Monday, September 18, 2017

Taking a Challenge

This is an avocado.

Probably not the first thing you thought you would see in a post about taking a challenge, right? Well, let me explain.

Last month, while exploring the wonders of my phone (Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge if you want to copy me, which I am sure you do), I stumbled across a new feature, or at least one that I had not seen before, inside of my S Health app: challenges.

I have been tracking steps on my phone for some time now, mostly just so I can get a brief moment of happiness on the weekend or rare weekday when I hit 10,000 steps. Why 10,000? Well, I guess someone, somewhere, said that you should walk 10,000 steps per day, so that's my goal.

Anyway, last month I found this challenge in the phone that asked me to walk 200,000 steps in the month of August. It was called the Avocado Challenge (I have no idea why avocados, other than the background image on the little walking challenge tracker had koala bears, a juggling man, and a ton of avocados).

At first, I hesitated. 200,000 steps seemed like a ton. On a weekday, I often don't make it past 4000.

And what if I failed?

Then, something happened. I mentioned the idea to a friend of mine. He convinced me that 200,000 really wasn't that much. If you break it down, it's just over 6400 steps a day. If I had any big weekends in there, I could hit 200,000 without changing my routine at all.

And if I failed, who would care? It is only a stupid app on my phone.

My outlook changed and I clicked to join the challenge. The app even had the ability to rank yourself versus others in the challenge, which I quickly discovered to be futile, as some guy had over 3 million steps by the end of the first week, leading me to believe he was either a hamster on a wheel or a talented phone hacker. Instead, I just started competing against myself - to see if I could hit the finish.

Then I did something else. I showed it to my kids.

After that, my kids would ask me, "Did you get your avocado yet?"

I didn't bother to explain that there was no physical avocado at the end of this virtual journey, instead just telling them that I was continuing to work on it. And in the end? I walked 261,232 steps in the month of August, finishing the little avocado track and even swimming out into the sea. I didn't win, but I finished in the top 30% or so of people in the challenge. But I did complete it. And I even ended up walking a little more here and there than I probably would have on my own.

So this month, after signing up for the Beach Challenge (again, no real rhyme or reason except for the fact that the background is a beach), I started thinking about challenges in general. I've issued some before, and taken several. But why exactly do they work and how can you make them work better for you?

Reasonable Goals

If the Avocado Challenge had been to walk 310,000 steps in August, I would not have taken it. I already know that I don't walk 10,000 steps per day, and to do so would be a big stretch. But 6400 steps a day? Much less of a stretch.

When jumping into a challenge, assess how big of a leap it will be from your daily life. I know several writers who won't do National Novel Writing Month because they can't commit to writing 1667 words a day to hit the 50K mark in November. But the NaNoWriMo folks have other challenges through the year when they allow you to set your own goal for the month, which might be more their speed.

Too big of a change from normal will prevent you from starting and give you excuses when you quit.

Make sure you pick something that stretches your abilities, but doesn't push you over the edge. I saw a "push-up" challenge that attempted to get you to go from one to fifty pushups in a single month. I don't even think muscles work like that, where you can magically just do more reps every single day, though maybe if you spaced it out across multiple sessions. But who has the time to do pushups twelve times a day?

Pick something reasonable and dive in.

Be Social

My friend at work pushed me to get involved in the challenge when I mentioned it to him. My wife and kids pushed me to finish by casually mentioning it to me throughout the month. However little nudging they gave, it all helped me to complete it.

Tell friends about the challenge, and they can help keep you accountable.

Don't bore them with a long story about your challenge every time you see them. That will likely just make them avoid you, and anyway, that time would be better spent completing the challenge, right?

But if you mention it casually to several of your close friends, some of them will bring it up later to you. Use that part as your "challenge fuel." I always think of Henry Winkler in The Waterboy, telling Adam Sandler to use the idea that "water sucks" as his "tackling fuel." 

Take what you can, from wherever you can, and use it as your fuel to succeed.

Compete Only With Yourself

If I had competed with the leaders in an effort to win globally, I might have been discouraged. After all, he appeared to have a computer-generated name and had walked over 6 million steps. Considering FitBit was wowed by this guy walking a million steps in a month, I'm not sure the 6 million is legit.

Not to mention, if I do some math, that number falls apart. 6 million steps falls between 2400-3000 miles (4200-4800 km or so). If I run fast, I might can run 6 miles per hour, or a 10 minute mile. Work all that out, and someone doing 6 million miles in August must have run flat-out top speed for 16 hours a day. If that's true, I'm never competing with that, since I've got a life away from running.

So instead, I competed with my own step counts and the challenge itself.

The result? I did not get discouraged by the ridiculous achievements (or falsehoods) of others. I couldn't verify how they were doing their steps, but I could mine. I knew what days I was getting high counts and which ones I sat at my desk all day. And I could try to take the long way around the office if I needed to go somewhere and boost that.

Compete with your own best and make yourself better. Forget the rest.

Compete with your own best and make yourself better. Forget the rest.
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Do One Challenge

A few years ago, I took on three different November timeframe challenges. I may have finished one, but I doubt it. The reason? Lack of focus.

Challenges are difficult for a reason, they are supposed to be a stretch of your daily life. But if you try too many at once, you'll stretch in too many directions.

Here's a fun metaphor. Take a rubber band, and wrap it around several items to hold them together. Those items represent everything you normally have in your life, like family, work, activities, etc. Now stretch that rubber band and add one more large item to it like a coffee mug or Yeti cup or softball. That represents your challenge. 

The rubber band holds when you add that one huge item to it. 

Now add three more huge items. One of two things is likely to happen. The rubber band snaps and breaks, or all of your original items fall out to make room. Same thing happens if you overstretch yourself with too many challenges.

This metaphor can stretch (see what I did there) a bit further, though. If you leave the big object inside the rubber band long enough, it loses some elasticity. It is less likely to snap back to its original form, and eventually you will need the large item in there to keep everything together. 

As you take on a challenge and keep it up, eventually it becomes part of what you do. A habit. And then it is more manageable. Especially if the challenge was not too large to begin with. Maybe the rubber band analogy breaks down here, because in your life, the habit is usually going to be a bit smaller than the challenge, or your rubber band gets larger as you learn to manage more things. Either way, you can reach a comfort level where you are ready to add more. Only then should you.

In The End

It really does not matter what type of challenge you jump into. Find something you want to improve and go after it, whether it's a writing challenge, something for your health, or some way to better your work.

Or pick something silly if that suits you as well.

Whatever it is, challenges can stretch our limits and test our abilities. If you succeed, you may find you have talents and skills that you did not know you had or rarely get a chance to exercise. If you fail, you might learn something, whether it is how to succeed in the future or that a particular style of challenge isn't for you. That's fine. Learn and pick up the next challenge.

What type of challenge interests you? I'd love to hear about it. Click this link to hit me up on Twitter and tell me what your challenge is.