science of us

Why Breaking a Streak Feels So Awful

Photo: Daniel Grizelj/Getty Images

In 2016, Slaney was on the Duolingo streak of a lifetime. She says it was 300 days at least, long enough for her owl to accumulate “a whole wardrobe.” Then Election Day happened. Slaney did not do her Duolingo lessons. “I was otherwise preoccupied,” she says. The next day, she woke up, checked her iPad, and saw a notification from Duolingo, asking if she wanted to spend $9.99 to “restore” her streak. Slaney was outraged, and devastated. She never went back.

Others aren’t so strong-willed. Callie Beusman, the Cut’s own news editor, tells me she’s twice paid to restore her Duolingo streak. The first time, she was doing her lessons on the subway, and the app didn’t save her progress. The second time, she says, she “got drunk and forgot.” Both times, she ultimately paid the $9.99, so that she and the app could mutually pretend she hadn’t missed a day. “I felt that I was cheating, but simply did not care,” she explains. “I am nothing without my streak … I’m on day 151 now.”

Duolingo may be especially fertile ground for streak-setting (its reminder owl is so stern it’s become a very good meme with a badly photoshopped gun), but it’s far from the only venue in which a person can compete with (and ultimately disappoint) herself. I heard from several NYT crossword streakers — Vanessa, who’s about to hit 100 days for the first time, and thus double-checks the app every night before bed to make sure she finished; and Patrick, whose all-time high of 37 he views as a distant, anomalous memory. I also heard from serial Headspace users, and compulsive Fitbit step-counters, but what all streakers seem to share is their overwhelming sense of sadness when their streaks are, eventually, broken. Personally, this is why I cannot, will not even attempt a streak: I know my own guilt, and obsessive tendencies, and if and when I eventually falter, they would ruin me. It’s just not safe.

But what is it about streak-breaking that feels so awful? According to Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, streaks are “insidious by nature.” What may start as a genuine desire to learn French, for instance, becomes more valuable over time, such that you have more and more to lose as you’re ostensibly making gains. And when you become more concerned with a perceived loss than the streak’s benefits, that’s when you run into problems, Alter says. “The issue is that they tip into negative territory when they inspire obsessions,” he explains. “A streak that gets you to take 10,000 steps every day is good until you have a stress injury, and push through it because you don’t want to abandon the streak.”

Further complicating our feelings about streak-breaking is the fact that most streaks we aim to hold are rewarded, whether by app-based owls or friends and co-workers. The truth, says Alter, is that streaks are morally neutral. Even those done in the service of health or cognitive benefits aren’t usually the best way to achieve results, and the rewards we accumulate from the streaks themselves tend to be pretty psychological. (Your relationship with the Duolingo owl, for instance, is entirely in your head.) Working out regularly is good for you, but so is resting; it’s not a streak’s everydayness, necessarily, that makes it worthy. To assess whether or not you’re approaching obsession territory, Alter suggests building streak breaks into one’s streak. “It’s like building a cheat day into a diet: You need an outlet and the ability to be imperfect from time to time, otherwise streaks and other goals take over your life and inspire a very damaging sort of compulsive behavior,” Alter says.

If what you’re looking for is sustainability — a truly long-term habit, ingrained into your routine — streaks are also one of the less effective routes available, says Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and author of the forthcoming Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “For habits to form, we know that there has to be a certain amount of consistency and regularity in the behavior itself,” she says. Most streaks (at least, those tracked by technology) don’t require any regularity in time or context, so long as you complete the task once each day. That makes them harder to remember, and to maintain. Good habits (and bad ones, actually) are more mindless, and become more ingrained in our routines. While habits have more to do with memory, says Wood, streaks have more to do with emotion.

“We have this emotional reaction to losing something we’ve created, and that’s what keeps us going with streaks,” says Wood. “Simple ownership makes us like something more, and we own our streaks. Streaks are hard won. They’re something we value.” In other words, streaks are as susceptible to the endowment effect — the psychological perception by which we think anything in our possession is worth more than it actually is. This, too, makes them hard to lose. Nobody likes losing their things, even when it’s a number bestowed upon you by a cartoon owl. Perhaps that’s why so many of us respond to missing a single day of a weeks- or months-long streak by giving up forever, a childish, “No fair, I’m NOT PLAYING.”

Humans are also bad at forgiving themselves, says Wood, which is why — echoing Alter — she thinks it’s important to make room for breaks. “When you’re learning a new behavior, you can actually omit it a few times,” she says. “Once you start up again, you’re still building on the old habit.” Habits are, of course, less sexy than streaks, and there is no app I know of that rewards you for not using it for a day or two at a time. But if what you’re aiming for is effective learning, or genuine skill improvement, slow, steady habit-forming is the more pragmatic route to take.

Of escaping her Duolingo demons, Slaney says, “I’d gone through the entire French ‘tree,’ but I kept going through the lessons out of a misplaced sense of virtue.” Election Day, she says, was a wake-up call. “Donald Trump was going to be president and I still couldn’t speak French. To quote Home Alone, I was what the French call les incompetents.”

Why Breaking a Streak Feels So Awful