Why 30-day challenges work and why they fail

From 100 sit-ups a day, to a month without sugar, to 30 days of meditation, to organizing your home: are you in?

There’s a challenge for pretty much anything you’d like to do or change in your life. Poll friends and family, and chances are you’ll find someone who stuck with their challenge and reached their goals, while others abandoned the project for one reason or another. Ask why some challenges worked, and some will say it was their internal drive or willpower. Others might say it was their friends who kept them going when they were about to quit.

Why such mixed results? Some types of challenges just seem to be more effective than others. There’s the subject matter: you and your friends stuck with the sit-ups, but in hindsight, going sugar-free was doomed from the start, for you and your sweet tooth. For others, anything is easier than trying to sit still and meditate.

There’s also the “form factor” that differentiates challenges from one another:

And of course, there’s plenty of speculation about how much time it takes to make a change stick — and then there’s your own experience.

Do challenges really work?

To be sure, controversy has long circulated around challenges, from the credibility of their creators, to the safety of the behavior at the heart of the challenge. Nevertheless, with popularity hardly waning, consumer response suggests there must be something to those 30-day challenges. And there is, in fact, mounting scientific evidence suggesting that time-bound challenges can be effective for behavior modification.

Consensus among experts is that 30-day challenges are effective at raising awareness. They can offer a great strategy for getting people started toward a goal or desired outcome. However, success and completion actually depend upon your relationship to changing a process in your life, and what stage you’re at in that psychological process. According to research by Dr. John Norcross, when properly matched and timed with an individual’s psychological state, challenges can act as a catalyst for truly lasting behavior change.

Furthermore, research in the area of neuroscience shows that novelty and challenge improve neuroplasticity — your brain’s ability to change and form new neural pathways.

Your keys to success

More research is needed to determine what it is that makes an effective challenge. Despite the general advantages of a challenge, not just any test is going to be effective: it has to be meaningful to you and to your own specific goals. The challenge has to be “progressive,” as well, bringing you new information and variety, like a new recipe or exercise each day. And it has to allow you some room for creative expression — you know best what motivates you.

Some other factors that appear to influence participants’ success include:

Finally, it seems that if all else fails, age brings perseverance. In the 10,000-steps study, older participants stuck with it longer. That might mean if you don’t stick with it now, you can count on the likelihood that eventually, you will. In the meantime, the 30-day challenge may make you aware of new healthy-living tactics, and you can look out for the hallmarks of programs that are likely to lead to positive results.