Streaks aren't Effective for Accountability

Analysis on my attempt to sleep 9PM-5AM for 30 days

Laura Gao

11 Dec 2020 • 4 min read

Last month, I said that I would spend 30 consecutive days sleeping from 9PM - 5AM. I would also drop some wisdom on Twitter for 30 consecutive days. Had I done this perfectly, today would be Day 25.

I think that the biggest mistake that people make when committing to habit changes (and 30 day challenges) is not making a plan for what to do in the case of failure. What usually happens is that you start off the challenge super pumped, you keep a perfect streak for the first few days, but once you fail one day you're demotivated for the rest of the challenge.

Quick note: How most 30 day challenges work is as follows - progress is assessed by your streak; how well you do on the challenge is determined by the day that you drop the challenge. If I fail on day 7, then I'm out and my "score" is just 7, and then I'm out of the challenge for good. What I do on the remaining 23 days does not matter at all.

For this reason, I think that measuring your growth in terms of a streak is inherently unhelpful, streaks being “Today is the 43rd day exercising!” Why? If you want long term habit changes, you want a long term commitment that will last you for months or years. No one is perfect, you’re going to break your streak someday. What happens once you break that streak? You had a 43 day streak, and now you’re starting on day 1. Feels demotivating to have to get back up to 43. With streaks, there’s no backup plan if you miss one day. If you want a long term habit change, you don’t really care if you miss one day. Even if you missed one day a week, but committed to exercising in the other 6 out of 7 days, I'd still consider that a successful long term habit change. You want to reward being able to come back after you fail instead of just trying to go for the longest streak possible.

Tl;dr: Failing on one day is inevitable. You would rather have a system that allows you to get back up after you fail, rather than preventing failure.

Too bad half of self improvement apps use streaks to assess progress 😔

NNN is one of the biggest 30 day challenges, where people all over the world support each other in trying to quit an instant-gratification-seeking habit. It has one of the best communities, and it uses streaks. If you fail on day 7, then you're out and your "score" is just 7, and then you're out of the challenge and what you do on the remaining 23 days does not matter at all. THAT IS ULTIMATE DEMOTIVATION! Once you fail on one day, you literally are out of the challenge and have no reason to keep up this habit change even for the rest of the month, much less for your lifetime. If your purpose of taking on challenges is self improvement, then this system is a failure.

Members use their longest streak of refraining from this specific habit as a big part to their personal assessment of self improvement. Streaks are a big part of many people's lives.

Even if you're not participating in a 30 day challenge for a long term habit change, but just to test your willpower for 30 days, the streak system is still a failure. When you get instantly removed from the challenge for failing day 7, you'll probably lose motivation to keep going for the remaining 23 days. In the new system, however, failing one day does not remove you from the challenge. If you fail one day, this system will still incentivise you to continue doing your best for the remainder of the 30 days.

System Overhaul

Look - instead of assessing how well you do on a 30 day challenge by the day that you drop out, what if it was assessed by the number of days out of 30 that you did it? I.e. if you're trying to sleep early for 30 days, instead of assessing how well you did on the challenge by how many days you can go without failing, assess by number of days out of 30 that you successfully. The same can be done for NNN.

Today is the 11th day of the month, and so far I have slept from 9PM-5AM for a total of 0 days so far in December. That gives me a score of 0/11. I'm going to try this for the remainder of December. A rule of thumb would be that 80% is good enough for successful long term habit formation.I think I'm going to assess these things on a monthly basis because the break between two months makes sense.

To keep myself accountable, maybe I'll update my Discord status daily with my rolling score.

I got this idea from Nicky Case. Read about his experience.

But... what happened with me? Long story short, I had the Instacart challenge due soon, and at 9 pm I had ideas so kinda just rolled with it, prioritizing the challenge over my sleep.

Root Cause Analysis

The root cause of waking up late is feeling tired at 5 am, thinking to myself, I need 8 hours, then going back to sleep. The root cause of waking up late is sleeping late. So far the plan is: sleep early → fix all my problems.

Why don’t I sleep early? I think the main issue with that is a lack of time management and foresight to plan ahead of time. Often it’s 4pm I’m like OH I HAVE 5 HOURS TO WORK so I can watch a livestream first, then when I start working is 7 and Oh no I have to get it done by 9 but then I can’t get it done by 9 because work always takes 2x time than you expected to finish. So by the time I'm done my work it's 10. Then I have to do my get ready for bed night routine; after that it’s close to 10:30. Then I want to reflect on my day daily and by the time I'm done that it’s 11PM.

Root cause of sleeping late is the tradeoff between work and sleep.


Fix: get your work done early through better planning out your day.

How will I do this?

This was my old plan: 8-8:30PM reflect, 8:30-9PM night routine, 9PM sleep. What actually happened: 8-9 or 9:30 doing work. So new plan: at 8 every day, bringing my laptop downstairs. No more screen time at 8. If you miss meetings, too bad, for the remainder of December you care about your sleep more than any meeting. If meeting you really want to go to then the only way I allow myself to go is if I’m done reflections, updating my daily updates, AND my night routine by 8. So that I'm done everything so that as soon as meeting ends at 9, I can sleep immediately.