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Harnessing a Winning Streak

Strategies and goals

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In gambling, winning streaks are a sucker’s bet, but with willpower, projects, and good habit formation, winning streaks are not only possible: they can be a highly effective tool for making on-and-off success into consistent success.

Why Winning Streaks Help
In matters of willpower, our tendency to see patterns and to get invested in scores and numbers can work in our favor. A winning streak is the kind of system that tends to attract our attention. It’s also a way of harnessing the power of rules.

Let’s say I’m trying to develop a habit of getting to work half an hour early every day. If I’ve been managing to arrive at that time a few times a week, I’ll probably be encouraged, because arriving early on some days is clearly an improvement over arriving early on no days. However, doing something 3 or 4 times out of 5 isn’t a good way to develop a habit: the habit will develop more quickly if I show up at the new time I’ve chosen every single day.

This is where a winning streak comes in: if I have been in at the new time 3 out of the last 3 days, and if I’ve started to keep track, I’m likely to care more about being in at the new time on the 4th day, and then on the 5th. Every time I show up early, my count goes up, and I establish a new record–my “score” gets higher. If I don’t get in early, it ruins my winning streak, and my count is back down to 0.

Small, But Easy to Focus On
If you’re thinking that these kinds of scores are trivial, in some ways you’re right. Yet winning streaks are useful because our brains don’t always pick out the most important information: they like patterns. They also like clear, simple, short-term goals. This is why video games, soap operas, and sports events can be so engrossing to so many people: it’s not because these things are important for themselves as that they offer simple, immediate problems that are either going to be solved or not solved in the short term, along with a structure we recognize and can judge.

A winning streak means we’re not overwhelming ourselves with the requirement to become fluent in Korean or lose 40 pounds or organize the entire house. Instead, we focus on the current day and the current task: learn 10 more Korean flash cards; track all of what I eat for the day, exercise for at least 20 minutes, and stay under my calorie limit; do the next item on the house organization list. If we do the little bit that needs to be done every day, the winning streak is maintained and the days mount up. And if on one particular day things go awry, that’s disappointing, but the new goal is pretty obvious: start over and try to “beat” the old score, the longest previous streak.

My Experience
I’ve been experimenting with winning streaks in my own life lately, and so far the results have been strong, and I’ll be trying them out in other areas.

I’ve have been losing weight and getting more fit for years: I’m down 60 pounds so far, and I’ve become stronger, fitter, and more energetic than I’ve ever been in my life. My eating habits have been good, but typically I’d eat well on average maybe 5 to 10 days in a row, then have one or more days when I got just far enough off track to temporarily stop my weight loss.

Applying the winning streak approach, I started by writing “Day 1” on the pad of paper where I keep track of what I eat, what exercise I do, and what I weigh. My task was to keep my food intake within 1700 calories each day (a level at which I know from experience I lose weight at a healthy rate) and to exercise on every day it was feasible. Each day do these things this counts as a “win.” So far, every single day has been successful. Today is day 24, and not only is this probably a record for me in terms of consecutive “perfect” days for weight loss, but I weigh 7 pounds less than I did on day 1. That breaks out to about 2 pounds a week, the highest weight loss rate that is probably healthy for me. I’ve even been through a number of disruptions during this time–illness, Thanksgiving, a trip out of town, eating out, and so on–but because I was on a winning streak, my attention remained focused on how I could keep on track for each of those days. For Thanksgiving I planned ahead with my family and brought some healthy foods along to the meal myself. On my trip I packed healthy food before I left and chose a restaurant to have lunch in with care. I have no doubt that I would have felt much less motivation to make things work in those particular, difficult situations if I hadn’t been trying to protect my winning streak–and getting motivation during those trickiest times is exactly where willpower needs to shine.

Want to Try It?
If you want to try using a winning streak yourself, you’ll need to know two things first: what your requirements are (exactly what do you have to do to “win” each day?) and what you need to have or know to be able to meet those requirements. For instance, you can’t plan to study Korean every day if you don’t yet have materials to study.

Most habits will benefit most if you do them every day, but if that’s not practical, you’ll want to establish an exact schedule, for instance “every business day” (which would be suitable for a job-related goal) or “every Monday, Thursday and Saturday except when ill.” Write down all the allowable exceptions at the beginning–it’s too easy to change the rules and wiggle out of things if you change the rules in the middle of the game.

Then just write “Day 1” … and start your winning streak.

Photo by cliff1066



  1. Andy  •  Dec 4, 2009 @3:17 pm

    Hey Luc,

    Very fascinating and thought provoking article.

    The “tactic” you are sharing can be combined with other strategies and concepts. But before you decide on tactics, it’s crucial to identify the nature of habit: how “heavy” it is on the scale from 10 to 1. The heavier habit is, the longer and harder it takes to master.

    In general is said that to implement a habit, it takes about 20-30 days (depending on how heavy it is). The hardest part of implanting a habit, is actually starting to implement, because our whole body and mind goes against it. It takes willpower to “lift” your habit from the ground. Heaviest habits requires more willpower (fuel) for longer time.

    But most people lack of willpower. Then motivation comes into play. “Playing and rewarding” is a really good tactic and most motivating. It is much easier to do something when it’s kind of fun and you actually know what you get for your effort.

    I have been looking at RPG (role playing game) concept and I strongly believe that it can be adopted in many areas such as learning, teaching, implementing and so on. The idea behind this concept is that you are responsible for self-growth and you choose which skills, habits, knowledge you need to develop in order to complete a quest and move forward.

    Sorry for getting so lenghty, just been caught up in my thought which I wanted to share. Hope it will open new spectrum of ideas how to implement a habit and stick with it for good.

    Thank you again for your article.

  2. Luc  •  Dec 4, 2009 @3:31 pm

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks very much for coming by and commenting!

    I’m interested in your thoughts about starting habits and on how role-playing could help in that. If you’ve written anything about your ideas there, or if you do down the road, I’d love to read more.

    By the way, about how long it takes to form a habit: there are a lot of figures that I’ve heard cited often (like 21 days or 28 days), but my impression is that generally these are somebody’s general idea of how long things like that take and aren’t based on any documented evidence–or at least, I’ve never seen any documented evidence of those figures so far.

    I did turn up one study that tested how long it took for people to form habits. In those results, they found enormous variation in how long people took to form habits, but the average, for people who were practicing the habit virtually every day, was 68 days. The post about that is here. The short version is that based on those results, it seems that how long it takes to form a habit depends a lot on the person, the habit, and other factors, but that it tends to be longer than most people seem to expect.

  3. Walter  •  Dec 5, 2009 @9:06 am

    Winning is a choice for all of us. We just need to know how it is being done. And you have showed some hints on doing it. 🙂

  4. Andy  •  Dec 5, 2009 @3:28 pm

    Hey Luc,

    I haven’t wrote anything yet, but I’m gathering my ideas, insights, “evidence” on mindmap and hopefully in near future I’ll be able to share it with you in article.

    Until then I’ll be reading your blog to get more insights about habit, motivation and play RPG games so I could connect “the dots” between them.

  5. Luc Reid  •  Dec 5, 2009 @3:32 pm

    Walter, thanks for the comment and the encouragement!

    Andy, sounds like an interesting avenue of study. In case it’s helpful, I do have a post on motivation in video games at … I was thinking it might be of interest even though it’s a very different mode of gaming.

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