The Psychology of Motivation

What is the psychology behind motivation? This article examines the research on motivation and reviews the implications. The conclusion reached is contrary to what you may believe.

By Cassie Jewell, LPC

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What is motivation? According to Merriam-Webster, to motivate is “to provide with a motive.” A motive is defined as “something (such as a need or desire) that causes a person to act.”

Motivation is highly sought after in today’s society; it’s the golden ticket to success. You would think achievement (as an end result) is motive enough, but this proves to be false. We desire success, but we’re unable to maintain our motivation. It dries up or fades away before the goal is reached. For example, a dieter is initially motivated by weight loss, improved sleep, and increased energy; these are all powerful motivators. But it’s not enough. Why?

If you look to Google, you’ll find countless sites claiming motivation “secrets” or hacks. How to Motivate Yourself in 10 Easy Steps. 7 Easy Ways to Motivate Yourself at Work. 5 Surprising Tips to Increase Your Motivation Immediately. Don’t be fooled. The shortcuts are appealing, but they’re not backed by research. Motivation is complex.

To learn what it is that drives us (and why that driving force is often short-lived), I reviewed the existing literature on motivation. (Hint: There are no secrets, tricks, or hacks.) As you read the following points, consider your goals and the role motivation plays.

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1. Motivation can be intrinsic (arise from within) or extrinsic (influenced by outside forces).

Intrinsic motivation is rewarded internally. An example of intrinsic motivation would be pursuing the study of archeology because it holds a strong appeal or attraction. The behavior of engaging is the reward. Research establishes a strong link between interest and intrinsic motivation. Alternatively, extrinsic motivation refers to externally rewarded motives, such as writing a paper for a grade or performing well at work for a raise.

Practical application: If you’re looking for the motivation to achieve a goal, but lack the drive, add an incentive. Be creative. Choose rewards that are meaningful.

2. The presence of dopamine is related to motivation.

Studies have found that dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays a considerable role in motivation. More recently, researchers have speculated there are specific areas in the brain responsible for motivation.

To consider: A lack of motivation could indicate chemical imbalance, especially if paired with feelings of sadness or hopelessness, fatigue, or thoughts of suicide. If your lack of motivation is debilitating, you may be depressed. Seek professional help.

The Psychology of Motivation

3. Self-efficacy and perceived competence are positively related to motivation.

Research indicates that if you believe you can accomplish something, you’re more likely to achieve it than if you doubt yourself. This is a reoccurring theme in motivation literature. Self-efficacy is key.

Practical application: Evaluate your confidence. Do you view yourself as capable? On a scale from 1-10, how confidant are you that you can achieve [insert your goal here]? You won’t maintain the motivation to lose weight if you believe you’ll always be heavy. Self-doubt is a motivation trap. To cultivate self-efficacy, focus on your past accomplishments and successes. Reframe negative thoughts. (Instead of This is impossible, try This is difficult, but manageable.) Increase your self-efficacy by setting – and achieving – one or two easy goals.

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4. Having a sense of control leads to greater motivation.

If you believe that life “happens” to you or that you are powerless to circumstances, you have an external locus of control. (This is sometimes known as learned helplessness.) It’s difficult to sustain motivation with this view. We can’t control all the variables in life, but we can control our choices and reactions. We control who and what we allow to negatively impact us. This knowledge is empowering. It allows for motivation and can foster an increased sense of efficacy.

Practical application: List or think about some undesirable aspects of your life (rent, a car accident, a difficult colleague, etc.) Select one item from your list and then write ways you can exercise control. (For example, you can’t control a difficult co-worker, but you control what you say to them, how you respond to them, and so on.) Recognize that your decisions directly impact the quality of your life.

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5. Outcome value is related to motivation. 

The greater the perceived value of an outcome, the stronger the motivation. If you value living in a tidy home, you will be motivated to clean. For someone who doesn’t mind a mess, a clean house holds little value.

