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The Problem with Habit Streaks

The Problem with Habit Streaks

Thankfully, we made it through January... which means we’re through that part of the year where everyone on social media comes together to make fun of New Years’ Resolutions.  

“January 3, 2019: Meant to go to the gym, ate a donut instead... 2020 is my year!” 

I just made this example up, but you know what I’m talking about: all the memes and tweets implying that if you mess up your resolution one time, you’ve lost your chance until next year. 

I always get a good laugh out of these, because they are relevant: after all, this is the way a lot of people think about their resolutions (and honestly, this is the way I used to think about mine). 

But if we are thinking about this logically, we know that eating one donut on January 3rd doesn’t prevent you from going to the gym until 2020. 

Don’t we? 

How Did Our Approach to New Year’s Resolutions Become So Illogical? 

Most things that people resolve to do at the beginning of a New Year are not things that can be achieved in one day, or even in one month. Resolutions tend to be those types of goals that require sustained focus and gradual, incremental progress over a long period of time. Put simply, forming new, healthier, long-term habits is the basis for succeeding at many common New Years’ Resolutions (think: paying down debt, saving money, losing weight, eating healthier, going to the gym regularly, growing a business or brand, etc.)  

Since it takes time to see results on these types of goals, even when we put in consistent work on a regular basis to establish and stick with the underlying good habit (exactly as we should be doing), people have sought ways to stay motivated during the process instead of having to wait until the goal is achieved at some point in the distant future.  

One of these motivational strategies is called a habit streak.  

When you are trying to establish a new habit, particularly if it is something you do on a repetitive schedule (daily or for a set number of times each week), early success can lead to later success because you don’t want to break the streak of success. This concept was apparently popularized by Jerry Seinfeld, is the basis for a lot of modern habit tracking apps and is mentioned several times in the first book I read in 2019, Cal Newport’s Deep Work.  

I’ve personally written about how this concept helped me to establish a regular habit of going to the gym: in the first six weeks of 2017, my gym hosted a challenge to show up at least three times a week. There were times later in the challenge that I seriously didn’t want to go to the gym, but since I had been three times a week for the first four weeks... I didn’t want to break my streak.  

And when those six weeks were over, I had established a habit, independent of the streak, where I automatically planned my life in such a way that I could get to the gym three days a week most weeks... because I’d proven to myself during those six weeks that I could. 

But here’s the thing about habit streaks: they become a problem if we start equating breaking the habit streak with failure.  

One of the primary problems with habit streaks is that it is easy for the streak itself to become the focus, instead of the underlying goal. Let’s say you resolved to get healthier and stronger this year, and you decided to kick off the year with a short-term habit streak (like our example of committing to going to the gym three times a week for the first six weeks). But at some point, you have a week where you only get to the gym twice.  

If getting healthier and stronger is the end game, it doesn’t really matter if you have one week where you get less gym sessions in than expected. Since getting healthier and stronger is a long-term goal, missing one gym session is not that big of a deal if you get back to your habit of going three times a week the following week.

Unfortunately, that isn’t what many people do... hence the memes about New Years’ Resolutions being done for the year after one mishap. If the habit streak becomes the focus instead of the end goal, then missing one of your three days a week at the gym and breaking your streak feels like failure. And if your streak is already broken, what’s the point of going to the gym next week?  

After all, you already failed... right? 

As funny as that reaction is in a meme format, I think we can all agree it is completely illogical. 

What Does a Logical Approach to New Year’s Resolutions Look Like? 

Let’s address another illogical aspect of New Year’s Resolutions: chipping away at things over the long term, for some reason, has a bad reputation. There are all sorts of mentions in a variety of fields about that ‘boring middle part’... where you’ve resolved to do something or have a big goal you want to accomplish, and now you just consistently repeat small actions that bring you a tiny fraction of an inch closer to your goal. For days, weeks, months, and in many cases, years.  

It makes some logical sense that people would try to come up with motivational strategies, like habit streaks, to keep them going through that ‘boring middle part’.  

But here’s the thing: that middle part doesn’t have to be boring. We need to get rid of the negative connotation associated with making incremental progress on the way to our goals... because incremental progress is still progress.  

And progress itself is success, when the alternative option is no progress at all.  

There’s only one way to fail at a goal like getting healthier or stronger: quit trying. If you resolve to hit the gym three times a week and you end up only getting there one day a week consistently, guess what? One day a week is better than zero.  

Because there’s this thing that happens when you keep moving towards something... you start moving faster. Momentum leads to more momentum. So even if you feel like that end goal is a long way away, start moving toward it. When you can, where you can, with whatever time you can find.  

The only foolproof way to fail is to quit moving. 

So just keep moving, my friends. 



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Monthly Review: January 2019

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Responding to New Year's Resolution Hate