Do Habit Streaks Really Help You Long Term?

Man, everybody is obsessed with habit streaks. I get it. I was too.

Lately, though I’ve been realizing that we have this all wrong. And if you want to really develop a habit, streaks are making it harder, not easier, to get there.

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That’s hard to believe though, right? I mean, streaks seems to make so much sense:

If you want to develop a habit that means that you want to do something every day. To make sure you do something every day, the obvious thing to do is track how many days in a row you’ve done it.

As an added benefit, now you feel even more motivated to keep doing that thing because you start to see that number grow. Nice!

So far so good, but how many 1500 day streaks do you have going? Not many?

How many 7, 30 or 100 day streaks did you have, lose and then abandon any hopes of redeveloping? If you’re anything like me, probably a lot more.

Streaks seem so obvious that no one seems to be taking a closer look to consider if they really help long-term.

Here is a quick run-through of the problem with streaks:

Habit Streaks Cause Anxiety (which leads to short-term motivation but long-term aversion)

There is an introductory period where streaks are really, truly valuable. Somewhere between 7-30 days.

After that, something happens. The streak begins to feel like an accomplishment. That seems great at first but slowly turns into anxiety as you become afraid of losing that accomplishment.

You start to tie your own personal value and identity to that silly number and what started as a habit you’d hopefully come to enjoy turns into just another homework assignment to get through so you can tick that number up and not feel the pain of it going back to zero.

Perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for that fact that…

All Habit Streaks are Destined to Fail

The bigger problem is that sometimes life gets crazy and no matter how engrained a habit is, we just truly forget to do it.

This happens naturally even with fully-engrained habits but developing habits are especially at-risk for an occasional miss — it’s just about certain.

Therefore your habit streak is destined to fail and go back to 0 eventually. And man is that unbelievably demoralizing.

In fact, the longer your streak is, the more it hurts to lose. So here you are with a 200 day habit streak, thinking you’ve really got a habit going. But it crashes down all the harder when you miss a day. This is what I call a “forced habit.”

The opposite of a forced habit is a true habit. The difference between a forced habit and a true habit is not necessarily consistency. The difference is what happens when you miss a day.

Think about even the strongest “true” habits in your life… drinking coffee in the morning, brushing your teeth, checking facebook. Do you have worry about tracking a streak for any of those?

For example, let’s say you’re going on vacation. You’ve got an early flight and don’t have time to brush your teeth. You make the flight and get whisked into the whirlwind of your first day of site-seeing and never have a chance to scrub those pearly-whites.

Night time rolls around and you’re tired, laying in bed after a busy but incredible day… suddenly you lick your teeth and realize you never broke the Crest out! Do you care? Does it matter that you had a 243 day streak going of brushing your teeth every morning?

No. You’re not even tracking how many days in a row you brush your teeth because it’s a true habit. You’ll just brush them the next morning, whether you think about it or not.

Now imagine that same situation except you had a 243 day meditation streak going in your meditation app. Do you jump to grab your phone to check if it’s before midnight so you can quickly get a session in? Do you feel crushed when you see it’s 12:24, open the app and see your streak is has fallen back to 0?

Do you meditate the next day or do you think, “fuck meditating, I’m on vacation.”

That’s a forced habit, friends. The true habit was never even there because you were too focused on the streak.

Habit Streaks create the wrong habit

Streaks are deceptive because it feels like you’re making progress towards developing your habit even though you really aren’t.

In fact, progress feels even easier than you thought because you don’t have to engage yourself deliberately in the activity for that number to go up and for you to feel the feelings of success.

As I mentioned before, this is actually very valuable for 7-30 days when you’re first getting started.

Beyond that, you need something more to develop a true habit.

Here’s what I mean:

Let’s say you’re trying to get a journaling habit going. So you track it and your streak goes up. You start off strong, but then start getting busy with life. You want to keep your streak going, so you start writing short, half-assed entries.

That feels good. You spend less time journaling and you don’t get much out of it but your streak is going up, so the habit is building, right?

Well, what habit is developing? The habit of journaling or the habit of getting your streak up? Probably the latter.

Inevitably, you’ll either miss a day or realize that after 120 days you’re not getting any benefits and conclude that, “journaling doesn’t really do anything for me anyway…”

No habit of any value was ever close to crystallizing, so you just move on in life.

If not streaks, then what?

As you can imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about what actually develops true habits.

I think I’m getting closer to decoding it, but that’s going to take an article longer than this. If any of the above resonates with you, leave a comment below with your thoughts and I’ll let you know when the next piece goes live 👍