After listening to a TEDTalk entitled “Try Something New for 30 Days,” I immediately emailed the link to several friends. In the subject line I wrote, “Well worth the 3 minutes and 27 seconds!”
Soon after, I received several responses. My friends were also inspired by the mission of computer scientist Matt Cutts to create 30-Day Challenges for himself. Cutts shared his experience of writing a really bad novel in thirty days, abstaining from sugar for four weeks, and commuting to work by bicycle for a month. Cutts said that embarking on these challenges not only made him more self-confident, but also more adventurous and mindful. “Instead of months flying by, forgotten, the time was much more memorable,” states Cutts.
I think the reason Cutts’ three minute talk is so inspiring is because we are all looking for something to give our life a boost and mark the passing of time. In her book Positivity, psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson writes that people who flourish in their daily lives are “driven by a sense of purpose: they know why they get up in the morning.” Having a thirty-day goal gives an extra element of direction, purpose, and excitement to each day.
My friend Carrie wrote, “What’s your 30-day try at something new? I’m actually going to take a picture every day. I have a brand new camera so I can use it to see my world for the next 30 days.”
Inspired by Carrie’s willingness to jump right into a 30-Day Challenge, I sent out another email and prodded a few others to join Carrie and me in a month-long quest for change. Seth, an old friend from college, decided he was going to teach himself a bit of computer code every day for a month. Corrie Kate wrote that her 30-Day Challenge was to skateboard daily. Lyn, moved by the news of the day, planned on offering morning prayers for those in need.
I shared the video with my daughters, and we decided to do something together. After much debate, we agreed on a five-minute gratitude session right before bedtime. Each night, we would write in our journals what we were grateful for in that day and then share our entries with each other. We dug up some special journals and vowed to start that night.
In the front of my journal I wrote, “It sounds like it should be easy, five minutes a day of quality time with the girls–write down what we are grateful for, share, and then go to sleep with a full heart. But by bedtime–theirs and mine since they are the same–I am so tired I can barely muster a hug and a “Good night, I love you,” which is always followed shortly afterward with a ‘GO TO SLEEP NOW!’ But Matt Cutts is right. It is just 5 minutes a day for 30 days. I can do that. 150 minutes. 2 1/2 hours tops.”
The girls made long gratitude lists–soft sheets, holidays, new boots, talking with Grandma, books on tape. Emma was always thankful for her teacher’s and her parents’ patience with her. Clara mentioned food that she loved from the day–apple cake, maple syrup, pizza. It was an especially good time for me to be grateful since life got a little tipsy turvy during those weeks. We went strong for about fourteen days, and then our evenings got more hectic than usual, and our 30-day gratitude journal challenge got derailed. Once we got off track, we never got back on again.
At the end of the thirty days, I touched base with my friends and confess my 30-Day Challenge failure. All of them, despite their best efforts, had fallen off the 30-Day Challenge wagon somewhere along the way also. Writes Seth, “My 30-day project crashed and burned right around two weeks as well. I really wanted (to do it), but then I had to leave for a work trip. I sort of lost control of my time over the month. Achieving goals is always really hard for me.”
Achieving goals is difficult. Surveys have shown that 92 percent of people don’t fulfill their New Year’s Resolutions. Yet some people, like Matt Cutts or the thousands of people who train and compete in marathons or those who return to school for a degree while working full-time, successfully meet the challenges they put forth for themselves. What is the winning formula to cross the finish line, and what are the roadblocks that can stand in the way of a goal?
A year ago I joined together with three other friends to attempt to find the answers to those very questions. At our first meeting we wrote down some big goals we hoped to accomplish in the next five years. Calling ourselves the Five Group, we have committed ourselves to our goals and to supporting each other as we make our way to the finish line. But what we have discovered during our monthly meetings is that there is a whole lot more to meeting a goal than just writing it down on paper and really hoping it comes true. We have discovered through trial and error, that to complete a goal, we have to make changes in three general areas.
Creating Time and Space
“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein,” wrote H. Jackson Brown, Jr., inspirational author.
This quote makes a good point: our time is what we make of it. But then again, I would bet those people Jackson listed weren’t doing laundry, driving carpool, or mowing their own lawns on the weekend. We all have the same number of hours, but for most of us, much of that time is eaten up by work obligations and relationship commitments. It is during the precious leftover minutes that we get to determine how goal-oriented we want to be.
One of our Five Group strategies when goal-making is not only to write down what our goal is, but to write out the steps necessary to fit that goal into our lives. If my aim is to get healthy by walking and doing yoga daily, I first write out a schedule of exactly how I can fit in an hour or so of time to make getting fit a reality. Sometimes the most helpful part of trying to create time and space for a goal is realizing when a goal is too unwieldy to work.
Obtainability, Adaptability, and Pace
To be honest, I knew from the start that there was little chance that the girls and I would successfully complete our 30-Day Challenge. It was a hectic month. The gratitude journal became one more chore after piano practicing, homework, and all the other loose ends that need to be tied up at the end of the day. It was really an unobtainable goal.
It is part of my past goal-failure pattern: I often let my enthusiasm for an idea overrun the reality of achieving it. Without stopping to assess whether my goal is obtainable, I leap in and start swimming as hard as I can without any regard for pacing myself or strategizing how to come up for a breath now and again. Eventually I become fatigued and in this state I am often unable to continue towards my goal within the strict parameters I have established. Instead of stopping to reassess and make some adjustments, I simply declare burnout and dump the whole project, often just shy of completion.
