: For 30 days, keep your thermostat five degrees cooler (or warmer) than normal.
  • Challenge #7: For 30 days, make your morning coffee at home and take it with you in a travel mug.
  • Challenge #8: For 30 days, don’t purchase any unnecessary possessions.
  • Challenge #9: For 30 days, brainstorm 10 gift ideas each day for a different person in your life.
  • Challenge #10: For 30 days, track every single dime you spend.

(If you want to know why some of these are financially helpful or want more details, I really encourage you to read the original article, The Power of the 30-Day Challenge.)

Most months, I do one or two different 30-day challenges. For example, this month, my challenge has been to eat vegan for breakfast and lunch each day for 30 days and to brainstorm 10 interesting short story ideas each day for 30 days. Sometimes my challenges are finance related, sometimes they’re diet related, sometimes they’re fitness related, sometimes they’re morally related, sometimes they’re hobby related… it could be anything.

However, what I’ve discovered over the years is that a 30-day challenge is virtually never long enough to actually set a permanent habit in my life. At the end of a 30-day challenge, I will invariably revert back to my previous habits and routines. At the end of this month (unless something changes), I’ll go back to a non-vegan breakfast and lunch, and I’ll go back to not brainstorming short story ideas.

The reason for this is that it takes much longer than 30 days to truly establish a permanent habit in your life. Depending on the study or the specific habit, it can take anywhere from 40 to 120 days to really make a habit permanent, and sometimes it can even take longer than that.

Sometimes, reversion to old habits is fine. There are many 30-day challenges that, once they wrap up, they’re done. For example, downsizing a wardrobe can’t go on forever because eventually you run out of clothes. There are other routines that you might want to do for a while and then drop, like generating short story ideas.

Sometimes, however, I really don’t want to revert back because I see the benefits of the new habit, but without a more persistent nudge, I revert back to old habits anyway. For example, a good exercise routine is a great 30-day challenge, but a person probably doesn’t want to revert back to being sedentary after the 30 days are over.

The reason is that many 30-day challenges are really just trial runs for new permanent behaviors. The idea of such a challenge isn’t necessarily to permanently set the hook of a lifestyle change (though that would be nice), but to figure out if such a change is really something you want in your life.

For example, do I want to eat a vegan diet for breakfast and lunch going forward? Is it really a net positive for me? Is buying all store brand items a net positive? Is turning off the television for good a net positive? That’s really what a 30-day challenge is about – answering that question.

So, what happens when that question is answered? What happens when you’re at the end of a 30-day challenge and you think this is a good change in your life, but you still need structure before it becomes a permanent habit?

That’s where a 90-day challenge comes in.

A 90-Day Challenge Isn’t Quite the Same as a 30-Day Challenge

It might be easy to just think of a 90-day challenge as being the same thing as a 30-day challenge, except three times as long. I’ve discovered over the last year or two that they’re actually very different animals.

First of all, a 30-day challenge exists to help you figure out whether a new habit is right for you, while a 90-day challenge intends to convert a very promising habit into a permanent way of life. The goal of a 90-day challenge is very different than a 30-day challenge. A 30-day challenge is about discovery or, in some cases, about completing a task. A 90-day challenge is about change – ideally permanent change.

Second, a 30-day challenge operates almost entirely within a “honeymoon” period, whereas a 90-day challenge goes far past that period. A “honeymoon” period is a period of time in which a new activity is quite fun because you’re discovering the nuances and enjoying the details. For many things, it fades after a few weeks, but a 30-day challenge is usually mostly or entirely within that honeymoon period.

A 90-day challenge goes far longer than that. Even more so, it’s often something you take on after a 30-day challenge, so you don’t have a “honeymoon” period at all.

A 30-day challenge has a short-term focus, while a 90-day challenge has a long-term focus. With a 30-day challenge, you’re evaluating the change you’re wanting to make. Is this working out for me? Is this something that’s a net positive in my life? How can I make each day better. A 90-day challenge is an attempt to make a positive change, probably one you figured out during a 30-day challenge, permanent. You’re trying hard to establish a new normal.

