A powerful personal growth tool is the 30-day trial. This is a concept I borrowed from the shareware industry, where you can download a trial version of a piece of software and try it out risk-free for 30 days before you’re required to buy the full version. It’s also a great way to develop new habits, and best of all, it’s brain-dead simple.
Let’s say you want to start a new habit like an exercise program or quit a bad habit like sucking on cancer sticks. We all know that getting started and sticking with the new habit for a few weeks is the hard part. Once you’ve overcome inertia, it’s much easier to keep going.
Yet we often psyche ourselves out of getting started by mentally thinking about the change as something permanent — before we’ve even begun. It seems too overwhelming to think about making a big change and sticking with it every day for the rest of your life when you’re still habituated to doing the opposite. The more you think about the change as something permanent, the more you stay put.
But what if you thought about making the change only temporarily — say for 30 days — and then you’re free to go back to your old habits? That doesn’t seem so hard anymore. Exercise daily for just 30 days, then quit. Maintain a neatly organized desk for 30 days, then slack off. Read for an hour a day for 30 days, then go back to watching TV.
Could you do it? It still requires a bit of discipline and commitment, but not nearly so much as making a permanent change. Any perceived deprivation is only temporary. You can count down the days to freedom. And for at least 30 days, you’ll gain some benefit. It’s not so bad. You can handle it. It’s only one month out of your life.
Now if you actually complete a 30-day trial, what’s going to happen? First, you’ll go far enough to establish it as a habit, and it will be easier to maintain than it was to begin it. Secondly, you’ll break the addiction of your old habit during this time. Thirdly, you’ll have 30 days of success behind you, which will give you greater confidence that you can continue. And fourthly, you’ll gain 30 days worth of results, which will give you practical feedback on what you can expect if you continue, putting you in a better place to make informed long-term decisions.
Therefore, once you hit the end of the 30-day trial, your ability to make the habit permanent is vastly increased. But even if you aren’t ready to make it permanent, you can opt to extend your trial period to 60 or 90 days. The longer you go with the trial period, the easier it will be to lock in the new habit for life.
Another benefit of this approach is that you can use it to test new habits where you really aren’t sure if you’d even want to continue for life. Maybe you’d like to try a new diet, but you don’t know if you’d find it too restrictive. In that case, do a 30-day trial and then re-evaluate. There’s no shame in stopping if you know the new habit doesn’t suit you. It’s like trying a piece of shareware for 30 days and then uninstalling it if it doesn’t suit your needs. No harm, no foul.
Here are some examples from my own life where I used 30-day trials to establish new habits:
1) In the Summer of 1993, I wanted to try being vegetarian. I had no interest in making this a lifelong change, but I’d read a lot about the health benefits of vegetarianism, so I committed to it for 30 days just for the experience. I was already exercising regularly, seemed in decent health, and was not overweight (6′0″, 155 lbs), but my typical college diet included a lot of In-N-Out burgers. Going lacto-ovo vegetarian for 30 days was a lot easier than I expected — I can’t say it was hard at all, and I never felt deprived. Within a week I noticed an increase in my energy and concentration, and I felt more clear-headed. At the end of the 30 days, it was a no-brainer to stick with it. This change looked a lot harder than it really was.
2) In January 1997, I decided to try going from vegetarian to vegan. While lacto-ovo vegetarians can eat eggs and dairy, vegans don’t eat anything that comes from an animal. I was developing an interest in going vegan for life, but I didn’t think I could do it. How could I give up veggie-cheese omelettes? The diet seemed too restrictive to me — even fanatically so. But I was intensely curious to know what it was actually like. So once again I did a 30-day trial. At the time I figured I’d make it through the trial, but I honestly didn’t expect to continue beyond that. Well, I lost seven pounds in the first week, mostly from going to the bathroom as all the accumulated dairy mucus was cleansed from my bowels (now I know why cows need four stomachs to properly digest this stuff). I felt lousy the first couple days but then my energy surged. I also felt more clear-headed than ever, as if a “fog of brain” had been lifted; it felt like my brain had gotten a CPU and a RAM upgrade. However, the biggest change I noticed was in my endurance. I was living in Marina del Rey at the time and used to run along the beach near the Santa Monica Pier, and I noticed I wasn’t as tired after my usual 3-mile runs, so I started increasing them to 5 miles, 10 miles, and then eventually a marathon a few years later. In Tae Kwon Do, the extra endurance really gave a boost to my sparring skills as well. The accumulated benefits were so great that the foods I was giving up just didn’t seem so appealing anymore. So once again it was a no-brainer to continue after the first 30 days, and I’m still vegan today. What I didn’t expect was that after so long on this diet, the old animal product foods I used to eat just don’t seem like food anymore, so there’s no feeling of deprivation.
