Eternity Changers: Give yourself a challenge and make a good habit

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Eight months ago, I downloaded the couch to 5k app on my iPhone, put on a pair of shorts and went outside. I’d never run longer than a mile in my whole life. The times I had were filled with pain and agony. I hated running. Who would ever subject themselves to such torture? I’d always wanted to be able to run, but it was the running itself that I was afraid of. I was 39 years old, so my brain told me that I’d already passed the peak of my ability to do anything athletic. I was probably about to hurt myself, I thought. Why would I do this again? Oh yeah, I wanted to be a runner and the only way to be a runner was to run, so run I did.

Last Saturday, I ran ten miles. That’s right, I ran 10 times the distance that I’d ever run before I was 39. My brain was wrong. I wasn’t too old to do it. It was also wrong in that I haven’t seriously injured myself. How, did I get to the point where I’m training for a half marathon now, when just a few months ago, I’d never really run at all? A challenge.

I didn’t start with the plan of running a half marathon. I started with the challenge of finishing the couch to 5k training. That’s it. I just wanted to know if I could. Since everyday, I’m getting a little older, it seemed like I’d better get on it if I was ever going to do it.

After the 5k training, I ran a couple of races. Then I did the 10k training routine. Now, I’ve started the half marathon training. My latest challenge is to be ready for an annual race in my home town, a race I’d always wanted to run secretly, but never thought I’d ever be able to.

Please don’t read this as bragging. I can’t believe that it’s true. I do know how I did it, though. Each time I finished a small goal, I went on to another. At first, I’d start running when the voice on my phone finished telling me to start running and stop as soon as “she” started telling me to start. My first goal was just to run until the voice on my phone finished telling me to start walking. Then I just kept adding challenges and goals.

This is a technique that works well for other habits you want to create as well. If you have a challenge, it’s sometimes easier to keep with something. There have been half a dozen times that I’ve wanted to “just go to bed and write tomorrow.” In the past, I’ve always given in and headed to bed. This time, with this book, given the subject and the fact that I’ve never written the full 50,000 words that I challenge myself to write each November, I haven’t yet let a day go by without writing at least a few hundred words and as long as I continue, I’ll hit my goal.

Challenges might motivate you because of the competition involved. You can have a family challenge to eat better or do everything you need to do before supper and then spend the rest of the time before bed together. Maybe you’ll make a board with stars on it and at the end of the challenge, the winner gets to eat at his or her favorite restaurant.

Maybe your challenge is against yourself only. You’ve never gotten to work 10 minutes early everyday for a month before and you want to know if you can. That’s the kind of challenge I took that started me running.

Either way, the motivation has to be enough to see you through the hard times, especially the middle. For me, the middle is the hardest part. It’s the end of the initial climb, the time when you’re the most tired before you crest the hill and start to coast down to the other side. After the middle, you can always say, “I’m over half done; I just need to go the same distance I’ve already gone and then I’m done.”

I’ve already told you that procrastination is one of my struggles, but so is continuing. I start and stop and start again. Doing things consistently for it to become a habit can be a struggle. For me challenges bring consistency. I need to put in time everyday to “beat” whatever the challenge is, so I can’t tell myself I’ll just do it tomorrow.

Some of you are like me, you tell yourself that you want to just come up with things to do as the inspiration strikes you and do it then. That’s kind of a myth though. I’ve found that inspiration strikes when I make time for it. When I wait for it, it might come, but it visits much more infrequently. That’s how I can do something creative everyday; I make time for it.

In order for this to work, you can’t really just “wedge it in.” You have to be intentional about it. I think of it as one of the things that I do everyday like taking a shower, brushing my teeth, and the like. You don’t wake up and say, “I’ll brush my teeth if I feel like it” or “I’ll make sure I eat if I have the time.” No, you’re much more intentional. The habit of brushing your teeth has replaced “should I?” with “why wouldn’t I?” and that’s the secret.

The purpose of this challenge isn’t perfection, by the way. The purpose is progress. Let’s say that you decide to write a book next November, like I did this year. At the end of the month, you’ve written most days, but you only have 35,000 words. Don’t beat yourself up over the missing 15,000; celebrate that you’d never written 35,000 before in your life. So this time you didn’t finish, so what? Next time, try it again, but try and get better.