Practical application: You want to save money, but struggle to see the immediate benefits. Create a list of all the ways saving can improve your life, both now and in the future. Consider what’s currently important to you. If it’s spending time with family, link that to saving money. (Extra savings mean you can afford to dine out or take vacations with your family.) By increasing outcome value, you may increase your level of motivation. Apply this principle to all aspects of your life.

6. Goals and deadlines are motivating.

Define your outcome with a measurable goal and place a time limit on it. By defining exactly what you want (I want to lose 10 lbs.) and then giving yourself a deadline (in 3 months), you’re creating a blueprint. Having a goal map makes it easier to stay motivated by providing direction.

Practical application: When you need motivation, first consider the steps required to accomplish your goal. Be as specific as possible. And then create a deadline. (Note: Deadlines can be flexible. If you don’t meet your deadline, it’s easy to give up, leaving you the opposite of confident and effective. Instead, if a deadline isn’t met, push it back a week. Be reasonable. Revise your goal if needed. Remember to be solution-focused.)

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7. Money is a motivator.

Researchers discovered that cash is a driving force. Money is a classic example of an extrinsic motivator – and it’s effective. So how can you use this information?

Practical application: There are apps and programs that pay you to stay on track. An example is the Achievement app; you earn points for exercising, drinking water, sleeping, and doing other health-related activities. Once you earn 10,000, you receive $10. Additionally, the weight loss program HealthyWage pays you to lose weight. (Be careful – there’s also a chance you’ll lose money!) If you dread going to work, think about your paycheck. Lastly, to motivate employees, offer small bonuses or other cash incentives linked to performance.

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8. Working together on a task enhances motivation. 

Working toward a common goal with a partner or a group seems to enhance motivation.

Practical application: This practice can be applied in the workplace or at school. Don’t work on projects alone; find someone who shares your enthusiasm. If you want to start an exercise routine, ask a friend (who also wants to get in shape) to hit the gym with you. It seems we’re able to inspire and motivate each other; when one person’s motivation wanes, the other’s kicks in.

9. The source of motivation changes as we pursue our goals.

There’s something called “promotion” motivation. We’re good at setting goals and feeling motivated. Initially. Then, somewhere along the way, our motivation switches. It becomes “prevention” motivation. For example, the promotion motivation for losing weight may be fitting into a certain pair of jeans. When the jeans fit, the motivation becomes prevention motivation. Prevention motivation is harder to sustain.

To consider: Have a variety of motivational strategies. Recognize that motivation will change as you pursue your goals.

10. Once something becomes a habit, it persists long after motivation is gone.

This may be the most valuable finding of all. With motivation, there are variables: Self-efficacy, deadlines, money, etc. A habit supersedes the variables. There will be times we lack motivation, no matter how effective we feel or how much we value the outcome. If we act out of habit, we don’t have to rely on motivation. Of course, the tricky part is creating a new habit. Habits, which are formed by repetition, reorganize information in your brain so that an action becomes automatic and is no longer tied to a motivational cue.

To consider: Researchers assert it can take anywhere from 15 to 254 days to form a habit. In addition to repetition, you must remove cues that trigger habits you’re trying to quit while adding cues that trigger desired behaviors.

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In conclusion, there are many factors related to motivation including self-efficacy, outcome value, and financial incentive. Our motivation changes as we pursue goals, indicating the need for a variety of motivational strategies. We know that dopamine plays an important role and that there are structural regions in the brain responsible for motivation.

A friend of mine recently asked how I motivate myself to go to the gym when I get off work. “It has nothing to do with motivation,” I responded. “I just do it; it’s not optional.”

I’m fully aware I lack motivation. However, I recognize that motivation, while advantageous, is not a prerequisite for success. It’s too fickle; it lacks the staying power of habit and the might of determination.

Don’t rely on motivation to achieve your goals. Instead, invest in the determination it takes to form a habit.

References 

Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (2014, August 8). How we form habits, change existing ones. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 8, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140808111931.htm

Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(3), 586-598.

Bullard, O., & Manchanda, R. (2017). How goal progress influences regulatory focus in goal pursuit. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 27, 302–317.

