This morning I lost a streak.
I woke up in a good mood, looking forward to a nice laid-back weekend, then I looked at my phone and shit, there it was. A 139-day streak gone.
Streaks as a way to track and motivate good habits are attributed to Jerry Seinfeld. He claims that he never thought of the idea and never even used the method, but it got into an early issue of Lifehacker and that was that: it’s even known as the “Seinfeld Strategy” now. Because we didn’t have apps in those days, faux-Seinfeld had a big wall calendar and would add a red X for every day in a row that he did whatever it was that he was trying to turn into a habit. He called it a “chain”, but because of the sports analogy, it soon became known as a “streak”, and now it is in thousands of gamified apps, most notoriously Duolingo.
I got into to the streaks thing with an Android app called simply Streaks about ten years ago, but have mainly been using Habitica, which is a bit more sophisticated, combining daily habit streaks with more intermittent activities (good and bad) and a to-do list, all wrapped up as a role-playing game with retro bitmap graphics.
As you can see in the screenshot, streaks can be habit-forming – which is after all the idea – to the point of obsession. That there is a 2,385-day streak for “Morning routine”. This is just a few exerises I do on waking, so it’s actually no big deal, but the thought of losing that after so long is kind of terrifying. Probably I’ll keep it going until I hit 2,555, or seven years, then decide enough is enough. (I just caught myself thinking “Wait, I also need to factor in leap-years” which shows I am sliding down the slippery slope to the Quantified Self). The one I missed is “TQM 60”, meaning a minimum of 60 minutes of taijiquan, qigong and/or meditation, though fortunately its less ambitious sibling, TQM 30, is still going.
Outside this lifehacker geekery, the interesting question is not whether streaks are useful in developing and maintaining good habits — they obviously are — but what to do when you lose a streak (assuming Duo doesn’t come round to kill you and your entire family). Obviously a certain amount of disappointment is in order, something between “Pfft” and burning your house down, but as Tim Ferriss says, “there’s a thin line between doing the work and beating yourself up.”
So I didn’t actually let myself be miserable for more than a few minutes but instead sat down with a cup of cocoa (my new habit being cocoa with coconut oil for breakfast) to work out a strategy. Should I (a) just start again, (b) give up tracking this habit, (c) start again with a lower target or (d) start again wth a higher target? All of these work in some situations. If it’s a typical streak where you go for about twenty days then lose it, it’s best to just start again and not think about it too much. If it’s become pretty automatic but you just lost it because of something unusual, you might want to stop tracking it because actually you’ve succeeded in creating a habit — I just did this with flossing, for example. If you keep failing after a few days, you want to set the bar lower – I recently did this with language learning, where I stopped timing it and just settled for doing a lesson a day to keep the owl at bay. But in this case, I think I’ll go for the counterintuitive one, which is to actually raise the bar. If I keep aiming for 60 minutes a day, then it’s going to be four months before I get back to where I was. I could increase to 90 minutes, but I did that before and managed to clock up 500 days (because pandemic), so what the hell, I thought, let’s go for two hours. Now I probably won’t get very far with this, what with holding down a job and all, but if I can just manage a month, that’ll be something. I’m also going to change the name from “taijiquan, qigong and meditation” to “meditation and martial arts”, partly because I want to add some capoeira drills and partly because it will shorten to “M&Ms”, which will make me smile when I look at my phone.
Time to post this and practice some German before the owl gets me.