Broken Streak? Three Steps to Process Your Loss

Paul S. Chun • Tuesday, August 4, 2020 • Tokyo, Japan

Maybe an illness got the best of you and you had to take a day off. Or perhaps the Duolingo owl lost its power over you despite all of its best efforts. In any case, your streak's been broken and there's no turning back. what do you do now? I dive into and share three steps that I tend to take when facing this disappointment.

Step 1: Acknowledge and Address Your Frustration

a statue facepalming

The first step is to address your feelings. Yes, this product of your consistency and dedication slowly became your baby, and now it's long gone and you feel rotten. I feel rotten when this happens too. But why do we feel this way? Writer Katie Heaney takes a deep dive into the psychology of the awful feelings associated with breaking a streak in her written piece on The Cut, Why Breaking a Streak Feels So Awful, which I'll be citing heavily for this step.

Did It Turn Into An Obsession?

Heaney cites Adam Alter, professor of marketing at New York University, who claims that streaks "tip into negative territory when they inspire obsession."

That makes sense - I personally usually start a streak with good intentions, but for whatever reason, it can sometimes turn into a somewhat petty personal goal to keep something going, even if the goal isn't any less achievable with a skipped day.

For example, if you've decided to do a certain number of kettlebell swings every day for 30 days, and you miss day 17, it's important to think about why you took on this challenge. If it was to get in tip top shape, then a missed day is hardly a monkey wrench in your plans to accomplish this, and any rotten feeling towards this is likely self-given pressure to be perfect.

And that's what obsession looks like! It's best to be conscious of if this is your mindset at the given moment.

Losing Your Creation

Yes, it really stinks, no one's going to disagree with you. The culmination of weeks, months or even years of persistence disappearing overnight.

Heaney cites Wendy Wood, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, who claims that the perceived ownership of your streak leads to the endowment effect, which is just a fancy way of saying that you and I as humans are programmed to treasure what we own more than it's probably worth.

Because you perceive your streak as being something you own, you value it highly. I'll dive into why you might not necessarily be the owner of that streak in a bit, but it's important to note that a portion of the rotten feeling you're experiencing with this broken streak is due to your perceived ownership of it.

Step 2: Reflect On Your Streak's Life

Was It Something You Instituted or Something Someone or Something Else Instituted?

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When you started this streak, did you know what you were getting into, or did it start as a byproduct of you attempting to reach your goals and, with it's ever-visible presence, spiral into being a main concern?

If it's the latter, then it's quite likely that a streak indicator was put there as a conscious move to keep you coming back. That's an old trick that's utilized often in product development, and quite frankly, it's to help you develop an obsession with a product into which it's implemented.

So even if you feel rotten, keep in mind that your rotten feeling was a conscious design choice by the developers of a product. You have to ask yourself: how much does a snapped streak take away from your initial goal? If it isn't much, then after your mourning period, it's important to know your streak for what it is: a mechanism introduced by the product developers to keep you coming back for more.

That said, it isn't to be dismissed entirely. These streaks are also obviously introduced to help you keep you tuned into your goals. There were days where you probably would have skipped if it weren't for the streak counter, and on those days, you probably made a bit of progress, whether for your vocabulary in German or your fitness levels being maintained.

If A Friend Broke Their Streak, What Would You Tell Them?

We tend to be harsher on ourselves than on others, and doling out self-punishment comes easier than doling out the same punishment on a friend.

Give yourself some compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff, professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas and face behind the self-compassion movement, recommends a few methods in order to accomplish this:

  • Give yourself some encouragement: Literally just say to yourself what you'd tell a friend. If you aren't comfortable say it aloud, write it down.
  • Write a letter to yourself: For more extreme cases, write yourself a full-blown letter, again in the format that you'd write to a friend where you acknowledge your feelings and your loss.

Learn more about her recommendations in her 2015 piece, "The Five Myths of Self-Compassion."

Step 3: Start It Up Again If You Think It's Good For You

a pressure gauge set to zero

All's not lost with a broken streak. The number you see might be reset to zero, but the important things that came with it along the way - your improved fitness, your increased German vocabulary or what have you - are still with you, and isn't that why you got started with pursuing this streak-related endeavor in the first place?

If you realize that the goal related to your streak is no longer beneficial to you, then perhaps the lost momentum is a blessing in disguise. Otherwise, if you realize that you haven't quite reached your goal, then it's time to get started again.