In my experience, a 30-day challenge is usually fun, while a 90-day challenge, especially the first 60 days or so, can be surprisingly hard. There’s no “honeymoon” to rely on and you’re trying to change your well-established daily habits, so you’re going to resist the change with surprising intensity. It’s not going to feel fun, though you might start seeing results that you like.

For me, however, sometime between day 60 and day 90, the resistance just fades away for most 90-day challenges and I just feel like it’s the natural thing to do. This assumes, of course, that such a challenge has been on an unbroken streak for that long. When that happens, the change is pretty much permanent. Your day will feel wrong if the new habit isn’t a part of it.

I started migrating slowly to 90-day challenges over the last year and a half, trying different approaches, and I feel like my challenges during the first quarter of this year were quite successful.

So, how exactly do I pull off a 90-day challenge? I need to start by talking a little about triggers.

Enter Marshall Goldsmith

The real key for understanding a 90-day challenge for me was reading the book Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith. I’ve already shared an in-depth review of Triggers, as well as a discussion of the key question asked by the book.

To summarize, Triggers focuses on how exactly people establish new habits. Goldsmith’s approach is that the key element in establish a new habit is genuine, honest intent and effort. His core idea is that if you genuinely try to do your best each day to establish a habit, even if you weren’t perfect at it due to the vagaries of the day, that habit will eventually become your new normal behavior.

The method that Goldsmith recommends for doing this is to adopt a daily routine of evaluating your habits. In the evening, you simply ask yourself, “Did I do my best today to execute this habit?” For example, you might ask yourself, “Did I do my best today to eat vegan before dinner?” or “Did I do my best today to avoid name brand products?” or “Did I do my best today to be positive in the workplace?” or “Did I do my best today to meditate deeply?” or “Did I do my best today to avoid using my cell phone except for necessities?” or… well, anything you want.

Goldsmith’s suggestion is to actually score yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 on whether you really did your best to execute that habit within the context of your day. In other words, what he cares most about is intent and effort, not perfect results.

Why is intent and effort more important than results? Let’s say you’re asking yourself whether you did your best today to eat a low calorie diet. Most days, it might not take a ton of effort to pull that off if you’re preparing your own meals. However, a couple of friends invite you out to dinner at a fancy (read: calorie-rich) restaurant. Did you go there and throw caution to the wind and dig into a pile of foie gras chased by several after-dinner drinks? Or did you eat really lightly before the dinner, choose relatively low calorie options, and keep your drinking to a minimum? In the latter situation, you really did do your best to keep your calories low and you can still give yourself a really good score for the day, even if you maybe went a bit higher than you might have otherwise intended.

Intent and effort is central because it overcomes the varieties in your days. Some days will be perfectly set up for you to knock your habit out of the park, while others might make it tricky. The more you intend to do things well and actually follow through on that intent, even if the results aren’t always equal, the more you are teaching yourself to apply this new behavior of yours in a variety of situations that come up in your life. You’re learning and locking in how to do this no matter what life throws at you.

For me, it’s that continuous effort and intent that really sets a habit. By nudging myself to constantly keep applying intent and effort to a particular behavior, it becomes pretty constant in my life regardless of how my day-in-day-out life is going. So far, most of the time, 90 days has been enough to really set a new behavior really strongly in my life.

So, what does this actually look like in my life?

A Concrete Example: Default Home Meal Preparation

While Sarah and I have long prepared most of our meals at home, I often felt like there were times where we ate outside the home because of convenience, and that was mostly due to poor planning. I basically wanted to eliminate that from my life, both for expense and health reasons.

So, I decided to adopt a new habit: I’m no longer going to eat meals I didn’t prepare at home unless it involves overnight travel, a social event or celebration, or a genuine emergency. If it doesn’t fall into that category, I’m eating at home. I wanted to feel like the absolute normal default mode for all food preparation is my own kitchen.

This actually involved a number of changes. Most importantly, it involved some more careful meal planning and thinking. What were the times when I would eat out for convenience? Why did that happen? What could I do otherwise?

I started off with a 30-day challenge for this last year, to see if I could go an entire month preparing every single meal at home except for the rare exceptions noted above. It worked out pretty well and I was happy with the results, both financially and nutritionally. So, I decided I wanted to make it into a permanent habit.

