The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Any Habit

The Bruce Lee Challenge starts by asking yourself one question: If you could make one simple change on a daily basis that would make the most significant positive change in your life, what would it be? What happens next is up to you...

How Not to Achieve Your Goals

Rely only on emotions. I had no idea a grainy Bruce Lee documentary filmed in 1977 would have such a lasting impact on my life. He was a legend, a testament to the miracle of self-discipline. I was supremely motivated and determined to get in the best shape of my life.

Do everything at once. After that first film, I devoured as much about Lee’s life as I could squeeze into my brain. I worked out like a madman, ran every day, and focused on eating healthier. I was consumed with a burning intensity to look like Bruce, à la Enter the Dragon (or maybe Fist of Fury).

Set outrageous goals. At the pinnacle of my fanaticism, I remember thinking I’d run every day for the rest of my life. As you can expect, I sputtered, then stalled. My once highly-regimented training plan all but evaporated within 6 short weeks from start to embarrassing finish.

Enter “The Bruce Lee Challenge”

From my Bruce Lee debacle, I learned yet again that self-discipline is hard work, and that motivation has a serious shelf life. I needed to find a way to short circuit the need for ongoing motivation and limit the amount of self-discipline required.

The possession of anything begins in the mind.” 
– Bruce Lee

What I needed was a way to use the power of habit to put my life changes on “auto-pilot” as Leo Babuta calls it (source). But I also had a hard time making the tiny changes Leo recommends. For example: waking up 10 minutes earlier each week. Getting to my goal for waking up would have taken 15 weeks, that’s just too long.

Instead, I wanted a balance between short-term challenge (using mostly will-power) and long-term achievability (using mostly discipline). But I also needed something with a clear plan of action that was easy to follow and re-use for any goal, habit, or person. Thus The Bruce Lee Challenge was born in honor of the legendary kung fu master.

Step 1: Choose Your Goal

Everything starts with a simple question: What one thing could you do differently on a daily basis that would have the greatest positive impact on your life?

A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.”–Bruce Lee

One trick is to look for friction between what you value and what you’re actually doing? For example, I highly valued health, yet I was sedentary and eating terribly. Next, convert your goals into things you can do daily. Getting healthy might mean “moving more” or “eating smarter”. Becoming debt free might mean “following a budget” or “saving more”.

One last thing to remember is that contrary to popular belief, goals are not specific and measurable, they’re general and long-term.

Step 2: Decide Your Key Objective

It’s time to determine the specific and measurable metric you’re going to use to track your results. We’ll call this your objective. For example, waking up early might become rising everyday at 5:30am. “Moving more” may become taking 10,000 steps daily. This metric is going to be your scoreboard on a daily basis, so make sure you can clearly know if you’ve achieved it.

Also, the more complex your goal, the more likely you’re going to have to break it down into multiple challenges. If you wanted to run in the morning, you may start with (1) waking early (2) walking daily, then (3) running daily. Each challenge builds on the one before. If you did these three challenges sequentially, you’d have mastered the habit of running in the morning in less than 60 days.

Step 3: Commit for 21 Days

Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
–Jim Ryun

You may have heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit. This idea was actually started by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who found that the “human mind takes almost exactly 21 days to adjust to a major life change.” While his research was originally on traumatic life events, he found the principle applied “universally” and worked equally as well on positive changes.

It also happens to be the perfect amount of time to create momentum, get tangible feedback, and yet still be realistic in terms of motivation. The most important thing to remember is to commit 100% to your key objective every single day. If you fail, that’s fine; tomorrow is a clean slate.  Just stick with it for the full 21 days.

Step 4: Take Immediate Action

All the goals in the world aren’t going to get you where you want to be. In fact, everything else about this challenge is engineered to produce motivation, which is defined as “the desire to DO SOMETHING”. As I’ve shared this challenge with friends and family there have been two clear reactions:

  • “That’s amazing- I know exactly what I’ll do” — and they DO something
  • “Thats interesting- I’ll think about it” — and they DON’T do anything

If you have even an idea of what will make the greatest positive change in your life and you don’t act on it, you’re simply not interested in growing or becoming a better you. But I know you’re not that kind of person. Remember, average is the worst of the best and the best of the worst.

