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Musing: Broken Streak
Breaking a winning streak is a big deal. When those wins are coming day after day, week after week, you feel like it will never end. You’ll dig in to make it happen again and again. To surrender, to let that broken streak happen, feels like a bigger failure than not having the streak in the first place.
Yet, I broke a streak last week on purpose and am cheered by it. To understand why, some quick background.
Habit tracking has been around for a long time, but it can be famously associated with the Seinfeld Strategy named after comedian Jerry Seinfeld. As related by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, Seinfeld told a young comedian that a secret to his success was a dedication to writing a joke every day. Every day. And never allowing that daily streak to be broken.
The point wasn’t to write a great joke every day. Many of them would never be used in a show. By writing a joke every day, though, Seinfeld was sure that good ones would surface often enough. The habit of focusing on the task every day, without a break, would ensure that success would come.
To emphasize that point, Seinfeld said to post a calendar on a wall. Each day, once a joke was written, draw an X through that day on the calendar. That visual reminder would capture your attention and encourage you not to let a day slip by without marking that X.
10,000 Hour Rule
Anyone who has ever played any sport knows the value of repetitions. The best shooters in basketball will talk about taking shots over and over in practice. Great hitters in baseball spend hours in batting cages swinging again and again.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hour concept—practice any behavior repetitively for 10,000 hours to become great at it.
Additional studies have shown the 10,000 hour is more about a nice, round, easily-remembered number than exact science. People don’t suddenly go from good to great in that last hour. In fact, many people become great at something long before the 10,000th hour. Others can practice for twice as many hours and not achieve greatness. Natural talent certainly plays a factor.
More importantly to my story today, though, is the exact nature of the practice matters. A golfer who goes to a driving range and hits 10,000 balls will get better, but not to the same degree as someone who is studying videos of his swings and is being coached while hitting those 10,000 balls. In other words, the quality of the practice can have more weight than the quantity.
But before we go there, let’s talk about…
Based on these stories, habit trackers have become very popular. Like Seinfeld’s calendar, you take a habit you want to start (or stop) and build a streak. Do it today. Then tomorrow. And then the next day. And so on.
Some people track with pen and paper. Some use apps on their phones or computers.
The idea is simple. When you have done something for twenty days in a row—or a hundred, or a thousand—you don’t want to break the habit.
And that’s the way I was. I had a long streak going. Some days I came close to breaking the pattern, but dug in to get it done. Until I realized that my intention to develop a good habit had actually morphed into a bad habit.
Let me illustrate first by using another real world example. As I’ve mentioned before, I use an RSS reader (Feedly) to keep track of a number of bloggers. One is a famous author who has a years-long streak of writing a daily blog post. Thousands and thousands of days in a row. Most of the posts have something of value but sometimes they do not.
All too often the post simply says I just need to write something to keep the streak alive. Or Oops I was in bed and realized I had forgotten to post a blog so here it is. Or Almost missed tonight because I was reading a good book but stopped long enough to post this.
Those blog posts don’t add any value. Not to him as a writer. Not to me as a reader. They are simply checking the box. In fact, I would argue he had broken the streak long ago, but he kept checking the box.
And so had I.
I had a long streak of journaling my Morning Musing. I’ve moved from a paper journal to the Day One app, but each day, I continued to dutifully scribble my thoughts. The problem, however, was I no longer met the spirit of Morning Musings.
A Morning Musing is meant to be a freeform writing exercise done before you start the day. Telephone calls and to do lists haven’t interfered yet, so your mind is open to a heightened sense of creativity. Sometimes, amazing thoughts come through. At other times, the thoughts are muddled and confusing. By doing it every day, though, you get better at allowing the ideas to flow.
I tend to do a quick note in my journal each evening as well, but that’s more to capture thoughts from the day and organize any ideas about what I need to tackle the next day. That’s also important, but it’s not the same idea. The Morning Musings have a specific purpose.
Just two problems. I wasn’t always doing it in the morning (so the day had long influenced my thoughts). And I certainly wasn’t musing. In fact, some of my journal entries sounded suspiciously like that daily blogger—I just need to write something to keep the streak alive.
So I was doing an activity, but I wasn’t doing THE activity. The habit wasn’t making me better, so why check the box?
Unlike the prolific blogger, I wasn’t publicly publishing my Morning Musings. No one will ever see them. You might see an idea that comes from them (most of my ideas seem to originate from there), but you won’t see the raw words.
I was checking the box for only one reason. To pretend to myself that I had an unbroken streak. What was the value in that?
So Wednesday evening (yes, evening) as I sat down to do that day’s Morning Musing, I stopped. I didn’t so it. The streak had been broken. In reality, it had been broken weeks earlier, but I hadn’t admitted it.
I didn’t check the box. A broken streak.
Road to Recovery
Thursday morning, I woke up, picked up my journal, and scribbled. Relieved to no longer be focused on the activity for the activity’s sake, my mind shifted into a comfortable musing and the words flowed through my pen.
I did it again on Friday. And Saturday. And Sunday. By the time you are reading this, Monday too, I hope. But if I don’t do it—don’t really do it—I’m not checking the box. I won’t pretend.
Too little time has passed to prove anything, but I firmly believe the caliber of writing my musings is better. The practice has been fun and some great ideas have developed.
Just like the caveat to the 10,000 hour rule, the quality of the practice matters.
So I decided to publicly confess. I have a broken streak. And I’m so much better for having done that.
Kobo 30% Off Sale: Jaxon With An X
Kobo’s February 30% Off Sale includes the ebook of my second novel, Jaxon With An X. Use Coupon Code FEB30 to claim your discount. The coupon is valid in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
Six-year-old Jaxon disappeared while playing in a park. Ten years later, a teenager is found wandering a snowy highway. Find out where he has been all these years.
Interesting Links: Seinfeld Strategy
Since I referenced it above, I thought I would share James Clear’s post about the Seinfeld Strategy. The concept behind building a habit is solid. My only caveat is to ensure it is a quality habit you are developing.
Books Read: One Step Too Far
I read about 100 novels a year and share the best of those with you.
When searchers go into the Wyoming wilderness to solve the years old mystery of a missing hiker, someone or something hinders their efforts.
Vocabulary Word Of The Week: Habit
Normally, I select an unusual word for the vocabulary word of the week, but based on the topic, I thought I would explore the etymology of habit.
The Latin root habitus refers to a state of being or condition and evolved to the French habits which today means clothes. Thanks to the Norman Conquest and invasion of the British Empire, the English absorbed the word. You can see that influence in our reference to a Nun’s habit or even a riding habit (clothes worn for horseback riding).
Over the next millenia, the word evolved to refer to more than just clothing but the overall way a human might present oneself. With that meaning (and a few centuries), the word came to refer to a frequently repeated behavior.
Survey: Favorite Season
In each month’s newsletter to my subscribers, I ask a fun survey question and share the results. Last month, for example, I asked what temperature people sat their thermostat to in the winter. The results are below:
With spring right around the corner, this month’s survey question asks what your favorite season of the year is. If you want to participate, simply visit the survey and take the two-minute quiz. The results will appear in the March 2nd newsletter and will be shared in a Monday Musing later in the month.
Gratuitous Dog Picture
His Royal Highness Little Prince Typhoon Phooey giving his usual reaction to being told to do something. “Why should I? What’s in it for me? What happens if I don’t?”
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