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Imagine you’re about to start a new habit.
You want to turn it into a permanent routine.
So do you follow it every day or do it a few times a week?
Most experts would agree that the only way to turn an action into a habit is to follow it on a daily basis—to the point where it becomes an ingrained behavior.
That said, there are times where it makes more sense to implement the “occasional habit” that you complete only a few times a week. This leads to a simple question:
How do you know when it’s better to focus on a streak habit and when it’s better to follow the occasional habit?
In this post, we’ll explore both types. Plus, you’ll learn three questions to ask whenever you’re faced with a new habit change.
Let’s get to it.
The Benefit of the Streak Habit
There is a famous anti-procrastination technique known as the “Seinfeld Strategy” that can help you beat procrastination. This routine is based on a story of how an inspiring comedian asked Jerry Seinfeld about his secret to success.
The comedian described the following:
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. 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 is to not break the chain.'
The point of this Seinfeld example is simple—you don’t worry about good or bad days.
You don’t wait until you’re motivated. What’s important is you show up every day and do the work. In other words, the best habits are formed by not breaking the chain.
The “streak habit” works because you create permanent routines. You don’t worry about individual successes or failures. Instead, you focus on repeating the process day in and day out.
A streak habit is something you do every day–without fail.
If you’re an aspiring writer, you write every day. If you want to eat better, you stick to a sensible food plan every day. And if you want to be more productive, you complete a to-do list every day.
It’s not hard to form a habit when you have the “no-excuse” mindset. Simply focus on doing it—without fail—every single day and it’ll turn into a permanent routine.
The Benefit of the Occasional Habit
The opposite of the streak habit is a concept that I call the occasional habit.
The idea here is that it’s okay to not follow a routine every single day. In fact, it’s often better to take off the occasional day and focus on energy renewal.
For instance, I currently track ten habits on my Coach.me app:
- 10K steps
- Email outreach to one person
- Write for 30 minutes
- Morning routine
- Weigh yourself
- Use Pomodoro Technique (cool Productivity Hack)
- Inbox Zero
- Listen to Podcast
Do I do all of them every day?
Most of these habits revolve around my productivity and aren’t always applicable since I don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays. Yet, I’d consider them to be successfully formed habits because I’ll do them—without fail—during the workweek.
In a recent article, Joel Gascoigne (the founder of Buffer) experimented with a 7 day work week. Instead of working five days a week and taking off two, Joel tried to a follow the same core habits every single day: Work, go the gym, reflect, and rest.
While his individual days weren’t filled with as many activities, he thought that developing a “streak mindset” would improve his overall productivity.
Occasional habits are ones that can't be done daily. They are difficult to turn into routines.
To make a long story short, Joel burned out after a few weeks. His passion for work decreased. Plus, he strained a muscle at the gym due to the repetitive nature of exercising every day. What he ultimately determined is it’s important to take at least one day off each week for energy renewal.
3 Questions to Choose Your Habit Type
Now that you know the difference between the two types of habits, you might wonder which one is better.
My answer is it depends on the habit you’re trying to form.
You can figure it out by answering three simple questions:
#1: Is it de-motivating?
Sometimes there are “de-motivating habits,” which are risky to follow every day.
The running habit is a good example because it’s impossible to do every day without getting injured.
A better strategy is to focus on developing an occasional running habit that you follow three to four times a week. And maybe in a year or so, you could get to the point where you’d run six times a week.
Look at the habit you’re trying to form. Is it something that can be done every day without a negative result?
If so, then it would make a good streak habit. On the other hand, if you feel like there’s a risk of injury or burnout, then schedule in a few days off each week for energy renewal.
#2: Is it necessary?
Some habits are related to your job or business. So, on your days off, it’s not that important to complete them. Instead, you’d be better off relaxing and doing other things.
As an example, I follow a morning routine as a way to create energy and get ready for my writing habit. But I don’t worry about doing either on Saturdays and Sundays since I relax on these days.
