I’ve experimented with various techniques over the years to build good habits. Given I’m nowhere near perfection, let’s say not all methods worked well—the reviews are mixed. I’ve since then discovered the power of habit-streaks. It’s no wonder I’m a fan. I reckon you should be too. Hear me out…
Allow me to brag
I started the year by trying to get into a habit of closing all three rings (for move, exercise, and stand) on my Apple watch for 30 continuous days. Before this endeavor, my longest stretch had been eight days—so I figured a 30-day habit-streak would make me feel accomplished.
I got through that milestone relatively easily and went on to complete a whole quarter—90 days of consistently closing all three rings. I felt that was a brag-worthy accomplishment and wrote about it here.
Excited, I continued down the path to see how far I could take the ring-closing-streak. Eventually, I hit the 200-day milestone. I was stoked because I never thought I could get that far. Of course, I told everyone who cared to listen about it. I wrote and published a second post here about the lessons I learned.
If this isn’t making me sound like someone on an ‘As seen on TV’ commercial already, just wait. Because there’s more…
I’ve now hit the 365-day milestone—holywhoppinguacamole—a whole year! It feels surreal. I know I probably sound overly animated—a tad. And for what?
It’s not like I invented a vaccine (the only kind of achievement that genuinely matters these days) or won an Olympic medal. But, ladies and gents, boys and girls—I managed to break through a self-imposed barrier inside my own mind. That alone makes this worthy of #humblebrag.
The power of possibility
Anyway, bragging is not the point of this post. Well, at least not anymore, now that I’ve gotten it out of the way.
Instead, I want to address a subject that we don’t give enough credit to: POSSIBILITY.
Possibility has always remained the underdog of self-help literature. Other topics such as empathy, gratitude, motivation, acceptance, etc., have had their moments of glory, but possibility lurks in the corner, waiting for its day in the sun.
So, let’s take possibility out for a show and tell today.
Nothing is certain, but everything is possible.
Cliched as it sounds, a lot many dreams can be accomplished if you’re a little freer with yourself and let your guardrails down and entertain the possibility of achieving more than you think you can.
Without a doubt, the lesson that will stay with me forever after this one-year ring-closing-streak is this: Incredible, hard to imagine things can happen when you make room for such a possibility.
Possibility and Habit-streaking
And one of the best ways to allow for incredible things to happen is through the power of positive habits. Mundane, tiny tasks repeated day after day, week after week, month after month can create transformation exponentially more considerable than the effort put in.
So how do we create these consistent habits? There are a few options, but I’d like to focus, specifically on Habit-streaks.
I’m a fanatical believer in the school of habit-streaks. In my experience, no other technique comes even close in terms of guaranteeing successful habits.
Before I discuss any further, I’d like to emphasize that this discussion about building positive habits. The same technique can be used in reverse for breaking negative habits, but I’ll get to that at the end.
What are Habit-streaks?
Habit-streaks are when you develop a streak—a continuous chain of repeating a task—over a long period.
Let’s say you’d like to be better informed and decide to read for 30 minutes every day. A streak is when you devote 30 minutes EVERY DAY to reading regardless of how you feel, how busy you are, or what the weather is. You can keep such streaks going for days, weeks, months in a row, or even years.
Somewhere down the line, reading will become an automatic habit—something you simply do every day like eating and sleeping.
Seinfeld and Habit-streaks
A well-known proponent of habit-streaking is Jerry Seinfeld of the eponymous show. Seinfeld calls it the “Don’t break the chain” technique.
Seinfeld famously wrote every day regardless of how he felt, whether or not he was inspired. On a printed calendar, he’d mark each day he wrote with a big red X. Soon, a chain of X’s formed on the calendar. The growing chain would become his motivation. Even when stuck in a slump, just seeing the chain of Xs would be enough to get him motivated to write because he didn’t want to break the chain.
I didn’t know about the Seinfeld technique when I embarked upon my project to close three rings daily. The underlying philosophy is the same, though.
Seeing a chain of closed rings was enough motivation for me (or a guilt trip, if you’re a glass-half-empty person) to not break the flow. I kept this practice up for enough days in a row, and at some point, closing the three rings became a daily habit, just like that. It is part of my routine now. Has been for a year.
The power of habit-streaks
Compared to other habit formation techniques, I find habit-streaks work very well for a multitude of reasons. But here’s my top five:
1. Avoids procrastination
When you have to do something every day, you just go ahead and do it. You take away the option of postponing your action to another day.
This kind of forced behavior, unpleasant though it may sound, is a blessing in disguise. Instead of spending your time dreaming up creative excuses, you just get stuff done and over with.
2. Takes the pressure off
Daily results matter less when you are engaged in an activity every day. For instance, if you only one run once a week and if you happen to have a bad run, it can erode your confidence. However, when you run daily, a lousy day is easy to overlook since you can start the next day again.
When you perform a task focusing on the action and not the result, you will get much further than you imagined—this is where possibilities open up!
3. Improves your craft
Of-course there are a few exceptions, but for most activities, the more time you spend honing your craft, the better you’ll get at it. Habit-streaking guarantees that you’ll spend time refining your skills.
If you’ve recently learned to drive but only take the car out once a week for 30 minutes, you are bound to encounter anxiety on the road. On the other hand, if you drive every day for 30 minutes, you will be a better, more confident driver soon enough.
4. Builds confidence
Just knowing you’ve committed to and accomplished something, however trivial (3-ring streaks, for instance), is a major self-confidence booster. There are few areas in life we get to dictate how what, and when things will happen. Developing a habit-streak is one way to have some control over your life when everything else seems quite nebulous.
5. Gets you organized
Even if you aren’t the most organized person on the planet, just having to keep up a habit-streak will force you to plan your days better. And that skill will trickle into other areas of your life.