The first thing I did is that I printed off a single sheet, three-month wall calendar, like this one but of my own design with a large space for each day to write in.

Each morning, as part of my morning routine, I thought about my new habit. Today, I’m going to do my best to prepare all of my meals at home. After doing that, I put a little X in the corner of the day on that calendar.

As I moved through the day, I try to be a little bit aware of what my intention is; the morning reminder helps with that. If I think today might be tricky, I’ll put a reminder or two on my phone to nudge me at an appropriate time. The goal is to make things like preparing a picnic dinner or making myself a lunch to go feel completely normal.

At the end of each day, I simply asked myself did I do my best to prepare all of my meals at home? I’d grade myself on a scale of 1 to 10 on how I felt I did that day in terms of effort. Did I genuinely try to prepare all meals at home? If I felt I gave it true effort, regardless of the results, I’d give myself a good score; if I didn’t, I’d give myself a bad score.

Ideally, I wanted to have a chain of days where I honestly gave myself a score of at least an 8, and when a good chain was going, I wanted to keep it going. I’d see it in the morning when thinking about my goal and I’d realize that this was a good thing to keep moving forward.

However, the key to this was honest scoring. If I couldn’t honestly give myself a good score for effort, then I wouldn’t give myself a good score.

As the process wore on, day after day like this, a few things emerged.

For starters, if I was really committed to this change, I would rack up a lot of good scores for effort. That was always a good sign. On the other hand, if I was consistently unable to give myself a good score, it meant that I probably wasn’t as committed to this change as I thought and it deserved to be re-thought. Usually, a 30-day challenge beforehand weeds out the behavioral changes I’m not really committed to and exposes the ones I really want, but in at least one case, I found that I didn’t realize that I wasn’t really committed until well into the 90-day challenge.

Second, having a bad day here and a bad day there wasn’t a sign of failure. It didn’t mean that the goal was falling apart. Rather, it meant that I was learning how to deal with an unusual day; it was part of making that kind of effort normal no matter what life threw at me. Usually, a one-off bad day was almost always followed by a few very good days.

Finally, somewhere around day 70 or so, it started to feel incredibly automatic, like I was reminding myself to do something normal, like going to the bathroom. I kept doing it through day 90, but there was a point in there where the “normal” switch flipped in my head and this new behavior became the new normal.

That’s really the sign of success, I think. It’s the point where I can take the training wheels off and stick to this new behavior for quite a while.

This doesn’t mean that the behavioral change is permanent, just that it’s my new “default” life pattern. Things may get altered as my life changes over time, but for now, that new behavior is part of the path of least resistance in my life.

Final Thoughts

If you think a behavior change in your life is something you need to do going forward to put yourself in a better direction, start off with a 30-day challenge. Commit to that change for 30 days. You don’t need to have that much structure for just 30 days, as you’ll be going through a “honeymoon” period where you’re enjoying figuring out the changes and, besides, there’s an end date to all of this.

After the 30 days, evaluate whether this change worked for you. Did you get some of the results you wanted? Was it a net positive in your life? Do you feel like things will continue to improve if you stick with it and made it the new normal?

It’s okay if you conclude that the change isn’t the right fit for you. In those situations, I usually assume that there’s something that I do want to change in my life that’s similar to this – or else I wouldn’t have wanted to do the challenge – but not exactly this, and that means I need to give it some more thought.

If it feels like something you want to have permanently in your life, I strongly recommend doing a 90-day challenge, as described above, using some of the strategies from Marshall Goldsmith’s book.

I’ve done this exact thing – or a close variation of this – for several different habits and it’s been incredibly effective at bringing about change, better than anything I’ve ever tried. You can certainly do simultaneous 90-day challenges as well if you’re willing to dislodge a lot of your normal habits and routines at once; I can confirm that at least two can work well at the same time.

The system as I described above really works, at least for me. I intend to keep it up with a new habit or two on a quarterly basis for a while, and I have a couple of pretty intense ones in mind for the third and fourth quarters of the year.

Good luck! (And, yes, I expect to revisit this topic again near the end of the year when discussing financial and other New Year resolutions.)

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.