Step 5: Make a Decision

After 21 days, you’ve hopefully reached a place where you have solid feedback on your efforts. The results are either extremely positive, lackluster or outright discouraging. If you’ve answered the first question correctly and had a realistic yet challenging objective, you should be able to emphatically say, “Yes! I want to continue doing this.”

In the rare occasion in which you haven’t enjoyed the last three weeks and don’t see the value in continuing, now is your chance for freedom. This has been rare, and I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of the the people enjoyed the process and were blown away by the results.

Finally, the ultimate goal of this exercise is not to spend all of your time and energy on the challenges. The purpose is to create new positive habits that allow your important life goals to be on auto-pilot while you to focus on growth in other areas. I truly believe you’ll find success, and I look forward to hearing your stories.

10 Reasons it Actually Works

  1. Your effort is focused – More
    • If you were to take one key point from this entire idea, it’s this: focus on one major goal at a time. When you bring your focus from a flood light (you’re entire life) to a laser (one specific objective), miracles start to happen. Remember that you can fit 17 challenges into one year- enough to completely re-invent your life!
  2. Your leverage is maximized – More
    • How did you answer the question in step one above? If you truly chose correctly (for you), you’re doing something you feel will bring tremendous benefit to your life. Everyone has the same 24 hour day, and you’re using your minutes and hours to make your life better, congratulations!
  3. You can celebrate little victories – More
    • Let’s face it, EVERYONE likes to win. When you break down big goals into small daily actions, they become less scary and easier to accomplish. Each time you meet your daily objective, you get a rush of positive endorphins, and you feel good about yourself. Be careful- it’s a vicious upward spiral.
  4. Your habit soon replaces motivation – More
    • Human beings thrive on routine, and we resist change. The key is to use temporary motivation to create the right habits that allow you to put your goals on auto-pilot. You’ll find that eventually it feels odd to NOT do the things that seemed impossible to maintain before.
  5. Your scoreboard is easily visible – More
    • By viewing your goals as specific and quantifiable objectives, you have a clear indication of how well you’re doing. You’re either waking up at 5am or you’re not. You’ve either taken 10,000 steps today or you haven’t (using a pedometer). As long as you’re keeping track, you’ll easily know if you need to step it up or pat yourself on the back.
  6. Your timeframe is finite – More
    • The beauty of 21 days is that you can already see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can see the “distance you’ll need to travel” and that in itself is motivating. If you combine that with setting a realistic, yet challenging goal, you’ll have a winning combination that has you saying, “Yeah! I can do that!”
  7. You have created ongoing momentum – More
    • One of my favorite parts about the entire challenge is that you’re experimentally- testing potential life-long changes. If you’ve truly benefited from the experience, your ability to continue will be much greater than if you started from scratch. It’s like Newton said, “A body in motion stays in motion.”
  8. You are building self-discipline – More
    • Let’s face it- practicing self-discipline isn’t fun. Heck, self-discipline is nearly a dirty word. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the single greatest keys to success in life. The good news is that when you’re in the flow and seeing results, you’ll be building your self-discipline muscle a little each day.
  9. This principle is always applicable – More
    • I don’t care if you’re homeless or Bill Gates, everyone can find something they can do daily that will make a significant positive change in their life. Additionally, no matter how many times you finish the challenge, there’s always an answer to the question waiting to be applied.
  10. You experience the halo effect – More
    • Be prepared for new positive habits to spring up spontaneously without any additional effort. While you should strongly resist the urge to start new goals at the same time, positive habits do tend to run in packs. Be aware of the opportunities as they present themselves.

