Spring Things: Designing a Challenge that Doesn’t Suck

Recently, Seo Helrune posted a question: if you were going to design a 30 day challenge, what would it be? That question got my wheels turning and they’ve been spinning ever since. I used to help manage a yoga studio and our Spring Challenge was one of my pet projects, so I’ve thought a lot about challenges – why they work, what causes them to falter, and how to make them accessible.  The idea of turning the structure of a challenge toward spiritual growth is not new, but I hadn’t really considered how to put one together on my own before.

Challenges – in this blog meaning a specific window of time to cultivate an area of focus – can be a wonderful way to restart a dormant practice, support a desired lifestyle change, connect more deeply with our spirituality, or simply follow through on things we’re already trying to do. Many times, the patterns we establish during a challenge end up perpetuating in one way or another. One of my favorite examples of that in my own life is the Gratitude Project.

Every year from Lughnasadh (August 1st) to Mabon (autumnal equinox), I find one thing to be grateful for every day and post about it on social media. No repeats – I can be grateful to the same person, but it needs to be for a different reason. The Gratitude Project started over on Livejournal back when that was a thing and I’ve participated in it most years since I first stumbled across it. The fascinating bleed from following this challenge is that gratitude practice has become a larger part of my personal path. For me, it’s been a really wonderful addition that helps me get through really hard days.

At their best, challenges motivate us to make necessary change. They encourage us to fall into better alignment with our own goals, priorities, and values, and they make us stronger at whatever area the challenge is focused around. They offer a structure for making solid progress toward a goal. And, they can be a lot of fun. There are some good guidelines for building a challenge that will be nourishing and supportive rather than disappointing/defeating. Let’s break it down a little.

Choose the Right Challenge

You have no idea how much I wish I had the spell for ‘instantly turn me into my best self.’ I don’t. As far as I can tell, no one does. For humans, change needs to be incremental and gradual for it to stick. A successful challenge requires an accessible and appealing effort that makes one small step toward where you want to go with your life. Here are some questions to consider when it comes to choosing the right challenge for you.

  • What do you already love that you want to do more of? This was easy with a yoga and pilates studio – people there were really into their physical practices. Encouraging them to do more of what they already loved was a fitting but accessible challenge. When we’re looking at spirituality, what part do you love?  I am SO INTO my devotional practices. I love prayer, meditation, and journeywork. I love making offerings and reciting litanies of praise. That is my JAM.  A challenge based around devotional practices would be a good fit for me.
  • What fascinates you? When you’re scrolling social media, what articles do you always stop to read? What pictures do you always pause to admire? Many times, those interest areas hold the key to a successful challenge. If you always stop to read articles about hauntings and paranormal experiences, a challenge that builds knowledge and skill around spirit remediation might be perfect for you. If you regularly stop to admire knitted and crocheted projects, maybe your challenge is to get into fiber arts. If you always respond with interest and fascination to discussions around Tarot or Runes, congratulations – divination is the path for you.
  • Work backwards. Where do you want to end up? One of the Selves my witchcraft students work with regularly is their Empowered Witch Self. This is an idealized self – authentic, capable, strong, educated, and profoundly magickal. Visualize who you want to be in the future. Now, work backwards. What’s one area you can focus on that puts you on the path toward that self? My Empowered Witch Self is skilled at energy work. A good challenge for me could be daily energy work exercises.
  • What do you need most? Are you feeling untethered and in need of grounding? Is your spiritual practice in the doldrums and in need of a jump? Have you gotten so entrenched in survival that you’ve let go of your spiritual connection? What are you missing right now? Where are you feeling a lack?

Determine a Time

 

One of the strengths of a challenge is that it’s timely and finite. Saying ‘I’m going to find something to be grateful about every day from now on’ when you don’t already have a gratitude practice is a huge ask. Same with almost any other ‘from now on until forever’ way of thinking. This is sometimes referred to as ‘All or Nothing’ thinking, and it’s a really bad habit a lot of people have. ‘I’m never going to eat carbs again’ is just as ridiculous as ‘I’m going to spend 20 minutes on altar work every day’ when neither of those lifestyle practices have been implemented at all. However, ‘I’m going carb free/spending 20 minutes on altar work for 30 days’ is reasonable. It may be difficult (it’s supposed to be a challenge after all), but there’s a finite end to it and every day of challenge brings us closer to it.

I personally love 30 day challenges. It’s roughly one month and a little over one full lunar cycle. The numerology of three is also good for a challenge – three is the triad and contains the beginning, middle, and end of a journey. We see threes as complete sets – mythological triads appear in many cultures. Three is also a strong number to build from – it’s the three-sided pyramid, the three legs on a stool, the three sides of the triangle (the structurally strongest of shapes). Starting with a challenge rooted in three numerology means that you’re putting together a strong foundation for what comes after. Think of it as creating a solid launch pad.

