In the summer of 1977, a year and a half before I was born, my father made a decision. He was a young professor of religion who wanted to brush up on his Hebrew language skills, which he thought would help his research studying ancient texts. He committed to reading Hebrew for 30 minutes daily.
The streak is still going, 39 years later. There was one day in the 1980s when he read about 10 minutes and got interrupted and didn’t return, but other than that, the streak is perfect. He read despite the distractions of small children, his various professional obligations, and volunteer commitments. More incredibly, he read his required minutes of Hebrew on the two days he had detached retina surgeries. “I handled them by starting to read just after midnight before the early morning operations,” he tells me. “It has not always been convenient, but it has worked out.”
While my father’s streak is longer than most, he’s not the only person who’s done something daily for decades. Jeff Hironaka, associate head men’s basketball coach at Portland State University, has run six miles daily for the past 22 years. Jodi Helmer, a freelance journalist, has written in her journal daily for 15 years. Such streaks offer insight to anyone trying to establish and keep a long-term habit.
The first lesson? People on streaks like what they do. If you think about it, most of us are on a long-term streak of eating daily. We don’t have to–it is quite possible to fast for 24 hours–but life feels unpleasantly like it’s missing something when we don’t eat. Nikki Mascali has written something for herself daily since January 1, 2013. “As a journalist by day, I found that most of my creativity was going only to my work, and nothing was left for my personal writing goals,” she says. “I find that as long as I’m writing something for me, it keeps a cache of creativity I feel I need to survive. I’ve never even thought of stopping at the end of each year because it’s become such a part of me.”
Many people flounder with habits because they allow exceptions for things such as travel, or special occasions, that eventually become common enough not to be exceptions. Those with streaks, on the other hand, structure their lives to make their habits possible.
Helmer, for instance, says of her journaling, “Nothing is scheduled until 9:30 a.m. so I can make it happen.” Doing things at a certain time daily creates an obvious cue. When my dad has his first cup of coffee, he generally pulls out the Hebrew. While first thing in the morning is a good option for many habits–we tend to have the most willpower and control of our schedules then–other times can work, too.
Brian Elizardi has a relatively new streak going of 100 straight days of meditation. “I had always seen myself as a first-thing-in-the-morning meditation kind of guy, but I have two kids under the age of 6, and their sporadic wake-up patterns meant that I would rush to squeeze it in, hoping they wouldn’t barge in on my moment of zen,” he says. This anxious feeling somewhat undermined his meditation, so he looked at the rest of his schedule and found that “the first moment of the day that was fully mine wasn’t until I arrived at my office for the workday.” So now he meditates at the office, and on weekends, his wife takes the kids for a few minutes so they won’t interrupt.
People with long-running streaks plan for how they’ll continue, despite non-ideal conditions. Andrew Weber has run daily for more than 400 days. He generally incorporates a run into his commute home, and brings running clothes to work and changes into them there, but “there have been occasional days when our family has traveled where I fit a quick run in during a pit stop,” he says. “I might hop out of the car and run about 3/4 of a mile before turning around.”
Such actions would make some people feel trapped by a habit, but in general, people with long streaks don’t feel like someone who, in the midst of a Whole 30 challenge, is pining for pizza and beer on the 31st day. Weber started his streak last summer with a Runner’s World challenge to run daily between Memorial Day and July 4. Then he decided to keep going to Labor Day. Then, since he was training for a marathon in January, he kept going until that deadline passed. “Once I finished the marathon, the one-year mark didn’t seem that far off,” so he continued. Having passed that, and the 400-day mark, he no longer has a specific end date in mind. Indeed, “lately I haven’t been tempted to stop.” He’s not particularly protective of the streak. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends on a random night where I plan a late run and accidentally fall asleep putting my kids to bed,” he says. But for now, all this activity is boosting his energy levels, and “I really feel good running this much.”
While streaks tend to be their own rewards, some people with long-term habits will do things that keep them accountable.“Because I’m old school, I keep track in a free little calendar book I get from Hallmark every year!” says Mascali of her daily creative writing habit.
Somer Hanson has gotten up early to read every morning (including weekends) since September, 2012. At first she got up 30 minutes earlier than necessary. She switched to 45-60 minutes in April 2014 because “30 minutes is just not enough, especially if it’s a really good book.” These days, “I wake up at 5:30 a.m. on weekdays and read until 6:15-6:30, then I get ready and out the door by 7:10 a.m.” Saturdays and Sundays she generally reads from 7-8 a.m. “It was a little difficult at first to discipline myself to an earlier wake-up time,” she says, but two things have helped. First, her dogs: “Once my alarm goes off, they think the day is started, and there’s no snoozing allowed.” Second, she sets goals. In 2015, she challenged herself to read 45 books. In 2016, she upped the ante to 52 books and, having finished No. 30 last week, she is on track.
To be sure, streaks aren’t for everyone. My father says that it’s never been hard for him to maintain the streak because “It actually plays into a strength or weakness of my character, depending on one’s perspective.” Some people really like rituals and routines. Others really don’t. But sometimes, seeing someone else maintain a routine can be inspiring. Hanson reports, “Just this past month, my husband decided to join in my morning reading and has also disciplined himself to wake up long before he needs to.” Indeed, “he takes it a step further and then goes to the gym afterward, but I’m not quite there . . . yet.”