Carr, P., & Walton, M. (2014). Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169-184.

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: The psychology of “habit-formation” and general practice. The British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664–666.

Hsu, Y., Wang, S. D., Wang, S., Morton, G., Zariwala, H., de la Iglesia, H., & Turner, E. (2014). Role of the dorsal medial habenula in the regulation of voluntary activity, motor function, hedonic state, and primary reinforcement. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(34), 11366 –11384.

Judge, T., & Ilies, R. (2002). Relationship of personality to performance motivation: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 797–807.

Lai, E. (2011). Motivation: A literature review. https://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/Motivation_Review_final.pdf

Landry, A., Gagné, M., Forest, J., Guerrero, S., Séguin , M., & Papachristopoulos, K. (2017). The relation between financial incentives, motivation, and performance: An integrative SDT-based investigation. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 16, 61-76.

Lunenburg, F. (2011). Goal-setting theory of motivation. International Journal Of Management, Business, and Administration, 15(1), 1-6.

Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. (2006). Improving self-efficacy and motivation: What to do, what to say. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41(4), 218-227.

Pajares, F. (2010). Self-efficacy beliefs, motivation, and achievement in writing: A review of the literature. Published online, 139-158.

Pintrich, P. (2003). A motivational science perspective on the role of student motivation in learning and teaching contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 667-686.

Salamone, J. et al. (2012). The mysterious motivational functions of mesolimbic dopamine. Neuron, 76(3), 470-485.

Zimmerman, B., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American Educational Research Journal, 29(3), 663-676.

4 Statements That May Change Your Life

Therapy can lead to “light bulb” moments; everything suddenly clicks. This is a short list of 4 statements that “clicked” with my clients and inspired change.

By Cassie Jewell, LPC

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Upon learning I’m a therapist, people often ask for advice. “What do you think I should do about [insert any imaginable life situation here]?”

I hate to disappoint, but I don’t have all the answers. Contrary to popular belief, a counselor won’t tell you how to fix your problems.

Keep in mind that you’re the expert on you. When you combine your knowledge with a therapist’s expertise on human behavior, a collaborative partnership is formed. The process of change begins. You hold the answers, but they’re locked. The process of therapy unlocks the mind.

There have been times in counseling sessions when something I say “clicks” with that person. They experience a moment of clarity or have a sudden realization.

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The following list is four key statements that “clicked” with my clients.

1. “Say what you mean.”

How many times have you provided an explanation using partial truths? For example, you cancel on a friend, claiming a migraine. Your head may hurt, but at the same time, you’re embarrassed to go to the bar with her. She can’t seem to go out without getting obnoxiously drunk. Another example would be a wife who tells her husband, “I’m fine,” when she’s not. In both examples, truth is avoided.

When you don’t say what you mean, you deprive yourself. You’ll feel frustrated, and you may lose the chance to explore deeper issues. Your communication becomes second-rate. And if you find yourself saying what you think someone wants to hear, that’s not communicating; the point is to understand each other, not to mislead or appease.

Saying what you mean is freeing and it allows you to live an authentic life.

2. “Just say, ‘okay.’”

This is about not engaging with that one person who pushes your buttons (or with your own irrational thoughts).

I’ll use myself as an example. I once received a stern email from my boss, instructing me to complete a task ASAP… a task I finished three days ago. Initially, I panicked, second guessing myself. But after double checking my work and finding it complete, I silently fumed to myself. Does my supervisor think I sit around doing nothing all day? (Or maybe he thinks I’m incompetent?) Why wouldn’t he check before sending an email? I drafted and then rewrote my response several times. I asked a co-worker to look it over and she laughed and asked, “Why didn’t you just tell him, ‘Okay’?” She was right. I had allowed my irrational self (and insecurities) to take over. The project was done, which is what mattered; there was no need for an emotionally-charged response. Another example would be a married couple who constantly fight. They argue to the point of shouting because neither wants the other to “win.”

