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More thoughts on streaks and gamification of habits

Oct, 31 2021
Nov, 30 2021

As I blogged recently I have been reading the book Atomic Habits and rethought some daily processes in terms of how I approach habits.

Recent success with habits

I think the most crucial change for me has been putting stuff more into my imminent field of view. I restructured my laptop, phone, tablet and smartwatch all to have apps like language learning apps, habit trackers, to-do lists and similar stuff directly visible whenever I touch them.

For example, on my phone and tablet I replaced most icons on the homescreen with widgets prominently telling me the status on todo entries and habits whenever I touch my phone. I not only apply this to habits, but I approach many more things in daily life with thinking about how much I want to do/see that thing and then integrating them in my visual field of view (or not, for things I want to rather avoid, like procrastinating.)

All this led to me reading much more novels and non-fiction books over the last few weeks. I’ve placed books more visually across my living room (to be grabbed after shower at night, rather than watching YouTube or so). This also helped me picking up language learning as a habit again - I’ve started studying French almost daily again. Consequently, I’ve put the related apps and websites prominently visible across my used devices so I’ll browse/use them rather than start procrastinating other things.

On streaks and gamification though

That being said, I have kind of a love/hate relationships with streaks. Streaks are the habit of counting days you sequentially do another habit. E.g., how many days you sequentially went running, or how many days you sequentially studied for some topic.

I do think streaks are powerful and help you start a habit and make it a routine. But I think they usually result in becoming a certain stress factor. While it might be motivating to have a 14 day streak on some habit like language learning, I advice not to overdo it. This goes especially when it comes to gamification features in apps telling you your streak of how many days you studied XX minutes, and similar.

I once had a habit of doing a bunch of French and Esperanto study, every day, using some kind of language learning app. I needed approx. 15-20 minutes to reach my daily goal. It was fun until I reached 14, 30 or maybe even 100 days, but at some point I reached a streak of almost four digits (so, approaching three years of streak).

At that point, the streak became an immense factor of stress. You drop everything if you notice you forgot it today and it’s already 11:30 PM. But why? It’s just a number. But it get’s addicting, the higher it gets, and you don’t want to lose it.

One things to “fix” this issue is an advice from Atomic Habits, telling you to keep a habit tracking to the minimum amount of trackable activity. In this case, I should not have done a streak of “15-30 minutes of French learning”, but rather, “Open the French study app”. I suppose that would have helped a little bit, but the latent stress factor is still there.

I still worry streaks becoming an issue in the long run. As such, I propose a different “solution”: Intentionally letting the streak run out whenever you feel like, and putting in on-purpose break days. Again, citing Atomic Habits, the goal is not to always do your habit, but to never miss it two days in a row.

So for me the overall goal is not to have the highest “streak” number, but rather look into my calendar and see that despite “skipping days” I’ll always continue the habit.

There’s also a certain argument to make about when an action is “finished”. I think it is important to have clear goals of when a habit is “finished” for the day. If not, “read daily” will quickly become “read the first line of a page” if the purpose becomes keeping the “read daily”-streak alive despite not actually wanting to read.

For this, I think one should never judge oneself if habits break off, or if there’s more than two breaking days in a row. After all we are human, life goals change, and your schedule is sometimes not predictable.


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