Embarking on a 21-day challenge (or experiment as I personally like to call it) is one of the best ways to shake things up, explore something different, and make positive changes in your life.
Why 21 days? Because it’s considered to be the minimum length of time needed to imprint a new habit into your brain, so that it becomes part of the daily routine.
As you may have already noticed, we often get excited about starting a new lifestyle or habit, but then that initial excitement fizzles out after a few days.
The following tips gathered from personal development experts and experienced teachers ensure that you're set up for success:
1. Fully Commit to the Challenge
A 21-day experiment is exactly what it says on the tin: it's not a 1-week experiment; it's not a “do it when I remember it” experiment; it's 21 days.
When you make the decision to complete a 21-day challenge, you must commit fully and carefully, so that there's simply no option to quit halfway through, unless it's seriously risking your health, job, or relationships, and you have an extremely valid reason for quitting.
If you're not sure how you'll complete 21 days, you haven't made a full commitment; you're just hoping and wishing. Respect the commitment for what it is and give it your all.
Also, be realistic—don't do something so difficult that you tire yourself and cannot go on. One example is with exercise: If you usually never exercise, and you set yourself the challenge of exercising every day for 2 hours, you may wear yourself out.
2. Have Big WHY’s Behind You
List your Why’s and make sure they're stronger than the reasons you might have for quitting. As you can imagine, the bigger your list of Why’s, the more likely you are to complete the 21 days. Improving your skills, inspiring others, connecting with people, or simply challenging yourself for the sake of challenge are all valid reasons.
If you're the type of person who always quits, then you might consider setting a “quitter penalty.” Make sure others know what you're doing and hold you accountable, so you can't wriggle out of it!
If negative “punishments” don't motivate you, go for positive reinforcements instead: what will you treat yourself with when you complete the 21 days?
3. Define Your 21-day Challenge Super Clearly
You must set clear rules and boundaries for yourself, as not doing so sets you up for failure.You'll find loopholes and ways to exploit your pact with yourself, so that by the end, you won't know if you completed it successfully or not.
Take for example “21 days of eating no meat”: Are you allowing yourself to eat fish? How do YOU define “meat”? Work it out and write it down.
Or “21 days of waking up early”: What time will you wake up and get up? Being vague and saying “wake up early” means you could keep hitting the snooze button and roll out of bed 5 minutes earlier than usual, which doesn't really cut it.
Further, define the minimum level of performance that will give you worthwhile positive results. For example, if you will struggle to fit in 1 hour of exercising on a busy work day, allow yourself to exercise for 15 minutes. This way, you've still completed your action and don't need to worry about not having done it.
If you default to your baseline too often, you probably won't see the results you had hoped for, but you will still have completed 21 days of your new habit and can strengthen it the next month.
Finally, focus on actions, not results. Being too outcome-focused can be counterproductive. The purpose of a 21-day challenge is to lock in some serious life-changing habits that go far beyond the 21 days. For example, a good goal is “I will exercise for 30 minutes every day.” A bad one is “I will lose 40 pounds within 21 days.”
Side note: use nouns, verbs, and prepositions to clearly define your new habit. Avoid using words like “more” or “better” or “less” (e.g., I'll do more exercise, I'll eat better, I'll be less cranky) as these are grey areas. As mentioned, a crisp goal is “I will exercise for 30 minutes per day.”
4. Schedule It & Don’t Skip Weekends
Decide in advance at what time you're going to perform the actions and schedule it in, whether you write it all down in your planner or set up alerts on your phone. Be sure to allow breathing space between working on your habits and everyday life.
Furthermore, a 21-day challenge works best when you're required to do the habit 7 days a week—that is, no change on the weekends. This keeps you in the flow, as it's harder to start again come Monday if you've taken the weekend off. It almost makes it as hard as starting the experiment over again from the start.
Once the 21 days are up, you'll be able to take weekend breaks with less risk of falling off the wagon!
5. Prepare Well for the Challenge
No matter how keen you are to start day 1, take some time to prepare first. After all, you wouldn't build a home without a foundation! If you're going to eat healthy, for example, remove all the processed foods from your kitchen and clearly define how strict you will be.