If you link your self-concept to how others perceive you, the idea of admitting defeat threatens your identity. Instead of feeding into the argument, especially when you’re provoked, just say, “okay” and leave it at that. Furthermore, if there’s a toxic person in your life, for example, an ex that you co-parent with, don’t respond to a provoking text or to a barb. You gain nothing by proving you’re right (other than maybe a self-important spark of satisfaction). In the end, you’re still the loser because you took the bait and allowed someone else to orchestrate your emotions.

Don’t sacrifice your peace of mind; just say, “okay.”

3. “This is nothing you can’t handle.”

It may not seem like much, but this sentence can lay the foundation for change. A seemingly unsolvable problem is broken down into manageable solutions. A catastrophe becomes a challenge.

When faced with the impossible, we panic. Our emotional mind has all the control while our rational mind fades to the background. However, the rational mind can be coaxed from hiding with guidance.

The next time you feel helpless and are thinking, “This is impossible,” remind yourself it’s nothing you can’t handle. Once you’re in that mind frame, the solutions will come more easily.

4. “Always take ownership.”

This is about owning your actions, especially when you make a poor decision. You’re going to make mistakes. Don’t make excuses. Admit fault and apologize when needed.

I’ve counseled clients who made excuses for their wrongdoings, even their crimes. (“I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for [insert plausible reason here]”). By placing the blame on someone or something else, you stunt personal growth. You’ll continue to make the same mistakes, and it will never be your fault.

You can’t live an authentic life without taking ownership, nor will you gain the respect of others. Be authentic; take ownership of your mistakes (and achievements!)

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If reading this list “sparked” something for you, think about the changes you want to make. Develop a change plan. And then take action!

Guest Post: You Don’t Have to Exercise

Exercise is a choice. Trevor Jewell, a certified personal trainer, explains that while you don’t have to exercise, you should definitely consider it.

By Trevor Jewell, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer

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You will definitely get more gratification from grabbing a pint of ice cream and putting your feet up for a Netflix binge. Obviously, we don’t exercise because we have to. No one is holding a gun to your head while you sweat and gasp for air in a crowded gym as the seconds of your life tick away on a treadmill timer. We exercise because we want to! We want to feel good, look good, and live long and happy lives free of pain and injury, so exercise becomes worth it.

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Many of my clients have told me during their consultations that they don’t like exercise. Cardio is boring, weights are intimidating, ab work hurts too much, the list goes on and on. But all of them, every single one, enjoys the feeling of having completed a tough and energizing workout. The important difference is, after discussing their goals, they have input on their workout plan in the form of choice.

Hate cardio? No problem! I’ll offer you routines with moderate intensity interval training that mimics the aerobic effect of jogging. Weightlifting too intimidating? We’ll try out different bodyweight routines that incorporate resistance training without ever touching anything but the floor. Ab work hurts? How about a few functional fitness games that utilize your core without shredding it like an 8 minute ab routine from Women’s Health magazine. For my advanced clients, I plan days where they get to use what they’ve learned and choose their own workouts while I simply help align their choices with their goals and provide coaching as needed.

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The point is, almost everyone performs better in an environment where they don’t feel trapped and locked into a routine. This is why hiring a personal trainer can be a truly liberating experience as people realize they never have to touch an elliptical again if they don’t want to, but can still lose weight! If you are dragging your feet on the way to the gym to half-heartedly complete yet another round of the same old routine, it’s time to incorporate more choice into your workout.

It should come as no surprise that freedom of choice can lead to better results outside of the gym as well. In a recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, scientists discovered a direct link between having choice in a workout and making healthier diet selections. Two test groups were given instructions to exercise and then allowed to eat at the same buffet. One group was forced to complete an exact routine, while the other was allowed to choose their type of exercise, starting time, and even background music. Upon reviewing their trips to the buffet, the authors discovered that those with more choice in their workouts consistently ate less calories (587 versus 399 kcal) and chose healthier foods than their counterparts!