If a habit isn’t necessary on a certain day, then it’s okay to skip it. Often you’ll find that scheduling in rest days creates a lot of passion for a task. Just remember: You’re not being lazy if you miss a day, you’re being strategic.
#3: Is it enjoyable?
It’s okay to enjoy a habit. In fact, I’m sure there are certain routines you look forward to on a daily basis. If you find that a routine is motivating and there isn’t a downside to doing it every day, then I’d recommend turning it into a streak habit
For instance, I love reading, so it’s easy to follow this habit every day since it’s how I relax during productivity breaks and at night.
To better help you turn any goal into habits you can sustain, take a few minutes to watch this video:
Final Thoughts on Streak Habits VS Occasional Habits
I feel that there isn’t a right answer to the streak vs. occasional debate. Most of the time, it’s better to not “break the chain” when you first start a habit. But, it’s also important to consider the negative consequences of obsessively doing the same thing every single day.
Really, the best way solution is to answer the three questions I just mentioned:
- Is it de-motivating?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it enjoyable?
Apply these questions to the habits you’re trying to form. You’ll find that it’s better to follow some every single day and skip a few days on the other ones.
Now it’s your turn.
Do you believe in streak habits? Or do think it’s important to take a few days off? How do you determine what’s right for you?
Sound off below in the comment section…
If you are looking for a NEW good habit…. Why not check out this massive good habit list.
Finally, if you're looking for resources on building good habits, check out these blog posts:
- How to Build New Habits That Stick [The Ultimate Guide]
- 13 Steps for Building a Habit Stacking Routine
- 29 Best Books on Building Good Habits
Finally, if you need help with building habits, then check out this nine-step blueprint that walks you through the entire process of creating lifelong habits.)
13 thoughts on “Streak Habits VS Occasional Habits: Which is Better?”
Hi, I really enjoyed this article. There is also that theory that if you keep a habit up for longer than 21 days, it will be easier to continue than it would be to break it, because that’s how long it takes to form a habit in the brain.
I’m not sure of the science here, but at least in theory it does make sense. The longer we keep something up (that isn’t physical) the longer we WANT to keep it up.
As long as we enjoy it – and I think that is the key.
21 day period is an urban myth. Or a rule of thumb. Definitely not the science.
Forming the habit is a highly individual matter.
And yes, Jamie, it has some similarity to the financial investment. The more resources you’ve committed, the less you want to give up on the task.
Like Michal said, the science is a bit fuzzy. I have read that 21 day thing in Duhigg’s, “Power of Habit”, on zenhabits, and in “the secret” (certainly not my favorite source of “facts”). I can’t find an actual scientific extract saying it is true. BUT 30 days does seem to be a pretty good number to consciously test drive a habit. Neural pathways may not have been forged yet, but it does begin to be part of a routine by that point.
But you are absolutely right, the longer we are able to keep something going, the more it becomes routine and the more you want, and sometimes even need to do your habit. The only question is whether the habit itself fits better as a streak habit or an occasional habit. (Since some habits are fairly impossible to make as streak habits)
Great post SJ (as usual).
I strongly believe in the streak habits. For example I’ve been doing pushups every day for about 6 years. The only breaks I had were connected to a sickness and other random stuff.
I got injured several times. That’s life. I got over it.
But I have also occasional habits. Some of them are work-related, some not. And there are also ‘random habits’ – for example expanses tracking. I don’t always know when I would spend money, but I need to track it every time it happens.
The questions you’ve given are great. I didn’t even realize but I used them subconscioulsy to determine my tactics regarding the specific habit.
I have one more question I use: “Is it important?”
And importancy refers to the important/urgent activities matrix.
My writing habit is a good example. I write everyday. I don’t always enjoy it. But the importance of writing is so enormous for my future that I won’t dare to break the streak even for a one day.
Writing is a great example. It is a habit that is SO easy to get out of. You don’t feel creative. You procrastinate. You find reasons to do other important things.
