The Psychology of Maintaining and Breaking Streaks

Our obsession with streaks can be a force for good or bad. Here’s why streaks play such a powerful role in our psychology.

For almost two years now, I’ve written a weekly article for this blog. Like clockwork. Rain or shine. Published on the weekend. Sent out in my newsletter on a Wednesday.

Last week this streak ended. No article. No newsletter. Not a single word put to paper.

My “streak”, if one can call it that, was not some singular motivator. A passion for researching and synthesising ideas sits far ahead of my thirst for a regular writing cadence. But it would be incorrect to deny its role as spectre on those weekends where motivation dwindled, forcing fingers to keyboard.

Truth be told, without streaks I suspect I’d have called it a day with the blog a long time ago.

Why? Because streaks have a powerful psychological role in habit formation and habit maintenance. Sometimes for better or worse.

But just what is it about them that takes such a powerful hold over us?

Repetition and Automaticity

The simplest answer to that question lies in the power of repetition. We’re wired for it.

Repetition plays a key role in habit formation because it breeds what neurologists and habit experts like to call “automaticity”. In other words, repeat a behaviour enough times and it eventually becomes automatic.

Of course, an article isn’t written on autopilot. But the priming for that habit can be. For example, repeat the habit of getting up on a Saturday morning, opening your laptop, and writing a title enough times, et voilà! The behaviour becomes automatic. A routinised, inextricable part of your Saturday.

The real work, of course, can then be “stacked” with this now automatic primer. We train our brains to understand that this automatic behaviour is linked to the completion of an article. It becomes rewarding to complete it.

But automaticity by repetition is not just a question of behavioural psychology. Neurologists have shown that as we establish habits – good or bad – our brains adapt, literally changing shape and responding differently. Like exercising a muscle, the brain responds to repeated strain. Neurologists call this activity-dependent plasticity.

Of course, how long it takes to establish this kind of automaticity depends in large part on the habit. It goes without saying that it’s easier to establish less effort-intensive habits like investing Saturday mornings catching up on Netflix than it is to invest that time researching and writing. The harder we exercise the muscle, the more time it might take to achieve automaticity.

One study concluded that on average it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a habit, with an average of 66 days. Not exactly definitive, but that doesn’t matter a whole lot.

What matters is that streaks exploit the power of repetition and automation. The longer the streak goes on, the more we repeat the habit. And the more we repeat the habit, the more our malleable brains make streaks easier to maintain.

The Emotional Response to Streaks

Streaks don’t just breed robotic automaticity, however. They breed pride, fear, and guilt. They create an emotional response and an implicit system of reward and punishment. The longer they go on, the greater the perceived gain of maintaining them and the greater the perceived loss of breaking them.

Like many of the psychological tricks in the playbook, the streak is heavily utilised by modern businesses, playing on this emotional response system.

A positive regular habit becomes more valuable over time. And as such, the sense of perceived loss increases if we don’t stick at it. Businesses know this all too well.

Take Duolingo, the world’s most popular language learning app. To Duolingo, streaks and gamification are not only a powerful spur for learning, but a powerful monetisation tool.

Notifications are sent to users by Duo the owl to remind them that they risk losing their streak of consecutive learning days.

Duo looks friendly from the outside, but don’t be fooled. When your streak finally ends, he’ll be playing on a weak spot. The streak is broken, but good news: you can restore it for a small fee!

To most, of course, that streak isn’t worth the price. But to some, their streak warrants the cost. The perceived loss from breaking the streak is enough to justify its costly restoration.

In most cases, however, we can’t cheat the system like this. If we break the streak of going to the gym, we can’t pay someone to restore it. We must face our personal wrath.

The Perils of Self-Punishment

While such self-castigation can have some value, the perceived loss of breaking a streak can become more important to us than the actual benefits of the streak itself – or indeed the benefits of temporarily breaking them.

The results can be counterproductive. Streaks can breed tunnel vision. An obsession with maintaining a streak can blind us from evaluating the real benefits of a habit. The streak becomes the sole system of reward and punishment. Everything else takes a backseat.

What’s more, the research reveals a devilish paradox. Studies have shown that the harsher we are on ourselves for breaking streaks, the less likely we are to re-establish them. Feeling unnecessarily rubbish about breaking a streak can kill the habit entirely.

The punchline: beating yourself up about breaking a streak isn’t worth it. Better to ensure the habit has a positive effect on your life, and then jump back on the bike if it’s worth it.

An Occasional Bounce

And so we return to my streak. Did it feel good to break it? No. Did it feel bad? Not really. I needed a break.

There are objective benefits to writing regularly, rain or shine. I learn a huge amount. I reflect and think differently to my day-to-day work life.

But there are also objective benefits to taking a break. Not for week after week – the power of this established little habit would inevitably dissipate – but occasionally.

To those who say once they drop the ball, most never pick it back up, I say you’re right. But only if they let it stop bouncing.

Today marks week one of my latest streak. Perhaps it will endure for another two years. Perhaps just a few weeks. I will work with the rhythm and structure that delivered the last streak, but I certainly won’t beat myself up about it when it’s broken.

Call it a system of intermittent streaks. Call it, if you will, an occasional bounce of the ball.

Until the next time.

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