Streaks versus habits

The habit will carry them forward, but the streak will eventually end.

We sometimes hear of people who studied a particular language course (such as Duolingo) or used a particular study tool (such as Anki) for X days in a row without missing a day. It’s called a “streak.” Examples are a 60-day streak or a 100-day streak or even longer. I applaud those who achieve it, but I don’t have any negative opinions toward those who try and fail.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” (Will Durant, sometimes attributed to Aristotle). This famous quote reminds us that a habit is a key to success, not a streak. When a foreign language learner achieves a streak of longer than 20 days, they have probably established a habit. The habit will carry them forward down the long road toward a high proficiency in a language, but the streak will eventually end.

The problem with streaks is perfectionism. If a learner sets a goal of a 90-day streak and then misses days, they could feel disappointment and guilt–even embarrassment, if they told others about their goal first. And then when they try again, self-doubt can creep in which may or may not eventually lead to quitting. In my case, perfectionism tends to lead to procrastination, which in turn leads nowhere.

Progress in a language comes from habits, not streaks. Missing days–even a few days in a row–is not necessarily enough to prevent a good habit from forming. And it’s certainly not fatal to a language project, which is more like a marathon than a sprint.

It’s not even necessary to achieve a 20-day streak in order to establish a habit. There are probably plenty of things that each of us does only once a week or once a month which have nonetheless become habits. The requirement for establishing a habit–as the quote earlier states–is to do an act repeatedly. When it comes to language learning, even a few minutes a day can lead to gradual improvement. And it doesn’t even have to be every single day.

New Year’s resolutions are not much different. If you make a resolution at the start of the year, you have the whole year to meet it before you have really failed. If you fail to establish a habit in the first month or two, that’s no reason to give up until the next year.

By all means, aim for a streak. But the streak should not be the real goal. A habit leading to eventual completion of the course or some other quantifiable accomplishment is the underlying goal that matters.

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