Four learnings from Superweeks: from habits to self-promises

Jul 13, 2022  •  6 minute read

Eight years ago, in the frigid February winter of Detroit, I was in a rut.

Exercising regularly had always been challenging to me, and I was continuously unsuccessful in establishing a routine. My nightly meal was a quinoa bowl with garlic powder and mozzarella cheese mixed in (it’s actually tasty; don’t knock it ‘til you try it!). I spent the majority of my time either working or scrummaging through Netflix and Reddit in search of entertainment.

Born from this rut was the Superweek: seven consecutive days of, essentially, living the version of myself that at the time I thought of as “successful”. Not successful in terms of status, but of personal abilities. For me, that meant: (1) being in good physical shape, (2) being a great cook, and (3) being well-read. To satisfy completion in these three areas, I devised a schedule to exercise daily, cook a new meal every night, and to lock myself out of all forms of digital media (so I’d be forced to read the pile of books that had accumulated on my desk). And that’s exactly what I did for the next week.

That’s it. That’s Superweek: overloading yourself with the many habits you yearn to do regularly. It’s a deeply personal plan, unique to the individual. Even to the current perspective of the same individual—I’ve completed five Superweeks in the past decade, and each time I’ve included a different set of behaviors to focus on, including meditation, writing, and diet changes. You stack multiple behaviors that you wish you habitually practiced into a single, “super” week. In my experience, each Superweek spawns during periods of low activity and mood—when I consider myself in a rut. And each time I come out of the week feeling more energized and positive.

In reflecting on Superweeks, a few key learnings stand out to me.

1. Superweek is not a tool to establish new habits.

Superweek is a stark violation of how we currently understand successful habit formation. The main premise of James Clear’s mega-popular Atomic Habits is that habits are cemented by incremental changes in your behavior, not by shocking your lifestyle with multiple, immediate differences. “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement,” says Clear. In my current life, I can attest to this as well. You should not expect all Superweek behaviors to stick after the week ends.

2. Motivation is most valuable in behavior planning, not in immediate activity.

Motivation is powerful, yet fleeting. It’s well documented that relying on motivation does not lead to sustained success in habit formation. Self-discipline is a more reliable tool, but still prone to exhaustion. Instead, when motivation strikes you, use that surge of energy to build plans that will help you continue rituals when motivation inevitably flees you and returns to the sky.

If your goal is to cook a new meal every day, don’t wait until Wednesday evening after work to decide which recipe you want to cook, research which ingredients you need, and then drive to the store. Such barriers will increase the likelihood you fall back to what’s already comfortable and easy, especially after a draining work day. For me, motivation was already high when deciding to undergo Superweek, and it was way easier mid-week to stick to the schedule because I had done my planning and shopping all at once on the Sunday evening before. Jim Loehr speaks to this in The Power of Full Engagement:

“Since will and discipline are far more limited and precious resources than most of us realize, they must be called upon very selectively. Because even small acts of self-control use up this limited reservoir, consciously using this energy for one activity means it will be less available for the next one. The sobering truth is that we have the capacity for very few conscious acts of self-control in a day.”

Some modern work-ethic culture touts extreme self-discipline as the right way to achieve your personal goals. It glorifies pain—that if you’re truly going to make changes you must persevere through difficulty for it to be meaningful. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” I believe there’s truth in this quote, but that doesn’t mean that you must stubbornly throw your head against the brick wall of change just for the glory of the struggle. It will involve effort, sure, but you can and should ease the burden of stress to which you submit yourself. Give yourself a break. Make specific plans—what you’ll cook, when you’ll cook it, access to ingredients—ahead of time so that your mid-week self has it as easy as possible to carry out your goals

3. Completing Superweek is a powerful mood booster.

I always finish Superweek feeling much better than when I started it. In reflecting on why this is, I cannot connect Superweek to many science-backed reasons, or proven theories on human behavior. So—bear with me—this section is pure conjecture backed by reasons that resonate with me.

  1. Superweek habits are often physically healthy. Exercising, eating better foods, meditation, etc. There is thankfully an abundance of research on these behaviors to support physical well-being, and thus, mood.
  2. Action is more energizing than dreaming. You tap into a well of joy when doing things that align with your personal goals. The important part here is “align with your personal goals”, not expectations that others place on you.
  3. You prove to yourself that you’re capable of accomplishing your goals. Even though you’re executing on behaviors that you find alluring for one week, that’s still likely seven more days than you typically do. Sure, lasting habit formation will unlikely occur out of Superweek, but for a short time you lived the life that you envisioned your successful self lives. You did that; it’s a reality in the books that can’t be scratched away. You’ve seen you can get there. Now, maybe you can start with one of those behaviors and work on it until it sticks as a weekly habit.

EDIT: My good friend Dr. David Sparkman, PhD Psychology offered the "self-discrepancy theory" as a possible explanation to this phenomenon:

"The self-discrepancy theory states that individuals compare their "actual" self to internalized standards or the "ideal/ought self". Inconsistencies between "actual", "ideal" and "ought" are associated with emotional discomforts... Self-discrepancy is the gap between two of these self-representations that leads to negative emotions."

If there's truth to this theory, then Superweek closes the gap between your "actual" and "ideal" selves, thus reducing self-discrepancy.

4. Fulfilling promises you make to yourself is itself a habit, and a powerful one.

It’s easy to say “I’m going to work out tomorrow.” Actually going to the gym the next day is the hard part, especially if it’s not already a habit of yours. I know from decades of personal experience that not following through on fitness goals feels bad. Not only do I miss out on the physical benefits offered by exercise, but I feel as though I’ve failed—failed my family, my friends, my past and future selves.

Superweek is a tool that I’ve accidentally used to keep promises to myself I might have otherwise broken. Knowing there’s a definite end, seven days away, to the period of self-accountability made it much easier to follow through on Superweek goals. I kept all the promises to myself I made. And that fulfillment felt good in itself. It improved my self-esteem. It was a habit I didn’t know existed, one that can be honed and sharpened, and it’s been my most important takeaway from Superweek. Extenuating circumstances aside, to this day I keep the promises I make to myself in this way.

So, all this to say: Is Superweek worth it?

I’m biased, of course, but I say absolutely yes. If not just for the elevated mood I’ve found myself in during and afterwards, but for what you learn about yourself during the week. I imagine (and hope!) that for every person who does Superweek, there’s a unique article like this one with unique learnings they’ve uncovered about themselves.

If you’re interested in doing Superweek, write down a few habits that you’d like to stick to weekly. Then, schedule out a week of those habits in as much detail as you can. Finally, throughout the week, fulfill the promises you made to yourself by sticking to your plan.

I’d love to hear about your experience if you’d like to share! I’m on Twitter at @jessetweettweet.