A rewarding way to stick to a creative habit

Back in the early 20th century, preventable mining accidents were a lot more common. Then one day, a mining employee had the imaginative idea to show a sign saying something like “three days since our last accident.” The thought was that every day employees would see that sign and want to keep the streak going, so that every day the number would get bigger. If there was an accident, the sign would be reset to zero. In the early 1920s, chemical company DuPont took this idea and ran with it. They’re a safety-conscious company and they still use signage like this to encourage everyone working there to stay safe. It’s now a widespread idea, and it’s even in the opening sequence of The Simpsons.

Now, in reality, the origins of the practice are a bit mucky. So, you know, I embroidered this story a little bit, but it is widely used by DuPont, who are a safety-conscious company. So what we know is that streaks work. Keeping track of a number every day and watching for that number to go up, it works. I’m currently tracking three streaks as we speak: days I’ve walked for around 40 minutes (18), days without drinking alcohol (19), and my word will streak (4). I had a bad day a few days ago. I’m using the streaks app for those first two streaks, and I’ll be honest, I don’t love it as it kind of just shows a number, and what I want to see is that unbroken line. I might be using the app wrong; the interface doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. I just want to see that chain build up over time, which is much more visually appealing than just seeing a number.

But either way, streaks are motivators to keep going. We don’t want to see a broken line. We don’t want to have to reset from zero. And if you are a numbers person, the nice thing about streaks is you can focus on that number getting bigger. For me, I want to see dots on a screen or X’s on a calendar that I can visually see, like, “Wow, I did this particular thing every day or I didn’t do this particular thing.”

Because streaks are good for tracking stuff that you do want to do or don’t want to do. For example, practicing the guitar versus going for a run. Going for a run is still a positive thing, but it’s not necessarily something you want to do. So it’s great if you can keep track of that number. But it’s also good for tracking things that you want to avoid doing, like having a cigarette or checking your stats. Streaks also help keep us accountable. Now, accountability, I think, really has to be tempered with kindness. We have to be careful about accountability.

Some systems, like DuoLingo, give you a day’s grace if you have a high streak. If you get a high enough streak, they actually give you a day off. So if you do miss your streak, it’s a bit like a no-claims bonus; you can still keep it. I think that’s a great system, and maybe you can work it into your own system. If you’re already tracking things, I suggest giving it a go. And maybe give yourself a break if you’re tracking a daily habit. For example, I want to go out and walk every day because it’s the least I can do.

If you’re not already tracking something, think about what you might want to track and how you would want to track it. Obviously, we are talking about creativity here, so you might want to track what you make, that you create something every day. I love the idea of tracking that you create something the public can see every day. Or that you rehearsed, practiced, or did something to improve your skills as an artist, musician, writer, or whatever. Even if you’re not putting something out as a result, just tracking the fact that you spent 20 minutes on the guitar or any other small action can be beneficial. As James Clear says in his book, Atomic Habits, it’s casting a vote for your future identity. It’s saying, “I am the person who does this.”

In terms of tracking things, you can use an app like Streaks or another one with a better interface. You can also use a wall calendar and mark the days with a big Sharpie. If you’re tracking multiple things, use different colored pens. Alternatively, you can try the Theme System Journal, which is a beautiful option if you enjoy the tactile experience of using pens and paper. However, be mindful of just tracking something you do most days and mistaking it for a streak. Start by establishing it as a daily habit and be purposeful about it, connecting it with your identity.

If you fall off track, don’t stress, just try not to miss more than one day. Set the bar low in the beginning, making sure it’s manageable even on challenging days. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to get back into it. Remember, big destinies are made up of tiny little actions. Take a small, repeatable action today, track it, and do it again tomorrow.

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