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What’s So Sacred About 90 Days?

Why is a 90-day review of intrinsic value? Maybe there is a better cycle for you. There is for me.

One to the recent contributors in the conversations on how to live well who has caught my attention is Dr Benjamin Hardy. I’ve got two of his books: Personality Isn’t Permanent and Who Not How. He impresses me with his fresh thinking about how we live to our potential in these crazy days.

In a recent post, he lists among his thirty maxims:

Focus on 90-day sprints rather than New Year’s Resolutions.

I agree that New Year Resolutions are a poor idea, with disappointing data, despite the practice being firmly ingrained in our popular culture.

Also, at first sight …. 90-day sprints…that sounds like a good period. It is a three-month cycle, which, if you live in latitudes where there are four seasons, it is broadly equivalent to one of those seasons. It is conveniently easy to review in quarterly chunks.

But why 90-days?

Why is this period, intrinsically of value? The calendar month is, in itself, a fairly arbitrary division of clock-time, as David Kadavy describes it in Mind Management NOT Time Management.

I am suspicious of simply taking months or aggregations of months as received wisdom for the best frequency to set goals and to review. However, periodic reviews longer than a week are important. Without them, we can drift for vast periods of our lives.

Meaningful Sprints

The concept of sprint comes from Agile project practices such as Scrum. In that context, where a small team works rapidly on changes, conventions in software engineering emerged quickly of periods of a month or less, often as short as 5 days. Each sprint would end with reviewing the results with the customer on a test system. Each sprint is collected into a group of consecutive sprints of say 6, where there would be an aim to release a new live version at the end of that group.

What is sensible as a sprint for our internal projects? That is hard to say and is a matter of context. Some of us do not have much discretionary time, so the key is to keep ourselves accountable for periodic self-review against our dreams and goals.

However, 90 days is not sacred, and for some of us, does not give us enough challenge to act now.

Practising Until It Becomes a Habit

I was raised a Roman Catholic. Each Lent I gave up something. For example, as a teenager, I once I decided to give up milk in my coffee. This is an insignificant thing in and of itself, you might think, but it taught me something about forming habits. Coming out of Lent, I no longer cared for milk in my coffee and have taken it black ever since. This, along with several other examples, taught me that forty days could be used a period to permanently shift things, big or small, in my habits, my thinking, my ways of operating.

Recent research has shown that various periods of claim habit change, whether it be 12 days, 21 days, 1 month––each do not stand up to scrutiny. Doing something for these periods does not always produce a permanent change in people. I suppose there are a number of factors, not least the nature of the practice itself.

Forty days occurs frequently in ancient literature as a period of great significance: the prophet Elijah needed forty days to prepare him to shift a fairly negative persecution complex; Jesus began his public adult ministry by immediately taking forty days in the wilderness. There were forty days between the resurrection of Christ and his Ascension into heaven. In the Western church, Lent, the preparation for Easter, lasts for forty days.

And so, I been practising 40/42 day reviews. In many respects, this period is better for me than 90 days.

All I can testify personally, as a rule-of-thumb, for most disciplines I want to adopt, 40-day consistent practice helps them stick so that they become a habit for me.

Scheduling and a 40-day Review

Now, Managing a 40-day review cycle is a little more tricky. Forty days doesn’t fit the standard calendar we all live and work by, and so requires a little more work to organise.

Forty days plus two days of review and adjustment are six weeks, which is a lot easier to schedule ahead, and it helps synchronise this with our weekly cycles.

I use an online app called Roam Research to help me do this; but with a little effort, most calendar apps can alert us to how much time there is toward the end of our current forty-day sprint.

I find that forty days has a powerful effect on the review cycle I talked about in my earlier post on Backwards Thinking.

There are two major areas that we would want to review:

  1. Our habits, existing ones that are not working for us and what we have established as new ones.
  2. Our personal projects and their outcomes.

So now, as part of my Personal Operating System, I build in six-weekly reviews. So, Ben, I would respectfully recommend 6-weekly reviews, with the emphasis on review.

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