To Break or Not to Break the Chain

Will You Check the Box?

The message pops up on my phone’s screen this morning.

“Did you or did you not break your chain!?”

I get a bump in energy.

I click the bright red X on today’s calendar space, a sign I kept the chain alive another day.

I’ve begun this new chain (I’ve labeled it Silent Night using a free app actually called “Don’t Break the Chain.”

But is keeping a chain good or bad for me?

My Duolingo Chain

Starting another chain, even for a good thing, means another possible addiction for me. I love keeping a chain, (although if it’s to break a bad habit, like eating too much sugar?—I can break a chain on the day I start it). Jerry Seinfeld is popularly credited with the “don’t break the chain” idea. 

I noticed my obsessions to chains in 2016 when I began brushing up on Spanish every day with the Duolingo app. The app keeps track of your streak, the number of days in a row that you finish a lesson.

It was intoxicating. And bonus of all bonuses, if you miss a day with Duolingo, you can “buy” a “streak freeze” with points you’ve earned from previous lessons. It allows you to miss a day without officially breaking your streak.

My Duolingo streak continued building. First, I was satisfied with 10 days in a row. Then I made it to 25. Then 50. Watching the numbers add up felt empowering. (I’m not alone: read this Duolingo story.)

But looking ahead to the calendar, I foresaw a problem. My youngest daughter’s wedding was coming up. How would I squeeze in Duolingo lessons during that busy season?

And therein lies my biggest problem with streaks.

I become chained to the chain.

A Meditation Addiction?

I also noticed my bondage to the chain with, of all things, the meditation app I use. It also keeps track of consecutive days, both current and best of all time.

Who wouldn’t want to improve on their best streak of daily meditation, right?

But again as the days grew in number, I found myself uncomfortable. If I meditated in bed without the app, I wouldn’t get credit for it on my phone. It would break my streak.

So I learned to start the timer on the meditation app later in the day when I took a shower or ate lunch. I knew I’d already put the time in, so it was okay. How else would I get credit for my time if I didn’t cheat the system a little?

Until one day I forgot.

I broke the chain.

The Way Out of Chains

I had reached 131 straight days of meditating. And now it was back to zero. I was bothered.

I decided to stop meditating for awhile. It obviously wasn’t working for me.

And that’s why I have to be careful starting chains.

I may start with healthy motives. But I’m enticed to value the chain more than my original value.

How can I learn to reap the benefits from streaks without becoming enslaved by them?

The key for me is this:

Set a goal to intentionally break the chain.

In 2016, I counted the days until my daughter’s wedding from my duolingo chain. Two weeks before the wedding I would reach 100 days on the app. (The longest Duolingo streak is over 2,000 days by John Arnold.)

100 would be enough for me.

Two weeks prior to the wedding, Day 100, I found I still had time for my Duolingo lesson. So I did it. And the next day. And the next.

Finally a week later, even with spare time in my day to do it, I let the numbers go. I intentionally broke the chain on Day 108. My streak was over. I’d never reach Level 7 Wildfire for a 125 day streak.

Duolingo streak

I felt a little sad. But a lot relieved. I no longer had to keep track.

I did later return to daily Duolingo lessons, but I never returned to keeping a streak.

The chain was broken off me. 

Keep the Habit, Not the Chain

My newest chain I’m keeping on the Don’t Break the Chain app is to help me sleep better.

Instead of one night here and there, I’ve decided to go several nights in a row without grabbing my phone in the middle of the night to use podcasts or audiobooks to put me back to sleep when I wake up too early (thus why I named it Silent Night).

If I can’t go back to sleep on my own, so be it. I’ll just stay awake with my own thoughts.

But more often than not, I have been falling back asleep much quicker without the podcasts than I ever did with them. 

Sleep is the goal. Not the streak. And it’s working.

I’m arbitrarily giving myself 30 days to keep the chain unbroken and establish the habit.

Then on day 31, whether or not I still have a night without podcasts (which hopefully I will), I’ll leave the red X alone, the space unmarked. (You can hold me accountable on April 12.)

Because it’s not about the keeping the chain going. It’s about keeping the good habit going.

I want the chain to serve me, not me serve the chain.