Also, allow yourself some downtime per day for rest and relaxation. You might feel like you have tons of energy if you've made a switch in your diet, but you may not feel like that every day, and you’ll be glad for that allotted downtime to take a nap, take a bath, or reconnect with loved ones.
Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail—this saying never rang truer. You must put the framework into place before you start to set yourself up for success.
Another important point: Motivation is usually high in the beginning and naturally takes a dip as you reach the 3–7 day point and realize how many days are still ahead of you. Building your inner strength is all part of an effective 21-day challenge.
In a way, your challenge was never meant to be easy, so prepare yourself mentally for this potential motivation slump ahead of time, and you'll be able to face it head on when it happens and plow through.
6. Understated Your Habits & Compensate for What’s Missing
We have unhealthy habits for a reason; there's usually a benefit. Identify the benefit and then compensate for the loss of it.
If you're going to cut out junk food, for example, identify the reasons why you consume it. Perhaps you need the energy boost that a can of soda gives you in the afternoon, and you eat chocolate in the evening because you're sitting in front of the TV. Switch out the unhealthy sugary foods with some healthy sweets, like a piece of fruit or dates, to enjoy in the evening.
7. Put yourself in the Right Environment
Try to distance yourself from negative people who will resist the changes you're trying to make and, whether harmlessly or not, try to drag you down. Avoid going to your parents’ place for dinner if they don’t believe in veganism! Try to surround yourself with people who will help and motivate you, the people who are rooting for you to succeed.
8. Consider Sharing your Experiment
Sharing your experiment with a friend, coach, or an accountability partner can strengthen your commitment, making it easier not to skip a day or give up. This can be especially effective if you’re the type of person who hasn’t built up the ability to count on yourself.
Sharing your experiment or even announcing it publicly can inspire and help others as well. The downside is the extra level of commitment and potential stress that may come as a result of it.
9. Consider Starting Small
If you've never done a 21-day challenge before, consider starting smaller with a 7-day challenge. When you complete your shorter experiment, you can expand it, going from 7 days to 21 days or even longer without the pressure of having committed to 21 days right from the start.
Similarly, if you have a pattern of not completing challenges or experiments, then drop down to shorter experiments to build up your inner strength, so that you keep taking action rather than giving up when hurdles happen. Be sure to nail the smaller experiments and then, when you're successful at completing shorter experiments, you can go back up to 21-day challenges and beyond, perhaps even completing a 60- or 365-day challenge in the future.
When and if you don't complete an experiment, don’t blame yourself. Let it be because the weight was too heavy to lift, not because you didn't give it your all. Then you'll be able to try again, the first attempt making you stronger than the second, rather than making you feel full of regret and like a failure.
10. Transforming 21-Day Challenges into Rituals
If you've successfully completed a few 21-day challenges and are ready to integrate them into your life, then consider creating an ongoing daily ritual. For example, your morning ritual may include getting up at sunrise, meditation, exercise, and drinking a green juice.
Daily rituals are beneficial because all of our behaviors are linked; they trigger each other. For example, by getting up at sunrise, you've instantly found the time you need for exercise, and this triggers a surge of energy to set you up for a successful day.
Daily rituals are ideal for conducting a holistic rebalance across all areas of your life. This should include: your body (exercise or changing your diet), your mind ( reading personal development books or listening to inspirational talks), your work (checking emails once per day or working on your website), your spiritual life ( meditation or journaling) or just for fun (sketching, showing gratitude, and so forth).
Here are some of my consistent daily rituals in the last decade or so.
One last piece of advice: Don't think that you must start everything on the same day. Stagger the starting days so that you start a new habit every once in a while. It will give you time to focus on the important things first and then build up.
* If you're looking for more inspiration to help you on your personal development journey, you may want to check out my extensive list of SMART goals. This page is packed with thousands of different goal ideas that can help you set new aspirations and reach higher heights in your life. Personally, this page helped me to create my own 100 life goals list, which I pursued for over a decade.
Tal Gur is an author, founder, and impact-driven entrepreneur at heart. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His journey and most recent book, The Art of Fully Living, has led him to found Elevate Society.