3) Also in 1997, I decided I wanted to exercise every single day for a year. That was my 1997 New Year’s resolution. My criteria was that I would exercise aerobically at least 25 minutes every day, and I wouldn’t count Tae Kwon Do classes which I was taking 2-3 days per week. Coupled with my dietary changes, I wanted to push my fitness to a new level. I didn’t want to miss a single day, not even for sick days. But thinking about exercising 365 days in a row was daunting, so I mentally began with a 30-day trial. That wasn’t so bad. After a while every day that passed set a new record: 8 days in a row… 10 days… 15 days…. It became harder to quit. After 30 days in a row, how could I not do 31 and set a new personal record? And can you imagine giving up after 250 days? No way. After the initial month to establish the habit, the rest of the year took care of itself. I remember going to a seminar that year and getting home well after midnight. I had a cold and was really tired, yet I still went out running at 2am in the rain. Some people might call that foolish, but I was so determined to reach my goal that I wasn’t going to let fatigue or illness stop me. I succeeded and kept it up for the whole year without ever missing a day. In fact, I kept going for a few more weeks into 1998 before I finally opted to stop, which was a tough decision. I wanted to do this for one year, knowing it would become a powerful reference experience, and it certainly became such.
4) More diet stuff…. After being vegan for a number of years, I opted to try other variations of the vegan diet. I did 30-day trials both with the macrobiotic diet and with the raw foods diet. Those were interesting and gave me new insights, but I decided not to continue with either of them. I felt no different eating macrobiotically than I did otherwise. And in the case of the raw diet, while I did notice a significant energy boost, I found the diet too labor intensive — I was spending a lot of time preparing meals and shopping frequently. Sure you can just eat raw fruits and veggies, but to make interesting raw meals, there can be a lot of labor involved. If I had my own chef, I’d probably follow the raw diet though because I think the benefits would be worth it. I did a second trial of the raw diet for 45 days, but again my conclusion was the same. If I was ever diagnosed with a serious disease like cancer, I’d immediately switch to an all raw, living foods diet, since I believe it to be the absolute best diet for optimal health. I’ve never felt more energetic in my life than when I ate a raw diet. But I had a hard time making it practical for me. Even so, I managed to integrate some new macrobiotic foods and raw foods into my diet after these trials. There are two all-raw restaurants here in Vegas, and I’ve enjoyed eating at them because then someone else does all the labor. So these 30-day trials were still successful in that they produced new insights, although in both cases I intentionally declined to continue with the new habit. One of the reasons a full 30-day trial is so important with new diets is that the first week or two will often be spent detoxing and overcoming cravings, so it isn’t until the third or fourth week that you begin to get a clear picture. I feel that if you haven’t tried a diet for at least 30 days, you simply don’t understand it. Every diet feels different on the inside than it appears from the outside.
This 30-day method seems to work best for daily habits. I’ve had no luck using it when trying to start a habit that only occurs 3-4 days per week. However, it can work well if you apply it daily for the first 30 days and then cut back thereafter. This is what I’d do when starting a new exercise program, for example. Daily habits are much easier to establish.
Here are some other ideas for applying 30-day trials:
- Give up TV. Tape all your favorite shows and save them until the end of the trial. My whole family did this once, and it was very enlightening.
- Give up online forums, especially if you feel you’re becoming forum addicted. This will help break the addiction and give you a clearer sense of how participation actually benefits you (if at all). You can always catch up at the end of 30 days.
- Shower/bathe/shave every day. I know YOU don’t need this one, so please pass it along to someone who does.
- Meet someone new every day. Start up a conversation with a stranger.
- Go out every evening. Go somewhere different each time, and do something fun — this will be a memorable month.
- Spend 30 minutes cleaning up and organizing your home or office every day. That’s 15 hours total.
- List something new to sell on ebay every day. Purge some of that clutter.
- Ask someone new out on a date every day. Unless your success rate is below 3%, you’ll get at least one new date, maybe even meet your future spouse.
- If you’re already in a relationship, give your partner a massage every day. Or offer to alternate who gives the massage each day, so that’s 15 massages each.
- Give up cigarettes, soda, junk food, coffee, or other unhealthy addictions.
- Become an early riser.
- Write in your journal every day.
- Call a different family member, friend, or business contact every day.
- Make 25 sales calls every day to solicit new business. Professional speaker Mike Ferry did this five days a week for two years, even on days when he was giving seminars. He credits this habit with helping build his business to over $10 million in annual sales. If you make 1300 sales calls a year, you’re going to get some decent business no matter how bad your sales skills are. You can generalize this habit to any kind of marketing work, like building new links to your web site.
- Write a new blog entry every day.
- Read for an hour a day on a subject that interests you.
- Meditate every day.
- Learn a new vocabulary word every day.
- Go for a long walk every day.
Again, don’t think that you need to continue any of these habits beyond 30 days. Think of the benefits you’ll gain from those 30 days alone. You can re-assess after the trial period. You’re certain to grow just from the experience, even if it’s temporary.
The power of this approach lies in its simplicity. Even though doing a certain activity every single day may be less efficient than following a more complicated schedule — weight training is a good example because adequate rest is a key component — you’ll often be more likely to stick with the daily habit. When you commit to doing something every single day without exception, you can’t rationalize or justify missing a day, nor can you promise to make it up later by reshuffling your schedule.
Give trials a try. If you’re ready to commit to one right now, please feel free to post a comment and share your goal for the next 30 days. If there’s enough interest, then perhaps we can do a group postmortem around May 20th to see how it went for everyone. I’ll even do it with you. Mine will be to go running or biking for at least 25 minutes or do a minimum 60-minute hike in the mountains every day for 30 days. The weather here in Vegas has been great lately, so it’s a nice time for me to get back to exercising outdoors.