You Don’t Truly Build a Habit Until After You Break Your Streak

Illustration: Chelsea Beck
Illustration: Chelsea Beck

Keeping up a habit every day is a classic hack. Whether you track that with a row of red X’s on a calendar, or you let an app give you badges for consistency, a streak can help you get a habit started. But that’s just the first step. You find out who you really are after you break your streak.

Streaks are great for beginners

As show up whether you’re having a good day or not. If you follow every day of a workout program, even an easy one, you’ll build your fitness while also building the consistency that lets you ramp up to bigger and bigger goals.

A streak can also push yourself to do things that you might normally think are too hard for you. For example, I had a good streak going this summer in the New York Times crossword app. You get a little gold icon on the calendar every time you solve a puzzle on the day it was posted, but only if you do it without using any of the built-in cheats. (For example, you can tap a button to reveal whether any of your entries are wrong.) Otherwise the icon is blue. The app only counts a puzzle toward a streak if you earned a gold icon.

NYT crosswords are easy(ish) on Mondays, and get harder as the week goes on. I normally only did puzzles on the first three days of the week, but once I realised how the streaks work, I challenged myself to see how many gold icons I could get. It turned out Thursdays weren’t as hard as I feared; they tend to have a clever trick to them, and I learned during this experiment that I like them the best. I also discovered that Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays were only tough, not impossible. I managed to get the entire month of July in gold, and in doing so, I learned more about myself and about NYT crosswords.

But a streak is just your training wheels. In the grand scheme of things, it does not matter if you actually wrote or ran or did a crossword every day. Five years from now, you will not look back ruefully at that one day you missed. In fact, five years from now, one would hope that you have a healthier relationship with your new habit, one that allows for rest days as needed.

So your habit has to outlast the streak.

What happens when you break your streak?

I’ve written before about one streak I broke: “closing my rings” on the Apple Watch. I had to work out every day to keep up my streak, but that meant I wasn’t taking rest days. Physically, I was fine — I chose some easy yoga on those days, so I wasn’t overtraining or anything — but I ended up feeling like I had to cheat to keep up the streak. Breaking it was a relief.

The crosswords went a little differently. One Saturday I was sitting on the porch struggling with a tough crossword. It didn’t have a clever gimmick like the Thursdays or the Sundays. It didn’t feel challenging in a fun way. It was just boring. I had a sudden realisation: why am I spending my Saturday like this? I could go do something else.

The streak had served its purpose, and I had outgrown it. Doing crosswords on time and without checking my work was a fun challenge, but it’s not a structure that I need for the rest of my life. It’s nice to be able to put a puzzle down if I’m not feeling it, just like it’s good to quit a book that isn’t doing it for you, and it’s fine to take a rest day from exercise every now and again.

Who are you without your streak?

In a lot of epic stories, there’s a moment where the hero loses their mentor, but must continue anyway. Think Obi-wan dying, or that inexplicable thing with Elsa in Frozen 2. It’s a trope because we know the hero has to find their own way if they’re going to truly succeed in their quest.

That’s what happens after you break your streak. You can try to rebuild it, and some people find meaning in that, but to me that’s like digging up your dead mentor believing you can learn something from their corpse.

You’re on your own now. Which crosswords do you want to do? How many days of exercise are optimal for your goals? Is that writing habit working out at all, or have you discovered that you kinda hate writing and would rather do something else with your time?

Breaking your streak is a rite of passage that links the easy achievements of the early days to the accomplishment of having experience under your belt. By the time you break a months-long streak — whether by accident or on purpose — you don’t need the streak anymore. You’re on your own, free, with a bright future ahead of you.