Sometimes failure is part of the process. Don’t expect perfection; you won’t likely achieve it. No, expect improvement. With that said, I don’t want you to cop out on it either. I don’t want you stopping and telling yourself, “This year I wrote 35,001 words; that’s an improvement. I’m going to quit.” No, you want to also see how large your improvement can be.

I’ve started doing 100 push ups every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Once I hit that number as a total with rest between sets, I started trying to get to one set of 100. Each day that I did them, I’d cut down the amount of sets and increase the number of repetitions in each to get to 100. The last time I did multiple sets, I did 70 and then 30. I’d increased from 5 sets of 20 slowly to that point. The next day, I expected to do 80 and 20, but at 80 I realized I could go farther. When I got to 90, I was so sore, but so close to 100 that I pushed through. I now had a new accomplishment. I did 100 pushups in a single set.

Notice that I didn’t stop at 80, which was an improvement. I didn’t stop at 90 either. I started to believe I could do the goal which had been a few days in the future only minutes before.

That’s called accelerating through the finish line. It’s a strategy that runners use in a race. In order to make sure that they don’t have to stop the race, they don’t run full out. As they are almost done and can see the finish, they try and use every remaining bit of energy to cross the finish line as fast as possible.

When you’re near the end of a challenge, if it makes sense, try this. It not only gives you a sense of accomplishment to be done early, but also raises the bar for what you can do.

Back to my example of writing. My daily goal is 1,667 words because 50,000 divided by 30 is 1,667 (or so). If next Wednesday, I sit down to write and have 6,500 or so words to write, since it’s so near completion, I might just pound out 4,000 or so. If I do that, I’ll only have to write 2,500 over the last three days of the month (which happen to be the Thanksgiving holiday here in the US). Wedging in 800 words a day might be much easier than trying to do twice that. Maybe I’ll even take a day off and write the final two chapters on Friday and enjoy the fact that I’m done on the last day of the month, a day ahead of schedule. That’s accelerating through the finish.

Now, just as I’d proven to myself in the past that I could write, I have now proven that I could write 4,000 words. So next time, maybe I’ll challenge myself to write 3,500 words a day, since I know I can.

So, challenges not only get you to build good habits, but they also help you stretch in what you think you can do. You might not believe that you can find an hour a day, 5-days a week, to pursue your dream. You’re so busy, right?

Why don’t you take that as your first challenge? Find an hour, just an hour, each day to purposefully do something that gets you closer to where you’re called to be. Now, chart it, measure it, and use it every day for a month.

If it helps, give yourself a prize for accomplishing it. Is there a place you like to eat that your family doesn’t? Take yourself to lunch there. Is there a toy (that won’t break the bank), that you can’t quite justify because it’s not practical; it’s just fun? That’s your prize.

Remember you’re trying to do two things. First, you’re trying to form a good habit. Secondly, you’re trying to stretch beyond what you think you can do.

If you need a little help, I’ll give you one last tip. I mentioned pushups earlier. I started doing those as a result of using an app called Lift for iOS. It’s also available online as a web app at Lift.do. Get in the habit of checking off your successes each day on Lift and you’ll start to see them pile up.

I was concerned that I didn’t pray enough, or kiss my wife enough. I added both to my Lift and now I do both every day (in the case of prayer) and every day that I see my wife (because I can’t kiss her when we’re in different states). Neither were hard to do; I just needed a reminder that I hadn’t done them.

Now, my challenge is to see how many days I can get going in a chain. I think it makes me a better person and it’s all because I realized that a little challenge goes a long way.

Paul Alan Clifford, M.Div.

Paul Alan Clifford, M.Div. has been a tech volunteer with Quest Community Church in Lexington, KY since 2000 and is the founder of TrinityDigitalMedia.com, llc. He became part of the technology in ministry team when his church’s attendance was around 200 in one Sunday service and has witnessed it’s growth to 5,200 average weekly attendance in one Saturday service, four Sunday services in one online and two physical campuses. He literally wrote the book on podcasting in churches, twitter in churches, & servant-hearted volunteering, as well as writing various articles for publications like “Church Production” and “Technologies for Worship” magazines.