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If you’ve ever piled three extra slices of pizza on your plate as a reward for going to the gym that morning, you know exactly how the “forced” participants were feeling. Treating an exercise routine as something you have to “get out of the way” or “get over with” will cause you to feel trapped, and to disassociate your workouts with your life. Our goal as personal trainers is not to force people to get healthy, but to get them to associate an energizing workout in the gym with the overall goal of a healthy lifestyle. We don’t have to exercise, we choose a higher quality of life, and have fun doing it!

 

Trevor Jewell is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer with EnDevor Health: Connecting doctors, exercise physiologists and personal trainers to truly implement Exercise is Medicine in patients’ lives, located in Columbus, OH

37 Things You Can Do to Live a More Fulfilling and Meaningful Life

A unique list of things you can do for personal growth and development.

By Cassie Jewell, LPC

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If we don’t strive to meet our goals and to improve on a regular basis, we become stagnant. If we aren’t growing and learning, our minds become lethargic. This post comes from a bullet journal list I originally created for my own personal development. While my focus is often intellectual (seeking knowledge and attaining education), other life areas are equally important to cultivate.

According the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), there are eight dimensions of wellness:

Emotional—Coping effectively with life and creating satisfying relationships

Environmental—Good health by occupying pleasant, stimulating environments that support well-being

Financial—Satisfaction with current and future financial situations

Intellectual—Recognizing creative abilities and finding ways to expand knowledge and skills

Occupational—Personal satisfaction and enrichment from one’s work

Physical—Recognizing the need for physical activity, healthy foods, and sleep

Social—Developing a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support system

Spiritual—Expanding a sense of purpose and meaning in life

Find additional SAMHSA links in the “Books, Links, and Resources” section of this blog. SAMHSA is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. SAMHSA’s mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. Anyone can access free publications, workbooks, and fact sheets on substance use disorder and addiction by visiting the SAMHSA website. Additionally, free online tools are available to assist with locating treatment services.

In order to maintain balance, it helps to have a variety of wellness strategies in your toolbox. The following list is comprised of 37 ideas for personal/professional development, self-improvement, and creating healthy habits.

1. Read one inspirational/motivational book per month or

2. Read one wellness article per week.

3. Take advantage of free classes offered at the library or through Coursera. (Coursera provides universal access to education, partnering with top universities and organizations. Similar sites: Course Buffet and EdX.)

4. Take part in a new activity or event to step outside your comfort zone. (Examples: Join a book club, take a cooking class, join a Meetup.)

5. Make time for an old friend.

6. Come up with an exercise routine, write it down, and then stick with it. No excuses.

7. Start walking your dog.

8. Complete household tasks and chores on a daily basis; don’t procrastinate.

9. Stay informed on the latest science and health news and research by regularly browsing Science DailyYou can also subscribe to their email list or download the app. (Today’s headline? Researchers have, for the first time, coaxed human stem cells to become sensory interneurons — the cells that give us our sense of touch.)

10. Explore an unfamiliar topic. Learn how to knit or take a self-defenses class. If your health insurance company offers online workshops or webinars, go ahead and register for one.

11. Don’t neglect your sleep hygiene. If you’re unable to adhere to a regular sleep pattern due to work or other life circumstances, at least make your bed a soft and inviting place.

12. Improve your posture. (And yes, there’s an app for that. Personally, I think a posture corrector brace would be a better investment. I’m planning on ordering one from Amazon.com and will post a review.)

13. Read a non-fiction book.

14. Take daily inventories; evaluate your attitude and productivity.

15. Drink more water, green tea, and black coffee. Drink less wine, beer, sweetened beverages, and sugary sodas.

16. Practice active listening.

17. Overcome a fear.

18. Identify your “blind spots” and make a commitment to change. Seek feedback from a friend or loved one if necessary. (An example of a blind spot could be a husband who never offers to help his wife with the chores; he’s so comfortable in his routine that he doesn’t recognize how hard she works. It’s not that he’s lazy or unhelpful; it’s a blind spot for him because it hasn’t been brought to his attention. Or, it could be a woman who doesn’t recognize that she constantly complains, creating a negative environment for those around her. Or it could be a man who constantly interrupts; he’s so focused in that he doesn’t recognize how frustrated his peers feel.)

