The Tyranny of the Streak
Practice streaks can be motivating, but they have a dark side too.
Streaks are everywhere, including the Structured Practice Method. As I write this post, I'm at the end of a streak of 367 consecutive practice days. That streak ends today, and I have mixed feelings about it, so I decided a post on the subject might be a good idea.
Back in 2013 I realized that my concert clothes were getting harder and harder to fit into, and I was getting close to having to decide between taking a full breath or zipping up my pants. I knew I had to do something, so naturally I turned to Google. I found an app called MyFitnessPal, which I could use to track everything I ate and make sure I stayed within calorie and nutrition goals to lose weight. As you might imagine for the creator of the Structured Practice Method, this kind of thing appeals to me, so I signed up.
I struggled for a couple of months while building the habit of logging all my food. Believe me, this is not easy, but I was determined, and I eventually got it worked into my normal day-to-day activities. The weight started to come off, and over several months I watched as I steadily progressed toward my goal. By the time I was within just a few pounds of where I wanted to be, I had a streak of around 230 days of logging my food, which I was really proud of. Keeping that streak going was the only thing that kept me on track more than once during that time, for sure!
Losing that streak completely killed my motivation
But one day, I didn't get around to logging any food until pretty late in the day. In fact, it was past midnight, and the next day, when I went to log my breakfast, my streak was gone!! And I hadn't even really missed a day!! I was furious!! And, it turns out, really discouraged. All that effort to maintain my perfect streak, and it was gone in the blink of an eye. In that one instant I completely lost my motivation, and I have struggled to get back on track ever since.
I think the worst thing about it for me was the fact that I hadn't really missed. I felt betrayed by the app. What was the point if it could take away my streak on a whim?
Of course, if I'd simply shrugged it off and gotten back on track the next day, I would have been perfectly fine, and that's the thing. A streak is great, but shooting for that perfect, uninterrupted run is ultimately not realistic. And even if we only hit 70%, we're still way ahead.
For me, this was a case of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.
The story above is one reason that I actually resisted putting the streak statistic in the Structured Practice Method. I was worried that it could demotivate just as easily as motivate. But in the end I couldn't resist. And I do enjoy getting a good streak going, as with the one I'm breaking today.
And this streak has actually been very motivating for me. It's gotten me through some busy weeks where I would very likely have dropped off if not for the desire to post that elusive full year.
But today I'm letting it go. We're in the midst of a huge week for me in the Flint Symphony. We're doing a program of American music: Bernstein - Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin - Porgy and Bess Suite, and Ellington - Black Brown and Beige Suite. I simply don't have the chops to practice even a little bit and also get through all our rehearsals and concert on this program, so the streak has to go.
I'm also taking a vacation immediately following the concert, so it was on the way out anyway. I'm really looking forward to taking a few days to just hang out with the family and not be a worker bee, but I am also really excited about not having this streak hanging over my head. I've been really proud of the accomplishment of getting a full uninterrupted year of practicing in, but it's also become a burden that I'll be quite happy to be done with.
Over the past few months, I've come to feel that practicing every single day over an extended period of time might not even be something all that desirable. Arnold Jacobs, one of the greatest brass pedagogues of the twentieth century, is quoted as having said "Sometimes just sitting under a tree is the best way to become a better musician," or something along those lines. I think he was onto something. As humans, we need breaks. As a trumpet player, sometimes my face needs a break even before my brain does. As long as the overall trend is one of practicing most days, I don't think it's so bad to have the occasional day off.
As I design SPM Version 2.0, I expect the streaks feature will change to reflect this understanding. I already have some ideas. I'd be interested to hear what your thoughts are. Do streaks motivate or demotivate you? How to you handle the inevitable missed day? As always, let us all know in the comments below!