4 Rules for a Successful Personal Challenge

PHOTO: Quoc Ngo.

PHOTO: Quoc Ngo.


I love 3-day weekends. They're ripe with opportunity to see friends, spend time outdoors, and eat as much guacamole at as many meals as is possible. Unsurprisingly, I often end these weekends feeling a little loose in the cage and needing to reel myself back in to a clean, balanced lifestyle. And to get back into go-mode, this has many times parlayed itself into some kind of personal challenge.

Personal challenges work for me because it gives me a goal, a very defined timeframe by which to achieve the goal, and the satisfaction of saying I CRUSHED something (note: I like to win things). Personal challenges have also resulted in some huge changes in my life.

When my college girlfriends challenged me to a biggest loser competition 6 years ago, it set me into an I-love-you-but-I-am-going-to-crush-you-in-this-competition tizzy of trying a host of different workouts. I ended up falling in love with barre and a few months later, started training to teach. Adopting the life of an instructor had elemental impacts on my overall health and fitness regimen that I maintain to this day. Bottom line, I am a big fan of personal challenges and have found a few key strategies in making sure they stick.

If you have a specific end goal in mind or want to finally adopt the healthier lifestyle you’ve been aiming for, here’s what I’ve learned about creating a challenge that will set you up for success.

  1. Focus on inputs, not results. 
    When it comes to health and fitness goals, the adage 'it's not about the destination, it's about the journey' is as hard to swallow as a shot of wheatgrass. The journey might be rich with life lessons, but is that going to get me into the bridesmaid's dress that I need to fit into next month? The best aim for a challenge is not to focus so much on the bridesmaid's dress, it's to focus on a behavior that ultimately becomes a habit. Whether that's logging miles or meals, think primarily about your daily inputs and focus your sense of victory on having accomplished those, not on what a scale says 48 hours in.

  2. Keep it simple and concrete.  
    It’s tempting to say, "Tomorrow, my new life begins. I'm going take 6 Avant-Barre classes a week, eat only clean, home-cooked meals, drink water until I turn blue, and sleep 8 hours a night." Changing everything at once is a
    likely recipe for un-success and even quitting altogether. The human body hates sudden change. So keep it simple, and choose ONE. Yes, ONE. The aim here is to get a win under your belt. Then, once this challenge is over, choose another and carve another shiny new notch on your I-am-going-to-crush-these-challenges utility belt.
  3. Write it down: keep track of your inputs.
    Writing things down makes them real. While there are myriad fitness trackers and apps, I encourage you to go less digital: put it on paper. Seeing your hard work in ink gives you a tangible sense of progress. One of the best gifts a friend of mine got me was an old school wall calendar. I ended up posting it right next to my desk, and every morning I logged what workout I did for the day, how many minutes, and therefore how many glasses of wine I would be able to have at Friday dinner. Looking at each week with the scribbles of 'yoga (90)', 'run (30)', 'weights (40)' in each box on that calendar gave me a real sense of accomplishment. It fueled my drive to keep those boxes full post-challenge.

  4. Key into your true motivation.
    The critical word here is 'true.' If it's to run a marathon, awesome.  If your end goal is to lose weight, own it. You are not doing yourself any good by saying your challenge is to PR on your sprints when really you're trying to drop a pants size. It is more than likely that one begets the other, but being honest with yourself about what you're really trying to accomplish keeps you focused and authentic. Key to a personal challenge, key to life.

I recommend 10 days for a personal challenge to start. It’s digestible, finite, and enough to whet the appetite of someone who is hungry for a change in lifestyle. At that point, you can decide to keep going or redirect; remember it usually takes 3 weeks for a habit to form and become daily practice.

Try it, be social with it and invite your friends to join you, and choose a challenge that gives you joy.

What's the most important lesson? The best way to turn goals into habits is to make them fun!