As the craziness of the holiday season begins to wind down, my attention turns to the possibility of growth upon the clean slate of a new year. For several years I became jaded by all the people who excitedly signed up for self improvement only to fall off the wagon again and again within a few short months or even weeks… Or do they? Sure, most of us don’t keep our new year’s resolutions, but is it really true that nothing changes? Growth requires sustained effort. Some people will quit smoking again and again only to have it stick on the fourteenth try. So even if we don’t fulfill our resolutions perfectly, does it really mean we have failed? Or is this ritual of self improvement in the new year a healthy part of our long term growth?

One sub sect of the resolution trend is the 30, 60, or 90 day challenge. This usually consists of a major lifestyle change for the specified period of time. It could be a dietary change, exercise-related, or something else such as sleep or computer time. The advantage of a challenge over a resolution is that since it is a set period of time, people may actually stick to it longer in order to complete the challenge. The disadvantage is that we might actually reinforce the deprivation-reward cycle that keeps many people from making lasting change by going back to our old ways with a vengeance once the challenge is over.

Cory and Shanna Duvall, owners of Crossfit Asheville, recently came down on opposite sides of this issue. Cory wrote a convincing article on their blog last week arguing that people should choose a challenge that they could imagine sustaining for the rest of their lives. At CFA new year’s celebration, Shanna offered an opposing perspective; that if you try a more radical lifestyle change you will experience a more radical effect. During a challenge, you may learn that you are capable of living in a way that seemed impossible beforehand. You may also discover just how good you are capable of feeling.

Last year, I did a complicated 90 day challenge that included diet, exercise, sleep patterns, and water consumption. I was astounded by how much energy I had during this time. Once the challenge was over I went back to my old habits in some areas and kept the new habits in other areas. Looking back over all the aspects of the challenge from the perspective of a year, I am surprised by how much last year’s challenge supported positive change in my life.

I was able to increase my water consumption a great deal during the challenge, but over the year my consistency with that has been variable. What did change permanently was my awareness of how much water I drink. During the times when I am drinking less than I should be, I am more aware of it than I was before the challenge and this leads me back on track more quickly.

Even with the elements that I was less than successful at during the specific time of the challenge, I gained a new awareness of them that lasted beyond that set period of time. For example, I didn’t change my sleep habits much during the challenge, but a seed was planted that it would be a beneficial step for me. Later in the year, I was able to successfully change my sleep habits in a way that I might not have without the challenge.

Before the challenge, I had become more consistent with my exercise habits and the challenge reinforced that and it has now become a habit that I hardly ever resist. I am not perfect, but whew, I don’t expect myself to be either. I never planned to keep up the diet after the challenge was over, yet it definitely changed the choices I make around food. I choose less grains, less dairy, and less sugar. Ok, that last part was a lie – especially over the last few weeks! That is why this year’s challenge is to go without sugar for a month.

While the entire package of the challenge was unsustainable for me, my lifestyle was nevertheless changed permanently. It is not realistic to expect any sort of challenge or resolution to 100% change us forever. However, they can be helpful tools in our continued growth. The most important thing is that we have fun with the challenge and don’t use them as a tool to bludgeon ourselves. Strive for growth, embrace yourself as a work in progress, and look at a challenge as a way to enjoy your life more – not as a deprivation. Approach your challenge with excitement and a light heart.  You may not be able to determine exactly what you will grow, but chances are it will be beautiful.

If you want support through your own challenge, please check out the 21-day lifestyle transformation course I am teaching with Samantha Pollack, personal trainer and health coach. Each weekday morning you will exercise, check in with your goals, and have a great time in a supportive and inspiring community of people.  This starts January 9th, 2012 — so get in touch asap if you are ready to take your life to the next level.

Sharing your intentions with others is a powerful way to make them real.  What seeds will you plant this year?  Please share with me in the comments below.