19. Find a mentor (or be a mentor!)

20. Try a 30-day challenge to improve your wellness.

21. Meditate and practice mindfulness. If that’s not your thing, start a new morning or evening ritual. Spend a few minute alone drinking coffee, reflecting on your day, writing in a journal, etc. Find a ritual that works for you and then do it daily.

22. If the idea appeals to you, dress up, style your hair (or get a blowout), do your makeup/get a makeover, get a manicure, and wear your favorite heels. If that’s unappealing, put on your comfiest clothes and enjoy. (Wear your sweatpants like a BOSS!) If you’re not interested in make-up or sweatpants, find another awesome way to treat yourself.

23. Go a week without complaining; practice optimism. If your regular, everyday temperament is already optimistic, find a way to step up your game. (Do a kind deed or give someone your undivided attention for as long as they need it.)

24. Complete a task you’ve been putting off. (Go as big or as small as you want with this one.)

25. Take advantage of TED Talks.

26. Cook and enjoy a healthy meal.

27. Learn how to juggle.

28. Learn a foreign language or sign language.

29. Give a spontaneous gift or help a stranger.

30. Create a vision board.

31. Volunteer.

32. Be a tourist in your hometown. (If you live in a big city, you might be able to find a free walking tour. If you’re local, check out free DC walking tours. Disclaimer: I haven’t been on a DC walking tour, but I’ve been on foot tours in other cities. You don’t have to pay for the tour itself, but the tour guide will expect a tip.)

33. Donate blood.

34. Learn the lyrics to a song (or rap) of your choice.

35. Complete a DIY Pinterest project from one of your boards.

36. Pick up trash in your neighborhood.

37. Send hand-written “Thank Yous” or postcards.

Additional Ideas: Run a 5K (or 10K!) Adopt an elderly pet that needs a home.


Updated January 27, 2018

Please leave a comment if you have creative ideas for self-improvement!

30 Thirty-Day Challenges

A unique list of wellness-based thirty-day challenges.

By Cassie Jewell, LPC

 

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There are plenty of 30-day challenges out there, but this post is unique in that all the challenges listed are wellness-based. It may seem counterintuitive; after all, balance is at the foundation of wellness. However, quitting a harmful habit, like smoking, would drastically improve your overall health, which would then enable you to achieve true balance. And the thirty-day challenge, while not a scientifically proven method, allows the perfect opportunity to quit harmful habits while developing healthy ones. Plus, it’s fun, especially when several people (or a group of people) participate. Read on for 30 exciting ideas for thirty-day challenges.
 

Difficulty Level – Easy

1. Give one compliment per day

2. 30 days of flossing

3. Five minutes of mindful breathing every day

4. 30 days of gratitude journaling

5. Set sleep schedule for 30 days

6. 30 days of matcha or green tea

7. Learn a new vocabulary word every day for 30 days

8. Daily act of kindness

9. Read a random Wikipedia article every day for 30 days

10. 30-day dog walk challenge

11. Write a daily poem or short story

12. No cursing for 30 days

13. Pray (or spend time in quiet reflection) every morning

14. Watch a TED Talks (or similar) every day

Difficulty Level – Medium

15. 30-day vegan challenge

16. 30 days of following a strict budget (no “wants,” only “needs”)

17. 30-day gym challenge

18. 30-day documentary challenge

19. 30-days of cleaning and organization; the decluttered home challenge

20. No fast food, no carryout, and no dining out for 30 days

21. Write a book chapter daily

Difficulty Level – Hard

22. 30-day art challenge (one drawing or painting per day)

23. 30-day Pinterest challenge (one Pinterest project a day)

24. No social media

25. 30 days of no caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, or other substances

26. No driving for a month

Difficulty Level – Nearly Impossible!

27. No cell phone or Internet (except for work-related use); the 30-day unplugged challenge

28. One hour of daily exercise

29. 50 sits ups or crunches daily

30. Sugar-free challenge


Please post your ideas for a 30-day challenge in a comment!