If your goal is to exercise for 30 minutes every day, you’ll learn soon to schedule those 30 minutes earlier in the day, so you’re not blindsided when you look at your watch, and it’s 11.15 p.m. Habit streaks and poor planning are antithetical to each other. Only one will survive in a battle. Hopefully, it’s the habit.
Lessons I learned from closing 3-rings daily
I’ve already written quite extensively about this in my previous post here – 11 Lessons on Grit, so I won’t repeat them.
Here are five standout lessons, based on my experience, for anyone attempting to start a habit streak.
Start small to avoid getting overwhelmed
I kept my move goal at an achievable level and didn’t aim for the sky. Apple Watch’s algorithm kept prodding me every week to increase my move goal. But I wanted to focus on a baseline level and kept it there. There were days when I did way more and other days when I did just enough, but I was juggling several activities this year and knew my limitations regarding time and energy.
Additionally, I aimed for a habit-streak goal of 30 days at a time. I cannot stress how important this is. Had I started this project hoping to close three rings for a whole year, I almost certainly would have given up much earlier.
It can be overwhelming when you set lofty goals when it comes to habit formation. I equate this to the feeling you get on mile 2 of a marathon. If you start thinking about the 25 miles left to run, it’s going to weigh you down. The trick is to keep your focus on the short term. Eventually, you’ll get to the 26th mile, but thinking about it every step of the way can be mentally draining.
It takes a system, not willpower
I made exercise a non-negotiable part of the day, and I’d say about 95% of the time, I got my 30 minutes of exercise done in the morning when I had more control over my day. This meant waking up at 4 a.m. sometimes, but it was a small price to pay for the subsequent relief I went throughout the day.
The words discipline and willpower are over-rated. Find a way to develop a fool-proof system to get your task done earlier in the day, if possible. Consistently, at the same time, every day is the best way to go. Make this activity non-negotiable. Don’t listen to anyone else that may deter you or even yourself.
The first few days are the hardest
Twenty-one days for habit-change is a made-up number. Depending on the habit, it may take longer. That said, the first 60 or so days were the hardest for me. Every day was a fresh start. I’ve tried other habit routines in the past but have failed because I didn’t persist enough in the first few days when the going got tough.
So, prepare yourself for your inner voice to keep telling you it’s not worth the change those first 60 days. This is simply your brain on resistance. Don’t be shy, in the early days, to treat yourself to a reward for completing your habit.
Don’t try too many new habits or habit changes at once
I’m guilty of this. I’ve attempted in the past to add too many new habits too soon. That resulted in me getting nowhere. I whittled my list way down this year and was able to achieve so much more. Quality over quantity!
Create your own luck
The common wisdom is that you need to be lucky to keep habit-streaks going. I beg to differ. Luck plays a teeny-tiny part, but, in reality, you have way more leeway in creating your own luck than you admit to yourself.
In my case, there were countless days when the weather was too hot /too cold /too rainy, or I had too much going at work or home. I absolutely had more than my share of legitimate excuses I could have used. But I chose not to use those because ultimately, who was I kidding?
You get an extra sense of accomplishment when you brave a challenging situation to keep up your habit streaks. Cherish the challenges. They help build better humans.
Ultimately every streak has to end. It just has to. And that’s okay.
It’s healthy and natural to end your habit-streaks and move on to an improved, better habit once you get to your goal. Think of it like a child mastering the alphabet. It’s great when they get to a point where they can read and write all the letters from A to Z. That takes a lot of effort and practice. But then, they need to move on to words and sentences. Staying on at the level of the alphabet forever isn’t helpful.
So, don’t get too attached to the number of X’s on your habit chain once you’ve mastered a habit. If you genuinely don’t see any value carrying on, then it’s time to break the chain. Otherwise, you’ll stay within your comfort zone, and that’s not conducive to growth.
Every single thing I’ve said so far about reinforcing positive habits by building a streak also works for adverse habits.
Habit-streaking is just a tool. It is possible to use the tool to build healthy, positive habits and, on the flip side, strengthen and reinforce negative habits.
A good programmer can use the power of code to write a program to make banking user-friendly for seniors. A hacker can use the same programming language to scam seniors.
All that said, you can harness the power of habit-streaking to remove negative habits by working to create a streak of non-performance, i.e., NOT undertaking the negative habit.
Quitting smoking is a classic example of this. Habit-streak by marking an X for each day you don’t smoke. By increasing the number of days in a row, you don’t smoke, you’re de-addicting to the harmful habit. And before long, you cease to identify as a “smoker.”
Keeping Track of Habit-Streaks
When the tech industry realized there was a monetization opportunity to motivate people to start habit-streaks, they began to develop apps for it. You can absolutely use some of these apps if you choose to.
Otherwise, the old-school Seinfeld-method of simply using a calendar and red Sharpie to mark the days works well too.
In my opinion, the only mandatory requirement of whatever tracking system you use is its visibility. You should be able to visually see the progress you are making every day, ideally first thing in the morning and at various times during the day. Not to stress yourself but to let your subconscious know that this endeavor of yours matters.
As the chain starts to grow to a reasonable length, it develops superpowers of motivation and can get you out of whatever slump you feel.
We rarely commit to doing something day in and day out for a whole year (other than eating and sleeping). But when we do, it opens our minds and hearts up to other achievement possibilities that seem somewhat improbable.
To form a great habit does not require rocket science. It requires commitment and dedication. Habit-streaking can be used as a crutch to building commitment and dedication. It works for a legend like Seinfeld. Even an ordinary, non-legend like me has been able to use it well. It’s your turn now.
Go forth and streak—in the best way possible!