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.
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.
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.
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