Streak ratios, not absolutes

Dec 15, 2022

I have finally internalised the best way to build habits. With the year coming to an end it is recap season. As I look back at how I fared on my various resolutions I see it clearly now. Ratios is where it’s at.

The way of the streak

This is the standard way of building habits. The most famous and simplest to understand at least. The timelines differ (21 days, 45 days or 10000 hours, depending on which article you read) but the concept is simple:

Don’t break the streak

Set a goal, say a daily walk goal of 30 minutes, and hit it everyday. Track your progress as a streak. The idea is not to miss a single day. Do it everyday and soon the process becomes a habit.

I started off learning French this way. Duolingo makes it very easy to track my streak in language learning. It is, after all, it’s whole gimmick - surely you have seen the memes of the generally amiable but sometimes terrifying owl, Duo, “suggesting” you hit your daily learning goal.

I couldn’t keep it up. I could make do on the streets of France, understanding about 30% of the common phrases, but nothing fancy. I had a streak of around 150 days, but near the end it got tedious. I was repeating lessons for the sole purpose of keeping the streak, I had lost motivation. And Duolingo makes it all about the streak. The reminders, the main view, the lesson progress, everything is to advance the streak.

To its credit it works for the most part. I probably stuck around a month longer just because I wanted to keep the streak. And it also makes it hard to lose a streak (streak freezes, training) but when it happened, when one day I simply couldn’t be arsed to open the app to complete one 10 minute lesson, the motivation absolutely vanished. The 160 day streak broken, a colossal failure. To get back here it would take atleast 160 more days.

1 week later I uninstalled the app, couldn’t live with my own failure.

Streaks are a manifestation of aiming for perfection

The anti-thesis of the 80% rule. You know the one - the huge project that needs to be completed, you don’t really need to hit all the requirements. Hitting 80% of it is more than enough. Or something along those lines.

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. Yeah. That saying. Or like my friend puts it, “A perfect system never gets created”. We just live with compromises that hurt us the least.

Concentrating on keeping an absolute number, the longest streak you’ve had, as a motivation is training your brain to think in binary terms. You have to hit the streak. Else you are a failure. Our brains are human after all. They are going to slip up. Eventually. End when they do, it’s going to be hard to get back again.

160 days man. Damn.

In my previous company where I worked for nearly 2 years, I maintained a daily work log. Spending five minutes at the end of everyday writing about the work I did. A folder with markdown files, titled by the date ( ISO 8601, you really, really should be following this superior date format ). While I digress, here’s why you should do it too:

I was able to do it for I think 1.5 years, and then I missed a week’s worth of logs. And I stopped. I kept wanting to add to it but I was held back by simply looking at the directory: there a 1 week period I had to fill because it would then be “complete” will sit and do it over the weekend. I can remember what happened over 5 days, it’s cool. Missed it.

There’s a two week period to fill in, memory is kinda fading but I remember the broad points. I can still do it. Missed. I have to fill in the blanks. But the longer I took, the lesser I was motivated to get back on.

I stopped doing something that clearly had benefits to it regardless of whether I did it everyday or not  by focusing on the “everyday”. When I couldn’t hit the everyday mark I gave up.

Which, of course, is stupid. I knew that. Even then. But it didn’t feel right.

Streak ratios - the way of life

I come across this comment, I think on some thread about productivity and habit building. This Redditor called it No Zero Days now a semi-major underground productivity movement. Not to look at streaks as a binary sequence of 0s and 1s i.e., integers, but as a sequence of floating point values.

You don’t have to hit your daily goals always, just make some progress at-least everyday. Daily walk goal of 30 minutes? It’s already 2300 and you just want to hit the bed? Walk for a minute. Do at-least a little bit of progress so it is not a 0 in your streak but a 0.03 maybe.

You goal now is not to hit 1 everyday, but to avoid staying at 0. And in the worst case where you do hit a 0, it is fine! Forgive yourself, try again tomorrow.

You know you will kill your streak someday. But it’s fine. That’s not your goal anymore. It is consistency of effort. And even then you aren’t chasing it militarily. It’s ok to fumble. Get up, dust off, and get back.

You are not aiming for 160 continuous days. Instead, if you are able to hit 145/160 days of some effort , that is still an Achievement. Celebrate it.

The resolutions that worked

In my current company I no longer maintain a daily work log, I maintain a work log. I don’t spend 5 minutes at the end of everyday journaling, I keep the window open and whenever I get the time and when I need to make a note of something, I write it down. Some days I just have an empty file. Some days I don’t have a file.

It is fine.

It’s been close to 1.5 years in the current company and I’m positive I don’t have a file for everyday. Maybe 70% of the work days have a file. But the benefits remain, I log my work. And it is helpful as always.

In the last three months I started going on evening walks. It is my preferred way of meditating now. Bonus points for the cardio. A week back I read an article about the benefits of walking and I absolutely identify with it all.

I try to do it everyday, but when I miss I don’t sweat it ( pun absolutely intended). Yesterday I missed it. Today when I was walking it hit me, my miss yesterday barely had a mental impact on me. I went out today with the intention of closing my exercise ring of today. If I had let Duo be my taskmaster I would be dead by now. I am glad I no longer train under Duo.

This time when I get back to learning French I will avoid the streak mentality.