30-Day Challenges vs Habit Formation: Which is Better?

You might be wondering why I’m pitting these two ideas against each other. After all, many people use 30-day challenges as a vehicle to form habits. But a 30-day challenge is quite different from purposeful habit formation, so let’s explore those differences.

The first thing I want to point out is that habits are not formed in 30 days. There’s no evidence to support that antiquated claim. A study in 2009 in the European Journal of Social Psychology found participants’ formed habits in an average of 66 days. But importantly, there was great variation within that.

“Although the average was 66 days, there was marked variation in how long habits took to form, anywhere from 18 days up to 254 days in the habits examined in this study.”

Habit formation timing depends on the habit and person. In fact, some people in the study were more “habit resistant” than others. Thus, aiming for any “magical” number of days is not the right approach for habit formation.

So no, 30-day challenges are not the same as habit pursuit. Now let’s look at the factors one might consider when deciding between these two options. We’re going to have a showdown between various factors and then pick an overall winner.


When it comes to fun, 30-day challenges have something to offer. You can pick any sort of behavior, and try to do it (or abstain) for 30 days. The temporal nature of 30-day challenges makes them less intimidating because you know your exit point.

Habits aren’t known for being fun, but that’s because most people make them boring. You can make them variable, with different tiers of success (as explained in my book, Elastic Habits). You can track them and reward yourself for completing them, both of which can be fun. And because they’re potentially life-changing, they are exciting if you succeed.

Because of their temporal nature, however, I have to give the edge here to 30-day challenges. They’re really fun. Habits can be made fun, but it takes more effort.

Winner: 30-Day Challenges

Life Change Potential

The best reason to do 30-day challenges is experimentation. I recently read a story about a woman who tried “Dry January,” a popular challenge to go without alcohol for the first month of the year. She felt so much better that she never started drinking again. Stories like that show why it’s great to experiment. You might find something great.

But you might not…

And that’s where the two ideas begin to separate. Habit formation is not experimental, it’s purposeful and powerful. The true power of habit formation is in compounding. We’ve all heard about the power of compound interest in finance. It’s the greatest moneymaker and retirement tool in the world. Your money makes money, which makes money, which makes money. It’s exponential growth, which is also why contagious diseases are scary and the world population increases over time.

A habit compounds in two ways.

1. Habit benefits produce more benefits

If you develop an exercise habit, it will improve your mood. An improved mood will easily benefit your relationships and mental health. Improved relationships and mental health can lead to greater networking, which can lead to increased salary and opportunities. Benefits can snowball easily, and improved mood is just one benefit of consistent exercise.

You might say that example is more about exercise than habit formation, but that’s the whole point of habit formation—to target high impact behaviors and do them repeatedly for life-changing benefits. Habits make it possible to gain these valuable benefits over and over, letting them compound and spread to other areas of your life.

2. The habit gets easier

The other big, compounding benefit of habit formation is decreased resistance. in my experience, most of the habit literature is a little bit too generous in their claim of habit automaticity. Maybe I’m one of the “habit resistant” people, but even after doing behaviors daily for years (as I have done), they’re still not quite automatic for me. I still have to choose to do them each day.

They are, however, semi-automatic and very easy to do. The primary benefit of habit formation is not automaticity, it’s decreased resistance. Even if you do gain automaticity, it’s only possible because your resistance to the behavior is low or non-existent.

We naturally resist good habits at first because they require work now for a long-lasting reward later. Bad habits, on the other hand, are easy and provide a stronger, more immediate reward. But after enough repetitions, your brain will connect the good habit with the superior reward. Then, as you consider doing the behavior, you won’t think twice, because you know it’s worth it, consciously and subconsciously. 

This is an example of compounding because when a behavior is easier to do, it’s easier to practice and strengthen it further. Just think about the out of shape person compared to the gym rat. How much easier is it for the gym rat to go to the gym? Infinitely easier. And once they’re in the gym, exercise is also easier for them physically and mentally.

30-day challenges might change your life. But habit formation definitely will.

Winner: Habit Formation


The difficulty of 30-day challenges and habit formation varies wildly. So I’m going to go with the best, standard practices of each to compare.

30-day challenges are typically difficult. This is, in fact, the primary reason why they are only done for 30 days. If you tell a meat eater they have to go vegetarian for the rest of their life, they are going to rip your face off or simply tell you it’s impossible. If you tell them to try it for 30 days, they might do it out of curiosity. And yet, even for 30 days, it would be a significant challenge. The word “challenge” is even in the title.

So to get a little bit philosophical, you might be wondering if difficulty is a good or bad thing here. That depends on your goal. If your goal is to change your life over the long term, high difficulty is a death sentence. If your goal is to try something new, high difficulty might be just the thing you need.

Habit formation is naturally assumed to be difficult, because you’re supposed to do it daily without letting up. But if you follow a smart habit system like mini habits or elastic habits, which allow you to get easy wins on difficult days, habit formation can be extremely simple and easy. I speak from experience!

So, assuming that your goal is to improve your life, habit formation is the easier way. 30-day methods wouldn’t be limited to 30 days if they were easy enough to be done for life. The hope is that the momentum of 30 days is enough to carry you forward, but hope has no business being in the long-term behavior change discussion. Mini or elastic habits are very easy to sustain for life, and don’t require hope to change your life.

Winner: Habit Formation

Overall Winner

30-day challenges are very popular. Habit formation,, however is more popular than 30-day challenges. But it’s done silently, without fanfare. It’s the less flashy, more effective option.

Whereas 30-day challenges are a manmade concept, habit formation is something that’s always happening in every person’s life. Whether or not you purposefully shape your habits is the real question. 

The popularity of 30-day challenges can be explained by their only victory in this head-to-head matchup. They are fun! But habit formation can be just as fun as 30-day challenges with the right approach.

In the other two areas we compared, habit formation was the clear winner—it’s easier and more impactful than 30-day challenges with the right strategy. As a bonus, it doesn’t leaving you wondering what to do on day 31.

Overall winner: Habit Formation


Does this mean you shouldn’t do 30-day challenges? No, it doesn’t. All it means is that we shouldn’t confuse the purpose of a 30-day challenge with genuine habit formation. 

Use 30-day challenges for experiments. Common ones include: cold showers, abstaining from something (alcohol, social media, etc), trying a new hobby (sewing, woodworking, writing a novel, etc).

Use habit formation to permanently improve your behavior. If you know for a fact that you want to do more of something for the rest of your life, don’t make it a 30-day challenge. Make it a real habit. Commit to doing it at some level every day. With a variable-intensity strategy like elastic habits, you can do that.

30-day challenges are a great way to try new things and explore new possibilities. Habit formation helps us shape our behavior and lives in precise ways. Don’t confuse the two, and you’ll benefit more from each one.

If you want to form habits the right way, I recommend reading Mini Habits, and if you like that, read Elastic Habits for a more advanced and very fun strategy.

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