7 Challenges I’ve Achieved

Goal (general) Habit (specific, measurable and actionable)
Wake Up Early Wake at 5:30am Daily
Work On Blog 120+ Minutes Focused Effort Daily
Move More Walk 5000+ Steps Daily
Read More 60+ Minutes Reading/Listening Daily
Eat Less 25% Smaller Portions For Each Meal
Write Consistently Write 1000+ Words Daily
Clean Kitchen Clean Dishes, Counters and Empty Trash Nightly

Challenges Others Have Started (or Achieved)

  • Wake up earlier
  • More family time
  • Not working on weekends
  • Write in journal
  • Walk daily
  • Clean more
  • Quite smoking
  • Your challenge here… (post a comment and I’ll add w/ your name)

Summing it all up

As you think, so shall you become.
–Bruce Lee

Whether you’re a high-achiever or you’ve never had the courage or persistence to stick with any big goals- it doesn’t matter. If you could make one simple change on a daily basis that would make the most significant positive change in your life, what would it be? Figure that out, take immediate action, and watch your life transform. Whatever you do, just don’t say, “That’s interesting- I’ll think about it!”

5 Questions For You:

  • Does this sound like a good idea?
  • What’s your “one thing”?
  • Will you post your challenge and be held accountable?
  • If you succeed, will you post your triumphs (and helpful tips)?
  • Do you have a better idea (or something I could change)?

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  • Talasan Nicholson

    I’ve been doing the 21 day challenge for a few things. One is to walk in the morning, another is to spend more time with my family away from work, and then finally to keep myself involved in the market.

    The first few days are really exciting – you’re off to a new journey/life. Then it becomes real work, and that’s the battleground between start to finish.

    A constant reminder of what I need to do to get what I want is essential.

    For waking up early, I now ask myself, “Would you rather sleep or live the life of your dreams?” which gets me up quite fast. I’ve been doing this for a couple months now, without fail.

    For spending time w/ my family, I have to push myself to do this – not because I don’t want to, but because there’s the illusion that there’s “so much to do”. Getting away is difficult, but I find it easier and easier as I keep willing it to be.

    For staying involved in the stock market, I can’t always invest – and I shouldn’t. I can’t always “be in the market”. But I can stay involved. So I’ve been reading a book related to the market every day. I have notes up on my wall/monitor to help me position my entries, exits & just general knowledge. Been doing this for a few weeks, but have been reading for years.

    Trying to become what you want to be is a full-time, rewarding and fulfilling task. The 21 day challenge is a great way to initiate it. It’s a simple goal: 21 days of doing X. Any average Joe can and will achieve their goals if they employ these kinds of methods.

    • Travis McAshan

      I love your thoughts. Scott Peck (author of The Road Less Travelled) said, “If you first accept that life is hard it ceases to be hard and just becomes life.” One trick I’ve tried with success in waking up early is what I call “Three Seconds of Will-Power”. I always struggle to get up but when I know that I only need 3 seconds of will-power, I get over the fact that waking up is hard and I realize all I really need to do is get out of bed (which coincidentally takes about 3 seconds). Simple idea… powerful results. Thanks for the comment!

  • Ted Mueller

    This reminded me of 2008 when I wanted to get more exercise regularly, so I set a goal to go to the gym 275 times that year (5-6 times per week). I wound up going 305 days and it became a habit. I don’t track it now but I know I go 5-6 days per week (usually at 5:30AM). One memory it brought back was I used an old school calendar on the wall at the top of my stairs, and put a green sticker on it every day I went. So I had a visual reminder of where my progress was each week and month that kept me on track, getting up and going. Funny how in this tech heavy world having something visual on the wall (not a phone app in your pocket) you see every night before you go to sleep can keep you focused.

    • Travis McAshan

      Ted, thanks for sharing your methods. I think visual reminders are hugely important as are writing down your goals. I wanted to add a top 25 tips for successful goal/habit settings but the article was already at nearly 2000 words. I think what you created was what I call the visual scoreboard, to know where you are and where you’re going. Excellent example!

