Goals vs. Streaks

There’s a popular story about some advice Seinfeld once gave to a young comedian who asked him tips on how to become a better comedian.

According to Seinfeld, the way to become a better comic is to write a lot of jokes. And the way to do that is to write every day. So Seinfeld told him to buy a calendar.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

Great advice.

Most people around the New Year like to make resolutions, which are another way of writing down goals. But in my experience goals rarely translate into change. Change comes from consistent action in the same direction: habits.

A few days ago I compared habits to holes. Digging a hole isn’t about planning or writing down a schematic for how to dig a hole. It isn’t about goal setting. It’s about digging consistently in the same direction. And the best way to take action in the same direction is to create a streak.

Streaks are better than resolutions or goals, because they turn into habits, which unlike goals actually have the power to transform our lives.

Streaks are better than goals for a host of reasons. To give one example, streaks are entirely within our control, whereas achieving a goal is often not within our control. You can’t predict the future and you can’t control the world around you. If you set a goal of running a 2:45 marathon and you do months of preparation to commit to the task, you still might not get there. It might be windy that day. Or maybe you get injured in training. Or maybe you’re just not physically able to run a 2:45 marathon (that is pretty damned fast). Goals are a combination of a plan for personal resolution and wishful thinking. Get the wishful thinking wrong and you’re liable to question your personal resolve, often unfairly.

Which brings me to my second point: Goals imply that we’re not yet good enough. I’ll only be worthy of self-respect when I run a 2:45 marathon or make $10 million dollars or own a vacation home in Costa Rica. That’s bullshit. A vacation home in Costa Rica doesn’t make you a good person. Being kind and considerate to people around you makes you a good person. Have you ever heard someone say, “he’s a really great person, he owns a second home in Costa Rica”? No. You can be a terrible person and have a second home in Costa Rica and you can be a terrible person and run a 2:45 marathon. In fact, many people are – exactly because they give arbitrary or materialistic goals priority to how they treat people.

Further, and perhaps most critically, achieving a goal may only be incidental to being the person you want to be. Achievement is overrated. Goals give us arbitrary targets for where we’d like our lives to go. Whereas streaks are a daily manifestation of our values put into action. If you consciously think about what’s most important to you and do it every day, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s windy or whether everything happens according to your plan. You can’t control whether your son or daughter gets in to Princeton, but you can commit to eating dinner with your family every day without interruption or distraction. The former is out of your control and may be incidental to your qualities as a parent; the latter is entirely within your control and a reflection of your commitment and attention to them.

A few warnings about streaks: I think it’s important to take them seriously but not too seriously. I like to think of them like those Tibetan sand mandalas. It takes work, concentration, and discipline to create one. It feels good to make something go for a while. But streaks like all things must come to an end. When the time comes it’s ok to let it go and start over again. Maybe you write every day but then you go on vacation. Maybe you eat dinner with your family every day but you have the occasional business trip.

Also, streaks can turn into a negative force if you resolve to have too many of them. If you have 15 streaks, you’ll end up chasing streaks your whole life. Don’t let habit-obsessiveness gets in the way of appreciating life’s quiet moments.

Finally, for me, streaks aren’t about absolutism; they’re about creating patterns for healthy habits, however that makes sense for you. For example, I have a long streak of having no more than one alcoholic drink in a day. The streak isn’t about having no alcohol – it’s about not consuming to excess. It might be reasonable to pick a diet plan with a cheat day. A streak can be to do something four times a week, if that’s what’s best for you. Cultivate momentum and healthy habits, not obsessiveness.

Ultimately, streaks are about creating momentum for habits – unbullshitable, real habits where the values we claim to have shine forth in the actions we take every day. That’s far more important to me than any arbitrary milestone for achievement ever could be.