I’ve been thinking about habits and streaks and how we sometimes stop trying to meet a goal once we’ve encountered a hiccup along the way and our streak is broken. Once we fall off the wagon, we often stay off the wagon. Why is this?
I'm currently about halfway through a 30-day challenge to get at least ten minutes of direct sunlight exposure each day before noon. The challenge is going well, but there have been a few days when I haven’t been able to meet my daily goal due to inclement weather.
When I think of the positive benefits I’ve experienced from this challenge so far, I realize how much I would have lost had I not continued my challenge simply because I was unable to maintain a perfect streak. I fell off the wagon, yes, but what matters is that I got back on.
This has me wondering about how many other worthwhile challenges we might abandon simply because we become too focused on streaks rather than the wider goal and our desired outcome.
Here’s an example:
Scenario 1: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Let’s say you set a goal to eat more mindfully for an entire year but hit a snag during the first week of the challenge. Rather than quitting the challenge completely, you chalk the “off” day up as a goose egg and resume eating more mindfully the next day. Each time you face a setback, you begin again. At this rate, you could fall short of your goal as often as once per week and still log 313 successful days within the year.
Scenario 2: Better luck next year.
If, on the other hand, if you decide to quit as soon as you hit a snag, you cheat yourself out of the prospect of progress for the remainder of the challenge window. Even if you start off strong for a full two months (which, by the way, is highly unlikely), if you quit as soon as your streak is broken, you will log only 60 successful days within the year.
313 vs. 60 successful days spent building a worthwhile habit is clearly optimal, yet we lose sight of this when we make a challenge about the streak rather than the larger goal, which is to develop a good habit. When we set out to do our best but also remain aware that uncontrollable life factors will likely pop up along the way, we can allow ourselves to recalibrate and restart.
When considering any life change it’s good to begin by asking yourself what you are seeking. If the intention is meaningful, allow that to be your North Star during times when pushing forward feels daunting. Life changes can take a lifetime of work. Consider this as a friendly reminder to not throw the baby out with the bathwater when you set out to do something you believe in, lest you cheat your future self out of a multitude of positive gains. Progress is moving forward, even if slowly. Just keep going.
Afterthoughts: My current 30-day challenge to get sunlight exposure each day before noon seems to be helping me sleep better (and have more energy during the day). The only days I haven’t ventured outside to meet my goal have been days when we’ve had severe rainstorms. I’m glad I didn’t let that get in the way of all the other days I’ve given myself the opportunity to try this or myself.
Here’s some more information about the role of sun exposure from Andrew Huberman, if you’d like to learn more (he also has a great podcast).