I do take days off my writing. But only “official” days off, like weekends. I absolutely agree that otherwise this is a MUST habit. Not only that but it is a great habit to do at the same time every day, and write whether you “feel” it or not. (As I am sure you do!)
Good to hear you are being diligent with this one!
For some habits, then I say go for the streak style but when it comes to lifting weights at the gym, I can only do 5 days a week (3 days on I day off, 2 days on 1 day off) or else I get joint and muscle pains…. in that case it has to be occasional because the muscles and joints need rest!
Your article has brought me a sense of relief. I would try a new habit, then it would peter out. Then I’d get a ‘2nd wind’ and try it again and that too would fizzle. The process would repeat itself and I’d feel like I’d failed in my attempts. But thinking of habits that I’ve tried repeatedly as ‘Occasional’ habits and answering the questions makes me realize that the process itself is a habit. I have these energetic bursts of activity and then I rest or regenerate.
We have the same habit/goal of emailing or outreach to one person daily. We get so busy in our lives that we sometimes don’t keep in touch with the people most important to us. So my goal has been for the past 15 years is to have 2 outreaches a day—one personal, one business. Sometimes the two cross over. I try to vary the outreach mode by using emails, blogs, facebook, phone calls, personal meeting, and even letter writing, which admittedly I scarcely do.
First of all, 2 outreaches a day for 15 years. WOW! What can I say but, “that is AWESEOME”. You really rock!
As for your habit change issue. It certainly could be occasional habits. Though, this does not mean, “don’t do it for a month” and start up again. So a lot really depends upon your fail time.
I think a lot of the problem is that people are too, “100% success or nothing” oriented with habit change. While you certainly want to make an effort to do your habit as frequently as possible one failure should not be the end of the world. Dieting is the perfect example. A lot of people in my family are on “diets” now. (I hesitate to use that word, since it has negative connotations. They are really, “eating healthy”) They are doing this and they are not perfect. They eat 3 meals a day 7 days a week. That means if they utterly fail 2 meals in a week, that is still a 90% accomplishment rate, which is damn good IMO.
My point is that it is important to have a short term memory. Forgive and forget small mistakes and get, “back on the horse” of the habit change.
The final thing you said in the first paragraph is also encouraging. Action followed by rest followed by more action is the way to keep things fresh, revived and stave off burnout.
Thanks for a great comment and I hope to see you again.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I need to keep the short term memory concept in mind.
Yes, absolutely streak habits are the way to go if you want to build a permanent routine. But, at some point, I find it’s good to take the occasional day off. I do like how you’re focused on 250 words a day. That’s a completely doable outcome, even if you’re busy with a bunch of other things. No matter what, you can find the 15 to 30 minutes to do that amount of writing. I imagine it’s hard to not follow through on that commitment.
Excellent! I love Seinfeld’s approach but think breaking the chain here and there is a must. I pushed myself physically and mentally the past few months here in India; I have broken down a few times, with food poisoning, bad colds, fatigue and some mental breakdowns too.
Resting when you need it is so important, even when you think you do not need it 😉
Thanks for sharing!
An interesting article which explains why I find daily habits easier to form than occasional.
With exercise it’s easy to create a streak habit by rephrasing your goal to ‘follow my exercise programme every day’. A good exercise programme will include active rest days, rest days, and maybe tapering, so you can cross off that you’ve done your rest day which is part of the programme.
This then made me think ‘is there a way to include “rest days” for other occasional habits, so that you can effectively convert it into a streak habit? For example, laundry. The habit could be check it every day and do it if there’s a full load. (I realise some people don’t need to convert laundry into a streak habit – they need to do it every day anyway!).
I’m going to try this for other occasional habits I want to instill, and convert them into streak habits which I find so much easier to implement.
I like your thinking on “rephrasing” or reworking occasional habits for streak habits. The laundry is a great example of this too. Like you said, just the simple action of checking this on a daily basis could do wonders to make it part of a routine. Like you – I am a guy who loves the streak over the occasional, so finding tweaks like this is great.
Thanks for the comment!
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