Even if I have to break the chain.

break the chain

Do you like to keep a streak going, too? What’s a streak you’ve kept? How did you feel when you broke it? Share in the comments.

sharing at these linkups

29 thoughts on “To Break or Not to Break the Chain

  1. Ashley Rowland | HISsparrowBlog

    So, I have a Duolingo streak going. You bring up some interesting points about not being a slave to the streak, even for something that seems good like meditation. I’ll definitely be keeping your advice in mind as I continue. For now, my streak is serving my purpose. I’d started learning Spanish in 2014, but I would do it for a little bit and then not do anything for a year or so. I have no idea why, but learning Spanish has been one of those things I felt like I should do for a while now. Finally, I decided to get serious about it, and I use the streak to make sure I show up each day—even if I only have time for one lesson. I will be evaluating, though, to make sure it doesn’t become enslaving. Great post, Lisa.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’m excited that you use Duolingo, Ashley. I agree with you that learning Spanish is something I feel I should keep doing too. We have a lot of Spanish-speakers in our area. I used to help teach ESL in Huntsville but haven’t done it much since covid. It really helped that I could understand at least a little bit of Spanish. 🙂

  2. Lois Flowers

    Lisa, I’ve always appreciated how intentional you are, so I enjoyed this peek into how you go about doing certain things. I’m trying to think of a streak I’ve kept … maybe doing the Whole30 several times or going for a month without dessert counts? I was just thinking this morning that I need to set some writing goals for the month of April, and while that probably won’t involve a streak, you’ve definitely encouraged me to set the goals and do what I can to reach them!

  3. Martha J Orlando

    I recently downloaded the Hallow App, and have kept my daily streak going thus far. However, once the kids arrive for spring break, I’m sure I’ll break the daily chain. Some things, like life, have to take the first priority. I’m not troubled. When I’m ready, I’ll simply go back to it.
    Like you, Lisa, I don’t want the chain to own me.

  4. Barbara Harper

    Such good points. It’s amazing the power held by an X on an electronic device. My oldest son got me started on Wordle, which keeps track of your streak of playing as well. I like word games and think of them as brain exercise (though if I really wanted to exercise my brain, I should do Sudoku. My math brain cells are really weak). This had the added benefit of comparing notes with him or discussing the word of the day. I like that it’s just one word per day without other bells and whistles. It’s amazing how frustrated I got when I forgot one day and ruined my streak!

    The only other thing I’ve done like that was the fitness app on the Apple watch my kids got me. That thing could be downright annoying. I had to turn off all notifications so it didn’t disrupt my thinking at an inopportune moment to tell me it was time to stand up. And I’d get frustrated, too, if I went for a walk and forgot it, so my steps didn’t “count.”

    It’s so easy to set up helps to establish good habits and then get caught up in the mechanism instead.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I love doing Wordle too! Jeff and I like to solve it together every night. It’s been awhile since I’ve missed (sometimes I have to do it without Jeff if he’s out of town), but I haven’t ever looked at my stats. Knowing my tendency, it’s probably best that I do NOT look. lol. Do you do the Spelling Bee game too with NYT? That one is much harder for me.

      I watch my steps count on my phone and often get frustrated too if I take a walk without it. ha. I often think about God rebuking David for taking a census when I get too caught up in my numbers games….

  5. Lux

    Hmm…I think I will need this app. Having an accountability tool like this is good to keep me in check, especially because my reading gets in the way of my, well, everything. Lol! I have to stay on a schedule of other things.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      This app has been a good one for my simple purposes, but there are other ones (and the paid version of this one) that allow you to keep up with several different streaks at once. The free version I’m using just allows one category. That’s probably the safest for me. lol.

  6. Maryleigh

    I can get addicted to the doing – chin-to-the-ground moving forward – and that’s when I know I can’t. I have to stop. When I’m exhausted and yet driven. I love your discipline for doing and learning – and your realization that sometimes it’s time to stop. This has been such a good message!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Thanks, Maryleigh. Yes, it’s easy to get addicted to the doing. I can get overly focused on the task and forget the person, but my goal is to do the reverse.

