The Psychology of Challenges: Why Do Challenges Work?

Everywhere you look, you’ll find a challenge.

Pushup challenge. Mental toughness challenge. Digital declutter challenge. Meditation challenge. And on and on and on.

So, I was curious…

Do these challenges actually work? Why do so many exist? Are they an effective way to change behavior? And, if so, how can we continue to implement the desired behavior even when the challenge is over?

How do these challenges work?

Typically, a challenge is associated with a timeframe.

75HARD (75 days), Whole30 (30 days).

You engage in the behavior(s) you want to change for a set amount of time. You are making no commitments about what you’ll do after the time period is up.

These challenges are typically associated with behavior that has long term benefits but might be more difficult to do in the short term. (For example, I have yet to hear of a “30-Day Check Social Media Challenge” or a “30-Day Smoking Challenge.”)

Seems simple enough, right?

How long does it take to form a habit?

To understand these challenges, it might first make sense to explore habits.

Because the purpose of a challenge, after all, is to change your habits.

Sometimes, it’s to change your habits for a specific time period but, most likely, it’s to change your habits for the long term.

You are doing X but doing Y might prove more beneficial.

So, the question becomes, how many days does it take for you to build a habit?

Many people believe it is 21 days.

The “21 days” myth comes from Maxwell Maltz – a plastic surgeon in the 1950s – who wrote a best-selling book called Psycho-Cybernetics.

In the book, he suggested it took a minimum of 21 days for his patients to notice the physical changes that were made. Along with his own observations about himself, he stated:

“These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

It wasn’t 21 days. It was a minimum of 21 days.

It turns out the research backs this up.

A 2009 study on habit formation might be the best indicator Maltz was onto something.

It took individuals anywhere from 18 to 254 days for the behavior in the study to be considered a habit. On average, it took participants 66 days for the habit to form.

Perhaps the most interesting part about this study was that missing one opportunity to perform a behavior did not affect the habit formation process.

Meaning, if you goal is to go to the gym three times per week, and you only go twice, there’s no reason to beat yourself up. From a practical perspective (there’s nothing you can do about it now, just focus on the next action). But, also from a scientific one as well (it will have no impact on your long-term goal of going three times per week).

Why do these challenges exist in the first place?

1.  It’s good marketing.

The reason it’s popular is because it’s easy to market.

10 days. 21 days. 30 days.

These are all figures we can wrap our heads around.

Have you heard of a 66-day challenge though?

Of course not.

Even though the study quoted above found this is the amount of time, on average, it takes to form a habit… it doesn’t sound as good.

2. The frog in boiling water.

There was once a popular notion that if you stuck a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would jump out. But if you put a frog in medium temperature water and slowly increased the temperature to boiling hot, it would stay in the pot and boil to death. (Although modern science has disproved this fable, it is this same principle that is at work when you are trying to change your habits.)

If someone wants you to engage in a different behavior, it’d be hard for them to say…

“Do this forever!”

That would be the equivalent of sticking you in boiling hot water. You’d never want to do it. It seems hard.

Instead, they change their approach…

“Try this for 30 days.”

This is the implicit agreement you are making when you decide to do the challenge is that it won’t be forever.

It seems easy. It seems doable.

But perhaps by the time the 30 days is complete, you could actually see yourself doing the challenge “forever.”

3. It helps those around us understand.

Jordan Syatt is a personal trainer.

In 2019, he made the decision not to drink alcohol. It’s not that he was addicted to alcohol. He simply found the behavior unnecessary and expensive. He wanted to change it.

His anecdotal evidence about his own experience is certainly interesting…

When he was at the bar, he would tell the people he was with he wasn’t drinking.

But it was hard for them to accept…

They tried to pressure him into having a drink: “C’mon man! Have a drink. It won’t kill you!”

However, when he told people it was a “challenge,” they understood and didn’t question it.

Now, of course, Jordan is a sample size of one.

But it does help explain the psychology of challenges, why they work, and why they are so popular.

