When you need a streak freeze (or when you don’t)

A streak, in the habit world, is doing something every single day. Run a mile a day, meditate for 10 minutes a day, read Hebrew for 30 minutes a day (that last one is my father’s streak — decades strong at this point!).

The DuoLingo language app encourages users to practice daily. It keeps track of how long you have maintained a streak. But! As we discovered when my daughter built up a 175-day Spanish language streak, there is an allowance for life happening. You can buy or earn a “streak freeze.” Do certain things, or pay a certain amount, and you can use a streak freeze to maintain your mounting day count. You don’t get credit for the day you don’t practice, but your streak does not start over at zero.

It’s an interesting idea (particularly for DuoLingo’s business model). I suppose people doing other sorts of streaks could consider how they might buy themselves streak freezes too. Maybe a runner could buy a streak freeze by running twice a day on some other day…or running a race…or doing a strength training for runners video workout or…you get the idea.

I see the appeal. But I also think that part of the allure of streaks is how challenging they are to maintain. You don’t just need willpower, and the ability to plan for contingencies, you need luck. Because life really does happen. I almost lost what became an 1100-day running streak early on when I got a wretched stomach bug. I just happened to have done my mile that day before it hit. There is zero way I could have run after it did. You also need to be the sort of crazy person who will run on a hotel treadmill at 3:30 a.m. before catching a 6 a.m. flight.

Or read War and Peace at 11 p.m. That’s what I wound up doing on Saturday.

This year, I’ve been doing a daily “ritual” of reading a chapter in War and Peace, writing at least 100 words in my free writing file and doing some strength training. I have in fact done this every single day since January 1st, and planned to on Saturday too.

But…it was a long day. I was on baby duty Friday night and while he has been doing a lot better, he did not do a lot better that night. He was up most of the time between 4:15 – 6:15 a.m., just randomly yelling so I only got 5 minutes of sleep at a time. I’d agreed to meet a friend to run at 7:15 a.m., so my alarm went off around 6:40 a.m. I ran 8 miles and came home, thinking I would do my rituals then, and that my husband was going to do much of the driving so we could go visit my brother in upstate New York. We were going up just for the day. It’s supposed to be about 3 hours there.

Then, when I came home, I found the dog was sick — another stomach ailment that was going to make taking him in the car a really risky proposition. We didn’t have a good back-up plan in place for him, so I wound up taking the kids myself, with my husband staying home with the dog. I used the hour before we planned to be in the car to take a nap, and then the process of getting ready had not advanced enough while I was in bed that I could read then.

So, I just got in the car and drove. It was great to see my brother and his wife and their beautiful new home. It was also a lot of driving. We hit rain. We hit traffic. We stayed at their house from about 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., and then I drove home, arriving around 10:30 p.m. We got the kids into bed and then I thought…hey! I can keep this streak going.

And I did. My rituals only take 15 minutes or so — and as I think about it, I could have made it work even if I’d wound up staying somewhere overnight unexpectedly. I can write on anything (a note in my phone) and I could have found the ebook of War and Peace (I think it’s also available online) so I would have just had to figure out what chapter I was on. So, no streak freeze needed.

Have you ever done a streak? (With a streak freeze or not!)

Photo: We’ve been planting lots of trees at the new house. Sometimes with help! 


8 thoughts on “When you need a streak freeze (or when you don’t)

  1. And you could have listened to a chapter of the audiobook version of War and Peace in the car! I “read” Oliver Twist again on my daily commute. The commute was only 15 minutes each way, so it took a very, very long time to finish it. (And I didn’t have kids in the car. A lot of it is not for general audiences.)

  2. Sometimes there are days where, literally from waking to WAY PAST bedtime, there is thing after thing after thing, and because you’re already past your bedtime and are losing precious sleep as it is, it means that even making 15 minutes for a ritual isn’t doable (unless you want to tack on another 15 minutes of lost sleep on top of the already 1-2 hours of lost sleep).
    Granted, these days don’t happen too often, but often enough where I can understand why people feel that “finding” just 15 minutes for things is hard, even though there are 24 hours in a day. But this is why your concept of a weekly mosaic is so wonderful, and opened up a whole new world for me with respect to thinking about and prioritizing my time. I’m afraid that a daily streak runs counter to the concept of the weekly mosaic and its shifting tiles….and, frankly, the longer a streak runs for, the more anxiety-inducing it is, and (based on personal experience using the Headspace meditation app) when life interrupts and breaks a long streak it’s so dang frustrating that I quit ALTOGETHER. Whereas your idea of “3x/week is a habit,” means that I stick with things.

  3. I like to do shorter, clearly defined, streaks. Every other month I make it a goal to close all my rings on my Apple Watch (these are pre-set goals for: calories burned, minutes spent exercising, how many hours I’ve stood up and moved around) + record a workout of at least 1 km. While I’m always glad to get to the end of the month, it feels so much more doable than an indefinite streak. I’ve now done this about a dozen times!

    I also record my monthly distance totals (walking + running); this month will have the highest combined tally of any other month since I’ve started recording the data. That alone is incentive enough to think about doing a month-long streak again in August.

    I’m really looking forward to July; it’s nice to have some time off (mentally and physically) from a streak, but looking forward to August, too, when I’ll likely start up another “streak” again.

  4. I’ve done streaks with built-in freezes, like jumping rope a minimum of 300 days out of the year. This allows for illness, forgetfulness, injury, days off here and there, times I left the rope at home on a trip, etc. I’m an Upholder like you, and I’m generally great about keeping to a habit or plan. The problems come when I don’t meet my goal. I can be overly harsh with myself. The challenge for me is to challenge myself, to enjoy the process, and release any imperfect outcome.

    PS — I had a conversation with my running partner last week about the anticipating self, experiencing self, and remembering self. It got her through a trying weekend. Thank you for helping me frame big and small life events. Beth thanks you, too!

    1. @Caroline – that sounds like a good approach — 300 days a year (or even 360 days a year!) allows for some leeway. I’m glad Beth found the framework helpful 🙂

  5. I love to plan but hate streaks. There’s something in them that makes me want to push back. It took me more than a few years to stop seeing that as a personality flaw that had to be overcome and to just focus on building good routines (that can rebound when interrupted) and allocating my time the best I can.

  6. I’ve started what I call a Five Out Of Seven practice. There are seven habits/practices I’m focusing on (gratitude, Duolingo, writing for 10 minutes, eating at least one plant based meal, etc ) Each day I aim to do at least 5 of them, and in each week, I aim to do each habit at least five times. This gives me some wiggle room while still reinforcing the behaviors. I really love being able to count the day as a success even when it wasn’t perfect.

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