The Beginner’s Guide to the 30 Day Trial

I first learned about the 30 Day Trial when I read Steve Pavlina’s short, but influential article, 30 Days to Success.  The core idea of the trial was simple: focus on one change, for a month and it would become a habit.  After a month, the behavior would be automatic and wouldn’t require willpower or even conscious thinking to continue.

I’ve since written a lot about the 30 Day Trial.  I’ve used the technique to exercise regularly, wake up earlier, give up television, implement GTD, become a herbivore, write articles on a schedule and even increase my creativity.  The technique isn’t magical, but it’s one of the most practical tools I’ve found for making changes.

I get a lot of mail from people trying to use the 30DT (30 Day Trial) method.  It’s not a difficult technique, so complex steps and theories shouldn’t be necessary for using it.  However, making any changes (even with 30DTs) isn’t easy.  So I’ve created a short guide to give you some tips if you’re looking to use the tool and want to get the best start possible.

   Tip #1 – Start Simple, but Meaningful

Giving up a minor habit like sleeping in is an order of magnitude easier than stopping a dependency like smoking.  If you have many habits you want to change, I suggest starting with one that is simple, but meaningful.  Build confidence using the 30DT before trying to take on the most difficult steps.

What is a simple change?  A simple change can be big or small, but it has a few ingredients that make it particularly well-suited for a 30DT:

  1.     It is something you do every day.
  2.     It is something you do in the same way, every day.  (e.g. waking up in the morning)
  3.     It is a straightforward improvement.  This is more subjective, but it means that there aren’t going to be large, painful side-effects to changing a behavior.
  4.     It is something you intend to be permanent.  It’s easier to be motivated to make a permanent change than one you only expect to last a month.
  5.     You know clearly whether you are sticking to your change or not.  Exercise is a yes-no question.  Either you go to the gym or you don’t.  “Being friendly” is far more subjective and harder to do with a 30DT.

Your first 30DT should fulfill most, if not all, of those criteria.  But, above all, it should be something you consider meaningful.  If you don’t see the change as important, you won’t invest the energy for an entire month.

    Tip #2 – Do Less

Only one 30DT at a time.  Do less in your trial than you consider possible.  Intentionally do less than you feel you are capable of.  By limiting yourself, you’ll avoid the common problem of burning out in the first week or two.

    Tip #3 – If You Slip Up, Start Over

If you make it 28 days of consistent exercise, then you miss day 30, start over.  If you accidentally slip on day 15, start over.  If something happens that makes it impossible for you to keep your habit on day 24, start over.  I’m repeating for emphasis, because the need to start over when you slip up is crucial.

I’ve probably run close to three dozen 30DT’s.  Whenever I ignored a slip and continued, the behavior didn’t become a habit.  Although you don’t need perfect consistency after thirty days, you need 100% focus for at least the first month.  Tolerating occasional slips creates cracks in the foundation of any habit, so it won’t take long before it crumbles.

    Tip #4 – Expect Blunders

The 30DT is a straightforward technique, but that doesn’t mean it is perfect.  Some habit changes are poorly suited for it.  I had to run four trials before exercise became a permanent habit.  In the first, I got sick.  In the next two, I made the mistake of keeping non-daily exercise habits which don’t mesh well with the 30DT.

If you don’t expect every 30DT to work perfectly, it will be easier to adjust your approach and try again for the next one.

    Tip #5 – Write it Down

Writing down the habit is like forming a contract between you and your future self.  If you don’t write it down, the future you is more likely to abandon the contract when things get tough.  Having a written record also lets you keep track of what 30DT’s you’ve done in the past, so you can monitor them.

That’s all for today, check out Part II on Monday.