I have done this with a craft business, several novels, yard improvement projects, exercise programs, herbal medicine training courses–the list goes on and on. It’s not that I am a quitter or am unwilling to work hard. I just needed to learn how to assess the obtainability of my goals, adapt when necessary, and pace myself along the journey. With the help of the Five Group, I am learning these skills.
Jillene, a member of our Five Group, is a firm believer in Martha Beck’s method of taking turtle steps to reach a goal. Says Jillene, “In The Four Day Win, Beck says that each week you need to plan a goal, then you need to cut that goal in half.” For example, if you want to give up your afternoon coffee purchase in an effort to save money, Beck says that instead of cutting out buying coffee every day of the week, forego a purchase for only four days. If that still feels too hard, cut those four days down to two. Keep adapting your goal until it feels doable or winnable no matter how small an increment.
Initially, Beck’s idea sounded silly to me. What is the point of a goal if you aren’t going to attack it straight on in the shortest amount of time? But Beck is not as concerned about goal achievement as she is goal sustainability. You can pick the path that goes straight up the mountain, but you might be too winded and exhausted to enjoy the view from the top, if you get there at all. On the other hand, if you take the switchbacks, winding back and forth slowly but steadily up the mountainside, not only do you increase your chances of reaching the top, but you also might be able to climb even higher. Winning or achieving a goal, no matter how small, give us a sense of accomplishment and a boost of confidence. As Seth says, “Attaining goals is one of those things that the more you do it, the better you get at doing it, so you can set higher goals further out.”
Even though none of us achieved our 30-Day Challenge, I still think Cutts’ idea is worth embracing. After our gratitude journal failure, I emailed Seth, “I like the idea of trying something new, but I also think that it has to be easy and realistic. Once a week. Once a month.”
My family likes when I put notes in their lunches, and while it would be daunting to do this on a daily basis for 30 days, I would like to develop the habit once a week. Once a month I would like to read a play, something I haven’t done since college. Once a week I want to stop by the library with my kids. And once a month I would like to go out on a date with my husband. All of these goals seem obtainable after I adapt Cutt’s 30-Day Challenge from a daily commitment to a more obtainable weekly or monthly practice.
In hindsight, even our 30-Day gratitude journaling challenge might have been more successful if I had adapted my original idea. It might have been better to skip the journals which hindered flexibility, and just had a verbal gratitude sharing session at a more reasonable time of day, such as on the way home from school. Our gratitude sharing could have been fun rather than a chore. If I had made this our 30-Day Challenge, we might have had a better shot at success, and established gratitude as a habit, the ultimate goal.
If you have ever participated in a 5K run, you already understand that it is a lot easier to run when people are on the sidelines cheering you on than when you are out running by yourself. In most cases, we all tend to perform a little better when there is an audience. It is easier to reach a goal when there is some accountability along the way.
“I will stick to a goal if I am accountable,” says Carrie during a Five Group meeting. Whether it is daily or weekly or even monthly, having to report on the process towards your goal is a true motivator. Weight Watchers is the most successful weight loss organization around. One of the keys to their success is the weekly weigh in and meetings where members have their weights recorded and then participate in a short motivational discussion to provide encouragement for the next week.
Accountability is why I started this flyingnotscreaming site. I have always wanted to write, but was having trouble prioritizing writing over all the other tasks at hand that seemed more urgent such as a sink full of dirty dishes. Having a weekly deadline, knowing that I have a number of email subscribers who are counting on receiving my essay each Tuesday morning, makes me get to my desk each and every day. That Tuesday deadline keeps me accountable.
And accountability is truly what our Five Group is all about. Lyn, another group member, suggested we keep our goals as well as inspirational quotes and vision boards posted where we can see them as visual reminders of where we are headed. We report in often to each other about how we are progressing. No one can reach my goals but me, but it is nice to have fans hollering excitedly from the sidelines as I make my way to the finish line.
It is with all this in mind that I am making the announcement that I am taking on a new 30-Day Challenge beginning November 1, 2011. I have a young adult novel that I have been working on for several years that is in need of one final rewrite. Despite my best efforts over the past several months to clear enough writing time to finish up this project, it has not gotten done. I have several other writing projects I would like to start but feel I can’t until I have finished this novel.
As a 30-Day Challenge, I am going to take the month of November to rewrite my young adult novel for what I sincerely hope will be the very last time. To do so, I am going to put the weekly flyingnotscreaming essays on hiatus for that time period. The goal in creating flyingnotscreaming was to get me to my desk each day and to produce something readable each week. I hoped that taking this small step weekly would give me the courage and self-confidence to finish a book-length project.
Writing my flyingnotscreaming posts has created enough weekly wins to boost my confidence, but now the weekly essay deadline is taking the time I need to complete the novel. Trying to squeeze in both is making each feel like a chore. I need a breath. I need to pace myself even if it means letting go of my other goal of posting an essay consistently for 52 weeks. I am hoping by adapting my goals that in the long run I will avoid burnout, complete my novel, and return to posting flyingnotscreaming essays with more enthusiasm and excitement.
I plan on returning to flyingnotscreaming with new essays the first week of December. In the meantime, I will still be posting a couple quotes a week and a Tuesday morning “Hiatus Report”–a short accountability of how my 30-Day Rewrite Challenge is progressing. (Any of you who would like to receive via email chapters of my young adult novel as it is rewritten please let me know! I always appreciate feedback.)
As Cutts concludes, “What are you waiting for? I guarantee you the next 30 days are going to pass whether you like it or not, so why not think about something you have always wanted to try to give it a shot for the next 30 days.”