Don’t Break the Streak (Because Little Steps Have a Big Impact)

Long ago, in another life, I took a writing class with author Heather Lewis.

Heather was a brilliant novelist and teacher, but the most important thing she taught me wasn’t about literary technique.

It was how to build a streak of successes.

A Streak Can Be Positive or Negative

Often—whether you’re writing a novel (as I was doing when I took Heather’s class), achieving your public speaking goals, or tackling any project that requires thought and effort, stamina and time—you inadvertently set up a streak of days that feel like failures.

That’s because it’s easy to view whatever work you did on a given day as:

  • Not enough (yesterday the project was big and today the project is still big, so how much can you really have accomplished?), and
  • Not good enough (because you’re an architect comparing yourself to Frank Lloyd Wright, or a public speaker comparing yourself to Tony Robbins).

This daily opportunity to feel ineffective is what causes so many of us to procrastinate, even when we really want to work on our projects.

We want the challenge, but not the sense that we’re constantly failing to meet it.

So the trick is to set up a challenge that you can meet, and then meet it every day.

Converting Failure into a Streak of Successes

In the system that I learned from Heather Lewis, the new challenge is time. Instead of trying to “write something really good” each day, you write for a set amount of time.

When you reach that amount of time, you stop, and then you have to wait ’till tomorrow to write more.

The practice is magic, because it replaces a goal that’s really hard to meet (doing enough, or doing it well enough) with a goal that’s straightforward and easy to measure.

All you have to do is put in your time each day, and you’ve added another success to your streak. (Plus not being able to keep writing makes you actively anticipate tomorrow’s session instead of dreading it.)

Of course, there are many ways to measure success beside the amount of time that you’ve put in. You could benchmark the number of:

  • articles you edited,
  • lines of code you wrote,
  • sales calls you made,
  • trees you pruned, or
  • pauses you added between phrases or ideas.

Doing this establishes a streak of successful days.

But how do you stay motivated to keep the streak going?

Jerry Seinfeld’s Streak Maintenance Advice

When Seinfeld was a touring comic, he famously wrote one joke a day.

How did he maintain that streak through the rigors and distractions of being on the road?

Here’s what he told a young comedian, as reported in an article in Lifehacker:

[Seinfeld] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing [a joke], I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

Public Speaking Practice? Create a Streak and Don’t Break It!

This method applies to public speaking, too.

If your public speaking goal feels big, pick a smaller, isolated skill that will help you achieve it, and practice that skill a few minutes a day.

The list of things you can work on is endless (a speaker coach can help you decide what to focus on). But whether you’re working on smiling more, being more concise, feeling like your Avatar, breaking the run-on sentence habit, or a host of other things, the approach that’s most helpful will be the same:

  1. Do a little bit of work,
  2. Track your streak in a calendar or personal log, and
  3. To the best of your ability, don’t break the streak!

Note: Daily streaks are wonderful, but if the streak that you can maintain is six days a week, or four days a week, or even once a weekend, that’s fine, too. Whatever constitutes a streak for you…just don’t break it!

a streak calendar in my Bullet Journal
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