Determining a time includes choosing an auspicious starting day. There’s a reason challenges often appear around the spring equinox (March 20th this year) – the equinox marks the balance point of night and day. Every day afterward there’s a little more light as we round the bend toward springtime.  Most of us begin to feel more energetic and livelier around springtime as we respond to the natural shifts happening around us. It’s a great time to ride that wave of energy. Other options can be either full or new moons (depending on the kind of challenge you’ve selected), the first day of a month, or days that are relevant to you personally.

Select Specific Actions

It will surprise no one at all to read that one of my favorite quotes is ‘A dream without a plan is only a wish.’ A good challenge includes a specific action (or set of actions) determined in advance – your plan. So, for the yoga studio’s Spring Challenge, the specific action was ‘take one class or private session every day.’ For the Gratitude Project, it’s ‘select and post one thing you are grateful for today.’ To shift that into spirituality, it could be ‘perform one ten minute daily practice’ and then design what that practice holds. For example, my ten minute practice is:

  • Offerings: candle lighting, incense, ice (it’s a long story)
  • Five-minute meditation
  • Mala-based litany of praise to Freya
  • Ground, Center, Shield

If you’ve never created a daily spiritual practice before, I offer a workshop on the subject that can help you figure out a good flow for your own.  More information on that here.

If your challenge is study-based it could be reading one chapter of a book in your desired area of study per day. If you’re learning a divination system, it could be learning three cards/runes/etc per day and practicing layouts with the ones you’ve already learned.

Think about the specific actions in your challenge and write them out. You can even have more than one! If you’re learning a divination system, maybe you start with reading a book about them like Diana Paxson’s Taking Up the Runes or Courtney Weber’s Tarot for One. You could then move on to direct interaction with your divinatory tools. Consider where you’re going and the different parts of that challenge journey. Then, write it all out so you can easily reference the path your challenge is taking later.

Rewards

 

Rewards give us positive feedback that encourages the behavior to repeat. You can see this pattern clearly in video games: playing a round or completing a level (even if you do it poorly) triggers a ‘good job’ or similar praise, usually with fun graphics. It encourages us to repeat the pattern in order to be praised again. When we’re designing a Challenge, we need to build in some positive feedback.

My first suggestion is silly but effective. It’s stickers and a wall calendar. For the Spring Challenge at the yoga studio, I built a big posterboard sign that listed the participants names and then 30 spaces. After each class, people would get a sticker to put in one of the spaces.  You should have seen the scale of silly that occurred over those stickers. We had star stickers and smiley face stickers in varying colors and people got INTENSE about which stickers they wanted.  So, get some ridiculous stickers for your calendar and hang that bad boy in a place of honor where you’ll see it every day. There are tons of awesome witchy ones over on Etsy. After each completed day of the challenge, put a sticker on your calendar. Bask in the accumulating stickers and make your inner crow happy with its gleaming hoard of adhesive lovelies.

Another reward system I used to successfully quit smoking was timed rewards. Set up fun rewards that trigger after specific numbers of completed days of your Challenge. You could set one reward for each week with a big reward at the end for completion. Let these be things you actually want – experiences or objects you’ve been yearning after. They don’t even need to be related to the nature of the challenge, they just need to be incentives.

Accountability

 

There is a way to take peer pressure and turn it into a useful tool. I am socially anchored. This means that I am more likely to follow through on an action if it benefits another person, or if I am being accountable to them. Most people (although by no means all) are socially anchored to a greater or lesser degree. As you plan your challenge, consider finding a Challenge Buddy – someone who is interested either in your challenge or in doing a different challenge during the same window of time. The good peer pressure here – being accountable to a friend – helps support your own efforts in your challenge.  To up the stakes, make your rewards contingent on your buddy completing their part of the challenge.  They, in return, make their rewards contingent on you completing your part of the challenge.  I have used this technique personally and it’s amazing. I can be perfectly okay forgoing a reward for myself but would never cost my buddy their reward. So, I push through even when I don’t feel like it. I am NOT going to be the reason a friend of mine doesn’t get their ice cream sundae this week.

If your challenge has wide enough appeal, you could even consider forming a support group for it. Social media accounts like Facebook can be useful here. You can build filters for posts, set up groups, and otherwise create containers for your challenge. For example, I’m part of a self care accountability group. We have a daily check in where we post what we are doing for self care that day, often with a selfie. That’s it. But, that simple premise has seen my skin care routine improve dramatically in a short period of time. The buddy system works. Use it.

 

And remember, if a challenge is appealing to you, awesome. If right now all you can manage is to bathe every day, just ignore this entire blog. Not every tool I show you will work for you – it’s totally okay if this one doesn’t. All of the things that have been true all year are still true. We are in a pandemic. We’re exhausted. Our family dynamics and personal lives have changed drastically. We are isolated and struggling. So if your reaction to this blog is ‘fuck that,’ then you are absolutely right. Fuck challenges. Let’s just get through the day.

 

But if you’re ready to jump on that spring wave the way I am, tell me about it. What’s calling to you right now? What kind of challenge is appealing? Hit me up in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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