Building a Healthy Habits Challenge: What Works and What Doesn’t

The team at CHWTraining might know all about developing and keeping healthy habits, but that doesn’t mean we always do it. Even for people in the health education business like us have habits we’d like to change: stopping smoking, drinking less alcohol, drinking more water, eating less meat, eating fewer sugary foods.

This January, our parent company Talance wanted to encourage this kind of change internally instead of just for our clients and course participants. Here’s what happened.

First, we researched several workplace wellness challenges to find a format we liked. This article on Health.gov, 7 Simple, Fun Wellness Challenges to Start At Work, had some ideas we liked.

Importantly, we wanted people to control how they participated. We teach many people about behavior change with techniques like Motivational Interviewing, and we all know that no one will change anything unless they’re inwardly motivated to do so. We wanted to tap into intrinsic motivation as well as extrinsic motivation. NBC’s Better explains it well in this article 3 types of motivation that can inspire you to do anything.

Setting Healthy Habits Goals

Armed with some ideas, we decided to create a challenge that affirmed any positive change that anyone wanted to make. However, because cutting back on smoking is the single best thing anyone can do for their health, we wanted to especially encourage any smokers to cut back or stop. The 31-Days-Free Challenge was born.

The 31-Days-Free Challenge was open to anyone who wanted to participate in one of two ways:

Title: Challenge description - Description: No Smoking Challenge: Stop smoking or cut back.Put Something Else in Your Mouth Challenge: Don't smoke? Pick something you DO or DO NOT want to do that will improve your health (drink water, quit drinking, cut out sugar).

From the start, everyone was very interested in curious about the challenge. But as time went by, fewer people decided to participate. We would have loved everyone to join, but creating new habits is tough. It has to happen on an individual basis—not just because there’s a challenge there or because it’s January 1. So we hope to catch more next time.

We were left with a core of four who signed up and stuck with it for the whole month. Here’s what our challenges looked like:

Anastasia

Title: goal - Description: My challenge: Smoke not more than 5 cigarettes per day for 5 days/ week. Don't smoke at all for 2 days/week.

Monique

Title: Goal - Description: “Reduce alcohol consumption in January from 5 units to 3 units by drinking only on weekends (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).”

Pamela

Title: Goal - Description: “I will reduce the sugar treats (cake, cookies, chocolate, ice cream, candies) + junk food (that's a long list including diet soda) from almost every day to *1 serving per week*.”

Peter

Title: goal - Description: “Eat vegetarian for 8 days in the month (about 2 days a week)”

We’re All Winners Here

There were no losers in this challenge–only winners. So we designed a system where every week participants would self-report how they did based on the achievement points (see the full list below), which were added to a scoreboard. During the week, we opened our internal chat channel (#31-days-free) to advice, reports, tips and encouragement.

This is what a typical week looked like on the scoreboard:

What Worked and What Didn’t

The result? It worked! Everyone who participated made improvement. Most people kept to their goals for the whole month, or at least got close. We all felt better physically and also had fun as a team in a different way that wasn’t related to a project.

As Anastasia said, “For me, it was important that we did it as a team, and that each week I had to say how I was [doing] and state specific achievement points.”

As planned, our chat channel was busy with reports, encouragement and recipes. It was empowering to see how everyone was working toward their goals and how they were navigating barriers. We were all in the spirit of helping each other succeed.

And as expected, there were some unforeseen holdups. For example, my challenge, which required me to cut out my dinnertime glass of wine most nights, didn’t take into account a mid-week birthday celebration that included champagne. So next time, I know to build in some flexibility.

This is a good lesson for anyone who doesn’t reach their goal, whether it’s someone with type 2 diabetes trying to cut down on sugary foods or someone who’s looking to control substance use. Failure can be valuable. It teaches you what your limits are and reveals obstacles that you can navigate next time.

Smokers know this too. Quitting is hard. Slip-ups are inevitable and can be discouraging. According to one study, “it may take 30 or more quit attempts before being successful.” But each slip-up is a learning experience. Note it, what caused it, and keep moving.

There were also some problems with the format. It felt too much like a competition to some. Anastasia said, “Competition didn’t work for me. I wanted to help and learn from the others so I couldn’t see it as a competition.”

There were also some logistical hiccoughs. About halfway through the month, we noticed that some people were making excellent progress but not earning any achievement points. We added a “fill-in-the-blank” point to use whenever you’re doing well but aren’t fitting the list of points.

Next time, we’ll probably forget any points and instead focus on supporting healthy habits only. Importantly, there will be a next time, and many of us are still sticking with our new healthy habits even past January. Hello, flexibility challenge!

Wellness Achievement Points

Here were the achievement points we awarded, which you can copy for motivating your group.

General Points

  1. Post your SMART goal to #31-days-free
  2. Put yourself on the scoreboard
  3. Help someone on  #31-days-free stay on goal
  4. Share a tip on #31-days-free for staying on challenge
  5. Stick to your challenge for 1 week for 1 bonus point
  6. Stick to your challenge for 2 weeks for 2 bonus points
  7. Stick to your challenge for 3 weeks for 3 bonus points
  8. Stick to your challenge for 4 weeks for  4 bonus points
  9. Recruit one person in your life to do your challenge with you
  10. Find a team partner
  11. Meet your challenge goal on both Saturday and Sunday
  12. Walk around the block instead of doing something you’re trying to stop
  13. Set your health goal for February
  14. Meditate
  15. Suggest an achievement point (if it gets enough thumbs-up, you
    get a point, and we’ll add it to the list)
  16. Distract yourself by doing a good deed for a few minutes

No-Smoking Points

  1. Go 1 day without smoking
  2. Try Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT), such as Nicorette gum, patch, lozenge
  3. Get a Chantix prescription
  4. Walk past the tobacconist
  5. Play with your phone rather than smoke
  6. Remove all ashtrays
  7. Look up number for local quitline
  8. Call quitline
  9. Set a quit day
  10. Download a quit app to your phone (QuitNow! for Android or QuitNow! for Apple)
  11. Read a quit smoking book
  12. Give money for a pack of cigarettes to a trusted friend or charity for safekeeping instead of buying one (count how much you have on Feb. 1)
  13. Attend a support group, such as https://stepbac.com/ or https://www.icoprevencio.cat/uct/en/quit-smoking/
  14. Try an alternative therapy, like acupuncture
  15. Take smoking cessation class
  16. Go to a smoke-free zone when you feel like smoking

Put-Something-Else-in-Your-Mouth Points

  1. Download a healthy eating app to your phone (food log, exercise log, no drinking log)
  2. Walk 1000 steps (or 1/4 mile or 1 km) instead of putting That Thing in your mouth
  3. Get a pedometer
  4. Cook a new healthy recipe (share it on #31-days-free)
  5. Skip meat at 1 meal
  6. Have a meatless Monday
  7. Eat 5 servings of produce in a day
  8. Drink a glass of water instead of a glass of wine
  9. Drink 8 glasses of water in a day
  10. Walk somewhere instead of driving/taking a taxi/metro
  11. Create a healthy grocery list
  12. Try one new healthy food you haven’t tried before
  13. Read a healthy eating/cooking book
  14. Take a cooking class that meets your challenge
  15. Plan a weekly menu (post it here!)
  16. Instead of putting That Thing in your mouth, chew a stick of gum
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