Defining and Inspiring 30-day Challenges

Today, I am inviting you into my classroom. Our goal is to create a life experiment to potentially form a new habit. For inspiration, I played two different TED talks in class. The first, “Try something new for 30 day” by Matt Cutts, is essentially a three-minute commercial on why people should embark on a 30-day challenge. For the second video, I gave my class the choice of two A.J. Jacobs talks, one about his year living Biblically and one about his quest to live as healthily as possible. Both illustrate a writer who sets out on a quest for knowledge by asking one key question, what if?

A.J. Jacobs’ work is a great model for the famous Ken Macrorie assignment, the I-Search essay, which is essentially a research narrative told in the first person. The added bonus is of course the reality TV-esque component, where we get to read about A.J. taking all advice to the extreme. It’s the print version of Morgan Spurlock’s 30 days. I also find his work more every-man, than the less accessible, but still highly entertaining life experiment guru Tim Ferriss.

If anyone wants to follow along at home, we are reading an excerpt from My Life as an Experiment, “The Unitasker.” Here A.J. Jacobs seriously pursues the concept of mindfulness, a big buzz word in our multitasking digital age.


Writing a Personal Mission Statement

I always preach to my students that research should be a discovery mission. If you only set out to prove one particular fact or support one particular viewpoint, not only are you missing out on the deeper complexities of an issue but you may be missing far more interesting or applicable information for your life. I could go on about the Filter Bubble created through niche marketing, algorithms, and seeking information through social media spheres, but I have already written exhaustively about this topic in my dissertation. Today is about mission statements.

My Google search began with how to better define my blog and what I hope to do here, aside from fulfill a 30-day challenge. In my new media writing class, my students fill out rhetorical situation questionnaries about their imagined audience, their topic stance, etc. However, I was interested in finding something more like a mission statement. What I found was a New York Times blog about creating a personal mission statement. Tara Parker-Pope quotes Stephen Covey, who refers to a personal mission statement in 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, as “defining the personal, moral and ethical guidelines within which you can most happily express and fulfill yourself.”

Parker-Pope then lists the common questions asked within the Corporate Athlete Program. I think the questions will be a great warm up to my challenge/habit driven semester. So to prepare, I will answer the questions given myself.

■ How do you want to be remembered?

I want to be remembered for making a difference and changing lives, whether it be through my teaching, writing, altruistic acts, or parenting.

■ How do you want people to describe you?

Big-hearted, humorous, inspiring, and creative.

■ Who do you want to be?

I want to be someone who lives up to my full potential and fulfills the expectations of both myself and of the people in my life.

■ Who or what matters most to you?

My family matters the most.

■ What are your deepest values?

My deepest values mirror my previous answers. I value purpose-driven work, kindness, personal expression, and laughter.

■ How would you define success in your life?

Success is making the world a better place through your decisions and actions.

■ What makes your life really worth living?

Making others feel good, empowered, inspired, and loved.

I think if I use this for my opening class I would have students choose three that they can write a full paragraph (five or more sentences) about. The questions overlap a bit, so I do not think it is necessary to answer them all, but it is still a good exercise. These questions would also work well for brainstorming This I Believe essays.

I thought I would escape the classroom with this blog. Instead, I took down the walls.

My 30-day Blogging Challenge

“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Aristotle

“Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.” – William James

How long it takes for something to be a habit is a debated topic and is often dependent on the difficulty of the habit and the individual. Psychologist Jeremy Dean discovered the easy tasks, such as drinking a glass of water in the morning, could become a habit after 21 days. Health psychologist and researcher Phillippa Lally conducted a study, which found the average numbers of days needed to develop a habit to be 66 days (however, the range among study participants was 18-254 days). In motivational and fitness sites, the magic number is often 30. An array of 30-day challenges are just a Google search away.

I incorporated the concept of a 30-day challenge into my writing classes for the first time this past winter semester. The results were inspiring and (unless students were blowing sunshine up my patooty in their final reflections) life-changing. Students lost weight, conducted physical therapy, pursued acts of kindness, and most importantly learned about themselves within the process. Yes, there were failures, students who were too ambitious, goals that were not clearly enough defined, and pursuits that did not have enough intrinsic value to hold students motivations.

I conducted my own small challenges – small because I realized the enormity of my semester obligations, yet significant enough to alter my mindset and body. First, I committed to plank for at least a minute a day. I liked this challenge because it reminded me that just because I cannot get to the gym for an hour it does not mean that I should do nothing. Little bursts of activity make a difference. While I never progressed beyond the minute plank, I did see some more definition in my abs and overall was more conscious of my body.

My second challenge was to write in a journal every day. The benefit of journaling is that it makes you reflect and sort out feelings and issues, which can lead to better understanding of yourself or help you solve problems. However, as a deeply reflective person (i.e. debilitatingly shy introvert), I did not feel the need to get further in touch with my feelings. The benefits I found were that it helped me take a moment to appreciate what was happening in the lives of my children and perhaps let off a little steam.

Now, with my lighter spring load, I am ready to level up to more time-intensive health pursuits. I am also switching from journaling to blogging. I feel this will help me better sort out and deal with the issues of life because I can bring in research, will need to consider an audience, and be pressured due to the public nature to write more thoughtfully. This will also help me teach the 30-day challenge in more depth and perhaps enter the field of life experiments.