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Can you actually break a habit in just 30 days?

The word "habit" often has negative connotations. We talk of biting our nails or smoking cigarettes as bad habits that we need to break. It is widely accepted that 30 days is enough time to either make or break a habit and create positive change in ourselves.

The time needed
for habit change
to occur depends
on the competing
demands in a
person’s life.

With this in mind, I undertook National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a 30-day writing challenge. Hundreds of thousands of participants worldwide strive to write 1667 words each day during November in an attempt to create a first draft of a novel in one month.

The idea is to write without editing, allowing the story to flow and preventing the procrastination that accompanies the search for the "perfect" words. In a desperate bid to meet my word count every day, I found I could write anywhere. I could type 300 words on my phone while waiting in a doctor's surgery, 50 while my coffee machine warmed up.

The phenomenon of the 30-day challenge is now a familiar concept. While NaNoWriMo is about momentum, there are challenges which are more obviously geared towards physical, emotional and environmental wellbeing. On YouTube, Adriene Mishler offers a free "30 Days of Yoga" challenge, and The Minimalists Podcast inspired millions to do 30 days of decluttering. It's the motivation behind the FebFast campaign, and Plastic-Free July.

Clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Barker says these challenges are attractive because they can be a great motivator for people, especially if there's a behaviour they are committed to altering. If a challenge is aligned with an individual's values, Barker says there is a high likelihood it will bring about positive change. But an "all or nothing" approach is not healthy. "Life probably can't just be about the challenge for 30 days," Barker says.

She warns that "the notion it only takes 30 days to break a habit can be really misleading" and much depends on the complexity of behaviours that need to be addressed. She advises that diet and exercise challenges, in particular, need to be undertaken with caution and medical advice.

A 2009 study by UK psychologist Dr Phillippa Lally concluded it can actually take between 18 and 254 days for habit change to occur. The length of time depends on the competing demands in a person's life, their personal resources, and their level of commitment to change.

Lally also found that missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour didn't affect the habit-forming process long-term. So, having one drink during FebFast would not be a deal breaker, forgoing writing for one day would not affect the novel overall, and skipping a day of yoga would not damage a person's chances of increased wellbeing.

Barker says "a realistic plan needs to be built in before starting the challenge, including strategies to respond with resilience if the challenge isn't met". Participants must approach a challenge with the understanding that their value and worth is not dependent on their success or failure. She also recommends a comprehensive follow-up plan for ongoing lifestyle change.

For me, the 30-day challenge was a wonderful motivator. I now have 50,024 words of a draft novel, ready for editing. The process helped me realise there were gaps in the day I could use to pursue my creative passions.

More than just the book, this challenge has given me the confidence to pursue seemingly unrealistic goals and has resulted in a very positive change in my life. My challenge for my next 30 days will be to make some sense of it. Watch this space.

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