It’s very hard to be 99% reliable in completing something. If you wanted to be 99% reliable in training for a marathon, for example, you could only miss one training session in a 16-week plan. To stay 99% focused during an hour of work, you can only be unfocused for 36 seconds. And if you want to achieve a grade of 99% in a class with 1000 total points, you can only miss 10 points across the entire class.
There are many things in my life that I am not 99% reliable on. For example, although I try to shower every day, and spend 5 minutes writing in my journal every night, I’m probably closer to 97-98% on these. To hit 99%, I can only miss 3 days per year, and there are very few things that I actually manage to hit this at. There’s always the occasional exception, where maybe I’m tired from a long trip and just want to go to sleep, and if this happens just once every two months, I no longer have 99% reliability.
But for me, Snapchat streaks are not one of these things. Over the last 6 or so years, I’ve had roughly 99.9% reliability, which means I only mess up one time on average every three years. For those of you who don’t know what Snapchat streaks are, it’s a number that the app gives you when both you and a friend send a “snap” (a picture) to each other for several days in a row. The number is the number of days in a row that you’ve both sent snaps to each other, and if you forget on one day, the number resets to 0. The app gives a bit of wiggle room, generally allowing closer to 28 hours than 24 to continue your streak, but much longer than that and it will get rid of your streak.
So, in order to continue my Snapchat streaks, I generally send a picture to all of the people I have a streak with each night before going to sleep. My friends have similar routines, and so our streaks continue on. At the moment, my longest streak is around 1,600 days, meaning that combined, we have sent a snap within 24-28 hours of the last one 3,200 consecutive times. Individually, we’re both currently at 100% reliability, but if one of us were to mess up, that would only drop to 99.94%. I can’t really think of anything else that I’ve managed to do that many consecutive times without failure across that sort of timespan, other than things like “sleeping” or “breathing”. So what is it about Snapchat streaks that make them such a strong habit? Well, the biggest reason is loss aversion.
Fear of Loss
One of the biggest reasons why I’ve managed to send out these messages every day so reliably is because I know what will happen if I don’t. If I don’t take a shower one day, I’ll be slightly dirtier the next day, but it won’t make all my previous showers worthless. In contrast, if I have a 1,000 day streak with someone, and then don’t send out a picture the next day, I lose that streak and go back to square one. It doesn’t go down to 999, or 990 or something, but instead back to zero. The only way to get it back up to 1,000 is to spend another three years sending pictures back and forth.
This dramatic trade-off creates a fear of loss, which is a powerful tool to enforce a habit. Imagine you’re on a game show which lasts for 100 days, but takes place during your normal life. You can win $1,000,000, and the only catch is that you have to send an email to the game show hosts every day between 8 am and 5 pm. You’d almost definitely be able to do it, unless something truly unexpected happened (going to the hospital or something). It would be at the front of your mind, and you’d probably check and recheck your sent mail to make sure you did send an email that day.
On a smaller scale, this is what Snapchat streaks do. The prize isn’t $1,000,000, or any money at all, but just the ability to watch the number go up as a marker of the accomplishment. As a big fan of incremental games (think Cookie Clicker), I love seeing numbers go up, especially when I have a role in making them go up. I know that if I miss a day, I won’t get that same small endorphin boost from seeing the number and being proud of it, and so when it comes time every day to send out my streaks picture, I have a lot of motivation to send it.
Additionally, the fact that missing a day of sending streaks is seen as a significant loss triggers the part of my brain that is averse to losses. If Snapchat just reduced your streak by one every time you missed a day, thereby reducing the loss potential, I probably wouldn’t have any streaks that are above 1,000 today. Once I get a streak above 100, losing it seems like a particularly big loss, and so even if I haven’t used the app much that day, I’ll still send out a streaks picture. But if not sending one out would only decrease my streak by 1, then I probably wouldn’t bother sending out a picture. Counterintuitively, if you reduce the punishment, the benefit also gets smaller.
Why Don’t Other Streak Systems Work?
So Snapchat’s streak system works, and works very well. But why don’t other apps with streak-like systems work as well? Many mobile games give prizes for playing on consecutive days, with the rewards increasing evey day you play. Similarly, apps like Garmin Connect tell you how many consecutive days you’ve reached your step goal, and some to-do list apps will let you know how many days in a row you’ve accomplished some number of tasks. I’ve used all of these categories of apps, but they’ve never been nearly as motivating as Snapchat. The reason for this is twofold: difficulty and social connection.
Snapchat streaks are never harder or easier on some days than others. It’s very simple to send out a picture to the people that you have a streak with, and usually takes less than a minute. Additionally, all you need is your phone, which people tend to have near them most of the time. In contrast, it’s much harder to get 10,000 steps every day for some number of consecutive days. If it’s 9:00 PM and I have 3,000 steps to go, I’m more likely to just give up than spend half an hour walking around the block or something to try and get the goal. Similarly, if I have to play 10 minutes of a mobile game that I’ve kind of gotten tired of in order to extend my streak, it’s pretty likely that I’ll just decide I don’t really care about it that much.
