“Challenge” may be one of the more over-used words in the modern world. In this world of “14 ways to improve yourself” and “9 steps to career success” and “do this to get rich” courses it has become unacceptable to describe anything as a disaster, a setback, a problem, an obstacle or anything purely negative. No, what we are told to do is to use words like “challenge” and “opportunity” and  “learning” (as in “…learning from a setback or loss…”). This is quite sound thinking and may help us focus on positive aspects, choices to be made, actions to be taken, lessons to be learned, etc. The risk may lie in the possibility of sugar-coating life and creating an unrealistic view of things. One way to use the term “challenge” in a very positive and very realistic way is to consider challenging yourself. What CAN you really achieve? Can you really do XYZ thing? Let’s talk about challenging ourselves…..

A challenge might be compared to a stretch-target or goal. An achievement that is by no means certain. A thing that may, or may not, be do-able. It’s a challenging objective. It is typically a bit out of our comfort zones. There is uncertainty of outcome (succeed, fail, something-in-between) and the attempt will require some real effort and or dedication and or commitment and or application. This can be very positive and nearly all experts will tell us that “aiming high” is a great way to grow and to discover what we are actually capable of. Fair enough, but a note of caution: setting challenges that are too tough, too unrealistic, too improbable, can become demotivating if the result is repeated failure. We recommend a balanced approach to goal-setting and self-challenge: have some simpler, easier, probably short-term challenges, and some tougher and probably more long-term ones too. The mix should keep you motivated and you seek to build yourself through life.

We think that serious self-challenges are often best kept private. There may well be a place for involving others in some cases, and the support of friends, family, colleagues, can be helpful, yes. But in this world where it is increasingly common to feel that everything should be shared (with the whole world, in real time, including pictures…) please at least consider the merits of a more private approach to self-improvement and self-challenge. If nothing else, doing so will remind you that at the end of the day, this is your life and its successes and failures, are yours. Yours alone.

So what sort of things might be worthwhile as self-challenges. Here are some ideas:

  • Exercise for at least 3 hours a week, for 6 weeks in a row. Do this and you will have the beginnings of an active lifestyle. Notice that it almost does not matter what sort of exercise you do, how hard you train, etc. – in this challenge we are just looking to start a habit we can continue with (this is the key to active living: starting in a sustainable way).
  • Lose X kg in one year. Just make sure that X is not more than 10% of your current weight. And please, please, please, resist the temptations of short –term crash diets where the focus is on rapid and huge weight loss (these almost always fail and actually create bigger problems long term).
  • Complete a training or educational course. It may be work related or more to do with a personal interest or hobby. But ongoing learning is one of the keys to quality living.
  • Stop it. Smoking, drinking, drinking too much, doughnuts at work, 6 hours of TV every day…..we all have habits that we know are problems. The challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to stop. Just stop.
  • Socialise smartly. This requires some thought. Consider how you spend your social time. Who is adding value to your life? Who is not? The people we surround ourselves with have a massive impact on us so choose wisely. Changing this is not always easy (and in some cases it is impossible) but considering it and changing what (who) you can is a great way to live better and more mindfully. Challenge yourself to spend your social time “better”.
  • Tithe, for your future. The idea of contributing 10% of your income to good causes (historically the church) is an old one. Perhaps we can revitalise it by thinking of tithing for our own futures. Challenge yourself to save 10% of this year’s income (more if you can, but 10% is a fair start). Be specific: how much money, in which bank account and by when?

Challenging yourself is a great way to grow. It can help you develop into the person you want to be. It can help you live more deliberately, more mindfully. It is a habit worth developing and the wisest among us almost always follow this sort of approach to life. So, what challenges make the most sense to you? Today? This week? This year?

Written by Dr Colin Burns