Establishing new behaviors that eventually become habits that can lead to a new identity or sense of self can be hard. Two techniques that have worked to help me stay engaged as I work towards creating new habits are streaks and weekly – as opposed to daily – goals.
Just to be clear, a streak is just a number of consecutive times in a row that you have met a goal (I don’t want to get you arrested!) The typical default step count goal in an activity tracking app like Fitbit for example is 10k steps per day, so a streak of 14 days would be 2 consecutive weeks of meeting the goal every day. Streaks are interesting to me because they leverage this cognitive bias that behavior researchers call “loss aversion”.
From Wikipedia: “Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains… Loss aversion implies that one who loses $100 will lose more satisfaction than another person will gain satisfaction from a $100 windfall.”
Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes loss aversion as the most important contribution that the field of psychology has made to behavior economics. I.E. this idea that keeping what you have is a more effective motivator than aquiring something you don’t yet have is a powerful concept that affects us all. And we should use it to our advantage when we are trying to create new habits.
A streak is something you “have”, the longer you have it, the more valuable it becomes and the more motivated you are to keep it going. If you’ve got 14 days in a row of meeting your step count goal, there is an extra incentive on day 15 to get off the couch and get those steps in to keep the streak going.
But streaks can be dangerous and work against you too. The Misfit Shine is an activity tracker like Fitbit that I experimented with for a while. Their app at the time had a streak counter that showed the number of days in a row that I had met my daily goal (Fitbit doesn’t do this). The problem is, as the daily streak count went from days to weeks, it actually became a growing source of anxiety, and stopped being enjoyable. The longer the streak went, the more valuable it became to me and the more stressful meeting the goal each day became. And stress makes it harder, not easier, to create new habits.
But the Misfit app at the time also had an indicator that showed if you had met a weekly goal total, which was just a simple sum of the daily numbers added up for the week. And even though I had stopped being motivated by the daily streak counter, I noticed in February (2015) that I had a string of weeks in a row where I had met the weekly goal of 70k steps. So I started manually counting back how many weeks it had been. Ten! Wow! I had met my weekly goal All the way back to the week starting Dec 15, 2014!
So, of course, by the end of the following week I made sure to meet the goal again – 11. It was fun, and no stress. I could miss daily goals and make up for it by the end of the week and still meet the weekly goal. No anxiety, no stress. The weeks piled up. I switched to using a Fitbit along the way, but here we are, more than a year and half later at the end of July 2016, and I still have not missed a single week since December 2014!
As the weeks turned into months turned into years I have increased my daily goal, I’m now doing 100k steps a week, a bit of a challenge. But my minimum ‘streak’ goal is just 80k – which is by now actually quite easy, so no stress. It became a habit. It’s what I do now, it’s who I am. I walk. If I missed a week right now because of an injury or a lost Fitbit or some other unavoidable event, I would only be mildly disappointed in breaking the streak – but who I am, someone who gets up and walks regularly – that’s not gonna change.
Now, unfortunately, the Fitbit app doesn’t do weekly step count goals and it doesn’t track and visualize streaks so I had to figure this out on my own. It does have a view of the step data though that shows weekly step count totals – so I can page down through the weeks and see that I haven’t missed my goal since I started using the Fitbit last summer – but this needs to be a tile on their home screen!
And to make matters worse, Fitbit has another flaw on the loss aversion front (remember loss aversion, one of the most powerful cognitive biases we have for affecting our behavior?) Currently in the Fitbit app, for every day that you meet your daily step count goal you get a little “star”. I know, it’s a small deal, but as the days turn into years, it is nice to page back thru the calendar and see all those stars. I earned them, they are mine, they are valuable to me. But here’s the problem: if I increase my goal, from say 10k steps per day to 14k – I lose my past stars on the days where I had greater than 10k steps but less than 14k. That hurts. It’s small stuff like this that leads to all those Fitbit trackers ending up at the bottom of the sock drawer!
In this post, I used daily step count tracking with an activity tracker such as Fitbit to describe how to leverage streaks and weekly goals – because that’s how I learned these concepts. But these ideas can apply to any daily habitual behavior that you want to carve into your life. For example, we have incorporated streaks and weekly goals into the user experience of a digital health app I am working on called KeepOnMovin’. KeepOnMovin is a physical therapy home exercise app where we track completion of prescribed rehab workouts instead of steps.
So the moral of the story:
Don’t end up at the bottom of your sock drawer! Instead, succeed in creating new habits that lead to a new you and use weekly goals and streaks to help!