The other reason that Snapchat streaks work so well is the social connection at their core. You can’t have a Snapchat streak with yourself (and I’ve tried), so they’re effectively something that you have shared ownership of. There’s an implicit idea that you don’t want to let your friend down by ending the streak, and it’s something that you’ve both worked together to grow. If I’ve played Bloons Tower Defense 6 for 30 straight days, the only person that I’ll disappoint by not going in and collecting my day 31 reward is myself. I’d much rather disappoint myself than one of my friends when it comes to something like this, especially if I can convince myself that I don’t really care about the _Bloons _streak. Maybe my friend really cares about Snapchat streaks (enough to, I don’t know, write a 2000 word blog post about the psychology behind them), and so if I lose the streak, they’ll be really disappointed.
Additionally, I have multiple streaks on Snapchat with different people, and if I don’t send out my streaks picture on one day, I’ll lose _all _of them. Even if the potential disappointment is small with each one, it adds up to something that’s not worth losing just because I didn’t want to spend one minute sending out a picture.
For a streak system to be most effective, it has to involve both low difficulty and some form of social connection. However, I think the social connection is more important. It’s much easier to do hard things if you’re doing them with other people. For example, a running club that trains together is likely going to be more consistent with training than an individual runner. If you have a difficult goal, and someone you know is trying to keep you accountable for it, you’re more likely to actually be accountable for it. But even low difficulty goals or streaks sometimes fall apart when social connection isn’t a part of them, because when you’re only disappointing yourself, you’re more likely to do it.
Despite the effectiveness of streaks on Snapchat, I believe there are still some downsides. Even though it’s very easy to send out a daily streaks picture, it’s possible (and inevitable, really) that I’ll eventually fail to do it at some point. When that happens, am I going to spend another few years getting my streaks back up to the point they were at? Probably not. The thing motivating me was the fear of being reset to zero, so if I actually get reset to zero, I wouldn’t have much motivation to build it all back up again. This is a limitation of using this sort of all-or-nothing approach as a motivational tactic, especially when you aren’t using social connection to help motivate you. If you end up at nothing, you might just quit entirely.
So instead of using this sort of goal to motivate yourself, I think a better way of going about motivation is to use a reliability goal. For example, I currently have a goal of writing a short journal entry on 350/365 days in 2021, which works out to be a bit less than 96%. So far, 7 months into the year, I’ve missed 6 days, which is a reliability of 97.2%, and so I’m on track. If I’d instead made it my goal to write an entry _every _day of 2021, sure, I might have been more motivated to write an entry on February 3 (the first day I missed this year), but if I had still forgotten, I would have failed my goal just over a month into the year, and so I wouldn’t have had as much motivation anymore. But now, I’m 7 months in and still on track to hit at least 96%.
These sorts of reliability goals can be used in many different areas, such as fitness (“I’ll go to the gym 90% of the time”), starting new habits (“I’ll read for 15 minutes a day for 85% of the days in the next month”), or school, where they’re already sort of made for you (“I’ll get an A- at least in this class, meaning I do 90% of it right”). The next time you feel inspired to set a goal which doesn’t allow for any mistakes, try and set a reliability goal so that one mistake doesn’t ruin the whole plan.
Now, it’s important to note that reliability goals should not be used in every case. If you’re a commercial pilot, and you read this and start setting a goal like “I want to perform all the safety checks 90% of the time,” that’s not a good idea and you should expect 100% there. Additionally, sometimes it’s tough to formulate something into a reliability goal, like if you want to lose 20 pounds (though you could use a reliability goal for the things that might help you get there, like dieting and exercise). In these cases, don’t use them. But if you have something you want to achieve, it might be a good idea to see if a reliability goal can help you.
To conclude this post, let’s bring it back around to Snapchat streaks. They’re incredibly simple - just a simple number that goes up if you and your friend send a snap every day. But they’re one of the best ideas that Snapchat’s ever had. Even though it’s literally a number, it’s a number that proves that you and your friend have had an impressively high reliability in sending these pictures back and forth over the length of your streak. It ensures that I’ll at least open the app every day, something that other apps achieve only through complicated recommendation algorithms, not through something as simple as a number.
I would love to see other apps implement something similar, though not the exact same. A weekly streak would remove a lot of the pressure, so that might be something to add. Something to stimulate actual conversation instead of a picture saying “streaks” every day would also be a welcome improvement. More recognition from the app for reaching milestones like 200 or 500 would be cool as well (Snapchat currently only does anything for 100, marking it with the 💯 emoji). If you’re a developer for Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the apps that copy Snapchat’s other features, you should go try and copy this one. I promise I’ll use your feature.