They are not just for us, but to help explain in a succinct way to other people why we’re not acting like them in that particular moment.

What are the downsides to challenges?

1. Psychologically, it creates a light switch in your head.

There is the time you are “on the challenge” and time you are “off the challenge.”

This is potentially troubling.

Yo-yo dieting is a cycle in which something triggers you to lose weight, which causes you to start an exercise/diet plan, you lose some weight, then life gets in the way and your old eating habits return.

The problem with yo-yo dieting is you only introduce healthy eating habits and exercise when you have a problem. This means constantly experiencing drastic fluctuations in weight, going up and down – like a yo-yo.

When you are “off the diet,” you feel free reign to eat anything you want and stop exercising. When you are “on the diet,” you strictly adhere to everything.

Challenges may work in similar ways. Instead of adapting the habits for a better life indefinitely, we assign days to be “on” or “off”. Then, when the day the challenge is over, it gives us the “out” to go back to our normal habits.

2. Habit change may not have occurred by the time you are done with the challenge.

As we know, it might take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a habit to form, depending on the individual and the habit.

Many challenges you’ll find are on the shorter timeframe – 10 days, 28 days, 30 days. As previously discussed though, there are few people who are marketing a 66-day challenge. This is, on average, how long it takes for habits to form. But it’s not catchy though.

3. A challenge might give you a “quick fix,” but will it create sustainable progress?

Take a 10-Day Juice Fast, for example.

Although you will certainly lose weight if you follow this protocol, will it make you more likely to binge on Day 11?

Our society often rewards short-term fixes as opposed to slower and more sustainable.

How can we continue to implement the desired behavior after the challenge is over?

The intent of challenges is to change behavior.

If we accept the purpose of a challenge is not to only do the activity while doing the challenge, but also when you’re off the challenge – then we must consider how to optimize for when you’re off it.

1. Associate triggers for certain activities.

Before we do certain activities, we are triggered to do them. Sometimes, these triggers are conscious. Other times, we are completely unaware of them.

For example, some people take pre-workout powder before they go to the gym. This is their cue that they are about to exercise.

How you can apply it: Let’s say your challenge is a 30-day workout challenge. Consciously make your cue something easy. Something as simple as putting on your gym clothes or listening to a song. Then, immediately after you do this, go to the gym or start your exercise. This way, you will associate putting on your workout clothes or listening to a specific song (something that takes little effort) with doing the workout (something that may seem hard). Once you’ve made this mental connection, you will associate your trigger with the actual task you want to accomplish even when your challenge is complete.

2. Use the Paperclip Strategy (via James Clear).

Trent Dyrsmid was a rookie stockbroker, so nobody expected much out of him in Canada. But he quickly closed big deals, rising through the ranks of his company.

So, what was his strategy?

Here’s what he did:

He would begin each morning with 120 paper clips in one jar. Then, as he made sales calls, he would move the 120 paper clips from one jar to the other.

This visual cue was enough to make a massive difference.

How you can apply it: If you are doing a 30-day challenge, have a paperclip for each day. Then, add some more paperclips. The key is to add more than the number of days the challenge is for. After the 30 days are complete, you will be inclined to keep putting paperclips from one jar to the other.

3. The “10 Minute Rule.”

This rule takes advantage of Newton’s first law of motion:

Object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion.

If you don’t feel like doing an activity, try doing it for only 10 minutes. Give yourself absolute permission to stop.

The reason why challenges often exist is because they make us do hard things we otherwise wouldn’t want to do.

But if you only have to do an activity for 10 minutes…

Often, you’ll want to keep going.

I shamelessly stole this from Josiah Novak (who first tweeted about it on April 22, 2019):

How you can apply it: Let’s say your challenge is reading 10 pages per day for 28 days. After the month is complete, try getting yourself to read for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, you can stop.

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If you used this post to help you make a decision on whether or not you should pursue a challenge, drop a comment down below.

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