  7. Lisa Blair

    Great thoughts, Lisa! We want the habit and not the chain and for it to serve us and not us it though I must confess that I will pick up my kindle each night before bed (even if I read a paperback earlier) just so I won’t break my reading streak. Ha!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Ha. I understand that, Lisa! It took me awhile before I noticed that my Kindle kept up with that because I usually read on my ereader device, but when I use Kindle on my phone, it shows my streak. Yikes–I just looked and it’s 244 weeks in a row (yet only 84 days in a row). I probably need to forget those numbers right now. lol.

  8. Tea With Jennifer

    I’ve never heard of these Apps before Lisa!

    But of course as a Clinical Counsellor I have often treated those with all types of addictions.

    Did you know that most digital Apps, games & programs (even the friendly & so called innocent ones) are set to the same algorithm as digital Poker/gambling Machines which visually stimulate the pleasure areas of the brain which in turn cause an addiction to the App, game or program? ?
    blessings, Jennifer

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      It’s discouraging that the developers of these apps and games and social media are purposely designing them to keep us online as long as possible. 🙁 We’re losing a bit of our humanity by our constant addictions to our phones, in so many ways. We have enough trouble with addictions as it is, without this intentional pull from our everyday devices. Sigh.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, it is disturbing how quickly we can hand over our attention to these things. 🙁 I don’t agree with Elon Musk on many things, but I’ve agreed with him this week that we need to take a 6-month break on advancing AI and consider the ramifications of it.

  9. David

    Completely agree that “the streak” can become a “graven idol”. Also completely agree with taking control and deciding ahead of time when to break the streak — just like when you go to the gymn you say “I’ll do 36 reps” not “I’ll keep going until I keel over”.

    I had a 100+ streak on Duolingo last year. It was something trivial that broke it — did they change the UI? After the break I felt deflated and didn’t pick it up again.

    Lasting 100 days and then crashing might be demoralising compared with hitting three 30-day targets in a row then having a break.

    The main question though is — how well is your Spanish improving?

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      What a wonderful analogy about reps in a workout! I’ll have to remember that. When I do my workouts at home, I never challenge myself to do more reps than necessary. 🙂 I’m satisfied with a certain number, and with starting again another day. I need to consider my streaks that way as well. Do a set, then reset. Thanks, David.

      So you had a long Duolingo streak too. It is deflating to accidentally lose it. Well, I *think* my Spanish did improve some when I used it regularly, but not dramatically. What about yours?

      1. David

        I wasn’t doing enough (actually, anything) other than the Duolingo. I think it kept the language warm (Chinese — I had a Chinese client a few years ago and loved the language, and the food, culture etc 和而不同). My feeling is Duolingo would be a good supplement alongside other activities.

  10. Jean Wise

    Love this wisdom. Sometimes the chain becomes more important than what it was meant for. Something to really keep ini mind. Thanks Lisa!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’m keeping a close eye on my no-podcasts-at-night chain for now. I like that the app says at the bottom: “19 days in, if in doubt, remember why you started.” And the reason I started is to sleep better, not to create a long chain. 🙂 I wonder if the message will change as the days add up….

  11. Donna Reidland

    I can so relate to this, Lisa. I have even been known to make my own little “streak” charts so I could check things off each day. But I recognize the fact that it’s so easy to be doing things to see those little check marks instead of doing things for the glory of God. Calvin said the human heart is an idol-making factory. And we all prove that to be true.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, we definitely are able to create idols out of the silliest things. It’s easy sometimes to be critical of the Hebrews in the desert who made the golden calf, but then I look at my idol of a Duolingo streak, and I have no room to talk. 😉

  12. Corinne Rodrigues

    I can see how addictive habit trackers can get, even if they’re useful to start off a habit or a practice. But so easy to let it go to your head and forget why you started the practice to begin with.

    Like you, I’m finding that just ‘being’ makes it easy for me to go back to sleep than all the other stuff.

  13. Joanne

    Oh I can get like this too! It’s so easy to let those outside reinforcements take over rather then listening to or using internal motivation to keep going.

  14. Paula Short

    Think reminds me of my You Version Bible App streak of 600 and some days. Then I got a new phone and when I logged back into You Version my streak didn’t show. It reset to zero. so needless to say I don’t use You Version every day now. You’ve got some great points here and I appreciate what you’re saying.
    Thank you for sharing this with Sweet Tea & Friends this month dear friend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *