This past year, I committed to 12 30-Day Challenges, a different one for each month, and to make myself follow through, I announced it to the world.
Now here I am, more than halfway through, having tackled eight challenges: I’ve worked out every day, I’ve read The New Yorker every day, I’ve challenged myself to cook dinner every day, I’ve taken pictures every day, I’ve called a friend every day, I’ve enjoyed a spend-free month, I’ve challenged myself to journal daily, and right now, in my ninth month, I’m playing piano every day – something I haven’t done since I was a kid. And I am truly loving it!
While there are still three months to go, I’ve learned enough from these personal challenges that it’s already resonating in my career. And while I’m sure I have a lot of lessons still to come, here are the six that are already changing how I approach my life:
1. Find Accomplishments High and Low
During my “run every day” challenge, I quickly recognized that I wasn’t always excited to get that exercise in. Yet, I went out each afternoon and did it—some days for longer than others (some days for a lot longer than others). But, that wasn’t the point. Not everything has to be an event to write home about in order for it to qualify as an achievement.
Similarly, promotions are not the only kind of accomplishment at the office worth celebrating. Careers are filled with wins of varying shapes and sizes. We tend to make note of when our title or compensation changes, but there are myriad more opportunities for being proud of yourself.
When you add value in a meeting, when you satisfy a client’s goals in short order, when you have a good laugh with a colleague, when you learn something new, take a moment to recognize your success without waiting for it to be announced at a staff meeting.
2. Just Do It
Sound trite? It is. But it’s also true. During several of my challenges I experienced instances when something felt hard, or I really wanted to just relax. But each time—whether during my month of painting, or my month of calling friends, and certainly during my month of running–I mustered the strength to just go for it instead of turning it into an ordeal.
We can hold ourselves back by making things bigger than they are—whether a decision, a conversation, an issue to confront, or something as simple as picking up the phone to connect with a friend.
To use an old saying: Don’t play chess when everyone else is playing checkers. Over-analysis can lead to unnecessary career woes. It’s time consuming and it’s exhausting. Instead of agonizing over whether to raise your hand for a new project or how to approach a colleague for a favor, just go for it.
Generally speaking, the worst thing that can happen is you get told no. So next time you catch yourself overthinking something, you're agonizing, just focus on how great you’ll feel when you’ve accomplished your goal, and just do it.
3. Know What You Need to Meet Your Goals
I've always been a slow reader. So when I embarked on a challenge to read a New Yorker article a day (no small feat based on the length of the magazine’s average piece), I knew I was going to have to plan.
I sorted through my stack first thing in the morning to pick my article for the day, and then I started reading as soon as my commute began. There I’d stand with my magazine folded into columns, soaking in however much of the story I could before I arrived at work. I read between meetings, and on my way home, and then again before bed. Planning for what you’ll need to reach your goals is key to actually accomplishing them.
Success depends upon knowing yourself. It might sound obvious but if you’re a morning person, don’t wait to read the key report until the night before the meeting. Different people need different things to do their best work. Understand what helps you perform at your peak, and plan accordingly.
Need lots of sleep? Love a particular type of assignment? Work best in a quiet room? Feel inspired by certain colleagues? Many of the elements that help you perform at your best are in your control. You just have to know what they are.
4. Seize the Spare Moments
It's amazing how five minutes here (waiting for a client, my kids, in a checkout line, or the dentist) and five minutes there add up. Some activities require a big chunk of time at once, others don’t. For example, when I was running every day, I needed a good hour from start to finish; but during my New Yorker challenge, I could come back to an article again and again throughout the day, so I didn’t have to tackle it all at once.
When a few minutes will work, make them count. Instead of scrolling through Facebook (again) until your next meeting, go ahead and tackle that low-hanging fruit: crank out that email, give the document another read, prepare for your next call, or take a quick walk down the hall to catch up with a colleague.
Using your time well yields significantly more time for you! And you’ll feel great that you have one more item marked off your to-do list.
5. Change Up Your Routine
By committing to cooking dinner at home every night, I also, incidentally, committed to changing my morning routine. While I usually showered first thing after waking up, I instead began my days by heading to the kitchen first thing in order to prep for dinner. And, despite being hesitant about that switch, I ended up loving that early morning brainstorming and planning session. It made me feel productive right away, and like I had a real handle on the day.
Lesson learned: Change can freshen things up and keep you on your toes. Let’s be honest. It’s pretty hard to be psyched about every single thing at work, every single day.
But success at the office often requires being ready to jump when an opportunity arises.
A little change can add just the boost you need to get that pep back so you’re re-energized and able to do your best work. Think about the parts of your day that could use a new routine. Do you always grab lunch with the same colleagues? Or do you always eat a salad at your desk?
Making intentional and conscientious changes can lead to new conversations, increased visibility, and ultimately more opportunities to flex your professional muscles in different ways.
6. Understand Why You’re Doing Something
This might be the best lesson so far. If I don’t know what my purpose is, I don’t feel very committed. During my cooking challenge, I wasn’t quite sure what my goal was. When I set it, I liked the idea of cooking new recipes—but I didn't set it as “try a new recipe a day” challenge. So, inevitably, it got watered down to just cooking a homemade meal every night; which meant I didn't actually try new recipes all that much.
I felt less committed as I got deeper into the month because I didn't really know what my purpose was. It was fine, but not exciting. And fine leads to the blahs. And the blahs lead to, well, quitting.
Identify the purpose. When you embark on a new project or volunteer to take on a new responsibility, it’s important to know what your goal is. Are you saying yes to the formal mentoring program just because you were asked, or is there something specific you are hoping to gain? If the latter, you are more likely to enjoy the experience and create meaning; if the former, you’re more likely to quit at the first opportunity. And tell you what, even required tasks are more rewarding when you set a goal—no matter what it is.
So what’s the point of all these 30-Day Challenges? It’s a valuable reminder that you can do almost anything for a month. Plus, this structure allows me to do lots of things for 30 days— plenty of them things I wouldn’t have made the time for without this framework. In the course of the past eight months, I’ve learned a ton about what I like, what I can do, and what my priorities are—and there’s still more to come!