It’s Not About the Number

March 5, 2019 • #

As I’ve been pushing onward with daily meditation practice on Headspace, the “streak” number has been climbing higher and higher. I have mixed feelings about this in terms of driving motivation. Is the desire to increase a number a healthy way to motivate positive mental health? Is it pushing the right buttons for the right reasons?

Headspace meditation streaks

Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe recently wrote on exactly this topic:

Some people love this feature, viewing it as a source of motivation, a record of accountability, and a badge of honor that reflects their commitment in building a meditation practice. Others can’t stand it, viewing it as a source of anxiety, a reminder of days missed, and an unspoken judgment of their dedication, passion, or priorities.

I’m glad to see them thinking about this, and not just gamifying everything because every other consumer product does. It’s already crossed my mind that the temptation to meditate for the purposes of incrementing a counter rather than for health benefit alone can’t be a healthy one. But Andy (who trained in Tibet) says this structure of practice is common in the Buddhist traditions:

The romantic version of meditative training is often portrayed as one in which time is forgotten, routines are abandoned, and goals are immediately relinquished. Having trained as a monk, I can tell you firsthand that this is anything but the case.

The reality of that lifestyle is a commitment for a certain number of years, and a daily routine set by the clock. We even had a fixed amount of time to complete meditation exercises — a number to which we had to commit. Within this context, we used the concept of run streaks all the time, but it was never about the number; it was a tool to help us deliver on our intention and direction, ensuring we wasted no time and worked towards a singular point, in a clear and steady way.

When I started to think about my personal motivations, I’m definitely motivated by gamification systems and stat tracking. It’s just wired into my brain to feel compelled by data. Sitting here now almost 90 days into a streak, was the outcome of the motivation, whether inherent for its own sake or motivated by being a “game”, worthwhile? Am I at a better place now than I was 3 months ago with the practice? I would say the answer is a resounding “yes”. When I compare the patterns and results of practice now with some time in December, I notice a few impactful differences: it’s always on my mind to remember to sit down and do it, I can get into focus mode more quickly, and I don’t feel the same resistance to practicing I once did — that voice that says “I don’t feel like it”. The routine is much more like clockwork now. So regardless of the means it took to get there, it’s begetting the desired results.

One good reminder is to not get hung up on the number, to not treat it like the front-and-center measure of success:

As long as we are doing our best, that’s all we need to know. We all miss days, and that’s okay. In fact, some people don’t even want to meditate on a daily basis, and that’s okay, too. The important thing is to realize when we have missed a planned session and then continue with the next, a little like noticing when the mind has wandered off before returning to the breath.

While the streak counting does drive me to do the behavior to some degree, what I’d actually rather see is a measure of aggregate momentum — like a score that indicates the “consistency” of practice. It could rise in increments with each session, and decrease slightly when skipped, but wouldn’t drop to zero immediately when a chain is broken. I think that’d be a better balance of keeping the positive driver there. Not deflating the balloon, but still exacting some negative feedback when you fall off the wagon.