From 100 sit-ups a day, to a month without sugar, to 30 days of meditation, to organizing your home: are you in? 

There’s a challenge for pretty much anything you’d like to do or change in your life. Poll friends and family, and chances are you’ll find someone who stuck with their challenge and reached their goals, while others abandoned the project for one reason or another. Ask why some challenges worked, and some will say it was their internal drive or willpower. Others might say it was their friends who kept them going when they were about to quit.

Why such mixed results? Some types of challenges just seem to be more effective than others. There’s the subject matter: you and your friends stuck with the sit-ups, but in hindsight, going sugar-free was doomed from the start, for you and your sweet tooth. For others, anything is easier than trying to sit still and meditate. 

There’s also the “form factor” that differentiates challenges from one another: 

  • In-person – you and your friends, coworkers, members of your community or even total strangers get together or work together to take on the challenge.
  • Web-based – you follow the challenge online, whether you make that pledge privately, or publicly, and you document your progress on a website.
  • App-based – you download an app that lets you track your progress (and brag about it on social media, of course).

And of course, there’s plenty of speculation about how much time it takes to make a change stick — and then there’s your own experience. 

Do challenges really work?

To be sure, controversy has long circulated around challenges, from the credibility of their creators, to the safety of the behavior at the heart of the challenge. Nevertheless, with popularity hardly waning, consumer response suggests there must be something to those 30-day challenges. And there is, in fact, mounting scientific evidence suggesting that time-bound challenges can be effective for behavior modification. 

Consensus among experts is that 30-day challenges are effective at raising awareness. They can offer a great strategy for getting people started toward a goal or desired outcome. However, success and completion actually depend upon your relationship to changing a process in your life, and what stage you’re at in that psychological process. According to research by Dr. John Norcross, when properly matched and timed with an individual’s psychological state, challenges can act as a catalyst for truly lasting behavior change. 

Furthermore, research in the area of neuroscience shows that novelty and challenge improve neuroplasticity — your brain’s ability to change and form new neural pathways. 

Your keys to success

More research is needed to determine what it is that makes an effective challenge. Despite the general advantages of a challenge, not just any test is going to be effective: it has to be meaningful to you and to your own specific goals. The challenge has to be “progressive,” as well, bringing you new information and variety, like a new recipe or exercise each day. And it has to allow you some room for creative expression — you know best what motivates you.

Some other factors that appear to influence participants’ success include:

  • A live component. There’s no discounting the power of a live component to a challenge. A leader can inspire and instruct, keeping you motivated and involved so that you’re more likely to see results. An effective leader also fosters what management expert Simon Sinek calls a “circle of safety,” creating a sense of trust among the group, as you pursue a shared goal and defend against outside threats — in this case, quitting. You and your peers become a community, forging friendships, commitment, focus, a sense of accountability to and responsibility for others, and even excitement, as you celebrate your progress. 
  • Social ties. Conventional wisdom has it that web-based challenges may suffer from lower engagement — and more participants may give up. However, one study found that participants with social ties were more likely to stick with web-based challenges. So you’d be more likely to keep at it if you and your friends sign up for the same sit-up challenge, so you can support each other throughout the process. 
  • An app. According to another study, apps appear to have greater potential for stick-with-it-ness, even improving participation in web-based challenges. Participants in a challenge to increase their number of steps each day tended to keep at it if they used an app. When presented with more individual and workplace tests, they were more likely to maintain their participation than a control group, as well. 

Finally, it seems that if all else fails, age brings perseverance. In the 10,000-steps study, older participants stuck with it longer. That might mean if you don’t stick with it now, you can count on the likelihood that eventually, you will. In the meantime, the 30-day challenge may make you aware of new healthy-living tactics, and you can look out for the hallmarks of programs that are likely to lead to positive results.