  • Autumn Morgan

    I decided to wake up at 6 am every day. During this time, before the kids get up, I’ll review my goals book and board, go over my to-do list, pray, meditate, drink my coffee, write in my journal, and just make sure my mind and body are prepared to be productive that day! I’m also going to make sure to spend time with the kids each morning before they go to school- even if its just a few minutes each.

    • Travis McAshan

      This is a great goal. I’ve realized when you have all this extra time you can slow down. You’re entire day goes better because you’re not rushed. I look forward to hearing how it goes. Thanks for sharing!

  • Shannon Strong

    it reminds me of MOLLY with her stick or ball. she just DOESN’T STOP. even when she’s tired because she LOVES it. lol. you two were made for each other.

    the only thing missing from this page is a “LIKE” button. sometimes i’m reading your blogs on the go and am truly inspired and want you to know but don’t have time to comment

    No, really, i’m digging this site! it is really speaking to me at this time in my life!!! direction, effort, persistence!!! (it’s always the discipline i have trouble… with staying on task when the task isn’t always fun or rewarding)

  • Talasan Nicholson

    I keep coming back to re-read this for sparks of inspiration. Can’t wait to read more like this 🙂

  • Aaron Lee Travis

    I read this five months and thirty pounds ago, its still inspiring

  • Fleurtje Meijer

    I’m in my exam year of secondary school and study about 2 houres a week, which is ridiculous ofcourse. It never was a problem because my grades were still ok. Problem now is I have finally found a study which I really want to do after I graduate (only one out of 200, can you believe it?), and that study draws lots, the higher your grades, the higher your chance of getting in. I have already ruined half my grades, but I can still improve my chances if I change now.

    My specific goal: getting accepted into the study criminology, or at least increasing my chance by getting total average grade up to 7,50 (on a scale to 10).

    Right now it’s 6,66 (…coincidence? or not?)

    My first challenge: study at least one houre a day.

    – I have 3 days till 4 re-make tests to have a chance at getting some old grades up and thereby improving my average. I don’t have allot of hope for these, I started too late, again.
    – And 33 days untill central exams, which make half of my total average grade, my last chance of getting my grades up.

    Thanks allot for posting this challenge!

  • erin


    If a goal of mine has multiple subgoals (like the specific and measurable parts) within it, can I work on the entire goal within the 21 day period or only one subgoal at a time.

    Also, if I have a few high priority goals, can I tackle say, three or so at once, or would that really be setting myself up for failure?

  • Eidotevil

    I’m a muslim, and some one year ago (without having read this post yet) I have started with practicing my 5 prayers a day. It is still hard sometimes but I have gotten used to it (it has become a habit in such an extent that I actually feel bad if I miss even one prayer). What I have noticed is that it is easier to unlearn a certain good (or in light of religious duties, a religious practice) habit if you let go for only a few days, but thank God this is not the case in my case of keeping up with my prayers.

    I have read this post just now, because I was googling about kung fu, and I feel like implementing the steps of your post in a couple of things, and God willing to become better every day. I found it very inspirational and insightful.

    I will keep you updated on my progress, God willing and I wish you peace and good health!

    • Eidotevil

      Step 1. Working out on a daily basis with two days a week break (monday and thursday) God willing. Wish me good luck!

  • Sharad

    having a lot of things in my mind to achieve but will start of with a challenge of stabilizing my mind with meditation. Which will be the stepping stone to other related goals both in personal & professional life.

    Inspired with Bruce & will definitely commit myself to meditation process at least for 21 days without fail.

  • shuvendu halder

    Thanks a lot. That was so inspiring…

  • Dee

    I’m trying to wake up by 2:29 a.m and start studying. I have a national wide exam coming up in 4 months and I want to be the top scorer in my country. Tomorrow is my first day.will keep you posted. Thank you so much for this

  • divineblessings

    I found this article to be inspirational and motivational. 21-day challenges will be a great way for me to set goals and objectives until they become a habit for me to live a more fulfilled life and to accomplish the things that I have always wanted to but have been afraid to face my fears and come out of my comfort zone. Wish me luck!!!