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Scott J. Forman
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Harness loss-aversion to start a habit

26 Oct 2016

TL;DR: If you want to start a habit, try Streaks for Android or Momentum for iOS.

Starting a habit is hard. Some recent research, nicely reviewed by James Clear suggests that it takes more than two months. (Which is to say, significantly longer than the often-repeated but suspect “21 days”). It’s also highly variable, depending on the person and the circumstances.

I recently found a method that works well for me. Evidently, Jerry Seinfeld swears by a tactic he calls “don’t break the chain”.

You could buy a calendar like Jerry does. But there are some apps, now, too. They’re pretty simple. For each habit you’re trying to form, you check off each day whether you’ve done it. And as you string together days, it keeps a running tally. I’m on day 36 exercising and meditating, day 26 practicing the piano and flossing, and…day 1 of blogging.


Why does this work? My theory is that it’s largely about loss-aversion. “I’ve got a pretty good streak going here, and I don’t want to start over from scratch.” Normally, as the weeks pass, it becomes harder to keep going. Willpower or enthusiasm flags, and one day you just stop. These apps work because they push against that friction. The longer you go without breaking the streak, the higher the cost of missing a day.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much of the thing you do each day. My commitment, for instance, is to simply touch the piano. That could mean as little as a single minute of practicing. In my experience, 7 days of micro-practice yields much more progress and satisfaction than a once-a-week extravaganza.

This might seem like a trivial thing. It’s just counting. But it really works.